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Chris Magyar

Austinites Will Not Find This Fascinating, But Everyone Else Might

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So, we're looking for a new apartment. In the rest of America (so far as I've experienced it), this means hitting up Craigslist or maybe driving around a neighborhood and dialing "For Lease" sign numbers. In Austin, it means procuring a rental agents.

I've never lived somewhere that had rental agents. They are, on the surface of things, completely unnecessary components of a system that, especially with the internet, works perfectly well without a middle man. What a rental agent does is gather up rental vacancy information and then spam the hell out of it on Craigslist and other rental services, obscuring the exact address and putting their phone number on the listing instead of the property's. You call them up, and they start talking you into an afternoon of driving around in their car, while they show you a bunch of apartments that fit your specs. They charge nothing (usually), getting a commission from the complex they essentially sell to you.

In theory, there's a valuable thing happening here. Instead of doing a lot of leg work, you can just call up a knowledgeable professional with connections all over the city, who knows the properties and knows the current pricing deals, and you get steered to the apartment of your dreams in record time at no charge. In fact, this is how we experienced it when we suddenly decided to move to Austin and basically gave ourselves 24 hours to find an apartment in a city we'd never even visited before.

That's all in theory. In practice, you get a weird intermediary industry that, through dogged flooding of the information channels, obscures all private rentals in favor of megacomplexes, forcing the vast majority of apartment hunters into corporate real estate developments which, in turn, can charge rent premiums (at least enough to cover the agent fee) and thus float the rental prices higher in the city. These corporations own several large complexes, and there are maybe five big companies, so it's like the record labels doing everything they can to covertly control the distribution channels in order to jack up the prices of the product invisibly.

The alternative is word of mouth, or luck, or both.

We've been trying to circumvent the rental agent system, but invariably you fall prey to it when you spot the perfect apartment at the perfect price in the perfect neighborhood, and the listing is by some guy named Chaz or Marty or Bob who listens carefully to your needs and then drives you to a run-down split-level building from the 1970s that sports a sign out front with his name on it. One guy we worked with last weekend was so unprepared for our request that he was calling people as he drove, trying to figure out where the rental properties were in Clarksville -- something we could easily do ourselves, though of course, we might do it at home, safely, instead of while crawling down a busy narrow street at 15 mph. 

This barnacle industry is one of the least attractive aspects of free market capitalism, something that I'm generally in favor of, but that gets me hot and bothered when it leads to capital suction like insurance companies and other information-obfuscating middle men. Free market capitalism works best when it's paired with nakedly socialist government-sponsored public education for all (to encourage a populace that mentally capable of understanding markets) and policed by regulators whose main aim is squashing unfair information advantages (think insider trading). When a medical insurance company sends you a bill you cannot understand (and please fax me any example you may have of a clear, easy-to-grok insurance statement), they are engaging in willful incompetence that generates a need for their needless service. It reminds me of the locksmith I read about today who lamented that he got more tips when he sucked, because his job looked harder. Medical billing doesn't need to be complex, unless your job is facilitating the transfer of money between consumers and the medical industry, in which case your entire justification rests on making that transaction as complicated as possible.

So internet sites with apartment listing have been rendered useless in Austin by agents who nominal job is making your life easier, but whose actual function is turning the apartment marketplace into a confusing web of lies and masks -- the agents pretending to be complexes, the complexes pretending to be independent entities, the corporate real estate barons pretending to be handing out discount prices on inflated "market" rates. As much as I hated apartment hunting in Santa Cruz, where you're an outcast if you have a pet or if you don't have a built-in roommate, at least it was an honest playing field of nutty landlords negotiating from the hip with untrustworthy tenants. I just want to call a number written with a Sharpie on an Office Depot "For Rent" sign, get some wastoid pothead on the phone, inquire about a clean one-bedroom in an obscure but convenient part of town, and arrive at a fair price that's unlikely to go up at the end of the one-year lease.

If you can do that in your town, don't take it for granted. And if a person driving you around showing you apartments for free sounds nice, don't be fooled. Trading freedom for convenience, in case we haven't totally noticed this yet, is a bad deal.

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