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Homefinders Apparently on the Brink By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday December 14, 2004

Finding an apartment in Berkeley may no longer be difficult, but finding Homefinders is another matter. 

The company, Berkeley’s longest running pay-for-service housing locator, has all but disappeared in recent days, sparking concerns that it has folded. 

On Monday its office at 64 Shattuck Square was locked, the blinds drawn and the company sign removed from the front door. 

“We’ve had about 10 people knock on our door today wondering what happened to them,” said Doug Pestrak, an employee at a neighboring business. 

Homefinders’ landlord, who only gave his first name, Sasha, said the company had a short-term lease and that Homefinders’ employees hadn’t visited their office since Friday. 

Across the street, Davin Wong, president of eHousing, Homefinders’ lone remaining rival, said several Homefinders customers told him that the company was closing. 

Homefinders didn’t respond to the Planet’s telephone messages left Friday and Monday. On Saturday the company’s homepage disappeared, replaced by a message from Network Solutions that the site’s account “expired on Dec. 5 and is pending renewal or deletion.” 

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they were out of business,” said Berkeley landlord Mark Tarses. “The combination of high vacancy rates plus craigslist has made their business kind of obsolete.” 

Robert Cabrera, the former head of the Berkeley Property Owners’ Association, said more than 90 percent of his prospective tenants tell him they saw his ad on craigslist, not the pay services. 

“I don’t need to list with the other services,” said Cabrera. He added that craigslist has the additional benefit of allowing landlords to post their listings immediately, include pictures, and without having to leave a telephone number. 

Homefinders, which has served tenants and landlords in the East Bay for over 20 years, in past months reduced staffing from 20 to five and moved out of its longtime home on University Avenue to a small second story office at Shattuck Square. 

Linda Muller, a Homefinders customer who hasn’t been able to contact the organization and has had her e-mails bounce back to her, feared she might lose the balance of her subscription she bought two weeks ago. “This is really lousy,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Planet. “Now I have to rely on eHousing and craigslist. And I’m probably out my $60.” 

If it has folded, Homefinders would be Berkeley’s third pay-for-service outlet to go out of business since the housing crunch ended in 2001. Rental Solutions and Berkeley Connections were both purchased by competing San Francisco companies, which ultimately folded them. 

Cal Rentals, which operates a pay service for UC Berkeley students, has also struggled in the face of a weak rental market and a new breed of competitor, said Assistant Director Becky White. 

“Housing is easier for people to find on their own,” she said. “Now you can walk around town and find For Rent signs in windows, that never used to happen.” 

Wong insisted that eHousing, which would be the last pay-service in the East Bay if Homefinders closed, remained in sound fiscal shape. He said his business appealed to a different clientele than craigslist by offering more personal attention to landlords and renters. 

“We really don’t see them as a competitor. The market is the bigger problem,” he said. “Not so many tenants need help finding a place right now.” 

In figures collected earlier this year, Cal Rentals reported that the average Berkeley Studio cost $852, down from $1,102 at the peak of the housing crunch in 2001. 

One-bedroom apartments peaked at $1,375 in July 2001 and have dropped to $1,080. Two-bedroom units peaked in at $1,822 at the same time and dropped to a low of $1,356. Although Berkeley does not maintain an official vacancy rate, White and city officials have guessed that it stands between five and seven percent.