Renting an apartment in New York is invariably a game of roulette. A place may look great from the outside — central heating and exposed brick, you say?! — but then it quickly falls to pieces once you’ve moved in.
A new feature from the apartment listings site Rentlogic is aiming to give renters a heads-up about apartment woes before they’ve hung all the pictures and plants. The site’s original plan, to take city housing violation reports and provide letter grades like the health ratings issued to city restaurants, earned positive media coverage when it launched last year.
But Rentlogic CEO Yale Fox soon found that landlords weren’t eager to have their listings on a site that might give them a low grade — Citi Habitats pulled its listings after just eight days — and realized that apartment hunters aren’t necessarily inclined to toggle back and forth between his site’s ratings and rental listing sites like StreetEasy and RentHop. So Rentlogic is working around the problem with a new browser plug-in launching today that lets apartment seekers have their ratings and eat them too.
The Rentlogic plug-in, which works on Chrome, Firefox, or Opera browsers (Internet Explorer and Safari are coming soon), is intuitive and easy to use: Once installed, it opens a small Rentlogic pop-up window that floats over your choice of two hundred of the city’s most commonly used listings sites — though not Craigslist, whose listings often don’t even include addresses. And because it relies on city violations data, only dire issues tend to show up — I entered the addresses of several New York City apartments I’ve lived in over the years and all had received A ratings, despite the fact that in some cases, my experiences were only a B- at best. (If a landlord drops below a B rating from Rentlogic, I would run for the hills.)
Fox tells the Voice that the vast majority of listings sites get their information from brokers, who are disinclined to reveal an apartment’s flaws. By marrying the apartment’s data with its rating, Rentlogic hopes to provide a level playing field: “We don’t want to sway too close to landlords, and we don’t want to sway too far toward tenants.”
Fox launched Rentlogic after experiencing a series of housing nightmares that will sound familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with the chaos of the New York City rental market. In one case, Fox leased an apartment from the notorious — and now jailed — landlord Steve Croman, whose reign of terror covered 140 buildings across the city. The problems at Fox’s West Village building weren’t minor: Shortly after moving in, he (and his dog) began experiencing health problems that turned out to be caused by an abundance of mold sprouting in his swanky new pad. In another case, a $4,000-a-month apartment in Hell’s Kitchen turned out to be in “the most unbelievable state of disrepair for a building that was only a few years old.” The landlord demanded that he pay to have it cleaned himself, and balked when he tried to navigate his way out of the lease.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get completely fleeced,” Fox says.
Fox emphasizes that Rentlogic isn’t simply out to crucify landlords: One mold violation, for instance, isn’t going to tank a rating, though multiple will. He compared a landlord’s relationship to violations to a driver who got a speeding ticket: “If you do it once, are you really a speeder? Not necessarily. But if you’re getting a speeding ticket every month?”
And as much as Rentlogic helps identify bad landlords, it also helps highlight the good ones, of which there are many. Without easily accessible ratings, he says, “there’s no positive enforcement for being a good landlord. There are a couple of bad ones that ruin it for the whole industry.”