What is the MLS, and how does it work?

A couple seated on a sofa browse real estate listings on a laptop.Image: A couple seated on a sofa browse real estate listings on a laptop.

In a Nutshell

The multiple listing service, or MLS, is a database of real estate for sale. There’s no one “official” MLS or governing body — it’s a collaborative effort of real estate agents in specific regions.
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Long before online listings, real estate brokers formed partnerships to share information on properties for sale.

This began in the late 19th century, with data and resource sharing amongst otherwise competing brokers. Today that tradition continues with the multiple listing service, or MLS, which makes it easier to connect buyers to sellers. We’ll walk you through how it works.

What does MLS stand for?

An MLS, which is an abbreviation for multiple listing service, is a tool real estate brokers use in partnership with agents who are working with homeowners who want to sell. An MLS is a cooperative venture that helps small real estate brokers compete with much larger operations through information sharing about properties for sale.

There’s no centralized MLS. Instead, there are more than 800 separate multiple listing services around the country, centered on regional markets with some overlap. These have specific names, such as Northwest MLS which covers Washington state, or Stellar MLS which covers Florida and Puerto Rico.

Each MLS is formed by a local group of brokers and agents. MLS members list properties they have for sale, and other members can show them to house hunters.

An MLS is not directly accessible by the public, but an important portion of its data is, thanks to MLS members who post real estate listings with information from the MLS database. Your real estate agent will enter your property information for you.

If you’re a house hunter, the information you find online at real estate broker sites like Zillow and Redfin is typically provided by an MLS database — but you’re not viewing the database itself.

What homebuyers should know about the MLS

If you’re in the market to buy a home, using the information a broker posts from an MLS can help you learn a lot about houses for sale, including prices, property age, number of bathrooms and bedrooms, and photos of the properties. Each broker may have its own way of presenting this information.

What’s not presented to the public? Information that should be protected for the seller’s privacy such as direct contact information or times that a property is left vacant for viewing.

Brokerages like Redfin and Zillow may be members of many MLSs. They can provide listings to the public from any database they have access to. These brokerages may not be a member of all MLSs, though, so you may see some listings through your agent that aren’t on Zillow, for example.

What home sellers should know about the MLS

If you’re selling your home, there’s one big reason to have your home added to an MLS database: It’s a great way to get your home in front of more buyers.

But to do that, you’ll typically need to work with a real estate agent who’s a member of an MLS. Private individuals generally can’t list their own home — it has to be entered into the MLS by a real estate agent.

There is an exception: In certain states, you can pay a third party a flat fee to register your house for sale (sometimes known as a “fee-for-service” listing) without going through a real estate agent and paying the commission, which could be thousands of dollars.

According to the Department of Justice, the difference between an agent listing your home for sale and the flat-fee listing can be in the thousands of dollars, with the flat-fee listing being the more affordable option.

Sellers don’t have to have their home listed for sale through an MLS. Another option is to opt for a pocket listing or off-market real estate listing, meaning you’re offering your home for sale privately and only to a few people. In these cases, instead of listing the home on a real estate agent or broker’s site, the home is offered offline. This type of option may be a consideration if you are testing a sale price or if you have privacy concerns.

Is the MLS private?

Listings on the MLS can contain information that you might not be comfortable sharing if privacy is a concern. MLS databases list details such as when your home is empty for showings, though this information is available only to real estate agents.

The listings also show your address, pictures of the outside and inside of your home and financial details like your home’s listing price. If you’re worried, you may be able to request your real estate agent to hide your listing from public-facing websites like Zillow so that it’s only viewable to serious buyers working with an agent.

People who are extremely concerned, such as celebrities or high-net-worth individuals, sometimes even avoid listing their home on the MLS entirely and find other ways to connect with a buyer.

What’s next?

An MLS is a tool that real estate agents use to connect home buyers and sellers more easily. If you’re house hunting, you can view MLS information on homes for sale through real estate websites or work with an agent.

If you’re a seller, you may also find it helpful to use a good real estate agent to help you through the process of listing your home for sale. Like any other aspect of buying or selling a home, it makes sense to shop around for an agent with the right level of experience and expertise to help you get to closing day.

About the author: Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance writer living in Kirkland, Washington. She has been a professional dogsled racer, a wildlife researcher, and a participant in the National Spelling Bee. She writes for websites such a… Read more.