Startup looks to help students navigate Ann Arbor rental market

Thursday, December 1, 2016 - 6:29pm

LoftSmart, a New York-based startup seeking to connect college students with off-campus housing, is hoping to make an impact in the Ann Arbor market. 

Sundeep Kumar, co-founder and chief operating officer, said the new website hosts off-campus rental listings in college towns, including information, reviews and the ability to connect with the landlord and sign a lease online.

“If you think about it, a lot of students make (housing) decisions based on word of mouth, what friends have told them or what they have seen on street signs and stuff like that,” Kumar said. “At the end of the day, they might not know everything there is to know about that place.”

Co-founder and CEO Sam Bernstein formulated the original idea for the site at the University of Virginia and Kumar said he randomly met Bernstein in March of this year at a bar in Austin, Texas. Soon thereafter, Kumar formed a partnership with Bernstein, quit his full-time job at Dell and became a co-founder of LoftSmart.

Earlier this year, Kumar said the company received $1.7 million in funding from venture capital firms, letting LoftSmart develop into an online platform in which students can complete the whole housing process in one place, including read reviews, apply for housing, get screened for credit and criminal history, sign a legally binding lease and submit a deposit.

Kumar said while the company initially gained traction at University of Virginia and colleges in Texas, it has seen increased usage in the Ann Arbor market since launching three months ago, with property reviews on the site growing from zero to about 500 in that time period.

“We’ve seen a lot of good traction at Michigan, actually,” Kumar said. “Landmark, the Zaragons, 411, ArborBlu and the Courtyards can all be booked; you can basically take care of that entire process through LoftSmart.”

Kumar said the company interviewed students from the University and heard horror stories about problematic leasing in Ann Arbor, including times when students had to pay extra fees, didn’t get their security deposits back or weren’t satisfied with their properties.

“Our first and main goal is to help be almost a representative for them and act as a third party where they can sign through us and really gain a sense of security, a sense of trustworthiness and definitely a sense of convenience,” Kumar said.

Currently, Kumar said, LoftSmart is focused on connecting students with apartments, but in the future, they are looking to expand into houses and also facilitate greater relationships between students and property managers.

“There are so many opportunities — the goal is to kind of take over that entire rental market in Ann Arbor, get not only apartments but also houses and any other rental units,” Kumar said. “We’d like to also help students manage the relationship with the property managers and allow for a lot more transparency.”

He added this philosophy ties in with the goal of making sure students who don’t have experience with signing leases aren’t being taken advantage of.

“The housing market for students is very interesting because you’re dealing with people that are newcomers to the market and there is a lot of room to kind of take advantage of them,” Kumar said. “We want to empower students to not only make better decisions but to ensure they are picking places that will take care of them.”

Business sophomore Connor Baechler, who recently secured a house for his off-campus living accommodation next year, said he could have benefited from a more straightforward relationship with the realtor and rental company.

During his search, Beachler said, he knocked on the door of the property he was interested in three separate times so he could talk to the current tenants about the property and what their relationship with the landlord was like.

“I had to go to the house I was interested in and speak with tenants,” Baechler said. “It would have been much more convenient had there been an easier way to reach out to them.”

Baechler said he had never heard of LoftSmart, but thinks it is an intriguing idea and might be inclined to utilize it in the future.

“If it catches on I’ll have more trust in a company like that, so I’d be curious to see how it plays out and the reputation they build here in Ann Arbor,” Baechler said.