The traditional season when students flock to property portals looking for accommodation is almost upon us, or at least it would be were it not for the small matter of a global pandemic having closed down presential university classes and Erasmus programs.
Even so, now feels like a good time to assess the new breed of portal site catering to what we’ll call the ‘on-demand-rentals market’ which has sprung up over the last five years or so to address the demand among students and young professionals for rental properties in foreign European cities.
Although a recent report from data company Transparent was optimistic about this market, the last few months have seen its user base collapse and there will be increased competition among these specialist portals for what’s left of the business. With student customers scarce, we want to see who has the best product out there and is likely to survive and prosper.
We’ve selected for our match up Spotahome, Housing Anywhere, and Uniplaces: three similar players that concentrate on bringing mid-term rentals to an international market in an end-to-end digital transaction that minimises friction and lets the user book an apartment from anywhere.
Honourable mention also goes to on-demand-rentals aggregator Nestpick which also competes in this market in Europe and elsewhere, but the octagon of portal-combat (pun very much intended) is only big enough for three this time.
There is, as yet, no scientific method to empirically compare property portals, so for the sake of this comparison, we’ll make do with OnlineMarketplaces’ journalistic integrity in reporting our experience in several categories as users of each platform.
Spotahome - 11 cities, mainly European capitals. Spotahome used to have a much wider reach including the Baltic countries and was setting up shop in Dubai before cutbacks. With Home-Checkers having to personally inspect rooms and properties on the site, the operation is a bit more involved than the other two portals, and moving to new markets must require larger overheads.
Housing Anywhere - 41 cities in Europe and a smattering of others in the US and China.
Uniplaces - 56 cities including a number of regional student cities. The site also has coverage in many other cities around the world such as those in Australia and South Africa.
At the end of the day, you might have the smoothest payment process, cover more cities and have the coolest user interface, but if you don’t have the inventory you won’t get URLs on google SERPs and you won’t get business. There are obviously certain cities that each individual portal is strong in so we picked 5 European cities at random to see which of these portals has the most listings.
Each portal has its own way of calculating how many listings on its books are valid for a given timeframe: Spotahome doesn’t let you give exact dates for when searching, and some of the cities on Uniplaces have more places available for the longer durations which seems counterintuitive.
It seems that Spotahome comes out on top in London, Brussels, and the notoriously tough Dublin market and has roughly the same number of listings as Uniplaces in Milan while Housing Anywhere is the winner in Berlin.
While we don’t know what sort of markup each makes on every room or property they rent out, if any, we can evaluate the booking fee each charges.
Spotahome - The company does not charge booking fees in London and Berlin but in all other cities the fee is calculated through an opaque algorithm whose explanation page is less than useful. The fees have apparently been reduced for a limited time only and start from €100, though most of the booking fees we saw were around €150 to €250 and depended on the price of the property with some as high as €400.
Housing Anywhere - Has also waived booking fees for all stays with move-in dates before the 30th of September. For stays starting after September, in general, booking fees are comparable to those of Spotahome but are calculated as 25% of the rent and crucially are fixed between €150 to €250.
Uniplaces - While Spotahome seems to have slightly more upmarket properties and more whole apartments, Uniplaces and Housing Anywhere seem to have some bargains and we saw a few very cheap and cheerful rooms in European cities. As for the booking fee, much like Housing Anywhere, it is a function of the first month’s rent and is not capped. An upmarket apartment in Milan where the rent was €2500 per month had a fee of €375.
Spotahome - This is the basket in which the Spanish company has put all of its eggs. So-called ‘Home-Checkers’ smile at the camera as they deliver a tour of the properties and there is information about everything from whether individual rooms have their own keys to which languages the landlord speaks.
Although each listing comes with a wealth of information, there are many which do not come with either a video guide or a 3d tour and we saw many apartments that were advertised on the results pages as having a virtual viewing where none were available on the listing page itself.
None of these listings had anything more than just regular photos despite their prominent Virtual Viewing labels.
Housing Anywhere - Again a plethora of fields including ‘allergy-friendly?’ and ‘laminate flooring?’ adorn each listing. We didn’t see any virtual tours and the company doesn’t employ anyone to go and personally check properties.
