For better or for worse, with the Covid-19 epidemic, change has been thrust upon us.  Some will be paralyzed by fear and uncertainty.  They will ‘wait for the crisis to pass’ or wait to ‘see what others are doing’.

Change can be hard.  Things are less comfortable for everyone.  Routines have been broken.  Some of the adjustments people are making now, like wearing masks and social distancing, will certainly be temporary while others will be more permanent.  Just know that we will not be getting ‘back to normal’ anytime soon.  Now is your opportunity to review the way you have been operating, take some action, and make some changes.

In every crisis, there are always opportunities.  Whether the market stabilizes or turns terrible, as long as you commit to being better than those around you, you’re going to continue to find a way to attract and keep good tenants.  Below are a few key areas to focus on:

Rethink Your Attitude:

Now it is time to revisit what got you’ve been doing and make some changes.  Unlike office and retail properties, multifamily is in high demand.  People still need a place to live.  Providing a good quality product and treating your residents as valued customers has always been important to keeping high occupancy and in keeping turnover to a minimum.

During these times, many owners have discovered the difference between having cooperative residents living in their properties who continue to pay rent (or at least try their best), versus the ones threatening rent strikes.  In many cases, the difference is not whether the resident had the ability to pay the rent, it is whether or not they felt they had been taken care of as a valued resident.

Communication with your residents is critical.  If the only time they hear from you is when they get a rent increase or when you’re having to fix something broken in their apartment, you are more likely to get a ‘stick it to the landlord’ attitude rather than ‘we’re all in this together’.  Many jurisdictions are now temporarily banning evictions, so the burden falls even more on you to focus on your customer service and negotiation skills.

Rethink Your Policies:

The first thing I’d recommend is to set up a more pro-active communication policy.  Many have found that pro-actively communicating with residents has been critical in gaining cooperation during the crisis.  But even after, communicating with all of your residents regularly will pay dividends in connection and responsiveness.  We have calendared contact points throughout the lifecycle of the tenancy in order to catch any problems while they are small, to help build connection, and to see what we can do to would make the resident’s stay better, and help us keep them longer as a rent-paying tenant.

Aligning your tenant’s behaviors and your goals is another area to focus on.  This might mean setting up systems like ACHs and autopay – so rent is paid first and doesn’t compete with other bills.  It could mean implementing a loyalty program (similar to hotel or airline programs) where your residents earn points toward prizes.  These programs will improve both compliance and retention rates at your property.

Perhaps its time to review your pet policies and see what you can do to open up your building to more potential pet owners to increase your revenue.  Breed based policies rather than weight-based policies make a big difference in reducing damage, at least when it comes to dog owners.

Now would be a good time to review your screening criteria and make adjustments to generate a larger pool of applicants while still protecting the property.  Review what has worked and what hasn’t with your current criteria.  Maybe you can adjust income criteria if offset by credit history or previous length of tenancies.  It is easy to get complacent over time, and everything should be re-evaluated on its merits from time to time.

Prioritize Renewals:

It is cheaper to keep an existing good customer than to find a new one.  Many owners are belatedly re-discovering how important treating their residents as good customers is.  We had 100% collections in both April and May.  I’m not sure most owners can say that.

And while leasing will start to get easier as ‘Shelter-in-Place’ orders are lifted, there’s no better way to reduce your vacancies than by not having them in the first place.

Focus on your existing customers.  Your residents pay your bills.  Why most people focus more on leasing than they do on keeping their existing good customers has always perplexed me.  There has never been a better time to start implementing a strong customer experience/customer retention program.

Now is a good time to approach your existing residents regarding extending their leases.  Rents are more likely to go down than up over the short term, so why not consider locking in that good resident and keeping them rather than being at the mercy of the market.

Revolutionize Your Leasing:

Over the past decade, technology has changed the face of travel, of hotel bookings, and of many other services.  But, until now, not so much in multifamily.  That is changing.

Given the whole social distancing mindset, it’s time to get creative with your leasing.  If you’ve always just done ‘one on one’ leasing tours or open houses, you now being forced to implement some new options for your prospects and residents that will probably become routine in the near future but are not yet pervasive in the industry, especially amongst independent owners.

