It was an antidote to Toronto's sprawling housing market: a simple website created by two self-described "computer geeks" to ease their first home search, and then help a city of frazzled buyers.
That is until this week, when the Multiple Listings Service - the reigning king of online listings in Canada - unleashed its lawyer on housing123.com and banished the new kids on the block.
"It was always this overhanging axe that was ready to fall," said Travis Fielding, the 31-year-old co-founder of the website, which allowed users to search MLS listings plotted on a Google map of local neighbourhoods.
After all, MLS has crushed upstarts before. Two Toronto-based sites, Realtysellers Ltd. and Realestateplus.ca, shut down in the past two years after run-ins with the Canadian Real Estate Association, which owns the MLS trademark. Housing123.com is accused of using its information without permission.
But some industry watchers say MLS may be losing this online turf war, as what's happening in the United States may soon happen here: Sites such as Redfin, Zillow and Yahoo Real Estate now carry the lion's share of new listings, while MLS is losing ground.
They say the MLS business model - giving people only a taste of a house and directing them to an agent for more - won't stand up against competitors that will give you every detail about a house and its surroundings, including local crime stats, school reviews and previous purchase prices, along with 360 tours and a break on the commission.
"They're basically saying, 'You know what? People want to search listings themselves,' " says John Pasalis, founder of Realosophy.com, a website that dishes details about Toronto and Greater Toronto Area neighbourhoods. "The problem in Canada is we can't do this because the real-estate boards don't allow us."
Adds Mr. Fielding: "I think they're stuck in the past."
The idea for housing123.com bloomed a couple of years ago after Mr. Fielding's friend and fellow software developer, Kevin Lai, became frustrated with his own home search. Sick of navigating MLS, and frustrated by an agent who missed good houses, Mr. Lai thought he could design a better system.
On his laptop, he basically created what is known as a "Google-map mash-up," which allows people to plot customized data (in this case, MLS listings) on top of a Google map application.
It worked so well that, just for kicks, he enlisted Mr. Fielding to help him take it to the public. It took about three weeks to work out the kinks, and they developed a way for the program to automatically add new listings. "On a scale of 10, it's probably like six," Mr. Lai, 29, says of the difficulty level. For their day jobs, he and Mr. Fielding design software for financial companies.
Since the site was launched 10 months ago, it averaged about 400 to 500 unique users per day, Mr. Fielding says.
Users appreciated its simplicity. House listings appeared as dots on a map of Toronto, which users clicked on to take them to the MLS listing. Houses were colour-coded by price so users could see which areas were pricey or affordable.
By contrast, MLS has no way to narrow a search to a neighbourhood. If you're looking for a Victorian in Kensington Market, you have to search in zone C-01, which covers Yonge to Dufferin, and Bloor to the Lakefront. (That includes the Annex, the waterfront, Kensington, Little Italy, Trinity-Bellwoods, University, the downtown core, and others.)
The search engine spits out hundreds of listings, and users are stuck flipping between MLS and Mapquest.
Still, the housing123.com founders knew it would just be a matter of time before MLS came knocking, because they were using listings that were the property of MLS.ca.
Last week, Mr. Lai received a letter from a CREA lawyer saying they had violated copyright laws. Remove the site, it said, or we'll sue. "They were scraping data from our website," says Calvin Lindberg, president of CREA, which represents more than 94,000 brokers and agents. "It's something that we deal with on a regular basis. ... Obviously whenever we see it happening, we send a letter asking them to turn it off."
Since the site folded on June 15, dozens of users have voiced their dismay on a blog, urging the duo to keep going or seek legal advice. One user wrote: "MLS is brutal and your site made finding the right place in the RIGHT location a breeze."
By the end of the summer, MLS.ca will have a map component, Mr. Lindberg says. Beyond that, he says, the site does not need to be improved. "We've created a very effective and efficient system that the consumers love."
Others disagree. One simply has to look south to see the potential for informative sites, Mr. Pasalis says. Those sites, however, have only been made possible through tough legal battles. In May, the U.S. National Association of Realtors settled its antitrust case with the Department of Justice, giving online realtors - which have been offering fees that are significantly lower than traditional realtor rates - full access to the MLS database.
Mr. Pasalis says the onus should be on Canada's Competition Bureau, not individual entrepreneurs, to fight to ensure fair competition is allowed in Canada too.
For now, Mr. Lai and Mr. Fielding say they are dreaming up new projects. "At least we helped a lot of people find their dream home," said Mr. Lai, who is now in the market for a downtown condo.
The pair say they may revive their site, but only to post properties from individual sellers or brokers - not MLS. "We can't afford the lawsuit, that's for sure," Mr. Fielding says.
Days after his site folded, Mr. Lai and his wife bid on a downtown condo they had spotted using housing123.com - but no dice. His search has resumed on MLS.ca.
HAYLEY MICK June 21, 2008 The Globe and Mail