Zoocasa, an upstart real estate company owned by Rogers Communications, has launched a revamped website that aims to compete with Realtor.ca, Canada's dominant listings site, by presenting property listings in a more user-friendly format and connecting clients with realtors from major agencies.

Zoocasa launched the new service for the Toronto area on Wednesday and is hoping to expand it to Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton and other cities by the summer.

The website draws on the same MLS database (so far, only for Toronto) used by sites like Realtor.ca, which is run by the Canadian Real Estate Association. What distinguishes Zoocasa, says company president Carolyn Beatty, is the way it presents that data.

The site tries to make data easy to find and use by integrating information about the neighbourhood —  demographics, average income, housing prices and availability — with each listing, using catchy, colourful graphics.

"We did some research on what really matters to consumers — things like size of visuals, the ability to look at a Street View of each of the listings, the way that the data is presented on the page so it's a lot easier for people to digest it and understand it," Beatty said. "It's a variety of different things that we believe all, ultimately, add up to an experience that is fundamentally designed with the consumer in mind."

Consumer experience is focus of site

Zoocasa has branded itself as a consumer-oriented site that, because it doesn't have its own agents, can focus all its energies on making the house hunting or selling experience as painless as possible for the people doing the buying and selling.

"We don't have any sort of constraints vis-à-vis a site that's operated by a trade association; we are strictly focused on the consumer," said Lawrence Dale, Zoocasa's group head of real estate business.

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An example shows the neighbourhood information that appears with a property listing on Zoocasa.com. It lists everything from average income in the area to which ethnic groups live there. (Zoocasa.com)

Earlier this year, Zoocasa obtained brokerage licences in six provinces (Alberta, B.C., Ontario and the Maritimes, and it intends to get licensed in all regions eventually) and became a member of the major real estate boards so that it could access MLS listings across the country. Prior to that, it had existed — since 2008 — primarily as a search site that had arrangements with specific brokers and agents who got additional exposure by posting their clients' properties on the site.

The company says the site had more than six million unique visitors last year.

Along with opening up the whole range of MLS listings, the new Zoocasa site will also recommend specific real estate agents in the areas where consumers are looking. The agents are vetted by Zoocasa and come from a range of established agencies, including big national names like Re/Max and Century 21 and smaller, local independents like Harvey Kalles.

"We're looking for a top agent — to us, what that means is they're experienced, they're service-focused, they have local knowledge in the areas that they're purporting to have expertise [in] and they're productive," Dale said.

Users will be able to browse a series of profiles of agents that will list their specialties and qualifications such as languages spoken and number of years in the business.

"We're not trying to force one on you; we're saying here's a good selection, and any one would be a great choice for you," Dale said.

Those who use the services of a recommended agent can rate and review that agent on the site.

Referral fees for Zoocasa, rebates for users

Agents can't buy their way onto the recommended list, Dale said, and the company only makes money once an agent makes a sale.

The agents pay a referral fee to Zoocasa that is equivalent to the industry standard of roughly 35 per cent of the commission they make, which in Toronto is about 2.5 per cent of the selling price, Dale said.

Zoocasa passes some of that on to consumers by giving a rebate to those who use an agent recommended on the site. The rebate is equivalent to about 15 per cent of the commission — although some of the rebate will come in the form of gift cards for businesses such as Home Depot, Canadian Tire or Best Buy.

A house that sold for $400,000 would generate a $1,500 rebate, about $200 of which would come in the form of gift cards, Dale said.

Other sites, such as CommissionPitch, BidComHomes and iBidBroker, are already employing similar models of connecting customers and agents and putting the client at the centre of the house hunting and selling process by offering rebates, competitive commissions and having agents bid for their business.

More pressure to provide detailed real estate data

These type of sites are getting more attention as the underlying business model of how real estate is sold and what kind of housing data is available to the public is coming under greater scrutiny — largely thanks to a case launched by the Competition Bureau two years ago. 

The federal agency argued before the Competition Tribunal that the Toronto Real Estate Board should allow its members to provide more detailed housing information — such as demographic data and historical pricing information — to their clients and has appealed a ruling by the tribunal, which had dismissed the case earlier this year.

Dale said if the Competition Bureau is successful in its appeal and more information does become available, Zoocasa will happily post it on its site.

Zoocasa was last in the news about two years ago when it launched Zoopraisal, a feature that allows you to estimate the market value of a given property. The service, which is run by Centract, came under some criticism from the Appraisal Institute of Canada, which argued that property owners should have to consent to their home appraisals being circulated online.

But Dale said the company stands by the feature and considers it just another way of helping people navigate their way through a real estate transaction.

"We just think it's one of those tools that definitely provides people with a sense — whether it's a starting point, a gut check. It's not designed to be a be-all and end-all," he said.