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URentWise: The student-driven Yelp of U of M rental properties

An interview with the co-founder of URentWise , a website about rental properties around the University of Minnesota.

Stubble: What is URentWise and how does it work?
Adam: URentWise is a student-driven platform created to exchange transparent information about rental properties around the University of Minnesota. At its basic level, it’s a place for you to share your rental experience with other renters. In the future we plan to roll out a more comprehensive section of the site for students to “get wise” about renting, with a program of incentives and rewards for doing so.

Stubble: Where did you get the idea for URentWise and how did you about creating the project?
Adam: The idea for URentWise really came from both my experience as a renter and my work with the University of Minnesota’s Office of Student and Community Relations from 2008-2011. On a personal level, I remember while touring many potential houses, I always hoped that a current tenant would be home so I could ask them for some honest advice about the property while the manager was occupied with my other friends. This wasn’t always so easy, though, and I thought “there has to be a better way”.

I also think being new to the rental “market” can be quite a challenge for anyone. Now, I’m no economics major, but I know that one characteristic of efficient market is perfect information. But because there are new waves of students coming in each year having little information about the rental history of a property or manager and often with little advanced experience entering into rental contracts from the year, it makes the decision-making process much tougher.

What students need is transparent and more accessible information. Without that, we are missing accountability–which I believe is actually a two way street; landlords and management companies need to be accountable for their services and property conditions, but students also need to be accountable for learning their rights and responsibilities as tenants. Our goal is to focus on both of those critical needs.

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Stubble: Your website looks really nice. What was the process of putting that together?
Adam: Well thank you! Our designer, Jonathan Sollie, and developer, Brenden Ellingboe, are really to credit for that. Like most other people, we are drawn to websites that are attractive and that don’t overwhelm you with ads and junk. If we want to make information more accessible, that starts with a simple and effective design. We hope that’s what will make us stand out from other resources out there. Of course, the website is still a work in progress. While we work on releasing the rest of the web experience over the next several months, our primary goal is to get as much data as possible so that the website has useful reviews upon its release.

Stubble: How would you describe the current student renting experience around the UofM? Good/bad, dirty/clean, confusing/easy?
Adam: I guess I would sum up my experience with the word “overwhelming.” Not that I didn’t have an OK experience, but that upon entering into my first real contract with some friends, I felt like there was more I should have known before signing my first lease. I don’t think it helped that finding a rental near campus is very competitive. I think when I first moved off-campus we started looking at properties in February for a September lease, since that’s what we were hearing from others. I remember distinctly having conversations with my roommates about whether we should sign the lease for a place that wasn’t really that great, just because we weren’t sure whether we wanted to gamble on the unknown of what else was really out there. That’s why I’m hoping that students use URentWise to realize what their options really are.

Stubble: Why is a service like this important to students?
Adam: As someone who used RateMyProfessor’s to help in my course selection in college and also who uses Yelp in trying new restaurants, I think student insight into the rental market will be really valuable to all future renters moving into the area. I also think greater access to renter resources will be critical. Being a new renter is also a bit tricky, though, because even though there is a lot of advice out there, most people don’t seem to access it until its almost too late. We hope our service will encourage people to think more proactively about things.

Stubble: Do you think URentWise will have an impact on building a community of students/making student renters seem less isolated?
Adam: Yes–I hope that this will serve students and connect them around a common cause but also the geographic communities they live in. I believe that part of renting wisely is living wisely and that involves being a good neighbor. When I worked with SCR at the U, part of our goal was to correct an ongoing myth that the neighborhoods around campus are “student neighborhoods”. While its true they have large populations of students in them, there are lots of families, seniors, and diverse communities throughout. That’s what led me to initiate a visual representation of the area through a community-based mural on 15th Avenue and still drives me today to develop URentWise.

Maybe its something to do with being a suburban-raised, city boy and feeling nostalgic for the sense of community that I felt lacked in the ‘burbs, but I really value people getting connected to their community. And without giving too much away, we have big plans in the future for the site related to this.

Stubble: Some housing around the U seems notoriously slummy. What’s the impact of having URentWise identify these poorly-run properties? Is the idea that students just won’t rent from these guys or do you guys have a way to communicate violations to the UofM or the city?

Adam: We think feedback and scores through URentWise will improve accountability for poorly-run or poor-quality rentals. While we do not have any plans to work with the city at this time, we are advocates for renter safety and would take the appropriate steps to work with other groups when intervention maybe necessary. Ultimately, however, we hope to empower students to not only be good tenants, but also more knowledgeable advocates for themselves.

Stubble: What is your plan for growing the URentWise service?

Adam: Our growth is really going to be dependent on how we can tailor our services to what students actually need and aren’t getting elsewhere. We hope to make life easier for upcoming and existing renters by capturing all of the fleeting experiences that comes with such a transient student population and maintaining a body of useful information for future students. We’ll be doing a lot in the neighborhoods to get the word out this summer and fall when a lot of students are in transition, but word of mouth advertising is really going to be important for us. What greater incentive is there for students to share our service than having more property reviews available to them in the future?

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Adam Arling is the co-founder and business manager of URentWise (Also on Twitter & Facebook)

This post was written by Tom Johnson and originally published on Stubble. Follow Stubble on Twitter: @stubblemag.

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