Week of September 4, 2000
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PropertyFirst.com's 'Universal Listing System':
A Java for Online Real Estate?

Already recognized as a solid site in its own right, PropertyFirst.com is readying to launch an idea whose online time has come: It's called "the Universal Listing System" (ULS), and it could prove to be the Java of real estate listings in cyberspace.

At present, online real estate listings are offered only on closed, proprietary platforms. And that's the driver behind the creation of ULS.

"Remarkably, no common platform exists today for publishing and sharing commercial property availability information. Despite the size of America's US$4 trillion commercial real estate market, the industry has long lagged other sectors in efficiency," PropertyFirst.com President and CEO John Stanfill said as the company announced its plans for ULS.

Scheduled for a first-phase launch this fall, ULS promises to alter that equation. Similar to the MLS system used by residential brokers, ULS will - at least if everything goes according PropertyFirst.com's plans - offer an open platform that cuts through the online walls inside a still highly fragmented industry.

How ULS Will Work

Here's how ULS will work, according to PropertyFirst.com officials:

Utilizing XML (Extensible Markup Language), generally recognized as the de facto Internet standard for exchanging business information, ULS will enable users to:

  • Electronically import for-lease and for-sale listings into the system.
  • Interactively add, edit and check the distribution status of their listings.
  • Specify who can use or display their listings, such as other online commercial real estate sites, including listing services, specific brokers or other brokerage companies.
  • Extract their data for use on their own private systems.

ULS Cognizant of Rewritten Rules Re: Exclusivity

ULS hews to one of the most important of the many real estate rules that cyberspace has rewritten: Namely, that informational exclusivity is rapidly becoming a non-competitive advantage. Put another way, businesses that stake their fortunes on possessing information that others don't have are facing an increasingly dicey future.

Stanfill referred to that new real estate reality at the ULS announcement.

The lack of a common platform, he said, "to some extent reflects the old business model in our industry, which rewarded keeping information close and, in many ways, thinking small.

"The new model, still evolving, recognizes that the Internet and other technologies can be used to extract massive benefits from real estate holdings, as well as significant property marketing efficiencies," added Stanfill, a former executive with CB Richard Ellis Services. "For example, by exposing property listings to more buyers, sellers and tenants, and by doing it faster and cheaper via the Internet, brokers and owners can speed transaction times, cut costs and increase business volume in a huge way."

Will Competitors Play Ball
Worthy goals, all.

And, fact is, users of real estate space increasingly view listings as a commodity, which punches another gaping hole in the waning argument for informational exclusivity.

But will other industry listing services collaborate with what PropertyFirst.com is proposing? That's a hugely valid question. But it's not necessarily an applicable one -- at least according to PropertyFirst.com's plans.

Anxious to keep its plans under wraps, PropertyFirst.com didn't contact other leading industry listing sites like CoStar and LoopNet while it was developing ULS, Stanfill explained. Nonetheless, players like CoStar and LoopNet will be among the options that ULS users can choose in deciding how to distribute their property listings, Stanfill said.

When providers enter information in the system, he explained, they'll have a series of option boxes to check to specify the brokers or listings services to receive the information. Then PropertyFirst.com will send electronic messages to the designated firms, telling that the information is available to them.

Those designated firms, though, would have to go to the PropertyFirst.com site to get the information, said PropertyFirst.com officials.

Profit, Not Philanthropy

As any but the daft would expect, philanthropy isn't what's driving the development of the ULS open standard. While the ULS language and data standard will be open, the underlying technology platform features patent-pending software developed by PropertyFirst.com.

And PropertyFirst.com will be rewarded for developing ULS -- both from brokers who pay annual membership dues to PropertyFirst.com Marketplace and from property owners who pay for the space they post online.

ULS certainly seems a strong first-mover initiative by PropertyFirst.com, a 1999-laucnhed site that was already one of five finalists for the 2000 Inman Innovator Award for "most innovative Web site." (The other finalists were BidCom.com, Comro.com, EquityCity.com, Redbricks.com and SiteStuff.com.)

Risk Part of the First-Mover Package

Will ULS be the shot that establishes PropertyFirst.com as the clear front-runner among the currently crowded ranks of online listings sites?

As always, the market will make the call. And some competitors may come up with their own ULS-like software.

In addition, ULS is not an endeavor without risk. Online real estate's casualty count includes more than a few sites that got there first, only to see the lessons they learned exploited by other players that followed. In things online, getting there first to critical mass, after all the blessed bugs are worked out, sometimes counts for much more than getting there first.

On the other hand, ULS looks like it could be great online leap forward. And as the player making that least first, PropertyFirst.com just may gain a major edge.



©2000 Conway Data, Inc. All rights reserved. Data is from many sources and is not warranted to be accurate or current.