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What is the purpose of the ad?

There is a dual purpose for placing your classified ad. It is not just to rent your vacant unit.  The first purpose of the ad is to catch the eye of the person scanning the newspaper, develop his interest, and motivate him to take the next step, that is, to contact you. Whether that contact is by phone, visiting the apartment community or checking out your web site, you need to first catch his attention and then bring him to action. The second purpose of the ad is to pre-qualify the prospective tenant. You do this by providing enough general information that will attract quality tenants and discourage or reject others who will not meet your qualifications. A good example is stating the rent rate or security/cleaning amounts, number of bedrooms and listing “landlord references” in your ad.

            Even with the Internet explosion, which certainly has created an important new advertising medium, newspaper classifieds are still a potent tool.  Look at the numbers.  According to the latest surveys there are computers in 61% of American homes.  Of these homes, half are wired to the Internet.  If these proportions apply to rental home seekers, and they are probably close, that means that your Internet advertising will fail to reach seven out of ten persons in your potential market.  Because newspaper classifieds are traditionally associated with vacancy advertising, you can reach most of these seven out of ten through a newspaper’s classified.

What motivates the home seeker?

            Two things will best motivate the rental home seeker.  First, the rent amount, size of the unit, and location have to be right.  Second, there needs to be something special or unique about the unit that the potential tenant will want. Some in the rental business like to call these the “intrinsics” and others like to emphasize the “amenities.”

            The first motivator is really more of a filter or qualifier.  There is no point to the prospect calling a landlord who wants more rent than the prospect can afford.  If he is searching on behalf of his family consisting of himself, his wife, and two pre-teens, there is no point looking at a studio.  If he likes his kid’s school there is no point searching for a rental all the way across town.  Clearly, these basics need to be in the ad.  We will discuss where later on.

            The second motivator is what sells people.  It is what Samuel Goldwyn meant about selling the sizzle, not the steak.  This motivator is referred to as a feature and a benefit.  All features have benefits, and it is the benefit that closes the deal.  At this stage, you want the feature to capture the reader’s interest so he will come out and see, and then you can extol the benefits face-to-face.  Your unit has some unique feature, because all pieces of real estate are unique.  Give thought to what it is, then give the ad reader just enough to want more.

What it is you are selling.

            Before you write the first word of your ad you should sit down and make an inventory of all of the characteristics of your unit.  We recommend you do this in writing. Additionally take a careful look at the newspaper your are going to place your ad. See what your up against, evaluate other ads in the same category that get your attention and get a feel for what the reader or prospective tenant sees.

            First write, as a heading, “BASICS.”  Now make a list of all the basic items we discussed above.  When you complete the list of basics, it might read like this.


3 bdrm.

1½ bath

Rent rate amount

Security deposit amount

Now write the heading “FEATURES” and make a list of all the features that are not basic but might set your unit apart from others in the classifieds.  The list might look like this.  


enclosed garage

quiet location in back of complex

near shopping

landscape maintenance included

major appliances supplied

freshly painted throughout

central heat and air

small pets ok
newly installed carpet

            You have identified what you are offering, and can move to the next step.

What to put in your ad.

            Your ad should contain everything necessary to get the reader to your rental unit or resident manager’s office.  Let us pretend we are writing an ad for the town home we described above.

            In writing your ad, try to avoid abbreviations, except the most obvious ones, and never abbreviate a feature, you want it to stand out.  Many abbreviations can be confusing.  Confusion leads to frustration, which leads to the reader going on to the next ad.  Keep in mind that at $1500 per month, you will be losing $50 each day the unit is empty.  Balance the dollars you might save by using abbreviations against the risk of losing qualified prospects.

            We said that the basics are not really motivators, but qualifiers.  It makes sense to put them first (many newspapers require this anyway).  That way you will be sure they are read and avoid wasting time with people who find the unit is, say, beyond their means or too small.  For our town home the statement of the basics might look like this.

3br/1½ba town home, $1500/mo, enclosed garage.  Park district.

After due consideration we decided not to mention the back yard.  That can be a two edged sword.  The big issue is we are offering more than an apartment and at reasonable rent.  Note the use of the abbreviation “3br/1½ba.”  As we said before, it is all right to use an abbreviation if everyone knows what it means.  Note that we did not abbreviate “enclosed garage” to “enc gar,” the reaction to which would likely be, “What on earth is an encgar?”  Also, be sure to give the city or town if the paper does not offer separate sections for each town it serves.

            The next step is to write down the features you think would be attractive to the prospect.  You probably will not want to list all of them.  Instead, pick two or three of the best.  You do so and add a fragment including them.  Now your ad looks like this.

3br/1½ba town home, $1500/mo, enclosed garage.  Park district.  Landscape maintenance, major appliances included.  Small pets ok

You made your selection of features by actually looking at current advertising and seeing what is not there, or what is rarest, then emphasizing the things that are not taken for granted.  Remember, the function of the ad is to distinguish your offering and pique interest, causing the prospect to call and make an appointment to view the unit.

