The Bait-and-switch Apartment Listing

It goes like this: You see a listing for an apartment on Craigslist (or a realty site) that sounds like it might be a great fit for you, but after contacting the broker you learn that it’s already been rented. The broker convinces you to look at similar apartments, but none of them have the same qualities of the apartment you were initially interested in. From the Times:

“Of course this happens, the bait-and-switch,” said Nikki Field, a longtime broker with Sotheby’s International Realty. “Brokers are looking for all ways possible to pull in clients.”

Not only does the tactic tarnish the profession, she explained, but it’s usually not effective.

“If you start with a bait-and-switch, these buyers will not be loyal,” Ms. Field said.

And if in recent months there have appeared to be more of these “ghost” listings — those that hauntingly linger, seeming as if they were available even though they’ve been sold, rented or otherwise taken off the market — it might be because agents are starved for inventory and have little else to post, brokers say. Some aggressive brokers even troll for clients by creating online ads that suggest a listing is their exclusive when in fact it belongs to someone else.

In New York, the bait-and-switch—also known as “ghost listing”—is against the rules of the Real Estate Board of New York and fines are given out when it has been determined that a broker has intentionally ghost-listed an apartment. One big problem to this is that the industry is self monitored.

Fines for ghost listings are rare, as are complaints, officials say. In fact, “I can’t remember any in 2013,” Mr. Goldschmidt said [a chairman of the board's listing service].

In my years of apartment hunting, I’ve had fewer problems with ghost listings and more problems with apartments not looking like anything described in a listing. What about you? Have an bait-and-switch stories?

Photo: Erica Kline

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15 Comments / Post A Comment

ATF (#4,229)

YUP. This happened to me (in downtown Boston) a few times last spring when my fiance and I decided to move in together and we needed a place that was bigger than either of our current abodes. I’d see a posting on craigslist for an apartment that fit our standards, contact the realtor, and then be told “oh damn, it’s just been rented! BUT….” Given how tight the Boston market was it didnt’ actually surprise me at the time. It was only after a month or so of searching and seeing those same apartment keep popping up that I realized what they were doing.

Those realtors did not ultimately get our business. The nice realtor dude that showed us our current place (which looked exactly like the photos) got our business. And when we move to buy next spring, I will be contacting him first.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@ATF Same with me in Boston. With such a quickly shifting rental market, it can be hard to find a good place there without a broker – and they are shady as all get-out. I was in the same boat, where I didn’t realize that ghost listing was going on and just assumed I was responding too slowly, until I saw an apartment come back up twice. “Uhh… the renters must have backed out!” was my realtor’s smooth recovery.

3jane (#645)

@ATF having lived in both Boston and NYC, I actually think ghost listings are a bigger problem in Boston (I think the high number of student renters makes realtors more brazen in their shadiness).

nell (#4,295)

@3jane Yep this happened to us multiple times while apartment hunting in Boston…that and just apartments that were blatantly more disgusting/horrible than the pictures. A pretty good red flag was “no fee” –every no fee/half fee place we tried to look at was “just rented”, and then they tried to show us apartments that had a fee. That said, we found the very helpful and not-sleazy realtor (aka a unicorn) who found us our current place through a listing that was supposedly already rented…he showed us four others that were actually *nicer* than the listing, one of which we took.

MrDean (#6,289)

Seen plenty of ghosts and have had the bait and switch pulled on me, with the added twist that it turned out that not only was the no fee unit I wanted to see not available (it was still listed that morning), but there weren’t any other no fee units either.

The big shock for me is that brokers continue to exist, especially in New York. When I moved from DC a while back, I was used to just going on Craigslist and the idea of paying someone thousands of dollars to look on their Brokerlist and walk around with me was preposterous. Anyone have a theory on what’s keeping brokers propped up?

@MrDean My theory is that it benefits the apartment-owners (i.e. the money holders) to have them. Case-closed.

