Online Portals: Resident Managers Offer Leading Edge Communications Tools for Existing and Potential Tenants

Janice Rosenburg
Journal of Property Management
January 31 2008


A Web site boasting high-end photography and up-to-the-minute features helps attract and retain residents at Mark-Taylor communities in Arizona. This resident "portal," as it is called, allows potential residents to tour properties and complete rent applications. Once they're onboard, residents can pay rent, request maintenance and interact with one another from their own desktops.

"I think it's something that residents are demanding," says Kim Atkinson, director of marketing and public relations for Mark-Taylor, a Scottsdale-based management company with more than 13,000 units in the Southwest. "People spend a lot of time at their computers and we're giving them ways of communicating with each other and with us."

Adding resident portal software to management Web sites can be done easily. "Out-of-the-box," customizable software solutions cost about $100-$149 per month per property, said Ben Zimmer, president of Property Solutions, a provider of Web-based property management software tools in Provo, Utah.

"Resident portals are definitely a worthwhile investment and one we'll continue to use as we move forward," Atkinson said.

ONLINE ATTRACTION

The resident portal trend has been growing for the last five years. Today, they're close to being obligatory.

"The growing acceptance of resident portals is simply a reflection of demographics and the nation's use of the Internet," said David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C. "If your residents are online, you have to be, too."

This is especially true for members of Generation Y, potential residents ages 17 through 25 who are "getting ready to stream through our properties," said A. David Lynd, COO of The Lynd Company, based in San Antonio with 30,000 units in the southeastern United States.

"It's an online generation and they require online interaction with everyone they do business with," Lynd said.

Even before they sign on at resident portals, potential residents begin connecting with savvy management companies through prospective resident portals. According to Satisfacts Research, a provider of resident relationship management services in Lutherville, Md., 70 to 80 percent of apartment seekers begin their searches online.

"Nowadays phone numbers are harder to memorize than Web addresses so we use ours on all our signage," Guerrero said. "That attracts people to our Web site and our site shows potential residents how we can help them automate their lifestyles when they move in."

Software aimed at prospective residents, created by Resident Source, a provider of Web-based property management tools in Norfolk, Va., makes available everything from 360-degree virtual tours to floor plans, maps and appointment self-schedulers. Site visitors can tour resident portals and see the services that will be available once they move in, said company spokesperson, Anna Facemire.

VIRTUAL APPLICATION

Until recently, applying for an apartment has meant visiting several properties, choosing one, returning to the management office to complete an application, or completing an application at home and faxing it to the office.

Today, all things being equal, potential residents are likely to choose a unit in a community that empowers them to take the next step by applying online, said Jake Harrington, head of business development at On-Site.com, a provider of customized solutions for residential property managers in Mountain View, Calif.

Atkinson said having the portal linked to their property management software definitely makes the process easier for staff as well.

"The leasing agent can get on the telephone, help prospects choose a unit and walk them through the online application process in real time," Atkinson said.

Once the applicant's information is received, it integrates seamlessly into property management back office software. Without having to be re-entered, the application data can be used to complete background checking and leasing forms. This eliminates mistakes and costs associated with entering information multiple times.

MUTUAL BENEFITS

On the management side, portals integrate efficiently with financial software already in place, making the rent payment and related processes a snap. Traditionally, residents bring rent checks to management offices around the first of the month. Someone in the office has to handle each check, enter it into the system, stamp it and get it to the bank. Today, residents pay online with credit cards or automatic bank withdrawals. Payments are posted directly to the management company's general ledger.

"Where my staff on-site normally would be taking rent payments and work orders, now that's pushed off to a virtual environment where residents are responsible for managing some of their own accounts," Lynd said. "Instead of doing paperwork, my managers have time to work on things that add value to the property, like marketing or resident satisfaction."

An estimated 35 percent of Mark-Taylor residents pay rent online, Atkinson said. "It definitely makes things easier for our employees when residents use the pay online feature," she says.

Another timesaver comes in the area of training. When processes are automated and simple, it's easy to get new office employees up to speed. "It's really important that we train our staff so that everyone buys into the online services," Guerrero said. "We show people how it helps eliminate a lot of keystrokes and paperwork, and how it's really improved our operations."

And because all of these services are Web-based and accessed through a Web browser, the data is secure. If a management company's computer is stolen or crashes, nothing is lost.

AS TIME GOES BY

As residents move into the community, portals continue to add value. For example, On-Site.com has incorporated Whitefence, an online marketplace for utilities and home services in Houston, into its online software.

Whitefence helps new residents find movers and sign up for utility services. Residents get the best cable rates while management companies gain ancillary revenue through fees paid to them by Whitefence.

Once residents have settled in, they continue visiting the portal to request maintenance repairs, communicate with neighbors or find apartments for their friends. They can read bulletin boards or list items for sale in classified ads.

"We post notices about meetings and about our Saturday farmer's market," said CPM Candidate Amy Guerrero, leasing and marketing manager for Parkmerced, a 3,221-unit tower and townhouse property in San Francisco. "We have a recycling program that's piloting a composting project. In San Francisco, those issues are important to people. The resident portal brings [residents] together to talk about the issues and helps them buy into the community."

Additionally, portals can include local search engines such as those created by Property Centric, a provider of custom built local search engines and online marketing strategies in Erdenheim, Penn.

Engines categorize 95 percent of what residents typically search for daily into 120 service categories including churches, drycleaners, restaurants and barbers, said company president, Rob Remus. Managers receive payments from advertisers and a percentage of the profits when residents make direct purchases.

Lynd considers local search engines more of an amenity than a profit generator.

"The product helps keep residents ingrained in the area around the property and that could cause resident satisfaction to increase and create a loyalty that other properties don't have," he said.

Overall, Lynd believes resident portals are the obvious next frontier for the property management industry. "Those who get ahead of the curve and adopt them earliest will be in a better position to win," he said.

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