Is upstream the answer?
Recently, the board of America’s largest trade association, the National Association of Realtors, approved up to $12m in funding for a project known as RPR-Upstream. What is it and why is it relevant to South Africa’s real-estate industry?
The South African real-estate market and its counterpart in the USA are poles apart in many respects. Take market size, for starters. But, in this instance, size doesn’t really count. The issues that are at the heart of why the RPR (Realtors Property Resource)-Upstream concept has, like the proverbial bubble, burst on to the American property landscape, have struck a resounding chord with the local industry.
For the techno-challenged among us, Private Property CEO Simon Bray breaks down the RPR-Upstream model: “Picture a single warehouse. You have a number of suppliers who all drop off their stock there. It goes into the front door, gets stored there, and when it goes out to the various distribution shops, it goes out the back door and is delivered to the shop. It’s effectively one warehouse that consolidates – and aggregates – all the stock from various people/brands. It’s a single database – or one warehouse – to which the real-estate industry sends listings/properties, and a single database from which anyone can retrieve properties. It’s a consistent offering for everyone.”
It took about a year of behind-the-scenes discussions, negotiations and alliances for the RPR-Upstream initiative to be announced, and it has the support of the American real-estate industry majority. Ostensibly, brokers had lost faith in the way the industry was set up and were prepared to do something about it.
American Brad Inman is a successful entrepreneur and innovator who started and still owns the leading real-estate trade online news source, Inman News. He founded and sold venture-backed HomeGain, an online real estate service. He believes that if RPR-Upstream is executed well, it’s a great industry move: “Brokers are ‘biting back’ at the machine of technology that wrested control away from them decades ago. The industry is finally building an accessible national-listing database that it can license to anyone who wants it – big boys like Move and Zillow, or a small app developer who is eager to add value to property listings.”
The National Association of Realtors (NAR) and brokers can now create a smart grid to control the flow of power to any vendor, Multiple Listing Service (MLS) or portal that is dependent upon broker data for viability. “This isn’t only about taking back our data. It won’t just allow brokers to decide where their data goes. It will actually define how, when and where much of that data is displayed and used at any end point.”
The RPR-Upstream concept hinges on control of data. Craig Cheatham, secretary of the UpstreamRE, LLC Board, says, “Upstream has always been about making practitioners much more efficient in the handling of their data, thus lowering the cost, time and effort they spend. And brokers will be able to gain much better control of that data, for which they ultimately are held responsible.”
Under the current system, by handing over data, agents lose control to third parties. “The intention is not to replace the MLS system. The key is that the constraints around the data are not one-sided and that access is given to almost anyone.”
CEO of Pam Golding Properties Andrew Golding unbundles some of the background, synergies and separations: “In America, the various key dynamics and drivers in the market are all on a much bigger scale than in South Africa – because it’s such a huge industry, it has so many very different moving parts.
“In South Africa, our market is so much smaller. The number of portals is certainly less, but more importantly, the access to information is very different. In America, the access to almost all relevant property-related information is readily available to anybody who really wants to go and get it. There, if I want to find all the market info, down to individual suburbs and streets, I can access this relatively easily.
“It’s much harder in South Africa. I either have to engage with an organisation that can access the info from the Deeds Office, or go to the Deeds Office myself – we just don’t have the same level of information accessibility.”
So how is it that control of the listings has slipped away from the originator? Golding says with property portals, in many instances, ownership of those portals doesn’t vest with the real-estate industries, but instead with the digital media houses.
“As a consequence, the real-estate agencies are effectively giving them content in the form of the listings. Depending on the arrangement, the portals are firstly able to display those listings to the public, then utilise that information – either in the form of consolidating that listing info or as a consequence of buyers coming on to the portal consolidating the buyer information – and can either sell that back to the public or to the residential real-estate industry (or utilise it in some way).
“The upshot – and it’s pretty much played itself out everywhere worldwide – is that the residential industries wanted to consolidate their position, and have gone with the RPR-Upstream initiative. Effectively, they want to take back some control of the information of which they are essentially the source.”
