The Website that May end Apartment-Hunting as we Know It

Think hard: it’s the twenty-first century and we live in a city where so much happens instantly—news come through the wire onto the networks in minutes and financial transactions hop overseas in milliseconds. But what is the one transaction we all make every month that keeps us stubbornly addicted to check books and snail mail? I’m sure you’re thinking of it—not only do most apartment tenants continue to pay their monthly dues with paper and pen, but the entire rental application process is an endless stream of forms and contracts and filling out the same very sensitive information again and again. While the rest of the New York City has catapulted into cloud computing and online services, landlord-tenant relations remain stuck with their heals dug into the nineties.

A few entrepreneurs from San Francisco have decided to take the matter into their own hands, and start a business in the process. The target audience of Cozy Services Ltd is potentially huge, including every property manager and renter in the country who stands to benefit from a more streamlined application and payment process.

In Brooklyn, neighborhood change and development have become everyday fare, and that means that new tenants are always entering the market. Where there is a high volume of leases changing hands, there is big business potential for Cozy. The service will simplify every interaction between landlord and tenant, helping them find out immediately if there’s chemistry or if they should keep searching. Perhaps the most apt description of Cozy is an “OK Cupid for Apartment Renting.”

Late last month founders Gino Zahnd and John Bragg opened the Cozy platform to beta sign-ups, an initial phase that will allow developers to fix the bugs prior to a full launch. That means that soon, Cozy is coming to our town, as well as over two-dozen other real estate markets across the country.

“I personally want every small landlord and renter to be able to say, ‘I don’t know how I lived without Cozy,’” says Zahnd. Although the service is currently intended for owners who manage 1-25 properties, it is possible that it could expand its usage into larger property managers as well, making it desirable for Brooklyn brownstoners and high-rise tenants alike. Cozy could also become a treasure trove a data on real-estate markets at a very fine scale. “We will have data that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Zahnd. “We’ll share the market-centric data we collect to help create smarter, more informed landlords and tenants.”

For the landlord, that’s a little bit simpler to define. There are really only a few essential pieces of information property managers need to judge whether you will make a faithful tenant or not: your job, income, employer, and the percentage of your income that will go towards paying rent. This breakdown makes it even harder to understand why applying to rent an apartment can be such a begrudgingly time-consuming task. On Cozy, applicants will be able to upload all of this information and send it to a landlord with the click of a mouse.

“It’s been so exciting to watch the usage spread around the country,” says Zahnd. “There have been so many signups since we launched that it’s going to take a while to get through them.” Rather than targeting specific cities or regions, Zahnd and Bragg have opened the beta sign-ups to anyone who would like to request an invite, building a geographically disparate initial customer base. To get to this point, they’ve had to raise about $1.5 million from investors like The Social+Capital Partnership and Google Ventures.

Cozy will operate in the grey zone between the online world and the real world of dirt, bricks, and cement. Indeed, you can’t get much ‘realer’ than the home you return to every night and the roof above your head. It may be in part because these are such material needs that the rental market has resisted being streamlined on the Internet for so long.

Yet where there is inefficiency, Zahnd and Bragg see opportunity for innovation. Cozy will use a hybrid business model similar to other “grey zone” services already on the market, which profit by “taking advantage of device capabilities and behaviors that people already have, and…creating beautiful, efficient services tailored to these new possibilities,” Zahnd explains. Examples include Cherry, the online car-wash coordination service, and Über, which provides on-demand private drivers.

Although Cozy is aimed to benefit landlords primarily, according to Zahnd, in only a few months, it will be marketed to appeal to both landlords and tenants equally. The only people who stand to lose out on the deal are all the New York City advice columnists out there who profit by educating the un-indoctrinated on how to navigate the city’s nebulous rental market for the first time.

Perhaps more subtly, there’s this: in an ideal New York City, everyone gets to meet their landlord in person before signing a lease, shake her hand, look into her eyes, and maybe learn a thing or two about her family and what there is to do in the neighborhood. But we live in a New York City, and increasingly, a Brooklyn, where tenants pass in and out of rental space fleetingly to pursue glamorous dreams and personal validation as a resident of a world-class city. These are not goals that make us deeply committed to the neighborhoods we occupy or interested in building a lasting link with the recipient at the other end of that check we send off every month. If our relationships with the people who own our homes aren’t going to be very profound in any sense of the word, we might as well make them as painless and hassle-free as possible. And that’s one thing Cozy can certainly help us out with.

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