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Craigslist Boston: A Renter's Worst Friend

I want to illustrate exactly why Craigslist is such a burden for renters in Boston.

Full disclosure, this article is an in-depth look at why Craigslist enables terrible experiences in Boston's rental market. If you're actually looking for "Boston Craigslist" then click here to browse their apartment classifieds.

If you've had terrible experiences with Craigslist before, read on.

We've all read the anecdotes and experiential commentary about why Craigslist is such a mess, but I want to examine why Craigslist takes far more than it gives to renters in Boston with clear problems and cold hard numbers. I'll note that it's not like Craigslists drawbacks are a real advantage for rental agents too.

craigslist boston

Problem #1: Craigslist is a pure numbers game.

The one sentence version.

Craigslist lists ads chronologically and there's no limit on the number of apartment ads an agent can post, so to stay on the top of the list and on the front page, agents post as many ads as they can to attract attention to their listings.

Just look at this example below — this was a selection of the first result page for a search for "2 bed" on Craigslist Boston — we've got 6 identical ads for one apartment (red boxes) and 4 identical ads for another (green boxes).

I won't even go into the grammar issues I have with "Newly Construction".

craigslist boston

Source: The Apartment Listing Website That Shall Not Be Named

The longer version.

This "quantity trumps all" reality helps explain why you see so many of the same ads on Craigslist. On top top that, there are services out there (like PennyPosting, see below) that help agents automate their ad posting to Craigslist. I think PennyPosting technically violates Craigslist's terms of service, but it's managed to last for a number of years, charging a clean 10 cents per automated ad post.

So, not only are agents incentivized to post as many ads as possible (if they didn't, they'd never earn a dime!), but they've got tools to help them get more ads out there than any single human could ever post. NOTE: even though PennyPosting automates the process, it still actually takes a fair amount of management time (for a number of reasons I'm happy to elaborate on one-on-one: [email protected]).

craigslist boston

Problem #2: Each of Boston's agents can post ads for the same group of apartments.

The one sentence version. 

Landlords and property managers can "syndicate" their apartment listings to every brokerage in Boston, giving every one of Boston's 1400 rental agents the ability to post ads for the same apartments.

The longer version.

This is where things get nutty. We've already mentioned that a key problem is that Craigslist is a pure numbers game — the more ads you post (as an agent), the better chance you have of getting your apartment seen. That made duplicate ads a given.

Now compound that problem to a world where all the agents are competing with each other to post ads for the same apartments.

Now you've got the same ads for the same apartments posted by hundreds of agents— it's like duplicates of duplicates. UGH!

craigslist boston

Problem #3: Over 70% of renters in Boston use Craigslist.

The one sentence version. 

Thousands of renters in Boston browse Craigslist every day, reaching out to just 1,400 different agents — ever wondered why you so rarely hear back after reaching out about an ad on Craigslist?

craigslist boston

The longer version.

Here are are the responsibilities that a rental agent in Boston has to balance:

As you can see, it's definitely more than just opening doors — I wrote up a whole article just on why brokers, agents and fees exist in Boston.

So, combine what's actually quite a jammed schedule with dozens of renters reaching out about the hundreds of ads an agent posts...some people fall through the cracks.

Now, I'm not justifying ignoring renters at all. I think that sucks, but I'm not going to put the blame entirely on agents. Some agents are terrible — that's for sure. But some agents are genuinely decent people who honestly don't have the bandwidth to respond to every ad inquiry without compromising the experience of their current clients. Something has to give with all the rampant inefficiency that Craigslist creates — unfortunately that "something" is usually spending the time to get back to renters who reach out on Craigslist.

Problem #4: Unscrupulous agents ruin everything for everyone...and they're everywhere.

The one sentence version. 

Fake, great-looking ads attract more attention than real apartment ads, so unethical agents exploit Craigslist's lack of oversight by posting whatever they think will attract the most attention.

craigslist boston


The longer version.

This is why it's so hard to find a decent agent in Boston. Quite literally, you're disadvantaged by telling the truth and being ethical as a rental agent in Boston if you post ads on Craigslist. As a decent agent, your very real ad for an $1,800 one-bedroom apartment in Mission Hill looks less attractive than some unscrupulous agent's fake $1,600 one-bedroom in the same location. 

Good people who have their real estate license are forced to weigh the ethical dilemma of lying on their apartment ads against the fact that they do (in fact) need to earn a living and eat. 

My closing rant.


You make everyone's lives worse. You reward bad behavior by rental agents. You give false hope to renters. The only people you provide value to are the extremely lucky renters who happen to luck out by seeing a real ad by a decent agent for an apartment that's actually still available. This happens roughly 0% of the time.

Rant over. I honestly can't believe Craigslist has lasted so long. Hopefully Jumpshell can change that.

craigslist boston

Here's a recap of some of the stats I referenced above (and some others):

Hold on a second, buddy — where'd you get these so called "statistics"? 

You came to play...but so did I! I'm always skeptical of any article that cites statistics, so I did extra homework to make sure all my info was right. Here's where all these stats come from — full disclosure, most of them are estimates based on hard data, renter and agent feedback, and industry experience.

Over 70% of renters in Boston use Craigslist.

So, I truly believe this statistic is higher. Zillow Rentals published an e-book for property managers to help them understand how to better market to renters. In this e-book, they actually state that 87.5% of renters kick off their apartment search with Craigslist.

craigslist boston

There are about 300,000 rent-paying individuals in Boston.

This one shouldn't be too shocking, but I'll back it up with my sources. The Boston Redevelopment Authority published a great resource called "Boston in Context: Neighborhoods", which has a wellspring of data on Boston.

This report shows that according to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey (by the Census Bureau), there were 166,908 renter-occupied housing units (i.e. apartments) in Boston with an average of 2.2 occupants. Multiply those together and you get something like 367,197 people living in Boston apartments. I rounded down to 300,000 to account for apartments that have families/children (i.e. people who aren't paying rent and aren't really in the apartment-seeker category).

There's something like 1,400 rental agents in Boston.

Full disclosure, there just isn't a lot of good information about how many rental agents there are in Boston. So, I'm taking the hard facts that are available and ballparking from there with some informed estimates.

craigslist boston

That's a cool 1,396 rental agents actively practicing real estate in Boston — and they're all posting Craigslist ads.

Agents spend 35-50% of their time posting ads.

No stats. All truth. Ask any agent you know and they'll tell you it's true (unless they've got a surefire referral system). I'd argue it's closer to 50% too, but we'll use 35% for our estimates.

craigslist boston

About 50% of apartments in Boston "turn over" each year

Full disclosure, I actually don't have a source with hard data for this one. I know this is roughly the case, because the average stay for a renter in Boston is around 2 years. Again, you can fact check this with friends who are renters or agents and see what they think. 

If it helps, this is a conservative figure compared to the national average, which is a 60% turnover rate according to a study by the National Apartment Association.

Bonus stat! Nearly 80% of all apartment availabilities in Boston are for September 1st.

Zillow Rentals also did an analysis (granted this was back in 2012) of apartment availabilities in Boston and found that 79% of listings are marked as available for 9/1.

craigslist boston

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