Five years ago, coin shop owner Mark Verge tried to help a friend get his money back from a rental agency that had placed misleading apartment ads.

They didn't get the refund, but the encounter led Verge, who wanted to get out of the rare coin business, to open his own rental agency in Santa Monica.

Jennifer Smith spoke with Verge about using local contacts and the Internet, and taking advantage of the current housing shortage, to build Westside Rental Connection into a bustling mini-empire.

"We list about 200 new rental properties a day. We charge apartment-seekers $60 for 60 days of access to the listings. Word-of-mouth is definitely key to getting business, so we give people their money back if they're not happy with the service.

"Listings are free for the landlords, and we provide them with free renter credit checks and photos of their properties, which we post with our Web listings. We make a lot of money off the site by selling ad space to furniture rental and cell phone companies.

"When we opened the office, we sent out a bunch of letters to apartment owners in order to get the listings. I knew a lot of people who owned apartments from growing up here in Santa Monica. We advertised in the L.A. Times as well, and we just drove around each day in search of for-rent signs.

"Now we have six drivers who go out every day looking for new properties. I also advertise everywhere, the Times, L.A. Weekly, Recycler, and even on the radio.

"The housing crunch is good for us. We now have 50 employees. I've opened up offices on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood and in Hermosa Beach, with plans for another in Studio City.

"The Melrose area and the Valley are just on fire right now. People who want to live in Santa Monica are having to move out to West L.A. and even the Valley because of the prices.

"I think that prices are going to stay pretty solid. When landlords ask for enormous rates, that just makes it harder to rent the property. We even tell landlords to lower rents a little bit in order to get the good tenants."

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