Plug “apartment search” into your Internet browser and get ready for your head to spin. There is a dizzying assemblage of Web sites listing apartment rentals, and this list includes major national players, regional listing sites and even some city-specific sites. If you think picking an apartment is tough, then you might have trouble choosing an online apartment-hunting Web site too.

Inman News conducted a search for apartments in Omaha, Neb., to test a handful of national apartment rental listing sites.

Plug “apartment search” into your Internet browser and get ready for your head to spin. There is a dizzying assemblage of Web sites listing apartment rentals, and this list includes major national players, regional listing sites and even some city-specific sites. If you think picking an apartment is tough, then you might have trouble choosing an online apartment-hunting Web site too.

Inman News conducted a search for apartments in Omaha, Neb., to test a handful of national apartment rental listing sites. The visited sites include: ApartmentGuide.com, Apartments.com, ForRent.com, Rent.com and RentNet.com.

ForRent.com found 302 properties and displayed 250 listings in Omaha, and ApartmentGuide.com had 113 apartment listings in Omaha. Apartments.com had 62 listings, RentNet.com had 60 listings, and Rent.com had 27 listings.

ForRent.com

ForRent.com is a graphics-intensive apartment listings site with a lot of advertising and some banner ads disbursed throughout the search results. This site produced the most results for apartments in Omaha, Neb., and in fact it located more matches than it displayed. The site enables users to click on a box to expand their search to neighboring areas. Some competitors’ sites will count listings in nearby listings as matches, which can be deceptive if users are trying to keep their search within city limits.

The site listed 250 Omaha apartment properties, and about half of these listings (displayed at the beginning of the results list) contained photos and detailed information while the other half (at the end of the results list) lacked photos and contained information that was limited to phone number and address in most cases, and for some listings there were no phone numbers. The site displays 15 listings per page. In order to change the search parameters, the user must return to a search preferences page. And while you can search for specific price ranges, it doesn’t appear to be possible to arrange the results according to price, with the lowest-priced rental property displayed first, for example.

When users click on a specific listing they get more detailed information about the rental units, including square footage of units, floor plans and a list of features and amenities.

ForRent.com, based in Virginia Beach, Va., has about 40,000 apartment community listings. The Web site is associated with For Rent Magazine, which is distributed in about 180 markets across the country.

ApartmentGuide.com

ApartmentGuide.com structures apartment listings by region, so that the city of Omaha was lumped in with Lincoln, Council Bluffs, Fremont, Ashland, Gretna, Plattsmouth, La Vista and other communities. Also, the site splits up listings within a metropolitan area into subcategories. In this case, Omaha listings included “downtown,” “midtown,” “Northwest Omaha,” “Southwest Omaha” and “West Central” listings, and the Omaha-specific listings were disbursed among other cities, even when the list was customized for listings by area. This could be confusing to apartment-hunters who are not familiar with the area.

A few apartment complexes were listed under the all-encompassing “Omaha-Lincoln-Council Bluffs” location heading rather than under a specific city. And the address of a property in La Vista incorrectly stated that the property was in Omaha.

There are 25 property listings per page in ApartmentGuide.com searches, and the initial search-results list is organized in a text table that also contains symbols based on amenities at the apartment complex. The symbols explain whether the property listings feature renter discounts, online tours, e-mercials, online applications and appointments. Text information includes name of the apartment complex, range in number of available bedrooms, range in monthly rental price and city or city area.

The list is easily customized by clicking on the headings at the top of the search results. This is a very handy feature for quickly ranking properties to suit the apartment shopper’s preferences. Even so, clicking on the “Area” heading did not consolidate all of the Omaha-specific listings. The initial search-results page, with its streamlined listings information, can save time in searching. Some rental listings Web sites are graphics-laden and contain fewer listings per page, which means slower searching. There are many ads on the site, but they are smaller and less flashy and distracting than the ads on some competitors’ sites.

For more detailed information on specific properties, users can click on the property name. Apartment amenities, community features, floor plans, photos, maps and management information are available after selecting a specific apartment property.

Robert Turnbull, director of marketing and communications for ApartmentGuide.com, said the site receives about 1.5 million unique visitors per month and generates about 420,000 leads per month. “Our site delivers more leads than any other site, period,” he said. The company defines leads as e-mail or phone contact with a leasing office. The site has about 21,000 active listings nationwide, Turnbull said.

Listings at ApartmentGuide.com are generally those properties that have 50 or more units. The average is a 200-unit community, Turnbull said. The Apartment Guide is also available in print, and Turnbull said this multimedia approach allows apartment searchers to scan apartments online and then carry the printed guide with them when they are viewing the apartments in person. ApartmentGuide.com is implementing new technology that offers apartment availability data in almost real time, Turnbull added.

