Study Examines Variations in Prices and Information across Online Rental Listing Platforms

An article in Cityscape, “Toward a Cross-Platform Framework: Assessing the Comprehensiveness of Online Rental Listings,” found considerable variations in the types of rental units advertised and the information available in prominent rental listing platforms, despite corporate consolidation of online platforms in the last decade. The findings indicate that housing market research relying on online platforms needs to account for this online segmentation by synthesizing data from multiple platforms.

Online rental platforms emerged in the early 1990s as rental advertisements transitioned from newspapers to digital sites like, Craigslist, Homefinder,,,, and In the 2000s, online listing platforms like GoSection8, Hotpads, Padmapper, Trulia, and Zillow introduced greater differentiation in target audiences and features. During the 2010s, mergers and acquisitions reduced the number of corporations that own and operate these websites.

The authors examined user interfaces of 17 rental listing platforms, documenting who can post to the platform, what listing features are prioritized, and how search results are displayed. Most websites had relatively low barriers to entry for who could post a rental listing, which is particularly important as most landlords and prospective tenants do not work with professional real estate brokers. The authors found that sites varied in what they provided on the initial search results page. Price, number of bedrooms, and location were universally provided, but some sites provided more details on building information, amenities, or pet policies. Most websites also employ a proprietary algorithm for displaying search listings by default which speaks to added variability in what prospective renters are shown above and beyond the listings available on the platform themselves.

Other research has indicated that in some metro areas, HUD’s Fair Market Rents (FMRs), used as a payment standard in the Housing Choice Voucher program, can be lower than the prices of listings found online. This suggests that the lowest-price units may not be marketed online or that FMRs underestimate how expensive housing is in some markets. To measure the relationship between listings on particular platforms and FMRs, the authors used web scraping scripts to collect listings from six platforms (Craigslist,, GoSection8, Padmapper, Trulia, and Zillow) in five metropolitan areas – Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Seattle.

In Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Phoenix, the 40th percentile asking rent among listings in most platforms was at least 20% higher than the corresponding metropolitan FMR. By contrast, in both San Antonio and Seattle, there was a much closer alignment between the 40th percentile asking rent online and the FMR. Seattle’s FMR is based on independent surveys rather than the American Community Survey, which may partly explain its closer alignment with online listings. Further research is needed to understand why some metropolitan areas have online listings that are better aligned with FMRs.

For an explanation of Fair Market Rents (FMRs), see Memo, 8/9 or NLIHC’s Advocates’ Guide, 2-31.

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