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New Startup Wants to be the Yelp of Rentals

Can a new company cut the middleman and get tenants to spill the tea?

Ryan Williams, a 30-year-old former lawyer turned startup consultant living in Oakland, noticed something frustrating while shopping for an apartment.

"If you ask people who they really want to talk to about a new place, they usually say the vacating tenant," he says. "The people you least want to deal with are landlords, brokers, and property managers. And yet that’s who we always end up relying on."

So Williams got the idea for a slightly different kind of apartment listing site, one where renters, not landlords or leasing agents, dish the real dirt. He calls it Rentwork, a forum for Bay Area renters vacating their present homes to give each other the inside word on units returning to the market.

"Stop relying on landlords and brokers whose livelihood depends on you renting an apartment," reads the Craigslist ad. "Start getting honest information from tenants."

Rentwork is a product of Williams's Manhattan days, when eager brokers marched him from one high-rise to another, chomping at the bit to get him to sign ASAP. He says that, more often than not, the people he was interacting with didn’t know much about the neighborhood or the building. After all, they didn’t live there.

One obvious criticism of this project is that San Francisco ain’t Manhattan. Here, the people slinging real estate very often work in their own neighborhood, or at least in a neighborhood near where they’ve worked for years if not decades. San Francisco is far easier to familiarize oneself with than the sprawling Big Apple.

But Williams says it’s a question of what kind of insider info you really want. "Does the neighbor’s dog bark every night at 2 a.m.? Does the landlord respond quickly to repair requests?" The tenant is the only who can, and will, reveal those less-than-desirable amenities.

Rentwork is scheduled for a two-week soft launch beginning "sometime next week," available only to users who post an ad. After that trial period ends, even those just looking will be able to get a gander too. The plan is to have 100 listings at launch, and after that it will be a question of waiting to see if a community builds behind the idea.