Rental Dementia: Man Vs. Craigslist

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The temperature had officially reached 100 degrees. I was walking a heavy-set billboard salesman from a tiny studio on Hudson Street to an even smaller place on the Lower East Side. He already owned a place in Jersey, but said what he really needed was, “a shack up pad.” He asked, more than once, if it was legal to fasten a mirror on the ceiling, and if I knew anyone who could do it.

It was his lunch break, about 1 p.m. The sun was directly above us. He had hinted twice already about catching a cab, but I wasn’t biting. His face was bright red, and he was beginning to pant. I was walking a step ahead, trying to stay clear of the rain of sweat, dripping from his sloppy wet forehead.

He needed to stop for water again, and asked if I wanted anything. “Nope,” I said. I was fine. I was, in fact, in some serious need of water myself, and was only avoiding the awkward moment at the counter when the clerk would invariably ask if we were paying separate or together.

I had made up my mind a long time ago. I wasn’t paying for any more cabs, or lunches, or coffees. I wasn’t cheap, but only tired of picking up checks for “clients” who, two days later, would stop returning my phone calls. You see, unless we have some pre-established and significant relationship, you’re just a stranger who is, in all likelihood, wasting my time. For every 15 apartments I show, I’m lucky to rent one. And by significant, I mean we are sleeping together, related, or I owe you money. Believe it or not, it’s a pretty long list, but only because I have a big family and owe a lot of people money.

In days past, these professional courtesies were almost necessary in building a strong agent/client relationship. Those days are long gone. At one time, it was a loving and trusting relationship built on mutual respect. But as with most modern relationships, the agent/client, once sacred bond, has been destroyed by the Internet.

When I started in this business a little over three years ago, my company was putting the final touches on our website. Craigslist was a novel place to market an apartment, and a real estate blog was yet to be invented. The New York Times had a busy print section devoted to real estate, but we were just learning the intricate steps of posting our own ads on line.

In the old days, when the relationship was strong, the common renter didn’t have access to thousands of listings. You had to go to an apartment, to see one. You couldn’t simply log on for access to prices, pictures, square footage, availability, and amenities. Agents held that information, and provided a very tangible service.

Today, by the time we meet in person, they’ve already seen hundreds of apartments online. Many consider themselves experts for their evening of research. They have scanned several websites and have called any agent with a few pictures and a flowery description. Instead of looking at ten places with one agent, they’re working with ten agents.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this scenario…until it comes time to pay the fee. The argument is standard, “How can you charge me $5000? You only showed me one place!” The resentment runs deep, believe me.

Before the Internet, agents had the opportunity to earn their commission. We were the gatekeepers to uncommon knowledge. If I told you there were only three apartments in Gramercy Park, you pretty much had to take my word for it. Trust saved everybody a lot of time, and loyalty was equally rewarded. Of course, it was beside the point if I was lying. Then again, why would I? You were my client, and eventually we would find what you were looking for.

The Internet has reduced the agents, in most cases, to little more than walking doormen. A necessary evil in an already absurd endeavor, we are viewed more as an obstacle than an opportunity. I don’t really have clients any more; I have ten minute meetings in apartments.

We finally made it to the Lower East Side. We were in the apartment less than five minutes when his cell phone rang. It was another broker. It’s common these days for a client to make appointments with one broker while looking with another. But it’s hard to call someone a “client” when I’m only showing him two apartments. It’s even harder to charge him $3000 for doing so.

We parted on the street, outside of the building. He was going to think about it. I hailed the first cab I saw and headed back to the office. I didn’t even think to ask what direction he was headed in.

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