National Web site targets rental market
Southwest Florida is among areas where Sublet.com links renters and landlords.
By PATRICK WHITTLE
When Howard Miller launched an apartment-hunting Web site in 1999, he targeted big-city renters who struggled to find space in places like New York City and Los Angeles.
Seven years later, Sublet.com is a major player among online space-seeking sites, and Southwest Florida is one of Miller's fastest-growing markets.
Sublet.com allows landlords and lease-holders to add their listings to a database of apartments, houses and roommates across the country. For a fee, renters can contact landlords directly and often secure a new home in a matter of hours.
The Web site, which originally served only a handful of metropolitan cities, touched Southwest Florida when it went national in 2002.
Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota counties garner 10 times more listings today than four years ago, said Dan Miller, the director of business and marketing for the New Jersey-based company that owns the Web site.
As more people discover the Gulf Coast as a place to work, vacation or retire, more landlords use Sublet.com to market their snowbird villas and college crash houses, Dan Miller said.
"My general feeling is that more people are interested in going to the Gulf at this point," he said, adding that the growing population makes finding an apartment "a pain in the you-know-what."
Sublet.com had 30 listings in Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota counties in early February. The Web site's sister sites, Cityleases.com and MetroRoommates.com, added 35, some of which overlapped.
When the Web site first went national, it sometimes had only 10 listings for the entire west coast of Florida, Dan Miller said. The increased interest has helped push the company's unique visitors per month over 6 million, he said.
Properties range from luxury rental homes in Punta Gorda Isles to apartment shares in Sarasota. Sarasota resident Sheila Colletta has two properties for rent on the site -- a condominium in Sarasota's Palm Aire Country Club and a town house in West Virginia.
Sublet.com has generated numerous inquiries for both, Colletta said. The site allows Colletta to select potential tenants and make sure she finds the right fit.
"It's just an exercise for me to see what interest there is," Colletta said. "I'd rather wait for them to come to me."
Howard Miller, a former investment banker, hatched the idea for Sublet.com while studying at Columbia Business School in New York. During an internship in London, he rented out his New York apartment, and the idea was born.
The Web site's parent company, Spyder Web Enterprises, now has 20 employees in New Jersey and a handful overseas.
Dan Miller, Howard's brother, came on board in 2000. The New Jersey-bred pair first tested the Florida rental market by adding Miami to the site, Dan Miller said.
While Miami will always generate heavy interest from renters, "non-Miami Florida" listings have increased by 1,000 percent since 2000, Dan Miller said. The growth in Southwest Florida reflects that trend, he said.
Seasonal rentals and snowbird homes account for much of the Gulf Coast activity, Miller said, but he added that recent college graduates and corporate relocators also use the Web site.
"I really can't put a demographic on it," he said. "It's really anyone who's familiar with the Internet and is looking for a place."
Sublet.com and its sister Web sites also attract lease-holders in search of roommates. In early February, four of 14 Sarasota County listings were for apartment shares.
Some listings are spare, such as a $500-per-month listing near Proctor and Beneva roads in Sarasota that called for a "nice person honest with a sense of humor." Others are detailed, like a listing near Fruitville and McIntosh roads in Sarasota that promises everything from an Xbox to an extra refrigerator in the garage.
The Web site allows landlords and lease-holders to post pictures of themselves and their apartments. Space-hunters who pay a fee get access to landlords' contact information.
A password granting access to the Southwest Florida listings costs $19.95. Paid customers also fill out an online profile and receive e-mails about new listings that fit the profile.
The site is popular among renters because it allows apartment-seekers to avoid brokers and contact landlords directly, Dan Miller said.
"The goal of our Web site is to be a one-stop shop for landlords and tenants," he said.
In early February, Sublet.com had five listings in Charlotte County, including a two-bedroom house on Easy Street in Port Charlotte. The house's owner, Eric Mari, said he has received inquiries via the Internet from as far away as Switzerland.