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Landlords, you can’t hide from the Internet

by Andrew C. MacDonald on May 26, 2010

The following is an article from The Globe & Mail published Monday, May 24th, 2010. This article was written by Dakshana Bascaramurty who interviewed Schien Dong, one of the founders of The Rentables. The original article can be viewed here: Landlords, you can’t hide from the Internet.

landlords-internetArmed with an arsenal of websites detailing everything from area crime to health risks, home hunters can now easily find the truth behind dubious ads.

Sprawling 1,000 square feet, central air, laundry, private backyard and public transit at the door?

To those familiar with Craigslist’s Toronto listings, $990 a month for a two-bedroom apartment with that kind of description is a steal.

But before sending in an eager e-mail calling dibs, you may want to do some Internet research.

It turns out the transit service isn’t a subway station, but a bus stop. In the span of two weeks, there were four robberies within a six-block radius of the apartment. Only 9 per cent of Grade 9 students at the closest high school performed at or above the provincial average in applied math assessments. And the apartment sits on top of a crumbling hair salon. Still interested?

These days, potential renters and buyers can search everything from the number of break and enters on a block to detailed reviews of landlords written by current tenants. This month, the New York State Department of Health even launched an interactive map that shows types of cancer in each census area, as well as potentially hazardous sites nearby.

I went to Street View and I turned around 180 degrees to see a huge cemetery in front of my face. At that point I was looking for a roommate and knew people would be turned off by that.— Torontonian Schien Dong

While such resources certainly empower renters and buyers, they can also cause information overload, making the search an even more frustrating process. They also put pressure on those who compile listings to change their ways, since vague or misleading descriptions of properties can be easily debunked.

“Google Maps has become my new best friend,” says Laura Knapp, an Ottawa retail clerk who is planning to move to Whitby, Ont., with her husband in June.

With the free service, she can track the distance between a listed apartment and her husband’s future workplace, or test out an ad’s assertion that it’s “close to all amenities.”

At the same time, she worries that she has been too picky. Just two weeks away from the big move, she still hadn’t found a home – partly because of Whitby’s slim rental market, but also because she had a laundry list of requirements for the place (which she has since whittled down).

She religiously checks four websites each day for listings, and then spends more time doing background research on the ones that interest her.

Operators of such sites are clueing in to consumer behaviour.

When Torontonian Schien Dong created rental listing service TheRentables.com, he integrated snapshots of Google Street View to allow renters the chance to “walk through” prospective neighbourhoods. The idea came to him after previous experiences of seeing misleading apartment ads.

When checking out a house that was described as being in “a quiet neighbourhood” and “a walk to the bus stop,” he found a surprise that didn’t make it into the ad’s description.

“I went to Street View and I turned around 180 degrees to see a huge cemetery in front of my face,” he says. “At that point I was looking for a roommate and knew people would be turned off by that.”

While mapping tools are useful for checking out the aesthetics of a property, some address more vital information.

SpotCrime.com shows crime data for cities all over the world. Colin Drane, its creator, says many of the site’s visitors have consulted the crime maps when searching for apartments and houses.

The maps plot shootings, thefts, robberies, assaults and other crimes in major cities with little icons. When one moves the mouse over an icon, detailed information about the incident and when it occurred appear.

“I can’t imagine somebody who wouldn’t want to see crime data to help them in that decision process,” he says from his home in Baltimore, Md. “We periodically hear, ‘Thank you for this data … this was a useful tool to help me pick out a place.’ ”

Vancouverite Kye Grace, who worked as a real estate agent before recently taking on a job at a digital marketing firm, says he’s impressed with how much legwork buyers do before they consult an agent.

He’s seen clients turn to social networks to seek users’ opinions of properties and neighbourhoods that interest them. Websites such as myhood.ca collect detailed reviews of rental properties posted by tenants, in which some warn about lazy landlords and bed-bug infestations.

“The bottom line is that there’s little left that the person can’t do on their own if they look for it. A lot of it is from their own peers or people in their own shoes so it’s more trustworthy to them than from other professionals,” he says.

But Toronto real estate agent Julie Kinnear says her job can be frustrating when clients close their mind to properties based on non-contextualized data.

“It does have to be taken with a grain of salt,” she says.

She had a client dismiss a property upon realization – through Google Street View – that it was down the road from a police station. Another googled a property’s address and was spooked that a murder had occurred there a decade earlier.

“Realistically, there’s a lot of families in these neighbourhoods and good people. Bad things happen all over the place,” she says.

Still, Ms. Kinnear agrees with Mr. Drane that knowledge is power for house and apartment hunters. She includes all kinds of information gleaned from Internet resources in her listings to beat Internet-savvy clients to the punch. As a result, she’s been able to sell properties online to out-of-towners who have never stepped foot in the city, all through add-ons such as YouTube property tours.

“We just sold a place to people who live in Vietnam,” she says. “We can do a quick little video even from my camera and upload it to YouTube. It’s more [situations] like that that I’m dealing with: reassuring people that are not nearby.”

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