What’s an MLS (Multiple Listing Service)? All Your Questions, Answered

If you’ve bought or sold a house, you’re probably very familiar with an MLS, or multiple listing service. Since 64% of members of the National Association of Realtors said that their most valuable technology tool was the MLS, it’s not surprising that buyers and sellers alike should have a good understanding of why it’s important.

If you haven’t heard of the MLS, there’s a good chance that you don’t know that the MLS even exists. So what is an MLS, or multiple listing service, and why do you need to know about it as a homebuyer?

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What is the MLS (multiple listing service)?

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), MLSs (multiple listing services) are private databases created and maintained by real estate professionals (agents, brokers, and so on) to help their clients buy and sell property. The “listing” in the title is another word for “a home for sale,” in industry terms.

The MLS was originally developed for real estate brokers to share listings with each other, and it developed into a resource they now share with their clients through their brokerage websites. “It’s a database that all Realtors use,” says Nick Rice, team lead for top-selling Phoenix agent Brett Tanner.

“It has all the information about the listing that was provided from the seller — price, bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, if there’s been any updates to the property, how many days the property has been on the market, if there’s an HOA. Basically it’s a snapshot of a particular property.”

Over the years, real estate organizations have spent millions of dollars developing MLS technology to make selling homes easier and more efficient — to the benefit of buyers and sellers. All publicly available real estate information that is listed through agents is available on the MLS.

Through the MLS database, you can search for single-family homes, condos, foreclosures, and even international real estate. Sometimes you can even find rentals on the MLS. This information is available free of charge in most cases. However, you do have to have a real estate license to receive a login for the MLS, and in some cases, you need to actively be involved in transactions in your area to maintain MLS access.

In many areas, the MLS also accepts consumer complaints about real estate professionals and transactions, although this varies by location. But if you have a problem, the MLS in your area might be your first stop.

What information is on the MLS?

The MLS contains information and statistics about a listing, such as price, bedrooms, bathrooms, days on the market, property taxes, and listing agent information. For agents, it’s a way to put together a list of details about a property that they can use for showings.

But there are property details that don’t necessarily appear on the MLS as well. Roof age, for example, is not a detail that’s typically disclosed on the MLS. “Usually, the only time you’ll see roof age is if it’s been redone in the last four or five years,” states Rice.  “There’s a section in the MLS specifically for recent updates.” Flooring is another detail that may or may not appear on the MLS, depending on when upgrades were done to the home.

A computer used to search the multiple listing service.
Source: (Maya Maceka / Unsplash)

What makes the MLS different from any other real estate service?

The MLS often contains much of the same information a real estate portal has about a property. However, the MLS also has details such as the listing agent’s direct contact information. You can also find tax records on the MLS, which is public information, but it can take a bit of searching to hunt down the tax records for a property. The MLS centralizes all of the information, making it easy to find all the data in one place. And updates to the MLS happen instantaneously, whereas sometimes real estate websites lag behind.

“Sometimes the agents, for whatever reason, don’t update the listing as quickly as the MLS is updated, so you may see homes that still show for sale that have already gone under contract,” Rice explains. “And so if you’re wanting to see the most up-to-date version of what’s available, you’ll want to double-check and make sure that the data is pulling directly from the MLS.”

Who runs the MLS?

Groups of real estate professionals, be they brokers or agents, run the MLS. These groups of real estate professionals are typically (but not always) a board of Realtors or an association that’s affiliated with the National Association of Realtors.

Though the MLS today runs as an internet database, the concept originated in the 1800s, when brokers would meet at local association offices to trade listings and share information. MLSs today have staff members (including executives) to help operate them and to provide services to the agents and brokers who use them.

How many MLSs are there?

In the United States alone, there are hundreds of MLSs — somewhere between 600 and 700, most likely. The ListHub database has nearly 600 searchable MLSs, though there are more that are not listed. The number of MLSs changes because MLSs merge and split, so it’s difficult to keep a single repository or count. And MLSs don’t just exist in the United States — there are MLSs in Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Central America, and Asia, as well.

How are the MLS geographical boundaries defined?

One of the reasons MLSs are seemingly nebulous is there’s not a general rule of thumb for what geographic areas are covered by each service. In some areas, the MLS covers a major metropolitan area or a part of a metropolitan area. In other cases, the MLS covers a specific group of neighborhoods. And sometimes the MLS covers homes linked to geographic features, such as a lake.

However, MLS boundaries do not overlap, so if a home is listed on one MLS, it won’t be listed on another. Since MLSs don’t always share listings as a general rule, some agents and brokers are members of more than one MLS.

How do I find my local MLS?

To find your local MLS, you can search online using sites like HomeCoin or ListHub, or by simply talking to your real estate agent or broker.

Houses available on the multiple listing service.
Source: (Pixabay / Pexels)

Are all homes for sale listed on the MLS?

One of the things to keep in mind about MLSs is that not all homes are necessarily listed on them. FSBO (for sale by owner) homes likely will not be listed on your local MLS, since you need an agent to list your home.

A pocket listing is another type of home for sale that might never reach the MLS. A pocket listing is a home that a broker keeps “in his pocket,” so to speak, only sharing details and accepting offers among a select group of agents and clientele. These homes are not listed for sale in any public capacity (for sale signs, listings online, and so on), and are “secret” listings in a sense — if you don’t have access to the listing agent, you won’t even know it’s for sale.

Can I search for homes for sale on the MLS?

In order to search homes for sale on the MLS, you must get access to the MLS through your agent or broker. Once you have access, you can sometimes search for homes yourself on the MLS, but not always — it depends on the MLS. Your agent can set you up with a feed of homes that meet your criteria if you want to see what’s on the MLS, even if you don’t have direct access to browse listings.

I’m a buyer. Can I just log into the MLS?

Unfortunately, no. You need a real estate license number in order to get a login for the MLS, and you have to pay dues in order to maintain access to the site. However, many real estate companies have a live feed from the MLS to their website, so as soon as a property is updated on the MLS, the website that consumers have access to will update as well. “For the Brett Tanner team, our website updates automatically from MLS, and so you’ll be seeing the most up-to-date showing from the MLS,” says Rice.

Whether you’re buying or selling your home, the MLS can be a crucial part of the picture. Getting access to your local MLS is a key part of the buying journey, so make sure you consult with your agent or broker and get access to your local MLS so you can find your dream home.

Header Image Source: (Tom Fisk / Pexels)

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