Business in Vancouver

New York Start-up sees opportunity in Canadian city’s rental squeeze

Roommate-finding app has 400,000 users in 15 markets across the United States

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 4:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 10:58am

With rapidly rising housing prices and a vacancy rate of 0.9 per cent, Vancouver is an optimal place for tech start-ups looking to take advantage of the city’s housing crunch.

Enter Roomi, a New York-based app company with an online platform aimed at simplifying the search for roommates, apartments and sublets in big cities where it is often too expensive to live alone. 

“Something like Roomi I think is a fair app that lets people who have a good deal on a month-to-month rental, move out and not let go of that property,” said James Walker, manager of Vancouver Rent It, a rental property management firm.

The Vancouver rental market and technology industry haven’t had the best relationship in the past. According to Walker, Airbnb has created a problem with illegal subletting in the city. Craigslist, which is widely used for rentals in Vancouver, has faced complaints over lack of verification, false advertising and spam.

Those problems are something Ajay Yadav, Roomi’s founder and CEO, has experienced first-hand.

“I started Roomi because of my own problem,” said Yadav, who bills his product as a sort of Tinder for roommates. “Since college I would do the same thing over and over, again and again. I’d go on Craigslist or other platforms trying to find safe and affordable housing and the right people to live with. After so many years of doing the same thing, the process never got better. No one was really solving the problem the way it should have been so I had to do it myself.”

The app, which is available for Android and iOS, allows users to post and respond to listings as well as contact renters directly. It came out of beta testing in June 2015 and already has 400,000 users in 15 markets across the United States. The company is planning to expand to Toronto this summer and Vancouver in the fall. On Roomi’s website there is an option for potential customers to request Roomi in their city. According to Yadav, Vancouver and Toronto each generated over 1,000 requests.

As a start-up celebrating its one-year anniversary, Roomi is focusing on expanding its brand and business. Roomi is currently still pre-revenue and relies on investors for financial support.

Walker said technology could help solve problems within the Vancouver rental market, specifically with transparency, by giving users access to a database to see and compare properties’ prices as well as sales and damage history.

Roomi has partially achieved this by creating an online market place for subletting apartments where listings can be compared.

According to Yadav, one of the main differences between Roomi and competitors such as Airbnb is length of stay. While Airbnb, for instance, rents out room for a few nights or weeks, Roomi is intended for people looking for a more permanent residence.

But Yadav, who said Craigslist is his startup’s biggest competition, said Roomi’s biggest selling point is its screening process. A separate team of 13 security specialists vets listings before they are posted on the site. Every apartment that is listed goes through a verification stage in which ads are gauged for authenticity and accuracy. Roughly 10 per cent of listings are rejected.  Roomi’s security team uses tools such as location verification and reverse image search to ensure that listings are real and that pictures are not from Google.

“We had an interview with a writer ... who tried to post an apartment, like a fake listing on our platform and two other competitors,” Yadav said. “And we didn’t approve it and the listing got approved on other platforms.”