A battle appears to be heating up between Realtors, who want to be able to limit access to listings via the Internet, and the U.S. Justice Department, which regards...

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A battle appears to be heating up between Realtors, who want to be able to limit access to listings via the Internet, and the U.S. Justice Department, which regards the practice as anticompetitive.

Buyers and sellers have major stakes in the issue.

Lawyers from the Justice Department and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) are to meet tomorrow to try to settle the long-simmering dispute.

The NAR, the 1.2 million-member trade association of full-service agents, wants to allow brokers to limit listings on the Internet, thus limiting access to those listings by online brokers, who often charge less than the traditional full-service 6 percent commission.

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The Realtors’ group plans to implement its new rules with a change in its bylaws that would go into effect in July.

Government antitrust enforcers say the NAR’s policies would stifle competition by banning discounted sales commissions, and the Justice Department says it might sue the NAR if the bylaw change is approved.

“The Antitrust Division is investigating the potential competitive impact of certain rules involving the display of residential real-estate data over the Internet,” Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said yesterday.

The department and the Federal Trade Commission are widening their push to promote price competition in sales of residential real estate, hoping to take some of the sting from high real-estate costs.

The hot housing market has caused prices to surge, sharply boosting income for brokers and sales agents, whose commissions typically amount to 5 or 6 percent of the sale price.

Last year, nearly 8 million homes were sold in the United States, earning agents and brokers commissions totaling about $61 billion, up from $42.6 billion in 2000, according to estimates by industry publication Real Trends.

The median sale price for an existing U.S. home was $188,833 for the first quarter of 2005, up 41 percent from the same quarter of 2000 and 80 percent from that period in 1995, according to Thomson Datastream.

This spring, the Justice Department has sent warnings to state legislatures not to pass bills that would squeeze out low-cost brokers by changing requirements for holding a brokerage license. And it sued a real-estate regulatory agency in Kentucky for prohibiting rebates on sales commissions.

“The antitrust question is whether the NAR’s policy keeps real-estate commissions higher,” said Steve Bochenek, legal counsel for the Illinois Association of Realtors.

NAR contends its members have the right to protect their property — the listings, Bochenek said.

“That may have to be decided in court,” he said.

One online firm, Zip Realty, promises to cut commissions up to 25 percent with an Internet-based approach.

“It’s all about the interest of consumers,” said Pat Lashinsky, vice president for marketing at the California-based discount brokerage. “I’m glad the Justice Department is stepping in to represent the consumer.

“NAR wants to allow brokers to pick and choose which listings will go on the Internet. But consumers want to see all homes on one site.”

Real-estate listings used to be closely guarded by agents, who had a near monopoly in uniting buyer and seller.

The Internet has made house hunting easier and faster. More than 70 percent of buyers use it in their home search, the NAR says.

Ed Watts, an agent at Prairie Shore Properties in Wilmette, Ill., said he can flag a listing so that it does not go on the Internet.

“But I don’t know why any agent would not want a listing on the Internet,” Watts said.

“There’s no such thing as bad exposure.”

But some brokers, especially smaller ones who don’t want to risk losing part of the commission on a property, want to protect their listings.

One issue is the usual commission charged by traditional brokers.

“We’re not against discounting,” said Judy Gardner, president of her own real-estate firm in Plainfield, Ill. “This is America. It’s commerce.

“I’m the queen of tech, but real-estate sales require a high degree of the human factor in negotiating. Online discounters say they are going to help you sell your house. But most people need a guide, a professional on their side.”

That said, however, most listing information is already on the Web, Gardner said.

This report was compiled with information from the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters.