WASHINGTON - The Justice Department gave a boost yesterday to online real estate brokers - and potentially their clients - by forcing new industry policies that 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 let buyers 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 US 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 prevented consumers from getting the cost savings and other benefits online competition has brought other industries.