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Pilot program could put realtor.com on the rentals map [Exclusive first look]

Doorsteps, owned by realtor.com, has quietly launched a pilot program to see how renters will react to a “hyperlocal content-rich experience,” which we believe will succeed and go national.

realtor.com owns doorsteps

If you’ve ever been to Austin, you know that the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” is around for a reason, and that the enthusiasm about living in the city is palpable. There’s this quiet, giddy smile on local faces as part of an unspoken bond that unites residents like a web. It’s oddly kumbaya-ish as gun totin’ rednecks, inked up art snobs, university students, and philanthropists can sit in any restaurant together, happily eating tacos and chatting about their favorite local swimming holes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 110 new people move to the Austin area every single day, and the growth spurt that started in the 80s continues to rapidly accelerate.

So what better place to test a new rental listings program than a diverse city with an influx population, and a very, very, very healthy rental market? And who better to write about such a mysterious pilot program than a native Austinite who also happens to be a renter who might use the site, and also happens to be a real estate writer that will offer an unfiltered first look and the raw product?

Introducing Doorsteps Rent

Introducing Doorsteps Rent, powered by realtor.com. They’re testing what they’re calling a “rental experience,” starting with Austin as the pilot city, and they’re offering a “hyperlocal, content-rich experience” with editorial content alongside listings. You can learn about the flavor of a neighborhood, why the market is so hot (ahem: increasingly expensive), and it’s all original.

If this had existed a decade ago, it would have negated endless content generation real estate professionals have had to do to explain the rich history and current feel of specific neighborhoods.

Take a gander at the screenshots we’ve nabbed, and note that the design is clean, modern, has an urban feel, and is overly simple to use (a win for smartphone-using renters on the prowl):
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So where does all the data come from?

One of the challenges of multi-family rentals is that the software they’ve been using for nearly two decades, adjusts prices by the hour based on supply. If there are two 3-bedroom units left on the property and one leases, the price on the remaining unit instantly goes up. If four 2-bedroom units skip in the first week of the month, the glut pushes the pricing down to move them. This makes it nearly impossible for rental search to be accurate, which is why the industry continues to post price ranges instead of unit prices.

This makes the data flow complicated – imagine if prices of homes for sale went up and down every hour based on a computer algorithm.

Where does all of the data come from? The company tells us that they have the same MLS feeds that are syndicated to realtor.com (so real listings uploaded by real realtors), direct feeds from apartment communities, and data feed agreements with third parties that include apartment communities and single units (for example, we immediately saw listings flowing through Appfolio).

They note that in most cases, their listings are updated every 15 minutes, and they tell us that they are “working towards real time unit level availability and pricing, collaborating with property management software providers on those integrations.” Bingo.

Is Doorsteps going away?

A lot has changed at Doorsteps since its inception three and a half years ago – in 2013, the small company that provided a knowledge base for home buyers was acquired by Move, Inc. (operator of realtor.com, which itself was acquired by News Corp. in 2014), to much fanfare, they launched Doorsteps Swipe, the beautiful app that reminded everyone of Tinder but for real estate.

This summer, founder Michele Sero left to pursue other opportunities, but her team remained and have been hard at work on the company’s evolution, all under the continued theme of humanizing real estate search by educating consumers.

The company tells us that Doorsteps has always been an educational vehicle for homebuyers, but they’re “exploring the extension of that relationship to serve the needs of renters today.”

Why Realtors should care about the pilot

Doorsteps says the idea behind the product is not only to extend that relationship, but to offer a more targeted search experience and better understanding of neighborhoods as a means of yielding better rental leads.

Christie Farrell, Director of Corporate Communications at Move, Inc. tells us, “the rental market is a huge opportunity for Move to do what our vision is – connect realtors and consumers, and to provide consumers with the best possible and most consistent and reliable experience online.”

We translate that to mean that this is one more way to keep consumers focused on the realtor brand and fill the pipeline earlier on in the process.

How long will the pilot last?

The company does not have a set date for the pilot program to either end or blossom into a national offering, but we were assured that it would be months, not years.

They’re currently looking to measure the impact and effectiveness of Doorsteps Rent and see if the hyperlocal content resonates with renters – this process doesn’t take place overnight.

