singapore.roomsdb.net – cut the middle man!

Prelude

I didn’t drive today. Plus I was on half day leave. One of those things that I used to do when I trained instead of drove was to wake up early enough to grab and finish the Today paper. Now what I like about Today has always been the part where readers “voice out” stuff (Unfortunately I can’t find them online). Somehow these complaints here are more “real” than those of ST, issues discussed typically concerns myself and many people I know.

For the past month I have also been searching for a place to stay. We all know the property boom. We all know house prices went up, even though analyst continues to say that it can continue to grow since it hasn’t matched its potential based on Singapore’s GDP. We all know the middle class or foreigners or both as usual suffers the most, especially those who aren’t married, since they can’t turn owners by law, while private property is out of budget, and yet to maintain their living standard, the rent has literally went up 60% overnight. Group by group we see them being evicted, units being sold or not. Yada yada.

Problem

So reading Today today literally shock me, when one of the first “complaints” was about agents not “doing enough work” to “worth their pay”. This is written by a landlord, who interestingly say that the agents like to stand by the tenant during negotiations, not doing much except referring each other in the case of co-broke, or showing up to show the client around etc. The writer cannot understand why when prices went up, the agent fees subsequently went up, even though the amount of work done was the same.

Firstly, I want to reassure the writer that not all agents are siding tenants. You are a landlord, therefore you probably feel that way. We tenants actually experience the opposite. It’s firstly hard to find an agent that will “fight for you”, i.e. ask for low price – why? Because they earn less. Plus tenants like us wants to know the best deal in town, set stringent budget, thus making agents work doubly hard to find the right fit. You can imagine the typical agents whom I engage would all say that my budget is too low – of which I naturally responded by saying that the market is too high! So in some sense, agents are agents, they are here to make money and take care of their customer. And of course they are here to cash in on the boom, after waiting for such a long time.

But we haven’t solve the problem: we poor (especially single foreigners, who are the majority in the rental market) tenants are already turned upside down. Most of us if not all, did not get a 60% raise over night. Our salary remains that pittance that’s sufficient to eat and move around, have our own room to retreat to and send money home to our parents, part of our filial duty. An increase of $300 per person per month will naturally mean that we are sacrificing about an entire month’s salary.

Exacerbate

This is worse now coz even we tenants have to pay agent fees, half month or full month depending on various circumstances. For example, the writer points out that renting beyond $2500 will not require the landlord to pay agent fees, but for the tenant it is simply a linearly scaling burden. What more, as landlords get more and more fussy with the quality of tenants, agents are abandoning customers whom they know will not be easy to close, wasting their time and effort. Hey no joke k, last two places we visit, the agent have to play our “scholar” card, telling the landlord that we are “asean scholars”, very smart, very professional, and we have to put up a good show as well by speaking very friendly to the landlord, holding their ego up like gods, with the hope that we win their favour and faith.

Does a scholar mean that we’ll be good tenant? Hell no – lest you forget people like me stayed in a hostel before and we see huge discrepancies of hygiene levels between nationalities, races, and of course gender. But we will continue to face this competition now. It will get worse. Since we’re all guys – and by definition guys won’t clean the house – when in reality we lick dust off every inch of the floor, we might just be placed on a waiting list. But I digress.

Light

What is missing really? I started looking back at the times when I was also renting in US. I don’t remember having to talk to an agent, or have any problem “finding” a perfect match of landlord and tenant. Somehow, the information is always there. We use the Internet a lot, a bit of a DIY, but hey these search tools are quite a no-brainer right?

But when I compare this with the local scene – it’s completely destroyed by agents. Agents hog the information, they are the ones who dominate the Internet channels, posting weirdo half ads that discloses only minimal information. The same is with the newspaper. Everyone has their “turf” to take care of. Oh ya, one more story – in the case of a co-broke, our agent was actually misled by the landlord’s agent to go to the wrong block, so that we can’t “bypass” the landlord’s agent and “go direct”. Grr…

The Internet has traditionally eliminated the middle man, why hasn’t it done so in Singapore?

Challenge

Enter RoomsDB.net, a non-profit project aim to completely destroy this agent monopoly so that landlords and tenants play on a transparent platform – matching the best demands to the best supply, achieving utopia! Well, ok I know this is not possible, but it does give us a chance to participate and do our search ourselves when we cannot afford an agent.

The challenge here, is to convince everyone to do so. If we can get most if not all landlords to post their offerings on RoomsDB, I’m sure most tenants are willing to put in the effort to search and read them out. What is not that much of a challenge is to enable both parties to have the best tools to be able to play fairly, much like eBay has done for almost everything.

Some of the tools that level the playing field are like mean/avg comparison statistics that’s shown on a tooltip. Not the most advanced thing on earth, but something that says “This offer is Blah more expensive than the average offer in this category” helps drives home the point that landlords can’t make unreasonable demand. I mean, this is like common sense for people like me who shop on Amazon or eBay – you should have an insight into the market as much as the agents – this is what makes the agents irrelevant.

Success

So as my hunt continues, it has become more and more RoomsDB.net centric. Talking directly to the owners gives me the space and the freedom to express myself and for the owners to have a good feel of what will become of their home if I were to rent them. Hopefully soon I’ll see the right offer and be able to move soon. Having rented before, this time I won’t have to pay agent fees and will still be able to DIY the agreement bit and gain even more trust from the owner.

Watch out for http://malaysia.roomsdb.net/ (currently still defunct) soon! The End.

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