How to Build a Rental Search App and Solve Real Tenants' Problems

America’s population grows by at least two or three million a year, creating great demand in the rental market for low- and mid-priced housing. Real estate agencies and startups do their best to provide exceptional service to landlords and tenants. But the pressure to increase efficiency and deliver highly customized services is forcing companies to adopt new technologies.

Top real estate agencies like Keller Williams, RE/MAX, and Sotheby’s International Realty offer a wide spectrum of online services. Meanwhile, online rental platforms like Zumper and Zillow are on the rise.

Zumper, a property rental marketplace, has raised $143.1 million in seven rounds of funding, while Zillow’s annual revenue in 2019 was a tremendous $2.7 billion. But it’s not only the money that matters. Millions of tenants, landlords, and real estate agents keep using these platforms even after signing rental contracts. What’s the secret of success for these platforms? They effectively solve the pain points of all groups of users. How do they do this? Let’s discuss it in detail. 

Pain point #1. Finding affordable apartments for rent

This is probably the number one issue in the real estate market. It’s difficult for tenants to find housing with good infrastructure for a reasonable price. There are plenty of details tenants take into consideration when renting apartments, and checking all the information about every listing can make search for rentals extremely time-consuming. So the first step you should take when building a real estate rental platform is creating advanced search and filtering functionality.

Besides basic information about location, price, and the number of rooms in the flat or house to rent, include data about crime levels and schools in the area. The Rentals mobile app by allows users to view maps with noise and crime levels as well as schools. 

Map layers in Rentals

Sometimes, tenants aren’t ready to immediately apply for a rental. They might need time to think it over, and your all-in-one app can help them make a decision.

  • Favorites. Users can save favorite listings so they can go back and reconsider them.

  • Alerts and push notifications. Your service can inform users of new rental offers based on saved searches. If you want to learn more about implementing push notifications, read our article on how to add push notifications to iOS and Android apps.

Alternatively, users might want to find agents who will do all the searching for them. For this, you can supply a custom search tool to let users discover real estate agents on your platform. 

Agent Finder on Zillow

Pain point #2. Lack of constant communication

After analyzing reviews of several real estate agencies, we’ve found that the most common reason for complaints is a long response time or no response from agents. The success of an app for finding apartments entirely depends on effective cooperation and communication between tenants on the one hand and agents or landlords on the other. It’s a good idea to facilitate interactions between them.

Real-time chat

Instant communication between tenants and landlords or real estate brokers will help users clarify rental details. Your platform can provide a real-time chat feature to allow users to exchange text messages and media files. Both Zumper and Zillow provide this functionality. To enable chat functionality, you may consider ready-made hosted messaging solutions like Layer or Pubnub. Or you can create a custom platform-specific real-time messenger on your own. 

Scheduled tours

One more great feature to facilitate cooperation between tenants and agents is letting users schedule live tours. Zillow allows tenants to set up showings during available windows.

To enable live tours, you can build a custom calendar and implement appointment scheduling to allow users to:

  • set available dates and time slots for tours

  • accept or decline tour requests

  • reschedule and cancel tours

The current situation dictates new rules for the real estate industry. Virtual tours are gaining traction, so don’t hesitate to add 3D or virtual reality (VR) tours to your search engine for rentals. Sotheby’s International Realty allows apartment hunters to go on virtual tours of luxury properties. Zillow offers similar functionality.

Virtual tours on Zillow

Pain point #3. Rental fraud

The real estate industry is vulnerable to fraud. According to a 2018 study by Apartment List, 43.1 percent of US renters have encountered a rental listing they suspected was fraudulent, and 5.2 million Americans have lost money to rental fraud.

There are several best practices for making your rental search application secure for both landlords and tenants.

Define strict rules for your platform

Every service has its terms and conditions that regulate interactions between guests and hosts or landlords and tenants. In your terms and conditions, define what is considered a scam. You should also set rules for refunds, including when refunds will be returned. In addition, you can create an FAQ page where users can quickly find information.

