New web tool helps students calculate apartment rental costs

By Shelby Ashline

Daily Collegian File Photo
Daily Collegian File Photo

In 2011, Jon Bittner, then a graduate student at Harvard University, came up with an idea to develop a website that would help roommates keep track of shared expenses. Today, Bittner and two other co-founders, Ryan Laughlin and Marshall Weir, have successfully created that website, which they call Splitwise.

The Splitwise business, which is run out of Providence, R.I., recently added a tool that helps users determine the average rent based on the number of bedrooms, apartment size and city, as well as how many roommates they should get in order to successfully live on their individual budget.

The idea for the average rent tool was sparked when the Splitwise business received a data set from RentMetrics, a company that specializes in gathering and analyzing rental data on homes and apartments. The data set consisted of over two million apartment prices gathered from across the United States for each type of apartment, such as studio and three-bedroom.

“Initially we got the data set and just brainstormed all the different ways we could use it, and we decided that this tool would be the most interesting and the most beneficial to people,” said Zoe Chaves, who works in marketing and business development at Splitwise as one of only two full-time employees.

RentMetrics collected the data used in Splitwise’s tool from July 1 to Sept. 1 of 2013, after which the Splitwise team spent a period of three weeks building the tool. It was made available to online users for the first time on Oct. 31, 2013.

The site is entirely free to use and can be accessed through a mobile app which has been available for the past year. It can be downloaded on both Apple and Android products. However, the average rent calculator is only available on the web.

In addition to the expense logs and the average rent tool, Splitwise also has several side projects that aid in other calculations.

“We have a calculator, based again on a big data set, where you plug in the attributes of each room (such as size, number of windows, etc.) and the total rent, and it tells you how to split the rent in a fair way,” Chaves said.

Another one of the site’s calculators helps students who are selling their dorm or apartment furniture to determine a fair asking price for their items “based on value and depreciation.”

Chaves explained that the users of Splitwise appreciate the site because of the “simple and intuitive experience” that it provides.

“A lot of other apps that try and help people with the issue of logging expenses between friends… they feel kind of clunky.” Chaves said. She added, “I think one of our biggest improvements over some of our competitors certainly is that … for lack of a better word, we’re very sleek and … generally very highly polished in functioning.”

“We have very few … crashes and bugs these days and we are very responsive to user feedback,” she added. “Usually if someone writes in with an issue or question we’re pretty good (about answering within 48 hours) at the very most.”

The Splitwise team wants to keep promoting their new average rent tool throughout the country to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the tool’s data so that those people can make informed decisions about renting.

“We think that data is awesome and that it should be available to lots of people, which is why when we got this data set, we knew we wanted to do something really great with it,” said Chaves.

Chaves also hopes that Splitwise will be able to continuously update its data, whether or not that data is given to them again by RentMetrics. Without fresh, accurate data, the future of the new tool could be compromised.

The Splitwise team hopes to continue to expand and improve their website in a variety of ways.

For one, Chaves suspects that the Splitwise team will grow and take on more employees within the next year. Ideas for new aspects of the site are also in the works.

“We think it would be really great if someday … you could see your household bills and pay them from (the Splitwise site),” Chaves said. “That’s something we would really like to make happen. We think it would be very useful, we think it would make a lot of sense and (it’s) something we’re definitely keeping on our timeline.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected]

Check out a graphic detailing apartments in the Amherst area