When the Oak Park Board of Realtors made the plunge 10 years ago to open its Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park territory to outside agents, not every local agent was thrilled with the idea.
"Wherever you are, real estate at its essence is a local business," said Michael O'Neill of F.C. Pilgrim & Co. Agents unfamiliar with a community simply can't market a home and its location as well as a local agent can, he said. And when you buy a home, it's "almost as a by-product of the schools and community" it's in.
But the change has been mostly positive, O'Neill and other Oak Park real estate agents agree. The move in 1995 from a local, guarded MLS (Multiple Listing Service) to the MLS of Northern Illinois has meant new territory outside of the tri-village area, made some buyers better educated when they step into the office, and some think has even helped raise property values.
An MLS is a database listing all for-sale properties (except those for sale by owner) in a community, including detailed information like price, number of bedrooms, whether there's a fireplace, etc. The MLSNI unites 10 local boards, making listings available to more than 40,000 agents.
For a long time, the disparity between home values in Chicago and in Oak Park left Chicago agents with dropped-jaw reverse sticker shock, said Pat McGowan of Baird & Warner.
"You had the downtown agents coming to Oak Park saying, 'Are you kidding me?'" she said. Chicago condominium buyers would come to Oak Park and buy housesā"same price, no assessments, more than a wall between neighbors and a short commute to the city.
"The price point is so different, it's an easier sale for them," McGowan said. She believes that out-of-area buyers helped drive up prices of new construction condos at Madison Square by more than $100,000. One agent told her that the same 2,500-square-foot, $489,000 unit would have fetched $300,000 more in Lincoln Park.
Other real estate agents aren't so sure. O'Neill thinks Oak Park property values rose because of the quality of schools, passed referenda, new libraries, quality of the housing stock, diversity, etc.
"I think they've gone up because people recognize the value of homes in Oak Park and River Forest," O'Neill said. "I'm reluctant to give Chicago agents credit."
Rich Gloor Jr. of Gloor Realty said outside buyers may have contributed to raising home values, but other factors were at play, too.
"It wasn't just an Oak Park thing. It certainly didn't slow down the appreciation. Was it one of the big causes? I don't think so," said Gloor, president this year of the Oak Park Board of Realtors.
"The most important attribute in real estate is still location, location, location," O'Neill said.
Information from the MLS is now online at sites such as Realtor.com, putting more data in the hands of buyers.
It's helped with marketing, too, getting "people to realize this was a great community to live in," O'Neill said.
Realtors estimate more than half of buyers arrive at their offices having done some online research, and that's a boon to an agent's time. At Pilgrim, buyers who've done online research look at six to eight houses before making a purchaseā" one-third of the 18 to 20 houses "traditional" customers see, O'Neill said.
Gloor agreed. Online researchers often arrive pre-approved for mortgages and are ready to buy, he said. Automated e-mails send new listings to prospective buyers that match what they're looking for. The Internet also has reduced the amount of paper used in what Gloor calls a "paper-heavy business."
O'Neill drew a distinction between online MLS information and other information available online. While some community information about schools or parks might be found online, a buyer becomes best educated about a community by talking to a local agent, he insists. And until buyers start looking at different homes, they won't know whether the price of a single house is a good deal or not.
Not all MLS data is put online. O'Neill said Chicago-area Realtors are engaged in a "massive debate" over making the regional MLS fully available online. At issue is whether people will use the online MLS as a listing service and ignore the duties Realtors undertake to see a purchase through to the end. When a seller doesn't use an agent, or the agent abandons those duties, the buyer's agent has to do the work for both buyer and seller.
O'Neill said a new state law places minimum standards on home sellers.
The regional MLS has meant somewhat of a tradeoff between outside agencies selling in Oak Park and local agencies selling in nearby communities.
When the MLS went regional, it meant agents didn't have to pay extra annual fees to belong to (and have access to) MLS services outside their home areas. For example, before the change if an agent wanted to help her mother buy a house in Elmwood Park, she had to pay dues to that local MLS. If later that year an old friend wanted her to sell his house and help him find one in Waukegan, the agent would have to pay another fee.
With skyrocketing property values in Oak Park and River Forest, the ability to take first-time homebuyers to neighboring towns has been a big plus, Gloor said.
Gloor Realty plans to open a satellite office in Westchester to "meet the high demand of our customers going out that way." He said the agency has succeeded in making sales in Westchester and Berwyn especially to first-time homebuyers who like Oak Park but can't afford it.
"It's hard when you're first married to be able to afford a $450,000 house and pay $6,000 to $7,000 in taxes," Gloor noted.
Empty nesters not ready to move into a condo also have headed west for single-story ranch-style homes, very few of which can be found in Oak Park. According to Gloor, $275,000 buys a nice ranch in Westchester, where taxes are much lower.
The Gloor Westchester location will double as a sales center for a 46-unit condo building it's representing on Wolf Road just north of Cermak Road.
Gloor expects the regionalization of local agencies to increase, whether that means opening satellite locations or not.
"Without question, people are looking farther out," Gloor said. "It's not something we had to do, it was something we looked at and said, 'Why wouldn't we?"