Apartments.com

Apartments.com has a streamlined look and feel, and despite the busy advertisements around the edges of the page, the content is straightforward. Search results are customizable, and properties can easily be sorted by price, from lowest to highest or from highest to lowest. There are 12 listings per page, which can be clunky to sort through if there are a lot of listings. And if there are many listings it isn’t easy to jump from the end of the results to the beginning of the results, for example, because you’re only given the option of viewing the “Previous 12” or the “Next 12” listings.

The photos in the primary results page are all the same size, which is easier on the eyes than some competitors’ sites, which use a hodgepodge of photo sizes.

Apartments.com was born out of Visual Properties, which was founded in 1992 to serve Chicago-area renters. In 1997 Visual Properties launched ApartmentsPlus as an online extension of its retail services, and that site went nationwide. Visual Properties and ApartmentsPlus were acquired by Classified Ventures in January 1998 and Apartments.com launched that year.

The site ranks as one of the top three Internet apartment-listing services, as counted by Media Metrix, a company that tracks online statistics. Apartments.com receives an estimated 3.6 million visitors per month, or an average 120,000 visitors per day. Property management companies, newspaper classified ads and for-rent-by-owner advertisers provide listings. The site has a focus on 175 designated market areas across the country.

Apartments.com counts RentNet.com, Rent.com, and Apartment Guide/ApartmentGuide.com among its competitors. The site has more rental addresses than any other Internet-based apartment listing site, according to Maureen Boyle, trade marketing manager for Apartments.com. The typical audience is 18-34. The site offers a self-service Property Updater tool that allows advertisers to update all ad fields via the Internet, with changes going live within one hour.

RentNet.com

RentNet.com, operated by Homestore, features discreet ads and a streamlined layout of search results. Homestore also operates HomeBuilder.com and Realtor.com. There are 10 listings per page, which can be time-consuming if there are a bundle of listings to view. The site found 60 matches for Omaha apartments, and 22 of these listings were “enhanced listings,” with photos and detailed information, while the other 38 listings contained such bare-bones information as property name, address, number of bedrooms and bathrooms in units, and a range in square footage of units–but no phone or e-mail contact information.

Homestore acquired RentNet.com, formerly SpringStreet.com and AllApartments.com, for $47.4 million in stock. RentNet.com was launched in 1995. According to Media Metrix, the site had an average of 1.38 million unique users each month from January 2004 to May 2004. The site offers listings in about 300 markets across the country, and targets apartment properties with more than 40 units.

Rent.com

Rent.com reported “34 matching properties” for a search of apartments in Omaha, Neb., but seven of these properties were not in Omaha. Rent.com requires users to sign in and provide an e-mail address before they can begin searching for apartments. The site really pushes a $100 reward that is available to renters who find their apartment at the site and report this to their leasing agent, and every individual listing contains information about this promotion.

There are 10 listings per page. Besides the photos of listings, the listings are mostly text. This makes for quick loading but results in an alphabet soup that is difficult to scan quickly for property details such as price. Some competitors’ sites do a better job of arranging this information for a fast and easy read.

Rent.com has about 17,000 active property listings, and offers listings in about 1,500 major metropolitan areas across the country. The site has an active user base of over 2 million registered renters and typically registers about 550,000 new renters each month, said Rent.com chairman and CEO Scott S. Ingraham. Rent.com launched in October 2001 with its current name and business model.

Other sites

NextRentals.com has listings in 18 states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, District Of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington) and offers renters a $125 discount.

GarageApartments.com is one of the most obscure arrivals on the online apartment listings scene. The site offers free listings of apartments that were converted from garages, as well as “granny flats” and accessory dwelling units. Adam Parish, founder and owner of the site, said he is trying to standardize “garage apartments” as the term for all of these types of rental residences. The site, launched in 2002, features about 250 unique visitors per day and about 13 active listings. “The market is so fragmented,” Parish said, as one house in 100 may have a garage-conversion apartment unit and some municipalities don’t allow such units at all.

ApartmentZone.com, first launched in 1996 to serve the Chicago area, has dabbled in expansion into Texas but may scale back to a Chicago-only service. The site has about 15,000 to 20,000 unique visitors per month and about 1,500 active listings in Chicago, said Ricardo Pena, a general partner in the Web venture.

ApartmentsUSA.com, an outgrowth of BostonApartments.com, gets about 150,000-300,000 unique visitors per month. The site carries about 34,000 active classifieds in Massachusetts.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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