The lower booking fees and what feels like a slightly cheaper inventory may explain this, although, with listing-tech increasingly expected as standard, this is something that the company may want to look into.
Uniplaces - The only one of the three to have results pages laid out in the traditional portal style with the impressive array of filters displayed on the left of screen and not behind a button. Despite the clean layout and depth of information, like Housing Anywhere, it does feel like Uniplaes will have to invest in more listing tech around either videos or virtual 3d tours very soon.
Spotahome - Offers instant booking much like Airbnb which is definitely a feature we like as it removes friction from the process. Impressively, with this option, the user only has to go through three screens to book a place to live! No need to provide proof of salary or past references or deal with a landlord at all. If Spotahome can convert the majority of their landlords to instant booking and market it right, it feels like it could be a game-changer.
Housing Anywhere - Once you find a listing you like, getting in touch with the landlord is done through the platform pretty early on in the process. Each landlord will have different stipulations about the documentation required to rent their property and here Housing Anywhere doesn’t feel as revolutionary as the others.
Essentially what is happening here is that the platform is simply advertising a listing and then facilitating a conversation between owner and tenant. The customer support was a bit tricky to find and asks whether the user has questions about the website or service rather than anything to do with the tenancy itself.
Uniplaces - Since registering on Uniplaces yesterday I have received no fewer than 8 emails and I suspect they might not be the last ones. While I’m sure the Marketing department calls this something like “facilitating user engagement”, it is a bit annoying. As for how easy it is to book, the company offers an instant booking feature similar to that of Spotahome with a similarly transparent and smooth process.
As with Spotahome though, it seems that maybe less than 10% of listings have this feature. Uniplaces also has a “Fast Booking” option available where you tell them your details and what you’re looking for and they’ll get in touch with relevant properties which is definitely a nice feature.
Spotahome - The 4.5 magic number on Trustpilot is a big plus factor here. The company also offers a 24-hour guarantee whereby if you think you have been mis-sold anything you have a courtesy 24 hour period to report it and the company will put you up in a hotel and help you find somewhere else.
The fact that a real named person has also been around each place and checked it might seem gimmicky to some, but renting a new place in a new country without seeing it first is a big deal and every detail Spotahome puts in to reassure users helps. A cynic might think that the blog that Spotahome publishes around its main cities is just an SEO tactic, but they are detailed enough to be at least slightly interesting.
We also liked the fun little videos the company has produced about their cities. Every little detail to build trust for a user who is likely young and about to move to a new city and pay a lot of money to do so based on blind trust must be a good idea. The website has a prominent and well designed About Us section with smiling founders and a believable mission statement.
Housing Anywhere - Has a 48-hour safeguard whereby the company keeps the money for the rent until you have seen that the property is all up to scratch and only then releases it to the landlord. There is a dedicated subdomain for Q&A around user issues, but this likely means that the customer support is lacking somewhere along the line.
It might be old-fashioned to read a company’s About Us section before trusting them with a lot of money, but the fact that Housing Anywhere doesn’t really have a section of its site that does this does not inspire confidence.
Uniplaces - Has the same guarantee as Spotahome that if you think you have been mis-sold anything you have a courtesy 24-hour period to report it. The website also has neighbourhood guides, though not nearly as detailed or complete as those on Spotahome's site. 4.1 on Trust Pilot is also not as high as Spotahome. Overall not bad, but it doesn't feel like they've gone above and beyond to gain user confidence.
If I had to choose a portal to visit to find a place to live for less than a year, the trust factor around Spotahome as well as the volume of listings would probably sway me.
That said, both Uniplaces and Housing Anywhere do a fine job. Perhaps if I were a university student less concerned about knowing as much as possible about a place and not willing to pay more than €250 to book a place I might well use Housing Anywhere which feels like the cheap and cheerful option.
Whether we call this business model ‘curated-living’ or ‘on-demand-rentals’ or even just plain old ‘mid-term-rentals’, the fact is that it is a sector that Silicon Valley has become increasingly interested in and one that is picking up a lot of press. For now, at least, the market for the product has dropped off but this may just be a bump in the road.
It could be that if all three of these companies survive the short term, they are well set to cash in on the public’s increased expectation to book and pay for everything online.