Tom Hurdelbrink, President and CEO, Northwest MLS.
Illustration by Lanette Behiry/Real Estate News

Transformative changes are coming, says retiring MLS leader 

NWMLS CEO Tom Hurdelbrink says brokerage expansion is changing how MLSs operate, and lawsuits could spur an industry-wide “generational and tectonic shift.”

September 2, 2023
4 minutes

Key points:

  • Tom Hurdelbrink, president and CEO of the second-largest MLS on the West Coast, is retiring after 15 years in the role.
  • Having spent more than three decades in the industry, he offers a bird’s-eye perspective on change — and what lies ahead.
  • Hurdelbrink expects MLS consolidation to continue and hopes the industry will be proactive in the face of buyer agent compensation lawsuits.

As Tom Hurdelbrink prepares to step down from his leadership role at one of the country's largest multiple listing services, he senses that change is coming to the real estate industry.

Hurdelbrink, president and CEO of Northwest MLS, recently announced he was retiring at the end of the year. During his 15 years at the helm of NWMLS, he oversaw three MLS mergers and a host of technology improvements at an organization that now has more than 35,000 members.

Throughout his more than three decades in the industry, Hurdelbrink acknowledged that change has been a constant. But more recent developments, including the rise of national brokerages, the upcoming court cases involving buyer agents and rapidly changing technology, are very much on his mind.

In an interview with Real Estate News, Hurdelbrink discussed those issues, the future of MLSs and why NWMLS has remained independent.

Compensation lawsuits: Why the industry should 'take responsibility and act now'

Two major class-action lawsuits that could fundamentally change how buyer agents are compensated, Moerhl and Sitzer/Burnett, are making their way through the courts. The country's top brokerage companies and the National Association of Realtors are named as defendants, while 20 of the nation's largest MLSs are named as co-conspirators. Because it is independent of NAR, NWMLS is not named in the suits.

Hurdelbrink said the court cases "could portend a generational and tectonic shift for the industry," no matter what is decided.

That's leaving MLSs with a big decision.

"The focus of the recent class action lawsuits and the attention paid by the federal regulators suggests the industry could do more to help consumers better understand how the real estate transaction works," Hurdelbrink said. 

"The industry can take responsibility and act now to influence its own direction, or it can wait for either the courts or regulators to impose rules and processes on it. Some MLSs are taking their own steps forward — and that seems like the smarter thing to do."

'Consolidation and collaboration are the routes of the future'

As brokerages have gotten bigger and more national in scope, many MLSs have grown from serving local markets to regional, multi-state areas, Hurdelbrink said. Yet MLSs have not developed national aggregation of the data.

Having been through the merger process before, consolidation, or at least cooperation, seems to be the best way for MLSs to continue to serve their members effectively as coverage areas increase, said Hurdelbrink.

And he expects the consolidation trend to continue because there are simply too many MLSs without adequate resources to expand the services and programs their members should be getting.

"Consolidation and collaboration are the routes of the future," Hurdelbrink said.

"One approach MLSs can take to be responsive is to merge more quickly to bring consistency of service with economies of scale," he said. "Otherwise, I hope MLSs find a way to collaborate in some way to deliver a solution for more and more brokers," he added. 

NWMLS, he noted, participates in MLS Grid, a technology network that allows MLSs to retain their local identity while working more cooperatively. He said similar solutions will be needed more than ever going forward.

Helming an independent MLS

Northwest MLS is one of the few MLS organizations that is independent from the National Association of Realtors. Hurdelbrink noted that decades ago, many more MLSs were independent, but they joined NAR to gain access to its group insurance. NWMLS formed in 1984 as a broker-owned MLS and secured its own insurance and not-for-profit status.

While NWMLS does not have to follow NAR rules, many of its rules and policies are the same or similar. But the advantage of remaining independent is that NWMLS can "adjust and adapt to the market and the industry in more timely and creative ways," Hurdelbrink said. That includes adjusting to potential changes to buyer agent compensation.

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