Monetization of the product

Based on who owns it, Doorsteps is officially a media company, which means they bank on advertisers. There are no current ad products on the site, and the company has not finalized their offering, but here is where it gets sticky.

The big pink blowup elephant in the room is multifamily budgets – rents have gone way up nationally, and especially in Austin, so the properties must be rolling in extra cash, right? Not really – they’re actually reinvesting that money into remodeling units, building new amenities, and improving the property. Our sources tell us that marketing budgets have changed very little in the last decade, despite increased profit margins.

Why does it matter if Doorsteps Rent is another line item on a budget sheet for a property manager? Because Austin is this rare little town where thousands of apartment locators (many of whom are licensed realtors) live on this same marketing budget. The rental market is so hot here, that many properties have already cut locator commissions simply because they don’t need them. It’s already a struggle.

If properties’ marketing budgets are gobbled up by Doorsteps Rent, so are the incomes of locators, and we can’t imagine that a realtor-branded product would ever intend on damaging their constituents.

So if the advertiser isn’t the property, then who is the advertiser? Realtors and apartment locators that want to have their headshot posted up next to rental listings? Or will featured listings be the bread and butter? Perhaps banner ads will hit the sweet spot. All Move models are free to consumers, so the end user won’t be the one padding the coffers, but the direction they head with the monetization will dictate whether or not the real estate practitioner backs it.

The product speaks to the greater good

If you’ve searched for rentals on the big portals, you’ve already seen that there are some serious accuracy problems. Spend five minutes searching sites that don’t rely on MLS data, and within that time span, you’ll find listings that aren’t real, or are straight up scams. Trust me, it only takes five minutes.

This has done a lot of damage to the rental industry – portals allowing bad listing data to be uploaded has abused the consumer and destroyed the trust between real estate practitioner, consumer, and even search portals.

If a consumer spends time on Doorsteps Rent and finds the data to be accurate (and we hope it is, even though unnamed third parties will be feeding data to the site), this could play into the national campaign between realtor.com and the National Association of Realtors to re-establish trust and faith in the industry.

What we hope the future holds

There are three things we hope the future of Doorsteps holds: Swipe update, UGC, and AI. Let me explain.

First, if Doorsteps Rent does not lead to a Swipe product for rentals, I will literally lose my mind. If you aren’t familiar with Swipe, go spend five minutes on it and tell me you’re not hooked and suddenly in the market for a house .

Second, it would make sense for this to finally be the place where some user-generated content (UGC) is opened up. It can’t exactly be done on realtor.com, because a random consumer adding comments to a listing could be extremely tricky, given how highly regulated it is. But, I imagine Doorsteps Rent could very easily be the Yelp of neighborhoods, with consumers adding pictures of what they’re up to in the area, the newest fish taco place (eww, but whatever), or how the new highway development is impacting commutes, and so forth. I doubt there will be any star ratings, but I predict that consumers will be invited to participate in the process not only for the added benefit of unfettered content, but because their creating a login to do just that means one more contact opportunity for realtor.com and the incubation of consumers much earlier in the sales cycle.

Lastly, I should note that this pilot marks the first step in personalization for renters, an often overlooked segment of the population. After this step comes geo-targeting and maybe the acquisition of a company like Nextdoor, a private social network that enables members to communicate with neighbors. After that, I hope the ultimate evolution of Doorsteps Rent will include more predictive search that understands a consumer’s desires based on their past rental experiences, but that’s like hoping for the site to be complete with artificial intelligence. A girl can dream.

The final verdict

Doorsteps Rent is an important piece in the puzzle. For years, the image of real estate practitioners in the rental field has been tarnished by the bad behavior and greed of non-MLS search portals, and consumers have been left to use subpar sites with subpar information.

Personalizing the process with this gorgeous, urban design, brings future homebuyers into the fold much earlier, which is a huge win for realtors.

Ultimately, the success of the pilot depends on the monetization strategy, a strict devotion to data accuracy, and quality content that resonates with renters.

We believe the pilot will succeed and anticipate that it will become a national offering. We predict that it will ultimately lead to a Doorsteps Rent Swipe product, future acquisitions to better connect neighborhoods, and the evolution of the site into a Yelp/Doorsteps hybrid.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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