You can post YouTube videos of the property on your site, do 3-D tours, and post 3-D floorplans, all to aid in leasing when many people are still hesitant to initially tour sites physically.  You can offer people the option of self-guided tours by using locks with automated codes (or by just leaving the unit unlocked).  You can also lease using Facetime or by doing live virtual tours.

The advantages of self-guided tours is they allow potential residents to tour based on their schedule and not have to confine themselves to the leasing agent’s schedule or even the apartment office hours.  There are many different applications, some of which integrate into your website.  You can set up criteria to gain access (like downloading an ID to get a temporary access code) or have them schedule specific viewing times.

The downside, of course, is there is no one there to answer questions or to show the highlights of your property.  That can be mitigated somewhat by scheduling a brief call during the showing.  Self-showings can be a huge benefit, especially if you have several smaller properties and don’t want to have to drive to each one for every potential tour.

Rather than self-showings, many people have found great success using virtual tours.  While these can include recorded elements (such as of the building amenities), the power of virtual tours is the live interaction that can accompany the tour.  Virtual tours are not the same as a physical tour and should be practiced in-house before offering them publicly.

Of course, there are many variations, such as using online scheduling for tours or doing live tours with social distancing.  For live tours, I recommend you open up the windows in advance, keep hand sanitizer around, and offer gloves or facemasks to potential prospects, to put them at ease.  You can meet them outside after the tour to answer any questions.

Whatever options you have that go beyond the standard showing, make sure you are promoting it on your property website.  Remember, the goal of using technology is to free your staff to focus on human interaction.  High Tech, High Touch is the mantra (except we have to temper the word ‘touch’ these days).

Move Toward Touchless Public Spaces:

Creating something special at your property that differentiates it from the competition is always good in leasing – and in retention.  You can take advantage of the shift in societal norms and behaviors that the virus has created.

While many current behaviors, such as wearing masks and standing six feet away from others will fade away as treatments develop, the desire for touchless technology will likely increase.  Doors that are opened by people’s smartphones, hands-free light switches, even voice-activated technology will all be desired now.

Occupancy sensors, air quality monitoring, and other operational building technologies will serve multiple purposes.  They will allow you to collect data on how often and when amenities are used, as well as other common area activities.  They will help you save on utility costs and other expenses while allowing you to market these features.

If you can upgrade your air filtration and ventilation system to a HEPA quality, that catches virus particles and other debris from the air (or, if yours already does), you should market this.  Feeling safe during these times is a key need of your residents.

Embrace Working From Home:

Even when this crisis has passed, more people will likely work part of their week at home.  Is there a way you can help meet these needs?

If you’ve been doing renovations to your apartments, maybe you want to start incorporating a ‘home office niche’ into them.  People will not want to work from their kitchen table long term, so having a dedicated workspace, even if it is only closet size, will go a long way.

Can you break up the seating areas in your community spaces, whether that be a roof deck, or the clubhouse to allow for more social distancing, or the ability to work ‘from home’ while still being outside of the apartment?

More time at home also means more desire for social interaction on site.  Focusing on creating experiences for residents before, during, and after work will attract and retain a disproportionate percentage of residents.  Maybe it’s something as simple as having coffee available in the lobby or better common area WiFi.

Upgrade Connection and Service

Ultimately, it’s about improving the Renter Experience at your property.

With residents working from home and spending more time at home, they will come to expect more from site staff.  Cleanliness of the site, promptness and reliability of maintenance, and higher levels of service will all be desired.  This can become a source of higher rents, as many will be willing to pay for this when contrasted against the ‘standard menu of services’ they are currently receiving from your competition.

Focusing on the total resident experience will be key.  You will want to build some stickiness into your community.  If you do not have the staff to handle the higher service needs, you might be able to outsource some of this to a third party vendor.  They key is to think creatively about your residents’ needs.  Owners and operators who can fill this need will find their properties in high demand.

Take Action

Whether you are currently doing OK in the current environment or not, the Covid crisis is accelerating some trends and forcing some changes.  What I learned from the last crisis, is you need to move forward quickly.  Run into the crisis.  Be decisive.

I suspect we are entering into a longer term downturn.  By moving forward and making changes now, you can gain market share, and stabilize your financial situation, should things get worse from here.  And, if I’m wrong and the market recovers quickly, you will find yourself in a much better place than you would have otherwise had you not made the changes.