What Is an MLS?

Definition & Examples of an MLS

MLS definition

Erika Pajarillo / The Balance

A multiple listing service (MLS) is a database of broker-listed homes. Only real estate agents and other professional affiliates can access an MLS.

Learn more about MLSs and how they work.

What Is an MLS?

An MLS is a private, online database used by real estate agents to make buying and selling homes more efficient. Every home for sale listed by a real estate agent is entered in an MLS unless it's specifically exempted. Only real estate agents and other professional affiliates can access the MLS, but that doesn't mean a homebuyer or seller can't get similar information elsewhere. Popular sites such as Zillow and Trulia may include many of the same listings, but without the comprehensive information found in an MLS. 

How the MLS Works

MLSs are regional, and there are more than 800 around the country. Listings brokers enter the data about a home that's for sale and they offer to share the commission with a broker who brings in a buyer.

Listings contain all of the specifics about a home, including the address, age, square footage, number of bedrooms, number of baths, upgrades, and school districts. It also includes other helpful information, such as the seller's preferred type of financing and photographs of the property.

Homebuyers often make the mistake of believing they can access this information, but the data available to the public is usually limited and can be outdated or inaccurate.

How to Receive MLS Listings

Many websites offer to provide homebuyers with a list of available homes on the market, but few provide the comprehensive data found in an MLS. Your real estate agent can provide you with data from an MLS, though. 

There are many types of reports a buyer can receive, so ask your agent for the most comprehensive MLS report. An agent can enter your name, email, and home search preferences into a search engine on the MLS so it will send you automatic emails of new listings.

Note that not all agents will set up a search for you other than active listings. You'll have to specify any additional required information such as price reductions, pending sales, or sold sales data. You can further refine your search within these parameters to any number of criteria, including price ranges from low to high, the number of bedrooms and baths, garages, pools and spas, and square footage.

Your requirements can be even more clearly defined, depending on your priorities. However, if you narrow your scope too much, you could miss out on opportunities. It's best to keep the list somewhat general since some MLS data fields might not contain information due to human error.

You can request to have your MLS report customized by ZIP code or by a radius search within a specified distance from a target address. You also can request a sort by street or subdivision or ask for a map search within boundaries.

Alternatives to an MLS

Realtor.com, Trulia, Zillow, and Redfin all provide access to listings. They may not have access to all the listings on an MLS, but if you're not working with an agent yet, these sites can give you an idea of what's available in your target areas. You may also want to check for sale by owner (FSBO) sites, as FSBOs can only have their homes included in an MLS by paying a flat fee to a discount real estate broker to enter the information.

If you're in a high-profile market like New York City, you may also want to check brokerage sites. Large brokerages may use their own databases rather than listing their home with an MLS.

Key Takeaways

  • A multiple listing service (MLS) is a database of broker-listed homes. Only real estate agents and other professional affiliates can access an MLS.
  • MLSs make buying and selling homes more efficient and offer comprehensive information about each home. 
  • You can access information on an MLS by working with a real estate agent. An agent can set up automatic emails from an MLS for homes that meet your criteria. 
  • Public websites often have the same listings as MLSs, but their information isn't as comprehensive.

Article Sources

  1. National Association of Realtors. "Multiple Listing Service (MLS): What Is It?" Accessed Aug. 9, 2020.