The Rental Concierge Springs Up in San Francisco

Photograph by Jim Wilson/The New York Times via Redux

Imagine you’re a hotshot coder that’s just been hired by Pinterest, and you need to move in a flash from some Midwestern town to San Francisco for the gig. Exciting times to be sure—that is, until you encounter the Darwinian adventure that is the San Francisco rental market. In short order, you go from being thrilled to having to stand around with 30 other people, filling out the equivalent of a college application that explains why you and your spectacular personality deserve to pay ridiculous amounts of money to live in the apartment they all want.

With the San Francisco rental market surging toward Manhattan-like conditions, we’ve now seen the arrival of rental concierges. These are people that will take one or two month’s rent in exchange for scouting places and doing a lot of the other grunt work associated with securing an apartment. Wendy Willbanks, the niece of famed angel investor Ron Conway, is one such concierge, and she has set up a service called She Moves You. “It’s a race,” says Willbanks. “While everyone is at work, I’m able to get into the homes, take photos and videos, and find out which places my clients want me to act on.”

Willbanks grew up in Silicon Valley and—coming out of college—got into selling high-end homes in the tech-heavy towns south of San Francisco. After the 2008 crash, Willbanks found it hard to make as good a living because her potential clients were struggling to get loans. “Sales basically came to a halt,” she says.

In the months that followed, Willbanks noticed that a lot of the up-and-coming technology companies such as Twitter and Zynga were locating their headquarters in the heart of San Francisco. Other powerhouses like Google and Facebook then created large San Francisco offices, too, so they could cater to a younger set of employees who did not want to shuttle daily for an hour or so down the 101 freeway to the giants’ Silicon Valley headquarters. As an influx of wealthy coders exacerbated an already tight San Francisco rental market, Willbanks sensed opportunity.

She spent three months testing out the rental concierge idea, studying all the listings to sift the gems from the dumps and showing up first  at freshly listed properties to get the skinny. “Ask anyone how they found their apartment in San Francisco, and they will have a grueling story,” says Willbanks. “I’m getting them a town car and rolling around the city with them as if I am their best friend who knows the area. I understand if you like the symphony or if your little boy loves art classes and how to cater to that.”

(Anyone who has not experienced the joys of a San Francisco apartment hunt should check out this account from Sam Harnett: “We saw over two dozen one-bedrooms, most for more than $2,200 a month, and almost all of them completely horrible. We’re talking shag carpet, mold, and converted garages with no windows. Even the worst places we saw drew crowds. The open houses were like some twisted beauty contest where you had five minutes to tell your entire life story, woo the landlord, and leave everyone else in the dust.”)

Willbanks talks a good game, to be sure. She has long blond hair, blue eyes, and a confident, garrulous, firm nature. Oh, and no shortage of self-promotion skills. “If you want to spend weeks and months finding a place and kicking the tires, I get that,” says Willbanks. “My service is geared toward people that want to find a place in a hurry.”

The fees for Willbanks’s services vary, but clients typically can expect to be charged in the range of one to two months’ rent. Since January, Willbanks has placed more than 50 people. She tends to help a higher-end clientele that can pay $4,000 and up per month for a place, and she has some personal criteria beyond that. “I vet each client myself on the phone,” she says. “I need to know that I can be successful for them, and that it will be a good match. You can get some pompous people.”