Apartment Management and Landlord Manual: Product Preparation

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This section contains suggestions and methods to achieve the best results in the operation of rental apartments. The advice in this section is the most critical to a successful operation. A mistake in adopting a certain office policy, the wrong marketing strategy, or even the wrong rent level will not damage the property’s performance to the same degree as poor preparation. Learning the job of preparing a complex for marketing is the most important single lesson.

UNDERSTANDING WHY PEOPLE RENT

For a number of years, I have conducted surveys tracking apartment renters who have just made the decision to rent at a particular development. Such studies are very important because they help to pinpoint the “hot button” or primary reason for leasing one apartment as opposed to another. With out fail, each survey has revealed almost the same set of priorities in terms of influences on the final decision.

Location

Location has always scored as the single most important motivation. People choose the area they want to live in for a number of reasons. Quality of lifestyle is the most common one. Other popular responses to questions regarding location include proximity to the workplace, quality schools, friends, relatives, highways, or airport.

Appearance

Appearance of the community has always followed as the next most important deciding factor. The physical condition of a complex has more to do with the quality of the resident that it attracts than any other factor. After conducting thousands of interviews, I can tell you it’s commonplace to hear that prospective renters were attracted to an area by the advertisement for a complex and then lost interest after viewing the property. The prospects might have been pleased with the neighborhood but were dissatisfied with the property itself. They found alternative accommodations with a more pleasing appearance. It’s quite possible that the owner or property manager who ran an ad last week to attract prospects and then lost them, is struggling today with an ad for next week in hopes of generating more traffic.

Reputation

Reputation is also mentioned as a reason that people choose to rent at a particular development. This might include the reputation of the property, the owner, the manager, or a combination of the three. Further questioning of new renters often modifies our interpretation of this response. Properties that appear nice and are well cared for are frequently given credit for a good reputation. The response is based on the assumption that a nice appearance must be the result of quality residents as well as responsive and sensitive management. Actually, that is almost always a valid assumption. When questioning prospects about the reputation of a management firm, negative responses are practically nonexistent; prospects would not have visited the complex in the first place if they had been aware of problems with reputation. When word gets around that a particular operator is unfair or unreasonable, prospects never make it to the rental office.

Apartment Layout and Features

Apartment layout and features are next in order of stated importance. In a discussion of this response, it’s important to be aware of the means by which people judge an apartment’s features. Actually, the most critical criterion is the condition of the apartment shown. Remember, this discussion concerns the factors that contributed to people liking a complex and choosing to lease an apartment in it. Let’s talk about the reverse of this:

Consider an exit interview to question prospective renters who have decided against leasing in a complex. In this case, you would be alarmed by the number of prospects who were disappointed by the shoddy condition of the apartment rather than the neighborhood, appearance, or rent. The condition of the apartment shown contributes to losing prospective renters more than any other factor. In fact, in regularly conducted surveys, more than 70 percent of the rental apartments shown are not in market-ready condition. The importance of an apartment’s layout or features does not make an impact until the matter of condition satisfies the prospect. The prospect who finds fault with the condition of a potential rental apartment often cites the layout or the lack of a particular feature as the reason for not renting. When conditions are a turnoff, prospects usually want to make a quick exit, and they prefer to refer to missing features as an excuse for not renting. This is a more effective way for prospects to get away from the site because complaints about the apartment’s condition will invariably prompt a promise by management to correct the problems.

Fig 4-67: Primary Attraction in Decision to Rent

Rent Level

Rent level is a rarely stated reason for renting a particular unit. This is not to say that rent is not very important in the overall decision process. Rent is relative. Better neighborhoods command higher rent than less- desirable neighborhoods. Well cared for apartment complexes bring higher rent than do poorly maintained ones. Vacant units that are fixed up rent for more than units requiring a great deal of imagination. So, as potential renters are clearing the various hurdles involved in choosing apartments, they are also going through a qualifying process for themselves in terms of the final rent level.

Surveys have also tracked prospect behavior to determine whether patterns exist in the decision-making process. It appears that they do.

In one situation, a developer purchased a tract of land and commissioned a builder to construct three five-story, semi-luxury, elevator buildings. The developer’s architect was also told to create an elaborate entryway for the development. When completed, this entryway included a gatehouse, expensive planting, and a large rock formation complete with a spectacular waterfall that fed meandering creeks that ran throughout the property. The cost of the waterfall was estimated to be more than $500,000. The builder dutifully constructed the buildings and the waterfall, but openly ridiculed the developer for wasting so much money on the pretty but useless waterfall.

Later, the builder, who had a parcel of land across from this property, decided to construct a similar three-building development for himself. However, the builder chose to save money by omitting the waterfall and, instead, installed a better line of appliances and an expensive grade of carpeting. The units were offered at a lower rent, even though the project was nearly two years newer than the project across the street.

Less than three years later, the rent differential between the two developments was more than $75 per month for comparable apartments. The development with the waterfall displayed some significant advantages: its developer was collecting at least $200,000 more per year than the competitor across the street, had the first choice of residents, and enjoyed a very long waiting list. Conclusion: People who want nice housing are willing to pay a premium for it. Many times people will really be paying for a well-presented idea or a bit of glitz (as in the waterfall example). This reflects the value of status, a subject I will address further in another section.

Maintaining a property in quality condition has other benefits. Consider a well-located but somewhat run-down suburban apartment complex with relatively expensive rents for that particular area. A sizable portion of the prospect traffic was woefully unqualified for the rent levels. In fact, on more than one occasion, quality prospects were lost because the rental center and models were filled with lookers who obviously were not qualified financially.