            The third step is to look at all the great features and decide how all this benefits a resident of the unit, then to put this into two or three words.  Put this between the basics and the features.  When you do so you may come up with this.

3br/1½ba town home, $1500/mo, enclosed garage.  Park district.  Quiet, comfortable, roomy.  Landscape maintenance, 
major appliances included.  Small pets ok.  

            The last step in the drafting is to provide the contact information.  Managers of apartment complexes might wish to include the address.  Most landlords do not have offices where they can receive prospects, so they might only give a phone number.  In our example case, even if you have an office, you will not want the prospect to come there.  You will want your meeting to be at the premises so you can show the unit while the prospect’s interest is highest.  For this reason we will specify a telephone number and a name (first name only, for security reasons).  The name is important as it personalizes the ad.  Now the ad might look like this.

3br/1½ba town home, $1500/mo, enclosed garage.  Park district.  Quiet, comfortable, roomy.  Landscape maintenance, major appliances included.  Small pets ok.  Call Zebulon, xxx-xxxx.  

Have an answering device to get all the calls.  If you do not have one or do not care to do that, then specify the hours during which calls will be taken.  Do not leave the line unanswered, as it is doubtful that a prospect will try a second time if he gets a long ring on the first.  If you direct the prospects to an office give the hours of operation.

What will make it different?

            If you look at a newspaper’s classified pages with your eyes half-focused, you will get an impression of light gray.  All those tens of thousands of words merge together to give an overall tone to the page.  Where is the eye drawn?  It is drawn to the black spots and the white spots.  You will sense this change in tone, color, or texture – your choice of description – subconsciously even when you are focusing on the text.  Your eyes and brain are not unique.  The best way to get attention on the classified page, short of going to a classified display ad (see below), is to make a black spot on the page (we’ve all heard for years about the importance of “white space”).

            There are several different ways to do this, but all involve bolding parts of the text.  The following are examples in increasing order of expense and impact.

3br/1½ba town home, $1500/mo, enclosed garage.  Park district.  Quiet, comfortable, roomy.  Landscape maintenance, major appliances included.  Small pets ok. Dep. $1500+ last months. Landlord references.  Call Zebulon, xxx-xxxx.  

3br/1½ba town home, $1500/mo, enclosed garage.     

Park district.  Quiet, comfortable, roomy.  Landscape maintenance, major appliances included.  Small pets ok.  . Dep. $1500+ last months. Landlord references. Call Zebulon, xxx-xxxx.  

3br/1½ba town home  

$1500/mo, enclosed garage.  Park district.  Quiet, comfortable, roomy.  Landscape maintenance, major appliances included.  Small pets ok. . Dep. $1500+ last months. Landlord references. Call Zebulon, xxx-xxxx.  

The reason this is effective is that not many are willing to spend the extra money that it requires.  Balance the cost against potential rent savings if you get noticed first.

            If you are really motivated, after all, there are motivated landlords just as there are motivated renters; a classified display ad might be useful.  A classified display is a cross between the typical classified text only and a display ad that might include graphics and dingbats.  The classified display’s primary characteristic is that it gives you several column inches that you can use to present your message.  You need not necessarily use graphics.  Graphics are tricky and expensive.  To be effective, they must be skillfully done.  But a classified display might contain only text yet still be different enough to perform its primary mission, to attract attention.  Consider a text only classified display something like this.


town home


Enclosed garage.  Park district.  Quiet, comfortable, roomy.  Landscape maintenance, major appliances included.  Small pets ok.  Call Zebulon, xxx-xxxx.

All right, a lousy example, but you get the idea.  Note that the eye is drawn to it, which is what the ad is primarily designed to do.  The staggered headline immediately qualifies the reader.  The white space serves the same purpose as the black spot in the regular classified, although you may still wish to bold the most important qualifying filters.  The down side is the expense, but, again, the expense may not be oppressive when weighed against the rent loss from the vacancy.

How long should the ad run?

            The final step is to decide which days the ad should run if the paper is a daily.  Sunday is a must.  Ideally, you could run the ad all seven days a week.  If money is not unlimited, select one other day during the week when there will be fewer ads (less competition).  Unfortunately, there will also probably be fewer readers, but there will still be enough to justify the cost, which the paper will adjust to reflect the smaller readership.  Consider a package deal if the paper offers one.  A detailed discussion of the strategy of ad placement is beyond the scope of this article, but the newspaper’s advertising salesperson will be able to give you some pointers based on their own experience.


Remember the basics for your best success;

            Get their ATTENTION

            Use a Keyword

            Be Descriptive

            Include Rent Rate (and other pre-qualifiers)

            Limit Abbreviations

            Run it for at Least Seven Days 
            (always include a Sunday)

            Include your Phone Number 
            (and web address if you have one), and

            Be Available When the Prospects Call!

These basics will put you ahead of the pack when you design your classified ad.  Now go ahead and place your ad.


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