WASHINGTON The Justice Department gave a boost Tuesday to online real estate brokers and potentially their clients by forcing new industry policies to give Internet-based agents access to home listings they were previously denied.
The tentative settlement, which still requires court approval, could save consumers thousands of dollars when buying a home.
Online real estate agents often charge discounted commission fees and allow buyers to review listings at their own pace.
For years, however, Internet-based brokers were blocked from accessing more than 800 multiple listing services nationwide affiliated with the National Association of Realtors. An MLS is a database of properties for sale.
In a September 2005 lawsuit, government lawyers said such policies discriminated against online brokers. The settlement, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, opens the MLS databases to online and traditional residential property agents.
"It really does free brokers generally to engage in whatever they feel is the most efficient and effective way to compete," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Deborah A. Garza of the Justice Department's antitrust division told reporters.
She said the settlement "should lower the cost of the transaction for buying a house."
In 2006, for example, consumers saved up to 1 percent on the price of a home by using an online broker, Garza said. That year, the median home price amounted to over $225,000, with median commissions of over $11,000.
Real estate agents earned $93 billion in commissions in 2006, she said.
In a report last year, the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission found limits on discount brokers' access to Web listings of for-sale properties have prevented consumers from receiving the cost savings and other benefits that online competition has brought to other industries.
The report found that more consumers use the Web when house hunting than rely on "For Sale" yard signs.
Even so, online brokers who were locked out of the MLS databases were unable to compete with real estate agents, government attorneys said. In at least one case, in Emporia, Kan., an Internet-based agent was forced out of business after the local MLS denied his access to any property listings in the local market.
Tuesday's settlement will not take effect until late summer at the earliest, or 60 days after it wins court approval. It would be in place for 10 years.
It neither imposes a fine on the National Association of Realtors, nor does it force the group to acknowledge any liability.
The group represents 1.2 million real estate agents and other members in more than 250,000 active office locations and branches nationwide.
In a statement, Realtors president Richard F. Gaylord said the Chicago-based association is "focused on what matters most to consumers re-energizing the housing market.""Competition is alive and well in the real estate industry," Gaylord said. "In fact, the competitive nature of our industry is even more apparent in times of market turmoil like those we are currently experiencing."