Collective thinking: discover the new app that's disrupting the way we rent
PUBLISHED: 10:00 12 July 2017 | UPDATED: 10:58 13 July 2017
Sick of the stress of searching for a private rental property? There's an app for that. Meet the St John's Wood husband and wife team behind The Urban Collective
Silicon Valley is having a bit of a time of it recently, with start up scandals popping up faster than the endless notifications on your smart phone. So it’s perfect timing for a homegrown PropTech start up with an attitude that’s less ‘move fast and break things’ and more ‘think smart and fix things’.
Inspired by their distinctly uninspiring experience trying to find their own rental property in north London, husband and wife team Mayank Mathur and Valerie Vigouroux are setting out to disrupt the lettings market for good.
The Urban Collective aims to flip the script when it comes to property hunting. Renters currently find themselves wasting hours trying to narrow down their property search, trawling online portals and calling agents to set up viewings. For London’s time poor but tech savvy and cash rich professional renters this just isn’t good enough.
“The experience of a tenant searching for a property,” says Mathur, “is in a very simple word ‘painful.” Having set up his previous business in India, Mathur moved to London. But when he and Vigouroux decided to relocate from their flat in Canary Wharf they found the process of finding an area that met their needs, let alone the right property, arduous. “Invariably we ended up viewing anywhere from 20, 30 properties, talking to a lot of agents. Frankly we wasted a lot of time,” he says.
They ended up settling upon Swiss Cottage, where they lived for five years before moving to St John’s Wood. They love the mix of quiet residential streets and village atmosphere with the cosmopolitan buzz of restaurants and bars from being so close to the city centre. Now they want to help other people find their dream London area.
The Urban Collective’s app, UrbanCo, which launched yesterday and is free to download, lets users search for a rental property based on what they, the tenant, need. “We interviewed a lot people and looked at our own experience as well, and the biggest criteria that people focus on are what we call lifestyle criteria,” explains Mathur. It’s not just the price point or number of rooms; renters want to be within a certain commuting distance of work, or walking distance for the school run.
“This was the biggest challenge that we saw. Currently the dominant way of searching for a property is by the area that you might want to live in. You literally have to put a postcode in and draw a radius line around it. So we flipped that around,” he says.
Users can set up a profile listing their preferences along with reasons for rejecting a property. If you’re renting as a group, be it family or flat share, everyone can add their likes and dislikes.
As anyone who has used the more generalised search platforms such as Rightmove or Zoopla knows, house hunting is currently a confusing time suck. The aim of UrbanCo is to streamline the search process, matching tenants with their dream homes without their having to sift through endless properties.
But if a streamlined search process doesn’t cut it for the busy London pro, UrbanCo has a secret weapon. With a touch of a button you can summon your very own Sherpa. Named for the Nepalese ethnic group that produces the world’s toughest and most skilled mountain porters, an UrbanCo Sherpa will help you navigate the treacherous terrain of renting in London. If finding the perfect home is your Everest, then these experts will do the heavy lifting for you.
“It’s a mix of technology and the human for those busy professionals who don’t have time to do all the legwork themselves,” explains Mathur. “The analogy that we like to use is that of a wedding planner,” adds Vigouroux. “The Sherpa will take care of your needs in a brief, do all the ground research and bring options to you and at the end of the day you make the final choices.” So what makes an UrbanCo Sherpa?
They’re industry experts with 10 to 15 years experience in the lettings and property management business who have been handpicked for showing a tenant-first attitude.
“Sherpas will have their own network whereby they have access to properties that are not necessarily out there on the market yet because they’re just being put up for rent. You wouldn’t find them on Zoopla or Rightmove,” says Vigouroux.
The original UrbanCo Sherpa is The Urban Collective co-founder Octavian Pop, who was the only lettings agent Mathur and Vigouroux met on their property search who understood their plight. Now he’s joined them in creating a service that serves the tenant first.
“The focus for the estate agent is to just get somebody – anybody – who qualifies in terms of paying the rent into the property,” explains Mathur. “The tenant just looks like another number, another deal. They get shown the properties that haven’t been rented out for weeks and whether it fits their needs hasn’t been factored in.”
That said, they emphatically do not intend to disrupt the current lettings agent / landlord relationship. This isn’t going to turn into another Uber versus black cab drivers, with UrbanCo Sherpas and high street lettings agents lining up to rumble like the Sharks and the Jets. UrbanCo and Sherpa service users will still go through lettings agents, but their path to finding their new home will have been smoothed along the way. “So far we’ve had good feedback from agents because they find we bring clients to them who are well qualified and motivated to take something quickly,” says Mathur.
UrbanCo is well poised to capture the London renter zeitgeist. With property prices stalling but still sky high, getting on the ladder is harder than ever. Meanwhile London’s 20 – 45 year old renter population is booming. It’s predicted that by 2025, 60 per cent of Londoners will be renting.
At the same time, people have never been more comfortable using technology to procure the services of experts. There are apps to summon a personal chauffeur wherever you are in the city, or have your favourite meal from a restaurant summoned to your front door.
We’ve also never felt so time poor. Perpetually rushing from long hours at work to the latest theatre show or gallery opening being just SO busy has become a badge of pride for any Londoner, even when we’d rather be home binging on Netflix.
Time is money, and busy people are happy to spend some money to claw back some time. The introductory price for the Sherpa service is £600 for a one to three bedroom property, or £900 for a four or five bed.
To put that in perspective, the median price for a three bedroom rental property in St John’s Wood is £993 per week, according to data from Valuation Office Agency. In Hampstead it’s £703 and Swiss Cottage is £600, whilst the median price for London overall is £420. So a £600 one off fee to help find somewhere you’ll potentially stay for years then costs little more than one week’s rent.
In the testing stages the UrbanCo Sherpa service has proved a hit with a wide range of busy people. “Last week we had a Romanian student who was going away on holiday for three weeks and a week before his landlord told him he was selling the flat and he needed to vacate,” says Mathur. “Instead of changing his flights to come back early to search for a new property he got a Sherpa to book him five viewings for him to choose between on his return.” They’ve also helped organise a search and book viewings for a CEO who is tied up travelling between Europe and Asia, as well as help house hunt for a family juggling two children under two and their own business.
They’ve started with London, but Mathur and Vigouroux hope that if it’s a success they could roll it out worldwide. They’ve had a good idea and run with it, but they’ve also got the skills to make it work.
“Our skill set and experience is quite complimentary. My background is in strategy. I did consulting for five years then moved into corporate strategy as well as Marketing strategy. Mayank is more finance from his investment banking years and tech focused,” says Vigouroux.
“Then Octavian brings the real estate understanding to the mix,” chimes in Mathur. This isn’t another story about white tech bro CEOs sat in a break-out space bouncing the same ideas off of each other.
“In our professional careers we’ve worked in strong teams and we’re used to people who are pushing each other to deliver even better,” says Mathur. “If a team agrees on something 100 per cent then you’re probably in an echo chamber and something’s wrong.”
Find The Urban Collective online at theurbancollective.io or download UrbanCo from the app store. Sherpa services start at £600.
This is an introductory offer for a limited period of time.