How to Find MLS Home Listings and Perform Searches
Gain Access to a MLS as a Homebuyer
A multiple listing service (MLS) is a complete database of agent- and broker-listed homes specifically used by real estate agents and brokers. Every home for sale that's listed by a real estate agent will be entered in the MLS unless it's specifically exempted. Only real estate agents and other professional affiliates can access the MLS, but that doesn't mean a home buyer or seller can't get similar information elsewhere. Popular sites such as Zillow, Trulia, and Homes.com are open to the public and may include many of the same listings.
As early as the late 1800s, real estate brokers used to hold gatherings where people would come and learn about which properties were up for sale. Then, in the 1970s, MLS information was available in print format as early as the 1970s. Books were published monthly and updates were issued weekly. However, they were heavy and cumbersome to carry. Fortunately, the information is currently available online via a private website.
How the MLS Works
The MLS is an online database of shared comprehensive home information among real estate professionals. 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.
It contains 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. Included are at least one to a dozen photographs of the home plus a link to a virtual tour, if available.
Homebuyers often make the mistake of believing they can access this information through online feeds to other services, but the data available to the public is usually limited and can be outdated or inaccurate.
While both the MLS and public listing sites may feature some of the same listings, they differ in that MLS information is more comprehensive, as it serves as a useful tool for real estate professionals.
For Sale by Owner Listings on the MLS
There are no separate listings for "for sale by owner" (FSBO), but the MLS can include listings from sellers who are unrepresented. FSBOs can circumvent some MLS restrictions by paying a flat fee to a discount real estate broker to enter the information, however, the seller is not represented.
For Sale by Owner
Instructions to present all offers directly to the seller are often frowned upon or prohibited by MLS authorities.
Sometimes the selling commission is less than the fee that agents are offered by traditional brokers. Agents are therefore less motivated to show these listings, although they cannot legally refuse.
Ownership of the MLS
Local MLS companies are joining or merging with other local MLS companies to create regional services. Among other forms of ownership, the MLS can be privately owned and operated or it can be an affiliate of a local board of realtors. Most are subject to regulations set out by the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
Many MLS offerings were owned by boards of realtors in the 1980s, but conflicts of interest and lawsuits caused many association groups to form separate MLS entities.
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 the MLS. To get that information, your real estate agent can set you up on a private home search.
There are many types of reports a buyer can receive, so ask your agent for the most comprehensive report. Also, the name can vary by locale. An agent can enter your name, e-mail, and home search preferences into a search engine on the MLS that will send you automatic e-mails of new listings that are not available elsewhere.
If you're beginning a home search, ask your agent to customize a search that will automatically send you updated listings based on your criteria. Note that not all agents will set up a search for you other than active listings. Therefore, you'll have to specify any additional required information such as price reductions, pending sales, or sold sales data.
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.
You can further refine your search within these parameters to any number of criterion, 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. Therefore, it's usually wise to keep the list somewhat general, especially in those cases when a data field might not contain information due to human error.
If you're thinking of buying a home, consider subscribing to popular listing sites such as Trulia, Zillow, and Homes.com. These sites will send you daily emails of available properties in your area. You may also consider asking your real estate agent for access to the MLS, where you can view early listings that have not yet appeared on public listing sites. Doing so may give you the advantage of finding the right home in a competitive market.
At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.
National Association of Realtors. "Multiple Listing Service (MLS): What Is It?" Accessed March 19, 2020.
Realtor. "What Is the MLS? The Multiple Listing Service, Explained." Accessed March 19, 2020.