Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking the Idea of Room and Board to a New Level

In the multifamily industry, all of our relationships are conditional, and basically, quid pro quo. Except one. And that relationship is the one that starts with the individual who has a dream, a fleeting momentary spark of imagination that gets set on fire. That first idea of, “Wouldn’t it be great if …”

Our entire world has changed since the last recession hit and dug its heels in for a “short” haul. It’s changed due to many reasons, of course, not just that one, and part of what propelled the change has to be due to all the technological advances of The Computer Age. Baby Boomers aging out of their single family houses and suburbs have added to the trendiness of moving to cities and thus relocating to apartments, rather than other, single family houses that may now be not modern with up-to-date amenities. There is a definite shift in the perception that it is hip and trendy and chic to live in cities, the preferred “Urban Playgrounds” in cities all around the country, and not just large metropolitan areas.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I am truly intrigued with apartment living, the concepts of creating communities and who participates. In my mind, I want to know, wouldn’t it be great if apartments were based around creating its own viable Walk Score? Apartment living needs to get rid of, once and for all, the idea of it being a “Complex” and start acting like a “Community.” What better way of doing this than including amenities such as onsite restaurants, onsite convenience stores, valet recycling services and meditation areas? I would love to live somewhere like this! I would pay more for an apartment that also includes these amenities because it would cut down on my need to always have to drive to purchase groceries or food, always have to tip the delivery driver of the local sandwich shop and give me the option to meet my neighbors, even if I have to initially go it alone. I think it would be nice to also include a “watering hole”: a nice wine/coffee bar with desserts, so that the fun would not have to end at 10:00 p.m. The idea of "room and board" apartment communities appeals to me.

Student Housing competes with dorm living a lot in most university towns. So what is so great about living in a dorm? Dorms are usually cramped, hot (no air conditioning) and rule-oriented. There is not a lot of education offered about independent living, such as how to select the floorplan that meets your needs, budget, and lifestyle, how to read a legal binding document (lease) and how to budget your income to fulfill the lease terms. The benefit of living on campus though is it may feel more secure and you can get food pretty much any time, whether you have a meal plan or fast food options on campus and you generally don’t have to have a car, even if you go to school in the suburbs. You can usually do your laundry on campus, too.

I think it would be fantastic to offer this same kind of truly all inclusive, easy lifestyle to students who want and would greatly benefit from living off campus. I also think it would be a viable lifestyle option for those who do not want to commit to a thirty-year mortgage (or even a 15-year one) because they aren’t sure the job they have now is the job they will have in 15-30 years, much less even next year for many. Couples who are starting out, but who opt to delay marriage or childbearing may also wish to have more time to pursue fun activities like weekends away, instead of mowing grass, raking leaves, buying and preparing food and having an onsite restaurant and/or coffee shop might be just the ticket to keep them renting longer.

I can build the castles in the air. Ahhhh, someday I would like to put the foundation underneath, too.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Danger! Danger! Will Robinson!

On Thursday, residents came home to a fine white dust covering the front stoop of the entryway to their building. It covered the railings on the steps, even the doorknobs and locks on the doors. Footprints tracked all over the landing carpeting and when I saw this I knew it was from the concrete stoop and sidewalk. I figured it the management company must be planning to replace the concrete stoop but there was no flyer on the door to alert residents of what was happening.

The next day they had installed a ramp across the area where the concrete had been removed. There was no handrail or anything and the step up was at least six inches which seemed a bit steep to me. 

It was possible to go down the one flight of steps to the mailbox; however, that was blocked by a large orange cone. Therefore, I doubt many residents bothered to get their mail. The next day the new concrete had been poured, but the ramp remained and the two large cones as well. 

It is unbelievable to me that the management of this apartment community authorized this type of work in an area where one resident walks with a cane, another is recently diagnosed with MS, and yet a third one is elderly and provide no notice. It remains to be seen if the ramp will be removed when the new week commences. However, it would behoove this Management Company to be more proactive should they need to complete this type of project in the future, and if not, then I hope they have good insurance.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

So, You Wanna Renew Your Lease, or What?

The past year had already been filled with enough drama, and now that treatments were scheduled, she really wanted nothing more than to get settled somewhere she could recover and be at peace. Not inexperienced in apartment hunting, she knew the area well though she had not lived in an apartment in the area before. She began her search for a rental house but when the one she wanted “got away” she narrowed her search to only one Management Company she had heard nothing terrible about, and whose communities included heat in the rental price. (She had a feeling it would be a bad winter. As it turns out, she was very right!)

Her daughter accompanied her when she decided that Saturday to visit. She and Lauren had been having a late lunch that day and headed over to the leasing office. The person working that Saturday was really the “business assistant manager” who rarely handled leasing duties but it was his weekend to work. She explained what she was looking for so he had her follow in her car to the apartment. Knowing there would always be stairs involved at this property was a consideration but would not prevent her from choosing to live there if she liked the unit.
As soon as she and Lauren entered, they noticed the new carpet, white walls, the new gas stove and new dishwasher, plus new washer and dryer. The closets were exactly perfect. The rent was a bit higher but considering the gas heat was included it would probably be worth it. She and Lauren discussed painting the walls (he said it was permitted) and were happy that there was light filtering in. A tree right off the balcony pretty much sealed the deal when the business manager/leasing rep said, “Take your time, I only have a few minutes until my appointment comes.”

“Oh, well, we can leave now, that’s okay,” she said. After all, they had shown up without an appointment. However, she did kind of wonder if his sarcasm was meant as that or was just for informational purposes and not intended as sarcasm, and it left her feeling a bit embarrassed. They went back to the office and she asked for an application. He again explained he had someone coming in and asked her to take it with her should she decide to fill it out. Once she submitted the application, with little fanfare, she was unceremoniously “passed on” to a leasing consultant and never actually talked to him again.

