The Justice Department sued the National Association of Realtors (NAR) yesterday, claiming it unfairly limits competition by allowing real-estate...

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sued the National Association of Realtors (NAR) yesterday, claiming it unfairly limits competition by allowing real-estate agents to withhold home listings from Internet-based brokers.

The antitrust lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, follows lengthy negotiations in which the government pressed the NAR to drop restrictions designed to protect traditional brokers.

The Realtors’ group announced changes to its original plan yesterday, but the new steps were insufficient to stop the lawsuit because the organization kept in place brokers’ ability to discriminate against competitors who post listings online, said J. Bruce McDonald, deputy assistant attorney general in the antitrust division.

Internet brokerages operate in the top dozen real-estate markets in the country, and their numbers are growing, Justice Department officials said at a news conference to announce the lawsuit. The online brokers often charge lower fees and allow consumers to review listings at their own pace.

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The Realtors’ policy prevents brokers who rely on the Internet from being able to show customers all the houses that may be for sale in the locations and price ranges they’re seeking, McDonald said. It “allows a broker to target his Web-based competitors,” McDonald said.

The NAR said its new policy took into account Justice Department concerns.

Initially, listing agents were allowed to withhold available homes from specific Web sites. The revised policy says that, when an agent chooses, listings will not be displayed on any Web site.

“The policy does not discriminate against any brokerage model, including discount brokers,” said Al Mansell, president of the Realtors’ association.

This suit will have no effect on the Western Washington real-estate market because the Northwest Multiple Listing Service is not affiliated with the NAR, nor does it have a policy akin to NAR’s, said Chris Osborn, an attorney who represents the local listing service.

The local organization, which aggregates listing and sales information for 15 Western Washington counties, is among an estimated 10 percent of listing services that are not part of the national group.

In contrast to NAR’s new policy, Osborn said the Northwest MLS “rules and policies provide that all listings of all members are eligible for Internet republication by all members. Our discount brokers’ listings are all on everyone’s sites right now.”

The only exception is when a seller declines to have property exposed to the Internet. In that case, no real-estate firms can put that listing on their site.

Information on Western Washington real-estate market provided by Seattle Times business reporter Elizabeth Rhodes.