Clearly there’s been a portal war playing itself out in the USA. Giants such as Realtor.com, Zillow and Trulia have massive clout. It’s huge business with a great deal at stake. “Unlike in America, our smaller market means that even the country’s biggest estate-agency group wouldn’t be able to independently exert an influence,” says Golding. “We have to – thank goodness – act as a collective in order to effect whatever outcome we’re looking for.”
Bray describes the current South African modus operandi for an online presence, and its pitfalls: “Real-estate companies take all their property listings and syndicate them to various end points. If you want to market them online, you’ll generally post on your own website, on property websites such as Private Property, Property24 and IOL, and perhaps other general classified websites. The intention is to market the properties broadly across different platforms.
“Agencies also share property listings with one another, so there are ‘sharing’ relationships that have been set up contractually. But to do all this, it’s necessary to transfer data among one another, and between your agency and Private Property, and so on – so you’re repeating the effort many times. Each time you send it out, it’s required to be in a different format – data transmission between each other and between marketing platforms becomes quite costly and fragmented.”
The benefits of an RPR-Upstream model go beyond the issue of control. There’s a massive time saving too, because it avoids repetition. One submission of a listing, that’s it.
“What happens at Private Property is that we aggregate listings from many different estate agencies, which means every agency – their system – has to feed listings into us,” says Bray. “We have a specific web service or API (application-programming interface) that allows that to happen, and so have others.”
The standardisation of listings is another benefit, he says: “All the agencies can decide precisely which data for each listing goes into that ‘switch’ or ‘warehouse’ – for example, 10 photographs, a map, and so on.”
Would an RPR-Upstream-type concept be beneficial to the South African market? Golding believes so. “Depending on what the definition of RPR-Upstream information is – and from my point of view, it’s extremely broad – there’s no doubt this would be of benefit to residential practitioners. I think it’s inevitable. Whether it’s an RPR-Upstream residential industry project or a portal information project, it’s coming. I would be very surprised if what plays out in America doesn’t play out here.”
Bray is more cautious: “I think it’s highly complex, perhaps too complex. It’s technically difficult to do – we’ve been doing it for a long time, so we understand what’s involved. Technically it’s quite scary to consider one system to rule them all. But I can see the need for it in a South African context. You have a number of different real-estate brands, many with very similar market positions, and they share a lot of the same concerns around what the digital future looks like for South African real estate – they want to be more involved in that conversation.”
Bray adds, “For a business like ours already in the business of aggregation for a long time, it doesn’t really change our world. Ultimately the benefit of the portal is the interaction with consumers. We work very hard on the consumer experience in working directly with property shoppers, so I don’t think that’s going to go away regardless of the ‘switch’ or RPR-Upstream being in place. Our DNA at Private Property is to work closely with our real-estate partners, so we intend to support their efforts in this regard.”
Jan Le Roux of REBOSA is fully behind the RPR-Upstream concept: “By creating a data warehouse or repository like Upstream, agents are in a position to take back control of their own data. They will then be in a position to determine quality, availability and, most importantly, cannot be dis-intermediated in the process.”
Le Roux believes that’s a crucial factor. He adds, “I’ve seen a comment from a car dealership in the USA stating something like: ‘We paid portals to advertise our vehicles for sale. Now they are generating buyers and we have to pay them for the buyers that were generated by advertising our vehicles’.” Enough said.
WHAT IS RPR-UPSTREAM?
In a nutshell, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) – via its wholly owned Realtors Property Resource (RPR) subsidiary – partnered with UpStream RE, LLC. This is a company formed by a coalition of brokerages, networks and national franchises. Upstream – in consultation with NAR – will develop a single online system for all listing data posted by all real-estate brokerages, creating a single back-end entry point for distributing listings to other sites. In other words, this new “middleman” data platform will be the holding house between real-estate firms and MLSs, and others.
Words: Anna Schauffer