Mike Cerny

Photo: Dennis Rodkin

Mike Cerny, the Chicago entrepreneur behind DoNotRent.com.

Is there trouble where you rent? Here’s a place to vent. The Chicago-born DoNotRent.com wants to be the main place that tenants go when they want to say something like “Stay Away! Living here is absolute hell!” or “If I was rich, I would buy it to tear it down just so no one would ever have to go through what I went through living there.”

But people who’ve had a good experience renting are also invited to say so at DoNotRent, even though posts along the lines of “They were very considerate of my needs…and even gave us Easter baskets!” are nowhere near as fun to read.

Mike Cerny, the Chicago entrepreneur behind DoNotRent, gets that, but he hopes that the thumbs-down reviews that bring visitors will be leavened by thumbs-up reviews that give the site credibility, and bring in advertisers. The name DoNotRent, he says “has shock value, but we’re trying to remain neutral. The positive and negative reviews together help the [user] make an informed decision about where to rent.” To make the site’s neutrality abundantly clear, the home page shows both positive and negative reviews that are trending.

Since the site moved from beta to live in November 2012, the ratio of negative to positive reviews has been about 70:30, Cerny says. He believes a sign that the site is getting traction will be when those numbers shift.

“The way I see it is, angry reviews are always going to come, and they might attract positive reviews,” says Cerny, who in his day job does valuation analysis for commercial real estate. “If somebody sees a negative review of [a rental] where they had a positive experience, they’ll be compelled to provide a positive review.” On top of that, he hopes landlords will be moved to clean up whatever messes are highlighted in negative reviews of their properties and say so on DoNotRent.

DoNotRent was born from Cerny’s own experience with a lousy landlord: He says that when he rented a River North penthouse from 2008 to 2010 with his wife, who was pregnant part of that time, the downstairs neighbors smoked dope and had loud late-night parties but the landlords didn’t respond to complaints that both noise and smoke were drifting up to the Cerny apartment. (The couple later bought a house in Glenview.)

While larger sites like apartments.com are out there with space for reviews, Cerny wanted to do something that was easier to navigate and better set up for social media. “The top two sites don’t have social sharing capabilities,” Cerny says. “Little things like sharing on Facebook and Twitter should be simple.”

Those other sites’ “poor user-friendly platform makes me want to compete to steal their market share,” he says.

The startup life is rough, as Cerny has witnessed. After several months live, DoNotRent has about 2,400 users and 2,000 reviews. In order to attract big investors—at this point, the three-person team is funded out of Cerny’s pocket—he estimates the site needs to be getting about 5,000 unique visitors a day; he declined to say exactly how far below that benchmark the site is now.

“We have to engage with millions of renters; that’s the struggle right now,” Cerny says.