Sales Market

Broker-free rental site Zenly touts video footage for every listing

By Leigh Kamping-Carder  | June 17, 2014 - 11:59AM

Renting an apartment in New York City is such a tortured process that a cottage industry of websites has sprung up to try to make it better, from RentHop to RentHackr, and AddressReport to Zumper. The latest entrant? Zenly, a hybrid of an online brokerage and listings website that's a kind of half-step between hiring a broker and wading through Craigslist solo.

Launched earlier this month, Zenly hears about available apartments directly from landlords and property managers--meaning you won’t find duplicate listings, reposted Craigslist ads or brokers doing the bait-and-switch, as we observed firsthand in a test-run of the beta site--and then sends a company rep to film and photograph the apartment. Each listing comes with an accurate write-up and a video walk-through, and when you’re ready to see a place in the flesh, you can schedule an appointment through the website, which will set it up with the landlord.

Since the company is a licensed real estate brokerage, you can also apply for multiple places with a single application, and do the entire lease-signing process through them, from uploading financial documentation to paying associated fees. However, just like with a broker, you’ll pay a commission--5 percent of a year's rent, which is how the company makes money. 

On the one hand, that's cheaper than the 12 to 15 percent a broker would normally charge, but more than you'd pay doing the legwork yourself on a no-fee site (we've got the best ones here) or calling property managers directly. (This summer, Zenly is charging a discounted 3 percent fee.)

Above, Zenly offers video walk-throughs of listings on their site, which are filmed by a half dozen company employees

The company was founded by brothers Isaac and Omer Palka, neither of whom have professional real estate experience. (Isaac is a former financial software engineer at Bloomberg who recently graduated from NYU’s MBA program, while Omer did a stint in investment banking at UBS after getting a business degree at NYU. They also have a partner, Evan Sopher, who's a former broker.) Still, they’d been through the rigmarole of renting in Manhattan and wanted to take a crack at making it “more zen.”

“Necessity is the mother of all invention, and we felt there’s got to be a better way--if people had access to open information and tools to do it by themselves,” Isaac tells BrickUnderground. 

Adds Omer: "Most people, based on our research and our surveys, still default to using Craigslist, which is littered with garbage listings," or they're using brokers, who are notorious for stretching the truth on listings. "We're trying to introduce transparency into the space and make it more simple, faster and more affordable for the user to find the apartment."

After taking a spin on the beta site, which requires a sign-up to browse, it seems like the videos are a helpful addition, particularly for out-of-towners; after all, it’s hard to describe a place as “perfect for shares” next to footage of a closet-sized, windowless "second bedroom." But the voiceovers are somewhat awkward (“And here’s the bathroom…,” “and here’s the other bedroom….”), and you'll still have to see the place in person. It also remains to be seen whether they can keep up with adding videos for every listing; right now, they have about half a dozen employees criss-crossing the city to do the videos, and say they upload them within a few hours.​

Above, Zenly listings are still somewhat light, though the founders say they are adding more in the near future

Another big downside, at least for now? The only offerings are in Manhattan and Long Island City, though Brooklyn listings are planned for the coming weeks, the brothers say. In fact, the site is pretty light on listings overall. (For example, when we took a look at what was on the market, we found only a single one-bedroom in Murray Hill.) 

Currently, the Palkas are working with about a dozen big property management firms, who collectively control some 25,000 listings, they say. That said, if you’re looking for a landlord who’s a real person, and not a major real estate conglomerate, you’ll have to wait until the brothers add more mom-and-pop buildings, which they say is in the works.


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