Online Rental Listings: Renting the Light of Dead Stars

November 7, 2014 Updated: November 7, 2014
FONT BFONT SText size

The great French novelist Andre Schwarz-Bart once wrote, “Our eyes register the light of dead stars.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that much of the starlight we see when we look up at the night sky is mere trace evidence of celestial bodies that no longer exist. And so it is with much of what we see when we shop for NYC rental listings online.

Most of us begin the search for NYC rentals online for three primary reasons: First, online is where we begin the search for everything these days. 

Second, online is where all the listings are (when asked why he robbed banks, the legendary Willie Sutton once replied, “Because that’s were the money is.”). 

And third, most of us search online for rental listings because no one wants to pay the broker’s fee.

But here are the facts:

– NYC is home to almost 30,000 licensed real estate agents.
– More than 95 percent of all NYC real estate transactions are brokered, regardless of how or where the search begins, on or offline.
– Several hundred agents may post ads for the same rental listing at the same time.
– Sites are all flooded with the same listings.

In order to entice more agents to post more listings, the major online listing services will syndicate each posted ad to a litany of other listing services, each of which is designed in turn to pass the same ad along to its own syndication partners. Consequently, ads for the same rental apartment may be posted by hundreds of agents and appear thousands of times on dozens of listing sites.

To be fair, several of the major online listing services work hard to make sure the listings that appear on their sites remain as current as possible (with varying degrees of success), but the sheer volume of ads in the system is overwhelming, and accountability drowns in the clutter. 

At the end of the day the odds of actually renting an apartment you find online are—in the fabled words of baseball star Dizzy Dean–slim and none. At the end of the day you’ll almost certainly waste hours of precious time only to wind up not with an apartment, but with a broker—the one person in the rental food chain you wanted to avoid all along.

Ultimately, the above scenario serves neither client nor agent very well. 

The client wastes time trying to rent the light of dead stars and winds up paying the broker’s fee anyway, and the agent can’t form a long-term relationship with a client digitally conditioned to confirm Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic as the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

Under such duress, any functional relationship between the agent and the client typically ends the moment the lease is signed. And because a successful career in real estate relies on the ability to engender long-term relationships that generate repeat business over time, the agent’s career just as typically ends shortly thereafter as well.

Yet the average young professional in NYC moves every two to three years and repeats the same insanity each and every time. It’s like Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame trying to kick the field goal while Lucy promises to hold the ball only to yank it away at the last moment. Time and again Charlie Brown winds up flat on his back and you wind up paying the broker.

There’s a better way, and the only real trick right up front is to resist the knee-jerk tendency to begin your search for your next NYC rental online. 

It makes far more sense—practically and statistically—to begin the hunt for your next NYC rental by searching offline for the better NYC agent than by searching online for the perfect NYC property. 

You’ll almost certainly wind up with an agent either way, so rather than waste 10–15 hours of time online only to end up with an agent you don’t know and don’t want, take a single hour instead to ask family, friends, and colleagues (they’ve likely been in your shoes) for referrals to good agents. 

A good agent understands that referred business is the best business, and will treat you much better because you suddenly represent two relationships: one with you and one with the kind soul who referred you.

Once you’ve secured a good agent by referral from a trusted third party, it’s perfectly okay to shop the listing services for examples of apartments you want your agent to find for you. Just remember to reverse the default order right up front: First, shop the better agent offline, and then shop the perfect property online.