Fast forward through the year of her residency at XYZ Apartments. Having moved in, finding through her term that the air conditioning did not work, was not fixed at move in, and finding it needed further work orders once the weather became hot again (she gave up after three tries that fall), finding that the furnace also did not work and required three trips for servicing (but kept her warm throughout the awful winter once fixed!) and having a problem with the refrigerator and garbage disposal, she was not unhappy. After all, maintenance responded and eventually things were fixed. She was a very patient person anyway.

She noticed that she never saw the actual Manager and had never had any contact with him. Was he a “he?” She really wasn’t sure. She placed her rent checks through the Rent Drop Slot at the office and only had reason to stop in to pick up an occasional package. Normally, she had her packages shipped to her office. She received only two newsletters and neither contained ANY personalized community information or articles. They were simply generic recipes and seasonal articles she could have read or not read as they had no impact on her life one way or the other. (A waste of money on the part of the Management Company, she thought.) Even when there was something Management needed to let residents know, they simply posted a bland “DON’T DO THIS” type of flyer at the bank of mailboxes in each building’s entry area. On one occasion, she did receive a telephone call asking if things were okay in her apartment, but the call was made during working hours and she was not able to talk to the person. But she called back to assure the Office person that things were fine.

In the back of her mind, it occurred to her that her lease was expiring within three months, so perhaps this was their attempt at “resident retention.” Hummm. She had however, received two increases to the Amenity Fees already, thus increasing her monthly costs. They weren’t extreme, but it was annoying. All in all, her experience with the Office and Maintenance teams was not bad … with one exception. Noise from the adjoining apartment.

It was unfortunate that the living room wall adjoins the Master Bedroom wall. She had been awakened frequently throughout her tenure by conversations late at night, most often after 2:00 am. The worst was the music the neighbor played beginning at 10:00 pm or at 4:30 am. She had no choice other than to call the Office to ask for help in resolving the issue. She felt she had no other way to explain the issue other than to reinforce the fact that she was sick and undergoing treatments. She was often in pain and frequently sick after treatments. The last thing she needed was to be awakened at 4:30 am (multiple times, in fact) when many times, she had only just fallen asleep because pain was keeping her awake. On these nights when she was awakened, she had to leave her bed and go to the couch or the Guest Room to lie on the twin bed. The twin bed, although very comfy, was positioned in front of the window, which unfortunately leaked massive amounts of cold air.

The Office was sympathetic but other than sending the offender a note or on one occasion the on-call Maintenance person (which was their policy to send), there wasn’t much they could do. When the woman observed several people moving each weekend that spring, she couldn’t help but pray that one of them be the noisy neighbor who apparently couldn’t care less about her neighbor losing sleep.
Now, I ask you, when she receives the obligatory letter in her mailbox asking her to renew, what do you think her answer will be? “Hi, Mrs. Fill-in-the-Blank,” she imagines the voice on the phone saying brightly, “You wanna renew your lease? If so, please come to the Office before 6:00 tonight and sign your new lease!”

All the conversations in the world about customer service and resident retention are lost on Management Companies who allow their onsite teams to remain passive in their interactions with Residents. There are so many ways to improve their level of service, but when it falls on deaf ears, and no one wants to learn sign language, how do you get the teams communicating with the very people who are the reason they are in business?

Of course it starts at the first Showing and Tour, continues through the lease signing, and keeps on going throughout maintenance requests and rent payments. But what do you do in between those things? Resident retention has to mean more than an occasional once-a-year pool party. It should be a personalized goal of every onsite team member to say hello, to reach out, to be visible to our Residents. It should not matter that you have 900 units. In each of those 900 units are 900 families/individuals with their own stories. Is it too much to ask for a newsletter (if you do one) that includes property specific information? Is it too much to expect that the Community Manager actually introduce himself to the Residents? Or, does the onsite team change so often there is no continuity?

It is my belief that what Residents really want and would deeply appreciate is service. They would love help installing drapery rods, hanging shelves, painting an Accent Wall, replacing crappy switch plate covers and closet knobs with updated ones, help carrying packages back to their apartments every once in a while. They might like having lunch sent to them at home on a weekend or to their offices. They would appreciate replacement windows that don’t leak air every winter! They might really love to have a new refrigerator (after all, should you only replace appliances in the vacant units?) Maybe a little sound-proofing would be the perfect solution. Maybe a nice gift would be the use of a carpet for one year free of charge for someone who has lived with your community for several years, their own parking spot, special Honorary Plaque with their name on it in the Clubhouse. How about bringing in a picnic to newlyweds on a Friday evening, or to the new parents who might be a bit overwhelmed? How about installing new light fixtures, microwave over the stove, ceiling fan in the bedroom, extending the patio area, garden plots nearby? Why not have “white noise machines” available and loan them out to those residents who are complaining about noisy neighbors (especially during those questionable hours like afternoon and early morning)?

There are so many ideas for Resident Parties ideas out there. For those communities that plan events, try thinking about pleasing your demographic, instead of doing the same things over again because they are “easy” or have “always done them” or worrying that people expect a Holiday Party? Plan midnight pool parties, Late Night Study Break parties, outdoor Movie Nights, bus trips to outlet malls, Casino Nights with Lottery Ticket Give-Aways.

Residents may not even know what they are missing because I believe it is up to us to lead the way and educate them! Money spent on retention is money well-spent and maybe it is time to educate our Management Companies, too.