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Though real estate may seem like a competitive business, collaboration among agents, even from different brokerages, is a core part of how the industry works. One of the primary ways that this collaboration happens is through listing houses on an MLS. 

As you enter the real estate market, you’ll likely hear the acronym “MLS” quite a bit. But what actually is it? “MLS” stands for “multiple listing service.” An MLS is a database that provides information about properties for sale, connecting listing with those representing potential buyers. If you’re selling your home, your agent will list your house on an MLS, but you may also be able to list by paying a flat fee or using a discount broker.

What is an MLS in real estate?

Multiple listing services are integral to the functioning real estate market. According to the National Association of Realtors, more than half of all homebuyers use an MLS in their home search. 

The origins of the MLS are actually pretty old: In the late 19th century, local real estate agents would gather for regular meetings where they would share information about properties they were trying to sell, the idea being that working with other agents from other brokerages would increase their chances of finding a potential buyer. 

Eventually, instead of these in-person meetings, brokerages began to produce and distribute catalogs listing this information - the original MLSes - and now these listings are primarily online.

The organizational premise of an MLS is reciprocity: Agents can help each other sell their listings. Plus, when an agent provides a buyer for a property that another agent is trying to sell, they get a portion of the commission.

Is there a national MLS?

It’s easy to imagine one big national MLS, connecting agents from coast to coast. However, this is not how it works: There are actually more than 800 MLSes in the U.S., each serving local real estate professionals. This functions better than a national one would because agents tend to work locally - there’s no reason for an agent representing a buyer in California to know about a potential property for sale in Arkansas, for example. 

Instead, each MLS is organized by local brokers, who run the system independently. Despite this, most of these systems do tend to follow guidelines and best practices laid out by the National Association of Realtors.

The advantages of the MLS system are clear: Sellers get more exposure for their property - thereby increasing the possibility of a sale - and buyers get to see what properties are available in their desired region without having to work with multiple agents.

How do you get access to an MLS?

One of the big differences between an MLS and other real estate listing websites that you may have encountered, such as Zillow or Trulia, is that an MLS is only available to licensed agents and brokers, who pay a fee for access to the service. 

This means that if you want access to an MLS, you’ll need either a real estate license or a real estate agent. (One of these is easier to come by than the other.)

However, many of the listings on websites like Zillow are in fact listings from an MLS - these services have partnerships with publicly available sites that allow them to import their listings. Many MLSes may also have their own publically viewable databases. 

The information in these public listings isn’t necessarily verified or up to date, since they aren’t as closely regulated as the MLS is. However, if you see a listing you like on Zillow or Trulia or a similar site, there is a way to find it on an MLS and get the complete picture: You just need its MLS number.

What is an MLS number?

Every listing in an MLS gets an MLS number. That number is unique to the listing, and in most cases an MLS will not repeat a number - once it’s been assigned to a listing, it’s used up, even after that listing is taken down. 

In addition to helping you match a listing in order to find more information about it, an MLS number can also give you an idea of how long a property has been on the market because these numbers are typically assigned in order.

MLS listings are updated regularly and encompass everything details about the house, like square footage, the number of bedrooms and half baths, and HOA rules. It will also tell you things like, whether it's heated by baseboards or forced air, what material that the driveway is made of and private information provided by the listing agent, like preferred showing times and agents' phone numbers.

Can you list on MLS on your own? 

Most sellers list on an MLS through their real estate agents. The agent will gather pictures of the home and all of the other relevant information.

If you’re selling a home, you do have the option to list it yourself without an agent. In real estate, this is typically referred to as “for sale by owner” (FBSO). One reason this approach might be appealing is that it allows you to avoid paying an agent commission. However, it can be a pretty complicated process.

In addition to setting your home's asking price (which means researching comps yourself and/or getting an appraisal) and doing the work of managing the listing (fielding calls, scheduling showings, etc.), you’ll also have to do your own marketing.

→ Here's what you need to know about selling your house without a realtor

Since MLSes are only accessible to real estate professionals, you won’t be able to list your home on an MLS yourself, but you do have a few options.

How to list on MLS without a real estate agent 

  1. In some areas, you can pay an agent a flat fee to list your home on the MLS for you. You will still be the point of contact for the listing, but you won’t be able to post it or edit it in the MLS yourself.
  2. You can also hire a discount broker, who will take a much smaller commission (typically around 1%) to manage your listing on the MLS and do a few other tasks. A discount broker won’t provide the same extent of personalized service that a full-service broker would.
  3. Use sites like Zillow and Trulia, which do allow sellers to list their FSBO properties free of charge. The disadvantage of this is simply that it’s less efficient than listing your home on an MLS. While an MLS listing is circulated to many of the public real estate listing sites, if you circumvent the MLS you have to make a new listing for your home on each site.

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