Check tenants’ backgrounds

Zillow automatically sends landlords background checks, credit reports, and eviction histories for tenants who apply for listings. To enable this functionality, Zillow uses tools from Checkr and Experian

Screening tenants on Zumper

Zumper allows tenants to prepare credit reports and apply for rentals directly on the platform, while agents, landlords, and building managers can easily see tenants’ backgrounds and screen tenants.

Require security deposits

To save landlords, real estate agents, and building managers from monetary losses due to houses damage or broken leases, consider implementing security deposits. These one-time payments don’t have to be obligatory, so you can let agents specify if a listing requires a security deposit. On Zumper, for example, users can even filter by rentals that require or don’t require a security deposit.

Let users leave reviews

Search platforms that offer long-term rentals typically let landlords and tenants rate and review real estate agents they’ve worked with. Zillow already has functionality for reviews, allowing users to leave comments and rate an agent’s expertise, responsiveness, and negotiation skills.  

Writing an agent review on Zillow

Platforms that offer apartments for travelers typically let landlords and tenants review each other. If a host cancels a confirmed reservation on Airbnb, for instance, information about the cancellation will automatically appear on the host’s profile. This can’t be removed, but hosts can write a public response to clarify the reason for the cancellation.

Pain point #4. Slow responses to extraordinary situations

Even when you’ve done your utmost to protect users, extraordinary situations can still occur. The goal of any real estate service provider in these situations is to respond quickly to users’ complaints and handle objections.

Most rental platforms have their own resolution centers where users can go for help if something goes wrong. Think about creating your own customer support team and decide how users can contact it. 

When talking about long-term rentals, the most common issues are missed payments and property damage. This is typically solved by offering insurance to landlords. 

For a 2 percent fee taken from the monthly rent, a landlord can get the Instarent Rent Guarantee service from Zumper. In case of serious property damage or a missed payment, Zumper will help the landlord find a new renter, and then cover the missed rent or reimburse the loss. But the service doesn’t cover the eviction process.

There are two common scenarios that lead to unpleasant situations in short-term rental online marketplaces. The first is when a host decides to cancel a guest’s booking before check-in. The second and more complicated issue is when after check-in a guest sees that the accommodation differs from what was advertised.

There are two common solutions in these situations:

  1. Transfer money to another reservation. Most services refund the price difference if new accommodation is cheaper than the accommodation that was initially booked. If it’s more expensive, users generally pay the price difference. To help cover a portion of the difference, Airbnb provides guests with an additional $25 or $50 credit.

  2. Give guests a full refund. In this case, guests should wait for the full booking amount to be returned. You should strike a deal with banks or online payment systems to be able to send refunds to your users or freeze money on users’ accounts. Giving refunds is one of the most complicated actions you need to handle. Discuss the terms and time frames with the bank you’re going to work with. 

In response to the pandemic, Airbnb allowed hosts and guests to cancel bookings in case of the disease. The guest will be fully refunded, while cancellation by host won’t affect their Superhost status. 

Read also: The Fullest Guide on Creating Flight Search and Hotel Booking Services

Retaining tenants

Here we are at the end of the rental journey: the tenant has found an apartment and the agent has found a client. This is when tenants and agents may think they don’t need your custom apartment rental finder anymore. But it doesn’t have to be this way. To successfully compete with other agencies and platforms, you should not only solve users’ basic problems but offer value-added services that improve the renting experience. 

Help tenants move to a new apartment

You can help tenants simplify the move and get settled into their new place. To do that, you can let users inventory their things before and after moving into a new house or townhome. This way tenants and landlords can easily differentiate their belongings and won’t have to argue about them later.

For implementing inventory functionality, you can learn from apps like Sortly and MyStuff. These apps allow users to:

  • organize belongings in folders

  • group things by type, location, and room

  • add tags and printable QR labels for convenient search

  • describe belongings in detail, including with serial numbers and purchase dates

  • export inventory lists to cloud storage or CSV and PDF files

Tenants can later use the inventory information from your platform as proof of ownership and even to avoid losing things they may loan to friends or acquaintances.

