Last Friday Jon gave us a tongue-in-cheek list of possible names we could have chosen instead of RentConfident. The real process of choosing our name was much more serious.
I'm overly fond of the word "clever." It feels nice to say. It has lots of strong consonants. It reminds me of the first "Jurassic Park" movie. It also bears a decent resemblance to my last name. "Clever Realty of Chicago" was an official DBA for my old company. When I started work on the project that was to become RentConfident, it was natural that I would therefore call the thing "Clever Tenant."
Clever Tenant became the original working name of the project. In fact, the some of the oldest files on my hard drive are still saved in a folder with that name.
People often ask me about the thought processes that led to RentConfident. The answer needs a bit of history to understand.
Back in the early 70s there was a play on Broadway about apartment life in New York called "6 Rms Riv Vu." That title will probably look strange to folks under the age of 30. For those of us who grew up in the pre-internet era it's easy to understand: Six rooms with a view of the river.
An Apartment Hunting History Lesson
Until the late 1990s there were three ways to find an apartment. You could walk around looking for signs, you could visit a real estate agent, or you could read the newspaper classifieds.
Pounding the pavement is still a valid way to search for apartments. You can find some great deals - if you're within the group of people with ample free time who are moving locally. It is now and has always been a very time-consuming process.
In the Chicago area, rentals were not added to the Multiple Listings Service that allows sharing of data between agencies until 2010. Each real estate agency would keep their own apartment listings without sharing them. (Many still do.) You'd have to go visit each agency in person if you wanted to sample all of the apartments available.
Classified ads were often days or weeks behind reality. Landlords paid by the letter for their ads, which led to a unique "code. For example:
"1b1ba spac unfurn dplx nr trans incl elec, a/c. Lg kit wbfpl pkg ww carpt wic"
1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, spacious unfurnished duplex near transportation, includes electric and air conditioning. Large kitchen, wood burning fireplace, parking, wall to wall carpet, walk in closet."
There were few photos, no fancy descriptive words. To set up a showing in that pre-voicemail age you had to call the landlord until he/she picked up the phone.
Internet Listings Changed Everything.
The digital age was supposed to make apartment hunting much easier. Listings with lots of details and photos are now available for renters to view as soon as they are posted. We have emails, texts and voicemail. It's all fabulously innovative, but I would argue that it has resulted in information overload on the part of the renter. It has also added two flavors that don't belong in the consumer soup: desperation and distrust.
Landlords scramble to "sell the sizzle" and cram their ads full of buzzwords. A new "code" has replaced "6 Rms Riv Vu," this time based on deceit. "Cozy" stands for "cramped." "Bustling" really means "noisy". "Urban" means "high crime nearby." Even photos lie to us. Listing sites are dominated not by landlords but by Photoshop experts. Renters have to read carefully to figure out what is true.
The race is on to book the first showing as soon as an ad goes live. The more vague the ads get, the more showings a renter will book. TV programs such as "House Hunters" make it seem totally normal for a housing searches to take far more showings than really necessary. Renters are following suit, cramming in showings before work, during lunch, and throughout their evenings and weekends. The fast pace means renters are not only viewing but applying for multiple places, facing scrutiny and rejection in hopes that someone will want them.
The End Result: Renters are Exhausting Themselves.
I first entered the Chicago apartment industry in 2005, when Craigslist had just added Chicago to its roster of cities. One of my standard questions has always been, "how many apartments have you viewed so far?" Ten years ago, the answers would top out at around 6.
By the time I stopped doing showings in late 2014, renters woulds regularly toss out numbers in the high teens or low 20s. 20 showings! They would be at home constantly refreshing Craigslist and Zillow. They would apply for apartment after apartment, taking multiple credit score hits. They would be beaten to the punch on listing after listing.
There have been numerous scientific studies on the effects of information overload. It has been consistently shown to impair decision-making skills. An overloaded renter might as well be stopping at the bar before every showing.
The thought of pushing back against the trend of digital apartment hunting is laughable. But your average apartment hunter is overfed with a steady information diet of sugary advertising, with very little truth-based "meat and potatoes" as balance. RentConfident is my way of countering the marketing sugar with a solid dose of reality. Renters can sit back and let our team of researchers dig up the truth - warts and all - about their apartments of choice. A few hours later, we serve up a hearty helping of real data, including code violations, court cases and crime stats.
Share Your Stories and Share Ours Too!
How do you keep from getting worn down by modern apartment hunting? How many apartments did you see in your last search? Can you think of other ways to make the process less of a grind? Let me know! Oh, and please share this with your friends who are moving. I bet they'll be grateful to know that someone out there understands what they're going through.
The RentConfident owners are usually busy creating reports for the renters of Chicago. However, as a new company with a strong interest in the open government movement, we are sure we'll have some great stories and discoveries to share with you.
We hope to be updating twice a week. Kay will be posting on Mondays and Jon on Fridays. Topics will include open data, safe rental practices and our journey as a company from startup to (hopefully) market leader.
Along the way we'll be investigating what it means to start a brand new industry. Apartment research is not a well-known field. In fact, most of the folks we talk to have never heard of the idea before, and insurance providers have no clear category in which to put us.
Research projects will pop up here on a regular basis - in fact, we've got two awesome pieces of research ready to go with lots of maps and charts for your analytic enjoyment.
Happy reading, and don't forget to share us with your friends!