• Calculating temp agency charges
  • What to ask when hiring a temporary agency

As the economy began to soften in 2001, many apartment owners realized that they needed help keeping their complexes full–-or at least attempt to reduce the number and length of vacancies.
Facing a sudden increase in turnover, more and more owners are turning to temporary employee agencies that specialize in apartment leasing for help.

The services have been around for years, usually responding to the needs of owners who simply could not find qualified leasing personnel in their project locations.

But as the economy faltered in late 2001, they were busier than ever. For example, when Sally Tidey, a regional property manager for Palms Associates in Durham, N.C., needs fresh faces and new ideas, she sometimes uses temps. In the past two years, she’s enlisted temporary leasing agents from four different agencies.

Like many property managers, Tidey initially considered temps because unemployment is low in the southeast, where Palms owns and operates 4,840 apartments. “We can’t find any people,” she said. “Lately, [several] of my properties have been new construction in a pre-lease phase. I didn’t need [to hire a full-time employee], but I needed extra help.”

Sharon Burkey, executive vice president of residential management for Roseland Property Co. in Short Hills, N.J., also turns to temporary leasing agents for new lease-ups and in areas with tight labor markets. “In markets where employment has been high, it is hard to find great people who can do the job. If we don’t have time to train [new hires], it is always good to have a temporary service to go to,” she said.

Mary Wessler, assistant vice president of JPI Cos., sometimes gets temporary lease-up help, too. “JPI is a merchant builder, which means we mostly just do lease-ups. It is vital to us not to have anybody missing from the leasing team, because we spend so much money up front to get properties leased up. Every person who comes through that door is important to us. It is difficult to find the caliber of people we look for, because our properties are high-end. [We need leasing specialists who] portray a certain image, are good closers, and provide incredible customer service,” she said.

Wessler also resorts to temporary help when a lease-up isn’t going well. “If we aren’t getting as many leases as we would like, it is nice to be able to bring in a hot-shot leaser who can motivate the team,” she said. Other reasons for hiring temporary help include targeting a different type of resident or increasing occupancy in anticipation of selling the property.

Calculating temp agency charges

Temporary agency charges vary. Some charge by the hour; others operate on a pay-for-performance basis. Hourly temp wages often seem high, but temps often cost no more than regular employees when their payroll expenses are factored in. Tidey said the last temporary she used cost her $23 an hour – roughly double what she pays her employees.

The pay-for-performance arrangement works well for owners and managers, said Carol Levey, CEO of Levey Enterprises, one such agency. She said hiring a temporary on a per-lease basis is cost-effective if the leasing agent’s learning curve is short. Her agency charges a percentage of the first month’s rent for every lease the specialist closes.

“A person who is able to lease like crazy and outperform everyone else is worth every dollar. A person who doesn’t lease at all is getting paid what he or she is worth,” Wessler said.

Paid-by-the-lease temporaries tend to be highly motivated and results-oriented, Wessler said. That can spur permanent employees to close more leases as well. “[Temporaries] have a new spark. They rev up my employees and get them back on track with leasing,” Tidey said.

Wessler encourages such single-mindedness by employing an assistant who handles the paperwork and computing for a team of six leasing specialists, freeing them to interact with prospects.

Property managers say they’ve had good overall results with temporary employees, although some pitfalls must be anticipated. Tidey said one temp wasn’t well-qualified or even minimally familiar with the local apartment market. “The services of one national company didn’t meet my expectations. I think they were having the same problem I was having; that is, they didn’t have qualified staff. Some of the bigger operations don’t have people who know local markets,” she said.

A small local company was more successful in satisfying Tidey. She said the company sent out a temp who had excellent marketing skills and was able to share new door-to-door marketing techniques and valuable cold-calling techniques with the full-time staff.

Burkey believes disappointment results more often from factors beyond the leasing service’s control than from difficulties with the leasing agents themselves. “I have not used a service where I have been disappointed with the people who were provided. Nine times out of 10, they will give you the advice you need to meet whatever objectives you have set,” she said.

An example of success

A case in point is a 283-unit high-rise that Roseland Property opened in Jersey City, N.J. A team of four temporary leasing agents closed 42 leases in the first weekend, and had the property 95% leased in less than four months. “When I consider the bottom-line financial impact, it was impressive,” Burkey said. The key to success was a cohesive team of temporary leasing agents who had previously worked together and “were already united as a foursome,” she said.

One obvious disadvantage is that temporaries are just that – temporary. When they depart, the full-time leasing staff may be unable to retain new residents who had leased from the temps.

That can be overcome by having the permanent staff work hand-in-hand with temps. “We have tried to integrate our management office with the leasing team, so we can start to create resident retention [early on]. When you bring in [temporary staff], you have to be on top of it, because if you’re not, the back door will kick you on the [residents’] way out,” she said.

Another risk of bringing in a temporary leasing hot-shot is that full-time employees – who may be overtired, and working at their full capacity – may feel alienated or demoralized. Wessler suggests emphasizing the benefits of getting “that shot in the arm” from temporary help and explaining that getting the property leased up quickly benefits everyone.

The temporary’s lack of familiarity with the company’s leasing policies and procedures can be a pitfall as well. Wessler advises supervisors to prepare written guidelines.

Levey agrees that the temporary’s willingness and ability to work as part of the leasing team is important. “My people blend in with the team by taking service requests, accepting packages, and generally being more involved as a team member. That is less threatening to [the permanent employees],” she said.

If a temporary isn’t satisfactory, Levey sends out a replacement – even if she doesn’t wholly agree with the customer’s assessment. Occasionally a temporary “doesn’t click” with the full-time staff or the property, and in that case, the agency needs to send someone else.

What to ask when hiring a temporary agency

There are some important questions for apartment managers to ask agencies they are considering for temporary leasing help:

  • How long has your company been in this business?
  • What can your leasing service bring to my company that we don’t already have? What specifically can your company do for me?
  • What types of reports will be prepared to help me track the effectiveness of marketing and advertising efforts? How often will those reports be prepared?
  • Does your company hold marketing meetings and provide advanced training opportunities for the temporaries?
  • How many leasing specialists do you have available in my area?
  • How are the leasing specialists compensated? What motivational incentives are offered?
  • What types of marketing and closing techniques are the leasing specialists trained to use?
  • What other types of relevant training and experience does the leasing specialist have?
  • Is the leasing specialist well-informed about fair housing laws and other leasing-related laws and regulations?
  • Does this individual specialist function best as a superstar leading the way or as a member of the leasing team?
  • How much local market knowledge and experience does the leasing specialist have?
  • How long has the leasing specialist been working in this market? What is his or her capture ratio in this market?
  • How well does the leasing specialist incorporate long-term resident retention goals into the short-term goal of leasing the units?
  • Does the leasing specialist report directly to me regarding scheduling and duties, or does the leasing specialist report to you?
  • How are payment and compensation handled if more than one person has contact with the prospective resident? Suppose a full-time employee shows the apartment unit, but the temporary leasing specialist closes the lease. What is the basic guideline for determining who gets credit in those types of situations?
  • Has the leasing agency conducted a background check on the leasing specialist? Has he undergone a drug screening test?
  • If the leasing specialist is coming from out of town, who is responsible for paying his or her travel costs and living expenses?
  • What is the minimum time a temp may be retained?
  • If I want to hire the temporary as a permanent employee, how much is the fee?
  • If I’m not happy with the leasing specialist for any reason, what is your policy on providing someone else?