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Area apartment hunting made easier


Finding a place to live is one of the most challenging tasks facing a newcomer to any city. Des Moines resident Connie Altman is working to take the sting out of the process.

For the past year, Altman, who once set up distribution networks for The New York Times and helped USA Today get on its feet in Northern Florida, has worked to build Metro Apartment Hunters, which seeks to match people looking for apartments with landlords with vacancies.

The Pleasant Hill-based company caters best to people who are relocating to Des Moines and aren’t familiar with the area. Since beginning operations in September 2002, Altman has placed about 110 people, and she expects to triple that figure in the next year.

To accomplish that goal, she has forged relationships with about 125 apartment complexes and some large businesses, including Wells Fargo & Co., Principal Financial Group Inc. and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., that frequently hire out-of-state workers.  Altman receives payments from landlords only when renters sign leases, a strategy she hopes will encourage apartment complexes and potential renters to sign up for her services. She also offers free tours of the metro area to would-be renters, who aren’t charged for her services.

“We are absolutely no risk,” she said. “I can bring five people to an apartment complex, and if it’s not a good match, nobody owes me anything. They (the apartment complex) don’t pay me unless I deliver someone to their standards.”

The market for apartments has suffered recently as low mortgage rates have encouraged potential renters to buy homes instead. Apartment owners have also been hurt by a large amount of apartment construction in Central Iowa. In Des Moines’ western suburbs alone, as many as 790 units are expected to be added this year, adding close to 9 percent to the area’s inventory.

These dynamics have forced some landlords to lower their rents or offer other incentives to attract renters. They also could be playing into Altman’s favor, because apartment owners may be encouraged to share a larger portion of proceeds with her in return for finding clients to fill their buildings.

At the same time, a greater supply of apartments means that potential renters aren’t dependent on Altman to find a place to live. To counter that, Altman provides several additional services, for which she said she earned a real estate license to meet state requirements.

First, most of her business comes via the Internet from people who don’t know Des Moines, and therefore don’t necessarily know which parts of the metropolitan area would be best suited to them. Altman interviews potential customers on a range of issues, including the prices they are willing to pay, their lifestyle choices and what type of apartment they’re looking for. She asks brief questions about their credit histories, where they are employed and their income and performs a criminal background check.

Altman asks these questions to help find good matches between renters and apartment owners. She also does it to protect herself from pouring too much time into helping people find apartments for which they aren’t qualified, which would prevent her from being paid.

She declined to reveal her business’s revenues, but said she receives a percentage of a month’s rent. The company currently employs an office manager and a part-time agent. She’s in the process of interviewing for a full-time agent.

Altman, who is 51, has so far financed the business herself, but is “getting ready to cross the bridge to where I might need loans,” she said. Most of her costs are associated with advertising and her Web site, www.metroapartmenthunters.com.   Altman also works to find tenants for two townhomes whose owners bought them as investment properties. She said she is working to expand on those services, and may move into real estate sales in the future, but that she sees opportunity in Central Iowa’s rental market.

“This is my main focus,” she said. “This is all we do.”  

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