Tech-obsessed NYC renters are ditching brokers for cutting-edge apps

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Welcome to the future of real estate, where renting an apartment is push button magic.

In recent years, dozens of Silicon Valley-backed start-ups have raced to disrupt the real estate industry from coast to coast. Today, in cities around the country an algorithm and an app can rent you an apartment, subdivide a space or even match you with a roommate on platforms with names like Landing, Zumper, Alpaca and Roomi.

True to its tough-guy reputation, NYC has been a harder nut to crack, said Clelia Warburg Peters, noting that the lack of a true multiple listing service (MLS) and a rental market heavy with mom-and-pop landlords has made assembling comprehensive collections of apartment listings a challenge for even the techiest of outfits.

She ought to know — as president of Warburg Realty and a venture partner at Bain Capital Ventures focused on proptech investing, Peters has feet on both sides of real estate’s digital divide.

Yet, even in old-school Gotham — where looking for a new apartment once meant scanning the obituaries, browsing scam listings or hiring an expensive broker — new firms have started to challenge the old model.

That shift is accelerating as COVID-19 refugees return to the Big Apple. Facing increasing competition for rentals, many young and tech-savvy home hunters are testing out the 21st-century approach for the  first time.

Ryan Adams and his wife Lauren May inspected their new home on West 104th Street on YouTube.
Stefano Giovannini

To lock down an Upper West Side two-bedroom in a new building for roughly $3,300 per month, Ryan Adams, 31, and his wife Lauren May, 33, turned to tech-savvy real estate firm REZI after struggling to find something via traditional agencies.

Founded in 2018, REZI pays landlords upfront for blocks of apartments that it then rents to tenants, making its money by streamlining the leasing process to reduce units’ time on the market and vacancies.

“I think I watched [the video] 100 times just to be sure nothing was being staged or faked.”

Ryan Adams

Tenants can upload applications and other documents to its platform, making for a quicker, more convenient experience.

“I think we got [the paperwork] done in like half an hour,” said Adams, who runs an advertising agency.

He described the traditional back-and-forth involved in applying for a Manhattan apartment as “an opaque mess.”

Tech also saved the couple from moving in sight unseen.

Unable to physically tour the unit before signing the lease, they instead toured it via YouTube.

“I think I watched [the video] 100 times just to be sure nothing was being staged or faked,” Adams said.

Kendall Smith inside his East 34th Street apartment.
Kendall Smith used apartment vetting service Loftey to rent in Kips Bay.
Stefano Giovannini

Kendall Smith, 30, who works in production management in the fashion industry, also opted for a more newfangled approach to home hunting. He turned to Loftey.

Loftey launched in 2015 and was acquired in July by San Francisco-based private equity firm Anacapa Partners. It aims to streamline the apartment hunting process for renters by, for instance, vetting listings to make sure they really are as advertised and scheduling showings so clients can see as many units as possible in an outing.

It also negotiates rent on behalf of its renters. The company makes its money through referral fees from landlords and management companies.

Exterior of 300 East 34th Street.
Smith used Loftey to move into a one-bedroom in this Kips Bay high-rise asking $3,100 per month.
Stefano Giovannini

“They do everything for you,” Smith said. “They search listings for you [or] they let me search listings and send ones I was interested in and then gave me really good feedback about what buildings would be a good match, which ones had fees, things the average renter might not be aware of.”

Loftey agent Nicholas Andreassi said one trick the company uses to suss out suspect apartments is running a reverse Google image search on listing photos that look too good to be true.

“They search listings for you [or] they let me search listings and send ones I was interested in and then gave me really good feedback about what buildings would be a good match, which ones had fees, things the average renter might not be aware of.”

Kendall Smith on Loftey

Recently, that helped him discover that pics purportedly from a $3,000-a-month Kips Bay listing that a client had inquired about were actually from a penthouse previously owned by former Mets star David Wright.

Needless to say, he didn’t bother to schedule a viewing.

Smith has used Loftey to find his last two apartments, moving most recently from Hell’s Kitchen to a one-bedroom in Kips Bay, which was asking $3,100 per month.

But social media platforms are also crowding out the old school broker business.

For instance, TikTok might be most famous as a repository for viral dance moves, but it also helped friends Willow Waugh and Taylor Thompson find a two-bedroom in a recently renovated Financial District building.

The pair had been looking for an apartment via more traditional rental sites for around four months with no luck.

“It was just super fruitless,” Waugh said. “Either nothing looked as good as it did online, or [the unit] was already taken.”

Then the two happened across a TikTok video for the apartment made by the departing tenants, Hailey Schwartz and Jonah Lione. They made the clip to help the unit’s agent, Living New York’s Ivy Story, rent it out.

Luckily for Story, Schwartz and Lione were, as she put it, “TikTok famous,” as the stars of an account — “mayor_of_whovillle” — with more than 50,000 followers. They filmed a lighthearted sketch showing off the place and posted it to their account, where Waugh and Thompson discovered it.

“It was a very big attention getter,” Waugh said. “It was obviously a lot better than just like a [typical] apartment video because it was more fun and more engaging.”

She and Thompson decided the unit was just what they were looking for. They contacted the listing agent, Living New York’s Kobi Lahav, and, along with a third roommate, Monica Chang, moved in at the beginning of August.

An interior of a condo at One Manhattan Square.
Michaela Kaye found her condo at One Manhattan Square via Instagram.
MacProMax

Social media also served Michaela Kaye well, helping her find her three-bedroom apartment at Extell Development’s 815-unit condo building One Manhattan Square (units from $1.2 million to $4.9 million). Kaye, 27, is a regular attendee of the Instagram classes that trainer and choreographer Isaac Calpito (who counts among his clients Kelly Ripa, Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts, and Jessica Chastain) began offering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the classes, Kaye — who works in fashion merchandising and previously collaborated with Calpito on developing a set of custom shoes for a charity auction — couldn’t help but notice Calpito’s One Manhattan Square apartment in the background.

In particular, she admired his condo’s East River views and kitchen cabinetry, she said, noting that she had been looking to leave her apartment in Murray Hill but hadn’t been able to find a new place that suited her.

An exterior of One Manhattan Square.
Units inside Kaye’s building range from $1.2 million to $4.9 million.
Evan Joseph Images

“I was just like, that’s where I want to be,” she said. “Within a week of seeing [Calpito’s apartment] during his class, I was at the building looking at different units. It really sealed the deal.”

QR codes are another technology brought to the fore by the pandemic. While restaurants have used them to enable contactless ordering, real estate sales and marketing firm Development Marketing Team has begun incorporating them into banners and other advertising materials for buildings including 144-unit Noho rental building 2 Cooper Square (rents from $4,250 to $20,000) and 360-unit Roosevelt Island condo building Westview (units from $570,000 to roughly $2 million), allowing potential residents to easily download development information on their phones.

An exterior shot of 2 Cooper Square.
QR codes are moving units at projects like 2 Cooper Square.
Astrid Stawiarz

But you don’t always need hundreds of millions in venture capital to move a unit. Good old-fashioned signage can still do the trick, brokers said.

At 573-unit Weehawken, NJ, rental spot Hamilton Cove (studios from $2,250, one-beds from $2,665, two-beds from $3,920), a giant 36-by-75-foot sign hanging from the development is a major driver of customers, with 20% of residents saying it was what led them to the complex, according the building representatives.

If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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