Apps, Sites Aim to Transform Apartment-Rental Listings

LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

For a long time, hunting for an apartment has meant wading through cryptic yard signs, inscrutable classifieds and frustrating games of phone tag.

That’s finally changing.

Mobile-app startups, online real-estate giants and even old-school local listing firms are gearing up to streamline the splintered business of apartment advertising, looking to make it more reliable for landlords and more user-friendly for tenants. They’re aiming to turn a huge business — 2.3 million households rent in Los Angeles and Orange counties, for example — into a modern marketplace, and make finding a place to live a little easier.

For now, though, many apartment hunters still face challenges that are increasingly rare in the digital age. Consumers can comparison shop for hotel rooms, plane tickets and even houses online or through their smartphones, using data-rich websites to tap up-to-the-second data. But there’s no complete repository for the rental market.

To find a place in LA, a renter has to scan yard signs, scour Craigslist, stop by leasing offices and search a bevy of websites big and small. No single source shows everything on the market all at once – not even close. Add in the challenge of tracking down landlords by phone, enduring the often-opaque application process and racing fellow renters to be first in line, and finding an apartment can become a disappointing time drain.

It’s a frustration that’s familiar to many Southern California renters, especially as rents rise and vacancy rates fall. And it helped to inspire at least one of the startups that’s trying to transform the industry.

Jonathan Eppers and a few friends in the Santa Monica tech industry were fed up with their struggles to find a place in LA — searching from a laptop computer, chasing stale listings, writing paper checks — and they saw an opportunity. So a little less than two years ago, they launched RadPad, a photo-driven mobile app that generates a list of apartments for rent nearby.

Today, RadPad lists thousands of apartments in Southern California, each with details and at least three photos. With a few taps and swipes, users can share a listing with friends or contact the landlord. It’s rolling out a mobile-payment service, too, so renters can skip the monthly ritual of the check in the mail, and can build a payment history to show their next landlord.

“We’re trying to create a very efficient, end-to-end service that’s built for renters,” Eppers said.

A similar pitch is being made, in a different way, by a far older and more established rival.

Westside Rentals has been in the apartment-listing business for 18 years, from the pre-internet age of yard signs and newspaper classifieds to today’s mobile-focused market. That longevity has helped build good relationships with landlords, especially smaller property owners, said President Kevin Miller. Westside has nearly 11,000 listings right now, many of which are exclusive, Miller said.

As he walks through a Santa Monica neighborhood dotted with his firm’s red-white-and-black “for rent” signs, Miller says the company’s secret sauce is a twist none of its rivals use: It charges would-be renters. It costs $60 for two months of access to listings. That reduces traffic, Miller acknowledges, but it also saves landlords time, because they know they’re dealing only with serious applicants. That, too, helps build loyalty.

“It’s such a mom-and-pop business,” he said. “I still think there’s a market for what we do.”

But the big guys are moving in.

National websites such as Zillow and Trulia have their eyes on the rental market, aiming to leverage their vast troves of housing data — like Zillow’s value estimate for nearly every house in the country — to try to scoop up more listing business. For a giant like Zillow, which makes most of its money selling ads to for-sale agents, rentals are a long-term play, said Chief Marketing Officer Amy Bohutinsky. Most renters eventually become buyers, she notes, and Zillow would like to get their business early on.

Some apartment hunters are already enjoying the new data-rich rental world.

When Tom Steidl moved from Seattle to LA last year, he used a variety of websites and apps to crunch rents, square footage and amenities, trying to find a good deal in downtown LA. It took longer than he thought. Prices downtown had surged since he moved to Seattle a few years ago. He wound up having to stay with family in Pasadena for a bit before finding a place he liked, in Baldwin Hills.

But as frustrating as it can be, the process keeps getting better, said Steidl, who has searched for a number of apartments over the years.

“I feel like I have a lot more control than I used to,” he said. “The ability to access all kinds of data just makes it a lot easier.”