What Is MLS in Real Estate?

Multiple listing services feature information about properties for sale.
Profile photo of Kate Wood
Written by Kate Wood
Lead Writer
Profile photo of Michelle Blackford
Reviewed by Michelle Blackford
Profile photo of Alice Holbrook
Edited by Alice Holbrook
Assigning Editor
Fact Checked
Profile photo of Barbara Marquand
Co-written by Barbara Marquand
Senior Writer

Some or all of the mortgage lenders featured on our site are advertising partners of NerdWallet, but this does not influence our evaluations, lender star ratings or the order in which lenders are listed on the page. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners.

MLS in real estate stands for multiple listing service, the platform that real estate agents use to list properties for sale and find homes for buyers.

Although people often refer to the MLS as a single entity, there are actually hundreds of multiple listing services across the country.

The MLS concept has been around since the late 1800s when brokers met at their local association offices to exchange information, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Today, home buyers and sellers are most likely to encounter the MLS online, either via consumer-facing MLS sites or on real estate websites that draw from MLS listings.

How the multiple listing service works

Each MLS is a private database maintained and paid for by an organization of real estate brokers and agents. Multiple listing services range in size from covering small regions to multiple states, and some markets are covered by more than one MLS. In recent years, the number of multiple listing services has declined as smaller ones have merged to create larger regional ones for greater efficiency.

Real estate professionals pay a fee to belong to a multiple listing service, and they may belong to more than one. In exchange for membership, they can post listings of the properties their clients are selling and view other agents' listings.

MLS and agent compensation

Editor's Note: In April 2024, a judge granted preliminary approval to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit over real estate agents' commissions. See how that will affect home buyers and home sellers.

Traditionally, listing agents and buyer's agents participating in a MLS agreed to share commissions, with the buyer's agent's compensation included in the non-consumer facing section as part of the listing. In the wake of a class-action lawsuit about agent commissions, this "cooperative compensation" model no longer applies and agent commissions cannot be included in MLS listings.

Home sellers will still pay their own listing agents, and sellers could potentially offer to help pay for the buyer's agent commissions, too — but as a concession to cover closing costs. Agent compensation will now be another item that buyers and sellers negotiate.

How to list a home on the MLS

If you're working with a listing agent to sell your home, the agent will list the property on the multiple listing services that cover your area.

If you're going the for-sale-by-owner, or FSBO, route, you can pay a company to place your listing on the MLS. Many owners who are selling their properties without the help of agents skip the MLS and post their listings on websites specializing in FSBO listings, such as FSBO.com and ForSaleByOwner.com.

How to access the MLS

You may be able to search for homes on the website of the MLS that covers your area. But you can find listings from many different MLSs on real estate websites for consumers and agents, such as Zillow, where you can search by location, price, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and other criteria.

Note that while you'll be able to see public-facing listings on any of these websites, you won't be privy to the agent remarks in MLS listings. These can include details about the listing that agents may not be eager to broadcast, like how to get into the property when no one's there. Your real estate agent will be able to log in to your local MLS and share any pertinent info with you.

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.