When tenants successfully qualify for a rental, they should also plan for moving expenses. In the US, these expenses may vary from $2,300 to $4,300 depending on the distance. Quite a pretty penny, isn’t it? Zumper and Zillow don’t provide a solution to find a mover, but you could do that. To help tenants find movers, think of teaming up with moving platforms such as Unpakt and Ghostruck or partnering with an agency that will offer moving services to users of your app. 

Support all types of rental payments

Renters have to pay the rent regularly, right? Let them pay directly on your platform by integrating a popular payment gateway like Braintree or Stripe. You can find out how to implement payments in our blog post on mobile app payment gateway integrations

Tenants will have to connect a credit or debit card or a bank account to make payments on your platform. Payments can be for:

  • application fees paid by tenants

  • security and pet deposits paid by tenants to landlords

  • the last month of rent paid by tenants to landlords

  • renter’s insurance purchased by tenants

  • payments from tenants to movers

  • regular rental payments paid by tenants to landlords

  • regular bills paid by tenants

  • payments by tenants for agents’ services

As you can see, these operations mean agents and landlords will need to withdraw money. Agents will have to collect one-time payments from tenants and landlords, while landlords will need to collect regular rent payments from tenants. 

RE/MAX has a convenient online portal where tenants can pay their rent, set up autopay, and get a journal of payments in a few clicks. Management services for landlords, in contrast, let property owners receive rent, collect late payments, send out pay or quit notices, and enforce late fees. The platform also provides landlords with detailed documentation of expenses, a database of all historical records (leases, bids, inspection reports, maintenance reports), annual reporting, and other useful features.

Online payments on RE/MAX

To mitigate the risk of money issues on short-term rental platforms, define when you’ll take money from guests and pay hosts for their services.

Airbnb has created a great mechanism for handling transactions. When a user makes a booking, money is transferred to Airbnb’s account. This money is given to the host only 24 hours after check-in and assuming the guest submits no complaints within this time frame. This allows Airbnb to avoid problems with refunds in cases of fraud.

Retaining real estate agents and landlords

Zumper and Zillow offer accounts for businesses where landlords, real estate agents, and building managers can post new listings, communicate, and manage applicants. However, to give more tools to real estate professionals, both platforms supply additional functionality.

Managing customers

Agents might get lost in information about renters. This is why you can build a CRM (customer relationship management) system to help your company's agents organize their data on potential and current customers. If you allow agents to import and export CSV files, they’ll be able to quickly add their clients to the CRM on your platform from Google Sheets or Excel. Additionally, a CRM system can help agents automate such tasks as entering details about customers and sending bills, notices, and receipts to tenants. In your CRM system, businesses can also get notifications on rental payments and overdue bills.

  • Promoting listings

  • Help businesses achieve better results on your rental search website. Zillow and Zumper supply the following promotional tools:

  • posting rental listings on partner sites

  • building websites with custom domain names for businesses

  • placing listing widgets on third-party websites

  • appearing on the first page of the website or at the top of search results

  • sending quality leads 

  • showing featured results of user searches to agents

  • Assessing performance

Every business needs to know how well their listings perform. This is why they require visualized reports on the following data:

  • total number of listings

  • total income

  • listing bounce rate

  • viewed listings by price and channel

  • leads by channel

  • expenses by channel

With such data in hand, businesses will be able to reduce unnecessary costs and focus on instruments that really work. While Zumper doesn’t yet provide a reporting feature, Zillow already offers lead reports for agents:

Performance reports on Zillow

There are some prosperous players in the rental search and e-hospitality markets that provide all in one apps. The secret to their success is solving all of a tenant’s problems before, during, and after renting. Companies like Zillow and Zumper also focus on advanced features for agents, giving them all the necessary tools to lease apartments and get as many tenants as possible. If you’re planning to help renters and landlords mitigate their rental pains, there’s definitely room for one more high-quality rental search app. And in case you’d like our help building it, we’d be happy to guide you from the concept and choice of technology stack to a successful product.

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