MrDean (#6,289)

@Jake Reinhardt
Maybe, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of potential renters, so why wouldn’t an apartment owner just put an ad on Craigslist for free and charge higher rent to capture the broker fee? If you’re an owner, why let a broker skim when you can get that value for yourself?

3jane (#645)

@MrDean Because that’s not really the choice they have to make. No landlord is discounting rent because a realtor is charging a broker fee. In fact, the heavy demand for apartments in places like NYC in Boston is why the realtor is charging the fee to the tenant and not the landlord (“no fee” places listed by realtors are really “landlord paid fee”). So landlords get an extra layer of screening (realtors won’t send them unqualified applicants at risk of souring the relationship with the landlord and losing the ability to show their other units), don’t have to deal with showing apartments, and (IMO) create a distance that makes the renter feel less empowered and less likely to negotiate terms, make requests, etc.

MrDean (#6,289)

@3jane I get that brokers provide services, but I can’t believe it’s just economics that keeps the brokers in business. After all, credit checks are cheap and covered by tenants (and I’ve never been checked before looking at a unit), and it doesn’t take much to show an apartment (do it yourself if you’re a small company, or hire someone to do it like the company I rent from does). Given the large number of tenants, it’s not like there’s a high risk that a unit won’t be rented. The flip side is being able to charge 10% more in rent to capture the broker fee. Landlords are absolutely discounting rent by using a fee broker, since that fee is money the tenant is willing to pay for the unit. From the tenant perspective, $2100 a month no-fee beats $2000 a month with a 10% broker’s fee.

madrassoup (#929)

I feel like apartment hunting in NYC means being prepared at all times to be scammed, even when things appear on the surface to be legit. Which is why I would never, ever, recommend the cesspool that is craigslist. Like that’s insane. The one time I tried it, it was like burning my hand on a stove before realizing not to play near it. After scrolling through more obvious scams, we saw a brokered listing that sounded really nice. Good price, pretty pictures, great location. But there was something about it that seemed really familiar.

Turns out the “broker” (who would only give his last name, as in Mr. Scumbag) was scouring a no-fee site for listings he could post on craigslist and try to collect a fee on. He was being shady about it, too, not giving the address but instead just the general coordinates (while the no-fee site listed the exact address), and using a different set of photos. We finally figured it out right before we were supposed to see it with him, and basically left a voicemail calling him a scammy scammer.

E$ (#1,636)

@madrassoup I think Craigslist is fine if you’re looking for roommates (since it’s harder for people to pull a bait-and-switch on them). I had pretty good experiences finding roommates on Craigslist, possibly because no roommate can say “Hey, we just rented that room but we have ANOTHER room.”

This is rather timely, as I’m looking at rentals right now. I replied to one ad for a place on Craigslist, and when the person got back to me, he wanted me to go to a free credit report place, which would then email him my credit score. That was a scam, right? He wouldn’t give me any real info on the house until I did that. Which I didn’t, because it seemed sketchy to me.

ScroogeMcDuck (#5,940)

@TrotskyHoldsMyiPod Definitely a scam. My significant other is a Realtor in the NYC area. The agent should take your info on a rental application and run your credit with a reputable credit-monitoring agency. There may be a nominal fee (no more than $50) and you should be able to get a copy of your report if you’d like. Also, the credit report is almost always the LAST step of the process, right before your application is submitted to the landlord. Aka after you’ve seen the property and are ready to write deposit checks.

@ScroogeMcDuck Thanks! It definitely seemed weird, but I’m glad to have it confirmed. It was such a lovely place. Sigh.

ScroogeMcDuck (#5,940)

@TrotskyHoldsMyiPod If you’re in a major city, try emailing a reputable real estate agent with the property information. Most properties are listed on the MLS, which all brokers have access to and any agent can show it to you/rent it to you. The only exception is if the property is an exclusive listing, which seems to be rare these days and is usually temporary – i.e. for the first 30 days of the listing.

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