FLOYD – Amour Kasongo’s life has not always gone according to plan, but he’s often turned those changes into opportunities. He hopes to do that again by turning his website into a business.
Born in war-torn Rwanda, Kasongo moved around several Central African countries before moving with his family to Roanoke in the early 2000s, where he enrolled in college. In 2005, the 21-year-old Virginia Western Community College nursing student bought a house and began renting part of it out to tenants.
“I believe at the time I was in college trying to find a place to live, so I needed a house to live in, too,” he said. “I think it was accidental, where I realized I could turn the thing into a business.”
He had planned to continue studying nursing, but quit when he became immersed in real estate, he said.
Kasongo, who lives in Floyd, said that today he owns six rental houses in Roanoke. As with other businesses, the Internet is changing the rental market, and again, Kasongo hopes to turn a disruption to his advantage.
About a year and a half ago, Kasongo launched Yardstick, an online rental listings website with a partner in Maryland. The site seeks to aggregate listings from across the Roanoke and New River valleys in ways similar to better-known platforms such as Zillow, Trulia and apartments.com. Listings, which feature a range of relevant information, can be posted by landlords, or submitted to Kasongo’s team for processing, he said.
Kasongo said he thinks his site is a better option than Craigslist, a popular source of rental information, but one that can open the door to scammers.
A Blacksburg couple, who put their Maple Ridge Village home up for sale in March, found their house listed for rent on Craigslist for just $700 a month. The rental listing was part of a so-called “419 scheme,” in which criminals search websites listing homes for sale, copy the information and post the house at a greatly discounted rate, diverting the payments to themselves.
Yardstick hopes to calm fears of such scams with a professional look and a promise to post only verified rental listings. On Thursday the site was down, but Kasongo said he was working to get it back up.
Not all Yardstick’s listings are done at the request of landlords. A listing for a duplex on Hearthstone Drive was posting without the landlord’s knowledge, said John Byers of Blacksburg-based Townside Property Management. The duplex is no longer available, he said.
But Byers was not surprised about the listing on Yardstick. It’s not uncommon for websites to copy and advertise properties available for rent. He said it doesn’t affect Townside because the company is not paying any fees to sites that advertise the property.
“Not sure what I would do about preventing them from that,” he said. “Anybody can copy anything right now.”
Kasongo said he makes some money from referral fees based on the listings, but so far Yardstick has not made a big profit. Other revenue models he’s considering include financing a year’s worth of rental payments for a tenant and allowing them to repay Yardstick with interest.
Some landlords will knock off the last month’s rent on a lease if a tenant pays a year in advance, Kasongo noted, possibly reducing costs for tenants.
And it could reduce costs for rentees. Such a service would solve the problem of collecting rent every month, he said.
Starting in June, Kasongo said Yardstick will introduce an option for tenants to pay their regular monthly rent via the site and might offer incentives for landlords to register to receive electronic payments.
Online payments are common these days, mostly through banks, which can do electronic bill-pay or send checks to payees on behalf of account holders. Rent payment apps, such as RadPad and RentPayment, also exist.
But Kasongo said he thinks there is value in making local rental payments more convenient for both tenants and landlords.