Fast Facts for Managing Prospective Renters’ Expectations
Surveys gauging how renters use technology to rent and live at apartments are taking on a sense of urgency at SatisFacts and ApartmentRatings.com. Because more renters are finding their homes on mobile, tablet and desktop applications, the leading multifamily research firm is going back to the well more often.
Since the first technology-oriented survey emerged in 2011, consumers are spending more time online prospecting for apartments. Enough that SatisFacts is monitoring what is becoming the norm in multifamily every two years.
Lia Nichole Smith, SatisFacts Vice President of Education and Performance, recalls that apartment hunting required much more legwork when she started in multifamily 16 years ago.
“Before people would jump in their cars with their apartment book, spending a whole Saturday going around with dog-eared pages, collect all the information, tons of paper and all the leasing folders that we would give them,” she told an audience at the Texas Apartment Association Education Conference & Exposition in San Antonio. “But we are starting to see more people spend time up front doing their own research, going online to look at websites before making contact.”
Seven years ago, before Smith climbed from a role in Operations to join SatisFacts and help lead research, the company wanted to get a better feel for the emerging trend of online renting. The 2011 Online Renter Study asked renters nationally to rate the importance of using technology to find their next home, earning a 3.87 on a scale of 5.0.
A follow-up in 2015 yielded a surprising 4.01.
“We revisited the survey in 2015 and were very shocked at the dramatic difference that had taken place as people looked for help to find an apartment,” she said. “We didn’t want to wait another four years, because who knows what might happen.”
In 2017, SatisFacts released its third Online Renter Study in six years and the rating climbed again, this time to 4.15, including a nation-leading 4.33 in Texas. The next study is slated to launch the end of this year.
The surge explains how renters feel about multifamily’s ongoing shift to technology, Smith said. The lead survey question asks the importance of an apartment community being committed to utilize the internet and new technologies to enhance communication, service and the resident experience.
“With a 4.15, the narrative here is that it is important,” she said.
In survey vernacular, over 4.0 means that it’s getting very close to extremely important. Thus, the array of available technological tools that include online renting, payment portals and community bulletin boards is becoming more desirable.
“Over time, residents are saying that because life in general has become more technology driven, I need that to be present in every aspect of my life,” Smith said. “Things like having a portal where residents can pay rent on line (are important). If you do not have a really robust resident portal, if you don’t have the online options for your residents you’re going to have a tough time going forward when it comes to retention.”
And if a resident can’t find those convenient features, they’ll go somewhere else, she added.
“As rents go up, your residents are expecting more. We’ve got to make sure residents are getting their money’s worth.”
Generally, more renters are signing leases online. When asked last year if they had rented their current apartment without visiting the community first, 12.7 percent said they had, compared to 4.1 percent in 2011.
Also, when prospects use technology they want to control communication and have as little face-to-face contact as possible. LiveChat, Skype and Facetime are not and continue to drop in favor of email and texting for younger and older audiences, Smith said.
“Least important is live chat,” she said. “They don’t want to be sold yet. They’re not ready yet to start interacting with you. I think we will see that shift a little bit, but renters want to gather as much information on their own. They want to make the first move.”
That means that websites must be more about information and less about marketing, she said. Because prospects typically have their minds made up about what they are looking for they really want to know if a community has it, what it looks like and if it’s affordable.
Once they lease, residents want an open door to communication. A whopping 94 percent favored using a portal if the community offered it and 83 percent said they’d use it to rent online. More than three-quarters say they want to fill out service requests online rather than make a phone call to the front office or maintenance line.
“That’s a huge number,” says Smith.
“The desire for remote contact is widespread,” she added. “They want as little face-to-face interaction as possible. Personal interaction is saved for escalated issues. The ones who come into office have more urgency than someone who has a general question.”
Smith expects renters to further embrace technology and online tools in the future. In return, multifamily operators have to make the leasing process as simple and crystal-clear as possible, starting with the website.
“It’s all about transparency,” she said. “Because your renters are looking at multiple sources and collecting information upfront, there has to be transparency. This is who we are, what we are about.”
Important information they can’t find in a deformed apartment listing booklet.