With tenants already jostling for liveable space in cities, a migrant always finds him/herself at the mercy of heavy brokerage fee and nerve-wrecking house hunting sessions. “A standard practise for Mumbai-based brokers is to re-charge brokerage when the rent agreement gets renewed,” says Aditya Kumar Bhattacharya, a 26-year-old sales manager who shifted to Mumbai three years ago.
However, a recent trend on Facebook seems to be providing some degree of respite, much to the chagrin of brokers around the sub-continent. Several individuals have created Facebook pages and groups that allow for direct interaction between Facebookers in order to advertise renting space or the requirement to rent in a city, in addition to other home-related items, such as Yuni-net Delhi, Flat & Flatmates (with several chapters –- Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, etc) Rent-a-flat and so on.
Faizan Patel, who dabbles in photography and runs a bakery, shifted to Delhi from Mangalore in 2011. He found himself looking fruitlessly for living space on sulekha.com -– the only website then to advertise shared renting space -– and was inspired by Flats & Flatmates to start a Delhi, Mangalore and Bengaluru variant of the page.
“Today I receive anywhere from 200 to 300 requests per day from people asking to join the group (groups are closed),” he says proudly. “The Delhi chapter comprises of 30,000 members approximately, and the Bengaluru one has 20,000 members. We are growing at a rate of almost 3,000 – 5,000 people a month!”
What’s interesting is that none of these groups have been launched with a monetary benefit in mind: “I wanted to do something for the Delhi community when I started this in 2012,” says Shiva Chhabra, CEO and founder of PETE (Providing Education To Everyone) India, an NGO who runs Yuni-net Delhi. “The aim here is to help people, and create friendships. It is more of a hobby, and the group runs itself.”
Why Facebook? Facebook has worked well as a platform from both a user and administrator point of view: “”FB is popular,”supplies Chhabra. “Everyone spends at least five hours a day checking FB –- also with easy commenting on pics and posts, it is a fast process.” Patel agrees, adding that people find FB groups an excellent way to meet great flatmates for life, even if the living tenure is short-term.
Users feel Facebook is much safer than other forums: “I can run profile, and subsequently background checks based on common interests and other such information that Facebook provides,” says Pratistha Dobhal, editor-in-chief of askme.com. Abhinit Khanna, a Delhi-based migrant feels that the notifications sent out are also useful, so one doesn’t have to keep specifically going back to the page every time.
What’s the problem then? For the admininstrators, it’s the middlemen getting cut out that pose a potential complication: “I have received threats from brokers at least three times,” says Chhabra. “They want to post adverts, and when you remove them they abuse and threaten.” There are also several accounts of fake profiles of women created by brokers to lure in unsuspecting potential clients on the pages, in addition to a lot of spam. “Luckily once found out, people are quick to post about it and warn everyone,” says Patel.
The users aren’t too happy with misrepresented images or the post-update methods employed: “A lot of expat-rented property looks great online, but the real picture’s very different and quite disappointing most of the time,” says Dobhal. “Also, a lot of people do not update their information once a house has been rented or once they’ve found a place. But this is not something within the admin’s control, as it is a non-profit scheme.” Khanna feels a great way to get the page administrators to put in some more time would be for Facebook to promote their goodwill efforts by providing some digital incentives.
Is brokerage better? “It’s certainly the more efficient option if you know exactly what you want and if you have an exorbitant budget,” says Bhattacharya. “Also consider that as brokerage is at a certain percentage, most brokers will want to show you more upscale places to make more money.”
App activity: There is also an app that promotes direct contact between flatmates, landlords and migrants. FlatChat was started last year by Gaurav Munjal, the CEO of flat.to (a student and bachelor accommodation platform) to enable owner-tenant/flatmate connection. “The app is for free -– almost like Tinder for roommates,” says Munjal. “It saves on a lot of search time as well; all you have to do is fill in your profile, and the app sends matches based on requirements such as location, professions, age etc. Once you’ve approved someone, you can start chatting with them directly.”
Munjal claims that the app already boasts 4,000 downloads and an average 4.6 rating out of 5. The only possible downside when compared to Facebook, he feels, is the time invested to fill out the profile. “But once that’s done, there’s no effort involved.” Munjal also plans to tweak his app further by allowing photo-sharing.
But while there are always tweaks to be made be it for apps or Facebook pages, the silver lining in the asphalt of one's (newly-rented) home is the relief from heavy brokerage fees, not to exclude the additional perks of befriending a flatmate in a strange city.