• A look inside, courtesy of the Web
  • Screening applicants easier with Web
  • Facilitating the rental process

Online marketing looks as though it’s here stay, despite the hard times suffered by many Internet services. The fact is, landlords just can’t ignore the efficiencies it offers, both in terms of attracting prospective tenants and completing the application and leasing process. For larger apartment firms, basic marketing tactics now include having a Web site for each project that allows prospective tenants to study the property and even individual unit floor plans. For smaller firms, there are several very well-established online leasing services that will help you with your leasing and software that enables you to launch your own property-specific Web site.

Recently, the National Apartment Association (NAA) decided to develop an Internet module for its leasing certification program, and has worked with one online leasing services, Apartments.com, to teach leasing professionals the best strategies for attracting potential residents online and converting them to signed renters.

Apartments.com helped revamp NAA’s National Apartment Leasing Professional (NALP) certification program, a partnership that’s “invaluable to the continuity and success of our education and certification efforts,” Douglas S. Culkin, NAA executive vice president.

Apartment managers have certainly had to stay on their toes to keep up with rapidly advancing technology. For example, Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Village Green Companies has used 360-degree virtual reality technology on its Web site to display pictures of its apartments. The technology is designed to give Village Green an advantage over other apartments' Web sites that provide only single vantage points. The panoramic images give potential residents who cannot visit units a more realistic, and some say more attractive, view of their potential new homes.

A look inside, courtesy of the Web

Similar to Village Green’s site, the Web site for the Austin Ranch development in Dallas allows prospective renters to more easily imagine what their apartment will look like after they move in.

The site leads visitors through available units and lets them measure the interior walls. Viewers can then click on images of sofas, tables, chairs and beds to “drag” them around the virtual room and design their new homes via the Internet before arriving at the property.

What makes this so unique? For starters, prospective tenants can measure wall dimensions while they examine available color schemes and types of carpet, tile, cabinets and countertops. After picking a new apartment, they can fill out and submit an application to the management office, possibly gaining approval within 24 hours. And they can do all of this without ever actually setting foot on the property, via the Austin RanchWeb site www.austinranch.com.

When it was first released, “No other apartment community in the country [had] a Web site with this kind of capability,” said Robin Moss, president of Ribit Productions Inc., the firm that designed the site.

One of the most well-established online leasing services is ForRent.com, the Internet portal of For Rent Magazine. The new site not only covers all of For Rent’s print advertisers, but also offers Internet-only advertising options to apartment communities across the country. According to the company, a small independent community has the ability to market their property on ForRent.com for less than $50 per month, while a large property can take advantage of all the features for around $150 per month.

Each of the firm’s clients receives a user ID and password allowing them to update their listings, including photos, prices or amenities, online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The changes are instantaneous, and managers and owners can also view their site traffic online to monitor the effectiveness of their listing, according to the firm.

Other active firms offering similar services include Rent.com and Apartments.com.

Screening applicants easier with Web

Trying to maintain high occupancy levels doesn’t mean that property managers have to cut corners when it comes to resident selection. Online applicant screening services are making it easier and faster for managers to make informed decisions about prospective tenants.

Based on an applicant’s credit and tenant history, online applicant screening services use predictive scoring models to determine the likelihood of the applicant following through on his or her lease obligations. Criminal and employment checks are also available from most services, as well as eviction checks that are predictive of future performance.

Prior to the advent of the Web, tenant screening could take up to a week with all the paperwork and phone calls that were necessary. The availability of public information on the Web allows users access to critical information quickly. It also enables property managers to sidestep fair housing complaints against on-site staff regarding subjective evaluations.

“The Web has taken a subjective, two- to three-day process and made it an objective, nearly instantaneous process,” said Rich Schreiber, COO of RentPort, an Englewood, Colo.-based data and decision service company that offers the online applicant screening service, CreditRetriever.

Online resident screening services now can run credit checks through three major credit bureaus as well as criminal background checks, and then generate a recommended leasing action. Each property has its own profile, and applicants are screened for a specific property, which ensures that property owners get the best possible applicants to maintain their occupancy goals for a given property.

First American Registry, Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based information management company, offers an applicant screening service that scores applicants with its RegistrySCOREX system. Applicants are checked against its database of landlord and tenant court records and credit bureaus. They also undergo a criminal search. The applicant receives a score based on the results, which the property manager or leasing agent evaluates according to the property’s requirements.

“If you have a soft market, you can lower the score to fill the vacancies,” said Nevel DeHart, executive vice president of First American Registry, Inc., “it all depends on the occupancy at the time and is totally controlled by the property.”

CreditRetriever’s scoring model generates a score that managers compare against decision points for each property. “We work with the clients all the time to create the appropriate decision points for each of their properties,” Schreiber said.

Online screening services also offer management and analysis tools to further streamline operations for property managers. CreditRetriever offers management reports that give demographic information on applicants and offers trend analyses.

“With our real-time management reports, users can see the average income levels, ages and demographic data over a 12-month period so they can see trends for their properties and where their applicants are coming from,” Schreiber said.

Facilitating the rental process

SafeRent.com provides owners with streamlined Internet tools for facilitating the rental process. The site offers a high-speed mechanism that allows owners and leasing professionals to screen potential renters within 30 seconds.

The screening process uses Social Security numbers, monthly income-per-applicant data and monthly rents to rate potential customers and eliminate the transmission of credit records over the Internet. This reduces any legal risk that may result from the owner’s keeping private credit files in the office. At the same time, it protects the renter’s confidential credit history.

Upon lease approval, SafeRent.com helps property managers and owners maximize ancillary income online. The site helps owners develop online selling techniques that enable them to target offers to new residents. Owners are then able to offer ancillary services, such as Internet access, before the resident moves to the area and finds other sources.

RealPage, Inc., offers a tenant screening program that can operate independently or as part of its OneSite browser-based property management system. While some parts of the system are still in beta testing, the screening component is in use at more than 600 sites, according to RealPage.

Like other systems, it checks applicants out using three credit bureaus plus criminal and eviction records. However, RealPage says it charges for this program on a per unit rather than a per report basis. The firm said it charges a flat fee of $1 per unit per month for any number of credit checks and screenings for criminal or eviction records in any number of states. The program can access 45 state databases for criminal and eviction information, the firm said.

Online resident screening services are an increasingly attractive option for property managers, regardless of the number of units owned or managed. “In the technology arena, the Web really levels the playing field,” Schreiber said. “Applications that would have been unaffordable and inaccessible to smaller users can now be delivered because of the Web’s delivery system. Our customers with 500 units get the exact same products and services as our customers with over 50,000 units.”

All these marketing strategies allow owners to reach renters quickly and efficiently. For renters, this eliminates costly, time-consuming searches and uncertainty about the quality of their new home. For owners and leasing professionals, the new technology means more efficient lease-ups.

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