Real Estate & Retail

Rental Finders business ready to sell franchises: Service acts as middleman for tenants, landlords

August 15, 2005

Linking landlords with tenants from an office buffered by a coin laundry and a pet shop may seem like an unusual career choice for someone who once aspired to be a lawyer or doctor.

But for Vasilios Maniatis, the decision to become a broker in the residential rental business has led to a concept he thinks has the potential to become a national franchise.

The 38-year-old Chicago native arrived from Salt Lake City, where he opened his first Rental Finders agency, to launch the service in Indianapolis in March. He sold the Utah office as a franchise and is exploring opportunities for additional markets.

If his franchising idea takes hold, the local office could serve as company headquarters, Maniatis said. Startup costs to operate a Rental Finders franchise would run between $38,000 and $118,000, according to information provided on the company Web site.

"My goal is to expand nationwide," Maniatis said. "The full-service business model still hasn't been conceptualized."

Rental Finders shows potential tenants available apartments and homes offered by landlords who have consulted with the company. They pay Rental Finders one month's rent for every tenant who signs a lease. The contract is non-exclusive, meaning landlords still can seek renters via other methods.

The company screens tenants and provides landlords employment references and credit histories. The only fee tenants pay Rental Finders is a $25 deposit, which Maniatis recently instituted to ensure that those who seek his help are serious about renting.

Several companies offering similar services exist in large cities. But most sell their list of rental units to customers, who are left to search for the properties on their own, Maniatis said.

Skeptics no longer

Landlords in Indianapolis are starting to trust the concept. Roughly 200 are using the service, Maniatis said. His biggest obstacle, however, is convincing both landlords and tenants that there is no "catch" attached to what he offers.

Don Biddings, president of locally based PK Investments, a real estate investment company, had his doubts.

"Initially, I was a little skeptical in terms of the process and the fees," he said. "But being perfectly honest, I don't think [he's] being paid enough. He's definitely been an asset to me."

With fewer than 10 employees, PK Investments sometimes struggles to schedule showings at its 20 homes in the Broad Ripple and Butler-Tarkington areas. Rental Finders has helped in the process, and has placed four tenants for the company, Biddings said.

Ken Nissley, a principal at locally based Kenter Homes Management Inc. and a board member of the Central Indiana Real Estate Investors Association, said he is unaware of a similar operation in the city.

Kenter, which manages 82 units in the metropolitan area, has used the Web sites www.rentalindy.comand the national www.rentalhouses.comto promote its properties. But the sites are basic listing services that offer nothing more, Nissley said.

He phoned Maniatis after noticing Rental Finders' storefront at 5605 N. Keystone Ave. With the company's assistance, Kenter has filled four units in the past two months. The month's rent Nissley has paid Rental Finders for each unit it helped to lease has ranged from $395 to $795, Nissley said.

"The alternative is that [a unit] might sit vacant for a month or more," Nissley said. "It's all about keeping your vacancy ratios low. And right now, with the [rental] market being somewhat soft, that's even more critical."

Indeed, low mortgage rates have converted many traditional renters into homeowners. But the rental industry remains attractive, judging by last year's sale of Santa Monica, Calif-based Rent.comto online auction giant eBay for $415 million.

Rent.comis the most visited apartmentlisting Web site in the nation and gains revenue through fees paid by apartment owners when leases are signed. The company had more than $40 million in revenue in 2003, according to a press release announcing the sale in December.

Maniatis thinks his local office can reach between $500,000 and $750,000 in revenue next year.

Finding a calling

Deputy Mayor Melina Maniatis Kennedy is Maniatis' sister. She is one reason he relocated here, he said. The fact his wife also is from Chicago and wanted to be closer to home, and that Indianapolis might be an attractive place to launch a second Rental Finders, led to the decision, too.

Maniatis earned a criminal justice degree from Indiana University in 1990 and wanted to pursue a career as a defense lawyer. But as a self-described "unmotivated suburban brat," he failed to realize his aspirations.

His father, who owned small commercial and rental properties in Chicago, steered him toward a rental-finding company that he believed had a solid business model.

After training there for about a year, he opened his first rental-finding office in downtown Chicago. Two more would follow, in the Lincoln Park and Rogers Park neighborhoods.

Maniatis eventually tired of the business and sold the three locations in 1996. After traveling for about a year to such Central American destinations as Costa Rica and Belize, he enrolled in a community college to take prerequisite classes needed for a medical degree.

After two years of classes, and an internship at an oncology lab that was not as glamorous as he first thought, he dropped his plans to become a physician.

About that time his sister Tina received a job transfer from Indianapolis to Provo, Utah. Maniatis helped her move and fell in love with the state.

He stayed and became a partner at a property management company before launching Rental Finders in 2001.
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