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Dive Into New York's Historic Rental Ads, From The 1830s On

Blurred Lines columnist Keith Williams, of Brooklyn-scouring blog The Weekly Nabe, scans through the microfiche so you don't have to. Here now, the somewhat circular evolution of New York City's rental advertisements.

As the world has transformed over time, so, too, has the courtship between the owners of empty rooms and potential tenants. The Roman burden of donning your toga and trekking to the agora to find your next rental in one centralized marketplace has given way to virtual tours. (Which you can also do in a toga, should you so desire, although no one needs to know.) But because of various changes to the way letted spaces move, the past century has seen a full circuit in the evolution of rental ads.

In the 1800s, such ads were usually posted by the owner. Unencumbered by character-limits, spots for rentals were filled with prose and description. The landlord wanted to fill his vacancy. Nothing else mattered. If your space came equipped with rosewood furniture and a piano—to some, the 19th-century equivalent to Carrara marble and a private gym—all the better to pitch. The newspaper, of course, was a common resort (or the only resort) for those who couldn't fill their spaces by word of mouth or through their own networks.

Then, in the early 20th century, brokers began to flood the market. Although the oldest of today's largest firms, Brown Harris Stevens, traces its roots to 1874, what is now the National Association of Realtors was founded in 1908. But perhaps most importantly, a ten-year moratorium on taxes for new housing (warning: PDF!) led to a building boom starting in 1920. Those units needed people to live inside them... and fast.

Crafted by hired hands, ads began to take on a sense of urgency—and offered much less description. Mentions of specific addresses gave way to pitches for streets or neighborhoods; vowels became the victims of cost-cutting measures when every word cost cash.

This modern format—concise, with no frills—remained the standard for generations, and is still in occasional use today. Such a listing published in the last few decades usually lays out the specifics of the apartment's interior ("2 BR, 1.5 BA, southern light") while giving a vague idea of its location ("3 blocks from the R").

The intentional omission of a street address was actually a matter of self-preservation—not for the landlord, who just wanted a steady stream of income, but for the broker, who risked losing his fee if others got wind that an owner was actively seeking a tenant and moved the apartment before she herself did.

Many rental transactions, particularly in the less expensive parts of the city, were secured by the owners themselves or by independent outfits. The fee—one or two months of rent—was small potatoes compared to the commission earned by selling a property; brokers preferred to chase the more-lucrative scalp for moving a brownstone. And in a city like New York, where much of the population is transient, vacancies often have no trouble filling by word of mouth.

The Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, began to change this in the 1970s, when it welcomed residential brokers to its network. It was founded in 1896 to bring together agents for commercial property. REBNY spearheaded the idea of co-brokering: if a member-broker finds a tenant for a vacancy represented by another member-broker, the two will split the commission. This took some pressure off; now a broker could sign an exclusivity agreement and, assuming he made "reasonable" efforts, would be guaranteed half of the kitty.

Although a few mom-and-pop shops have resisted the temptation to join a large conglomerate like Corcoran, Douglas Elliman, or Halstead, most brokerage firms in the city fall under these umbrellas—and thus, under REBNY rules for co-brokering. Given the advent of copious numbers of rental-finding websites with no space constraints, we've seen somewhat of a return to the ads our forebears had come to expect in the 1800s: filled with potentially deal-sweetening (or -breaking) details like descriptions and addresses and actual words.

Despite frequent bait-and-switch tactics, the emphasis that prospective tenants place on photography is a boon, too, inciting brokers and landlords to give would-be renters a much better picture (literally) of what they're getting into (again, literally) than "KITCH PRIVLS" ever could.

It's strange to see marketing tactics turn a full circuit in their approach. Perhaps firms had a low rate of return when they left out key information. Or perhaps, as I've suggested on Curbed in the past, we're just doomed to repeat the 1890s.
—Keith Williams

· History Lessons archive [Curbed]
· All Renters Week 2013 coverage [Curbed]