What is the MLS and why do I need it to sell my house?

By ,
Ask a Lender
June 30, 2017 | Updated September 21, 2017


Key Points

Multiple listing service overview

  • There are about 700 regional MLS databases.
  • Licensed real estate professionals have access to the MLS.
  • Agents use the MLS for clients buying and selling properties.
  • Technology has changed the way listings are marketed.

When you’re ready to sell your home, one of the first things your real estate agent does is put your house on the multiple listing service, or MLS. What does that mean, exactly? How does the MLS work and why do I need to “list” my home to sell it?

The MLS is a digital database that real estate professionals use to list the residential properties that they are contracted to sell. It’s also where those same professionals go to view properties for sale when they work for clients who are in the market to buy.

On the surface, the MLS is a vast database of homes, businesses, buildings and land for sell. Each listing offers details on each property — such as size, location, price and a checklist of various amenities and selling points, including the number of bedrooms and baths. Does it have a garage or carport? Which schools are nearby? What kind of fence: chain-link or wood?

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the ubiquitous MLS is not a single entity, however. The MLS is actually a collection of about 700 regional databases. Real estate professionals access to these regional MLS databases as a way to share their listings and view other professionals’ listings.

“Real estate professionals” is a term that encompasses those licensed to represent clients who are buying or selling real estate, such as brokers and Realtors.

History and exchanges

The term “multiple listing” and the methods of sharing information were popularized in the early 1900s, as real estate brokers gathered at various events and locations to share information about properties for sale. The National Association of Real Estate Exchanges (a national trade group, later renamed the National Association of Realtors, or NAR) endorsed these methods, and so the MLS network began in earnest.

Over time, the methods of sharing evolved to include the purchase of advertising space in newspapers and other publications, as well as mailing out flyers and postcards. As with most business models nowadays, technology has greatly altered the way people search for homes and other properties.

NAR and state Realtor associations for decades have held reign over MLS databases. Anyone who wants full access to the nation’s vast MLS network must be a member of a Realtor association, with agreed-upon commissions and fee scales. For non-member real estate professionals or property buyers and sellers not represented by a Realtor, the listing options historically were fairly limited, and often did not include access to MLS.

Technology and listings

While Realtor associations’ control of MLS is still the norm, technology is challenging how people list and view properties. Today’s MLS has loosened up with growing competition and pressure, and as a result, buyers and sellers have more listing options available.

Access to MLS still requires Realtor association membership, but a growing number of realty agents will, for a flat fee, list homes for individuals who aren’t working directly with real estate professionals to sell their homes.

The NAR also offers a consumer-facing website that shows listing information, allowing the general population to search for properties on their own. Properties also can be viewed through a range of internet data exchanges — technology that allows numerous mobile apps and websites to market listings and other services directly to consumers.

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