Whisper listings are giving T.O. buyers exclusive access to off-market homes

For most home sellers in Toronto, getting as many eyes on your listing (and hopefully just as many offers) as possible is essential to the selling process. But there’s a secret side of the market where sellers are choosing “whisper listings” instead. Also known as pocket or exclusive listings, they aren’t made public on MLS and are instead marketed the old-fashioned way — word of mouth. And the trend is growing in Toronto. 

“It’s a whole subculture; it began as something quiet and organic,” Elise Stern, realtor at Harvey Kalles Real Estate, said. “But during COVID, an agent started a Whatsapp group for these, which grew into a Signal group, where a group of agents can share their exclusive listings.”

Stern said countless homes have sold this way, and clients like it because they feel like they’re getting the inside scoop. 

However, Justin Cohen, a realtor with Barry Cohen Homes, said there’s often a “trade-off” when it comes to whisper listings. “You certainly limit your exposure, which can result in a lower price,” he said. 

But it’s a welcome trade-off for sellers. Cohen said they’re often looking for convenience, don’t want their neighbours to know they’re putting their home up for sale or don’t want to deal with a lot of showings. That being said, if it’s privacy a seller is after, Cohen says there’s an easier way to do it: “Put your house on MLS but just don’t put up a ‘For Sale’ sign. Your neighbour probably won’t go snooping to see if your house is on Realtor.ca.” 

Stern said whisper listings are sometimes used as a “coming soon”  tactic, where select realtors may know about a listing and have the opportunity to make an offer before it eventually goes on MLS. When that happens, Stern said she’s seen it go both ways: “I’ve had sellers get an offer that’s not exactly what they want, list it on MLS and never get another offer that comes close to the original. But the opposite also happens; they think they can get more, and they do.”

But to take advantage of the whisper listing network, you have to move fast — Stern said, just like with a regular listing on MLS, if it’s a good house, it’s not going to sit on the market for long. “I like to get my clients in to see it immediately, so that they have a minute to breathe and digest it,” she said. “If they wait too long to see it, I don’t want them to be buying under such pressure.”

To navigate placing an offer on these listings, Stern said it’s the same as a regular listing — just without the convenience of Internet. “You have to call the agent and get all the information, the lot size, the seller, everything. It’s like the way it always was, we’ve just gotten lazy!”

Not everyone is happy with this underground network. After multiple attempts to put regulations in place to quash whisper listings, the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) just announced a new “Duty of Cooperation” policy, coming into effect in January 2024, requiring realtors to place any residential listings on MLS within three days of public marketing. 

“One-to-one marketing to another realtor would not trigger the public marketing,” Pierre Leduc, CREA media relations representative, confirmed. But marketing to more than one recipient would be considered public marketing under the new policy, making Facebook and Whatsapp groups for exclusive listings a problem.

But Cohen suspects whisper listings will continue, albeit through different methods: “It should be up to the seller to decide how they want to sell their house, quietly or not,” he said. “If you want the convenience of selling it this way and you’re OK with potentially leaving some money on the table, that should be your choice.” 

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO