THUNDER BAY -- If you’ve driven through a residential neighbourhood in Thunder Bay the past year, chances are, you’ve seen a lime-green and white sign with a cute panda on it. It’s a sign for Rent Panda, an online service that connects potential renters to landlords.
Richard Togman founded Rent Panda after moving to Thunder Bay and renting proved much more arduous than he expected. Places advertised on Kijiji turned out to look not at all like the photos posted, or there were no photos at all, and the whole experience felt hugely discouraging. “It shouldn’t be this miserable, trying to find a place,” he recalls thinking. “And that’s what got me started.”
He started talking to both landlords and tenants to understand their perspectives. He began appreciating the difficulties a landlord faces, from advertising a vacancy to screening tenants, insuring the property, maintenance and getting paid on time. “At the end of the day, I decided to throw my hat in the ring, give it a shot and try to come up with something better.”
After a year of developing the website, Rent Panda launched in the summer of 2017. “In the last year and a half, we’ve worked with over 700 landlords, and we’ve captured most of the listings in the city,” Togman says. “We have over 10,000 visits to the website a month; that’s almost 10 per cent of the city’s population.”
Initially, the website featured listings with descriptions and photos taken by Togman. He insists on Rent Panda taking the photos for the sake of consistency, so that renters know that what they see is current, and that the rooms are of realistic size - no wide-angle lens to make a small closet look like a giant bedroom. The basic service is free for both landlords and renters, but the former can pay extra for a 360 degree video or for prominence on the website.
Constantly innovating and improving, Rent Panda aims to be a one-stop-shop. They now have a wealth of resources on their website; template forms for leases, evictions and inspections, as well as links for everything from junk removal to movers and painters, information about how to go to the Landlord Tenant Board with a complaint, how to end tenancies, the rights and obligations of renters and landlords and renters’ insurance. Rent Panda is also working on a payment service so that renters can pay online through Rent Panda instead of writing a cheque each month.
In the future, Togman plans to incorporate a review system for both tenants and landlords. “If you’re on AirBnB and renting out your basement to someone for the weekend, you can see what everyone says about this person with one click. But if you want to rent out your basement for a whole year, there’s basically no information. We want to bring accountability and trust into the system.”
“Renting is viewed as the ugly duckling of the real estate world,” Togman says. “If you want to buy a house, everyone is falling over themselves to help you; real estate agents, mortgage specialists and so on. But renting is the ugly step-sister.”
The lack of quality services for renters struck him as not only unfair, but a potential business opportunity. “Maybe other companies don’t see it as something that’s worth investing in, or they don’t think they can make money off of it. But at Rent Panda we’re trying to turn that on its head. We’re building Rent Panda to be a quality platform that you can trust, it’s easy to use, and brings accountability to the market.”
Togman knows from experience that the lack of comprehensive services for renting is not only Thunder Bay-specific, and believes his website could work across Canada. This spring, he plans to launch Rent Panda in Guelph, Ontario. Eventually, “our goal is to be national,” he says. “It’s not only a great business to run, but it has social impact.”