Insights | May 6th, 2019

ABOR discovers its proprietary MLS data was sold to TCAD by third party

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Friday afternoon — the perfect time to break bad news when newsrooms are cleared out for the weekend — the Austin Board of Realtors delivered a bombshell email to its 12,000 or so members.

Actual sales prices of homes in Travis County had been “shared” with the Travis Central Appraisal District, the government tax assessor. CoreLogic, the vendor employed by ABOR to handle its very valuable multiple listing data (ACTRIS is the acronym) sold that information to TCAD, according to the email.

This is a big no-no in Texas, which is one of a few “non-disclosure” states. No one needs to say how much they sold a property for or how much they paid for a property. Simple as that.

Non-disclosure is theoretically a defense against state and local governments applying a transfer tax on a percentage of the sales price — at least that’s what real estate people have told me.

The secrecy also makes it harder for tax appraisers to pin down real time values — it takes them longer to ascertain micro pricing trends — also they may vastly underestimate the value of really unique or expensive homes. Actual sales prices, therefore, take away a lot of guess work.

But that’s not how we do things in this state. Texans value privacy especially when it comes to real estate. The alleged data breach delivers a blow deep to the heart of Travis County property owners.

As an aside, this awkward situation is mostly confined to residential properties since commercial properties don’t participate in MLS, but I can envision a ripple effect. Or at least a nervous twitch.

So how did this happen? CoreLogic — a big, sophisticated, publicly-traded data company — “may have violated its contractual obligations with ACTRIS by selling MLS data to TCAD in 2018,” ABOR’s email to members says.

Signed by Kevin Scanlan, 2019 president of the ACTRIS board of directors and Emily Chenevert, CEO of ABOR, the email refers to TCAD’s unauthorized use of MLS data and says ABOR has been assured that TCAD will destroy all the information it received from CoreLogic by May 30.

Say what? Does anyone else find this a bit hard to swallow? I’m no tech whiz, that is for sure, but how could you ever know that TCAD destroyed this information? It’s not like they could hold a public bonfire and haul out the boxes. Plus, didn’t they pay for this information? Is TCAD entitled to a refund, if they give it back?

Is this all an innocent mistake or a deliberate subterfuge?

ABOR really isn’t sharing much about the oversharing incident, and thus a ton of questions are forming in my mind.

Is non-disclosure a manifest right? I don’t think so, based on some casual research I did this weekend. I think non-disclosure simply means that sales prices need not be publicly disclosed. MLS entities require, however, that sales prices be disclosed to them for the benefit of its subscribers.

That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? I’m now suddenly — after all these years of reporting about real estate — understanding why some people don’t want their property listed on MLS — but that’s a topic for another time.

Call me naive, but in this information hungry world where data is a hot commodity, I have doubts about the future viability of non-disclosure. Plus, here’s an interesting thing to consider — CoreLogic, on its website, touts its ability to accumulate real estate data from many sources, crunch that information and deliver valuable market insights — for a price, of course.

In its “solution” section, CoreLogic describes one of its products — “MLS Data-Driven Solutions is a fusion of Multiple Listing Service data (secured from the Partner InfoNet Program, PIN), public record information, market trends and analytics within a centralized CoreLogic database. Risk Managers, Fraud Managers, Underwriters, Appraisers, Servicers and Valuation Professionals can benefit from a complete and reliable source of property information.”

It sounds like CoreLogic is more in the business of selling information than protecting it. Granted, I know nothing of CoreLogic’s contract with ABOR/ACTRIS but it’s a curious liaison.

Since, TCAD is a government entity, I wonder how much it paid CoreLogic for the data? As taxpayers are we entitled to that information? Who made the sales overtures to begin with? What legalities are at stake, if any? This is intriguing stuff.

ABOR, meanwhile, delivered this rather tepid message to its membership.

“We are very concerned and share your frustrations. We are committed to fixing this situation and protecting the trust you and your clients place in MLS.”

To be continued…..


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