Change Agent

Casalova founder Ray Taaeb on the future of apartment rentals

Taaeb and his team knew the process of renting an apartment was frustrating and time consuming. But changing landlord and tenant habits wasn’t easy

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Born in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and raised across Canada, Ray Taaeb moved often as a kid, but it wasn’t until he had to find his own place in Toronto that he discovered the slog of renting. So he and pal Curtis Layne co-founded online rental platform Casalova, which has gained more than 250,000 users since its launch in May 2015. He explains the difficult process of shifting longstanding habits of landlords and tenants:

“I’ve always been into real estate. After university, I took a job with KPMG’s real estate practice, which brought me to Toronto. I went through the process of trying to find a place on Kijiji, on Craigslist, on My roommates and I would set out full days to look at units, and then we’d have to sign, scan and send all these files back and forth. I thought, It’s 2013: There’s no way this is how it’s still done. I can pick up my phone and get an Uber right away or book a vacation in two seconds. Why is booking a long-term rental so different? Why can’t it be a very simple process?

“Around the same time, I met Curtis Layne, a software engineer. Together, we started working on this idea on the side. We knew there had to be a solution, but we didn’t want it to be simply, ‘Let’s take something that’s done offline and bring it online.’ When you look at processes, people tend to add elements over time, which makes things complicated and convoluted. I think when you experience a problem, you should ask, ‘Why is it actually like this?’ To me, that’s where the innovative ideas come from. In our case, the central issue came down to: ‘I am a person. This is a property. I want to rent it. What are all the essential steps—the stuff the landlord cares about and the stuff that is required—to make that happen?’ Our goal was to break it down just like that, digitize it and make it a complete and easy process that people could access from their phones.

“We quit our day jobs in late 2014 to go at this full time, and we launched Casalova in May of 2015. We started in Toronto, and we’re now in more than 120 cities across Canada.

“Changing consumer behaviour is so much harder than you think. We had to first let potential tenants know we existed, so we partnered with websites with much higher traffic than our own to drive people to our site. We also had to build an interface that was not insanely different to what people were used to but also immediately demonstrated our benefit. We solved that design challenge by not relying on text, but rather on gestures and buttons that feel intuitive.

“Convincing landlords, who actually provide us with our revenue, was tough at first. A landlord can be anyone with property—a doctor, a janitor— and while some are very tech-savvy, some are not. So again, simplicity of design has been key. Also, we offer a rent guarantee and vandalism coverage. If you book a tenant through our site and in two months he stops paying rent or wrecks the property on the way out, you’re covered by us. We initially backed that with our own reserves, which was a very scary thing to do, but then we got a lot of interest from insurance companies. Now we’ve partnered with Aviva Canada to underwrite these plans. These are insurance products that aren’t really available on the market, and landlords see huge value in them. We’re hoping it will inspire Canadians who didn’t want the risk to look at investing in real estate.

“We’re working to both simplify the rental process for everyone and offer peace of mind to landlords and tenants, and we think those are really positive things to bring to the market.”