All You Need to Know about MLS

Talia Lee-
June 13, 2024

Whether you’re buying or selling a home, you’re likely to come across the term MLS, which stands for Multiple Listing Service. The MLS is a platform used by real estate agents and brokers to share information about properties for sale and to find listings for prospective buyers. If you’re starting a home search or considering selling your home, your local MLS will likely play a crucial role in the process.

The MLS is a comprehensive database of homes for sale within a specific geographic region. When real estate agents list a property, they add it to the MLS, allowing all agents and brokers in the area with access to the system to view the listing. Buyers’ agents use the MLS to find homes for their clients. The MLS includes photos and detailed descriptions of the properties. Realtors and brokers pay membership dues to access their local MLS.

Though it may seem like a modern tool, the concept of a multiple listing service dates back to the late 1800s. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), real estate agents originally met periodically to share information about properties they had for sale. Over time, this information was recorded in books or on index cards, and eventually, it transitioned to computer databases, where it is still managed today.

MLSs are private databases, according to NAR, created, maintained, and paid for by real estate professionals in the local area. Agents upload detailed information and pictures of their listings, and the MLS is regularly updated by participating agents and brokers.

This system allows small real estate offices to compete with large, franchised firms. Instead of showing clients only their own office’s listings, brokers and agents can access all the listings in their region. Additionally, listing websites like Zillow and Trulia pull and compile listings from the MLS.

Homeowners cannot add homes to the MLS themselves but can work with agents and brokers to have their home included. Some listing companies will list your home for a fee and may also provide basic marketing services.

Most homes for sale are included on the MLS, but there are exceptions. “Homes that are strictly for sale by owner will typically not be found on the MLS database,” says Jen Horner, an agent with RE/MAX Masters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Some brokerages also might not list their homes on the MLS.

Pocket listings, also known as exclusive or off-market listings, are not marketed in the typical ways. Instead of being included on the MLS, the seller keeps the property quietly “in their pocket.” “This usually happens when a seller wants to maintain privacy or is willing to wait for the right buyer to make an offer they can’t refuse,” Horner says.

There are currently about 600 MLSs across the U.S., according to the Real Estate Standards Organization, although this number fluctuates due to regional consolidation. MLSs are also present in Canada, albeit to a lesser extent. However, the use of MLSs is less common in other countries.

“The United States is unique in this regard,” says Katie Severance, an agent with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and author of “The Brilliant Home Buyer.” “Internationally, most countries don’t have MLSs, or if they do, they cover only a small portion of the market.”

Some U.S. markets also lack an MLS. New York City is one such example. Although there is no MLS in New York City, other local services syndicate available real estate listings.

Only licensed real estate agents and brokers can list properties on the MLS. However, in some regions, the public can view MLS listings without professional assistance.

“Some regional MLS databases have a ‘public-facing side’ so consumers can access the same listings as agents,” says Severance. “The difference is that the agent side has more detailed information about showings, property access, how to submit offers, agency and commission cooperation, and the ability to run a market analysis.”

Many brokers also provide their clients with access to view listings. However, the public will not have access to all the same data that agents and brokers do. Real estate websites like Zillow aggregate listings from MLSs, but their information might not be complete or fully up-to-date.

The MLS enables agents and brokers within a specific market to share information about real estate listings. For home sellers, it helps by exposing their properties to a much larger audience. For buyers, it significantly simplifies the process of finding all available properties in a given area when working with an agent or broker.

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