As a result, the property manager decided to embark on a major up grading program that included large expenditures for landscaping and the creation of a new entryway. The development acquired a new look, the occupancy level rose quickly, and turnover rates dropped. The most interesting benefit, however, was that the unqualified prospect traffic dropped to nearly zero. People judge whether a place is within their means by its appearance. The same is true of restaurants, hotels, jewelry stores, and other business establishments. When a development looks exceptional, people of limited means don’t stop to look. You don’t face the problem of having to turn these prospects down and they won’t serve as a turnoff to qualified prospects.

Analyze successful rental properties carefully, and you will discover they all have something in common: They look superior, inside and out.

Professionals refer to this as curb appeal or frosting. This means the property offers more than better architecture; it also has superior housekeeping, which is evident from the moment you drive through the front entryway. Now take a look at properties that have vacancies, and you will almost always find they suffer from poor housekeeping. They may have lower rents, more amenities, and better apartments, but their down-at-the- heels appearance drives prospects away.

If your development is going to attract prospects, you have to prepare your product. In other words, make it as attractive as possible. This is essential if you are to capture drive-by traffic, which accounts for most prospects.

If you doubt the importance of drive-by traffic, run a check of prospects visiting a successful development (or any development for that matter). You will usually find that more than 54 percent were just driving by and were attracted by the overall appearance; the remaining prospects are attracted by all other means combined, including newspaper advertising.

Imagine two almost identical apartment developments across the street from each other. The apartments and rents are virtually the same. Manager A invests a lot of money in advertising to draw prospects but ignores product preparation. Manager B does no advertising but takes the same amount of money Manager A spends on advertising and spends it on product preparation instead. What happens? The prospects come Out to see Manager A’s property, but, on the way, they notice Manager B’s property across the street. They may go in to see Manager A’s apartments, but most of them will rent from Manager B. In short, Manager A hands prospects over to Manager B, who captures them with a better-looking product.

Besides having more renters, Manager B is better off in three other ways.

1. The better-looking complex will attract a better-qualified resident, who will cause less wear and tear, stay longer, and present fewer problems.

2. Improvements made to a property have a long life and multiple ad vantages. The benefits derived from advertising expenditures are very short-lived and rarely exceed a few days.

3. The better-looking property can command substantially higher rents.

In short, Manager B’s complex will rent up faster and attract more qualified residents; and Manager B will be able to charge higher rents, have fewer resident problems, be required to do less policing, and have fewer maintenance and record-keeping problems. All of these factors add up to more net operating income (NOI) for the owner.

Product preparation is important from another standpoint: It helps to convey a status image for the property. Remember, prospects are looking for more than a place to live. They’re seeking a home that reflects their lifestyles and roles in life—real or imagined. People don’t want to make excuses for their apartments to themselves or to their friends. Status can be another important factor in anyone’s decision to rent, and readying your property and apartments helps to establish confidence in the status your property offers.

These remarks pertain to both existing and new apartment properties. A new property, if it is to command the premium rent necessary to pay its way, must be presented as a finished product. Prospects who visit new properties should not encounter obstacles—construction litter, partially completed buildings, lack of landscaping, half-finished parking lots, mounds of earth and mud, and every other conceivable item that can discourage them. Most new complexes are opened prematurely, a fact that causes permanent damage to their economic potential. It is better to wait until the property is ready; the more complete and perfect a new development is when it is opened, the more successful it will be.

There is no excuse for an apartment complex that doesn’t look its best. If it does look bad, then the manager automatically risks the loss of a good portion of the potential drive-by traffic.

Details can make a significant difference in prospects’ perceptions of your property. Call it nit-picking, but your prospects often have sharper eyes than you do for things that don’t look right or are Out of place. Likewise, they are probably more aware of the added touches that make a building and grounds look appealing.

To prove this, consider the example of two identical used cars for sale. The dealer gives one a routine wash and polish job to make it shine. The second car gets the same wash and polish treatment, plus a little extra attention. The crew does some detail work, going over all the hidden nooks and crannies to remove dirt and apply polish. They clean the edges underneath the hood, under the trunk lid, and on the inside edges of the doors. They carefully remove any traces of dried polish that may have accumulated between the chrome trim and the paint. They remove all rust spots on the bumpers. They steam clean the engine and shampoo the upholstery. As a result, the second car looks better and probably will sell faster and for several hundred dollars more than the first car, even though the two are basically the same. Product preparation and appearance absolutely make all the difference.

The same principle applies to an apartment property. Make it look better, and it will rent faster. Remember that your job is to lease apartments at the best possible rent. Empty apartments result in money being lost forever. When an airplane takes off with empty seats, the revenue from those seats can never be recovered. When a month begins with empty apartments, you cannot go back in time and rent those apartments for the previous month. So, everything you can do to see that apartments are rented when the month begins is money in the bank.

The following sections call attention to aspects of your property that may need consideration and will also suggest things you should do to keep it in first-class condition.

EXTERIOR PREPARATION

Let’s start with the outside of your property, since that is what prospective residents see first.

Landscaping

I said earlier that 54 percent of prospect traffic is attracted primarily by the appearance of the property as people drive by. While architecture certainly plays a role, landscaping is the major ingredient in forming a favor able or unfavorable first impression. The good news is that a manager, even operating with a tight budget, can have a considerable effect on landscaping.

The best advice is to find the money to commission a landscape architect to prepare an overall scheme. The architect should have experience with rental apartments as opposed to single-family homes. Make it clear that the plan will be implemented over a period of years as money becomes available. A good architect will typically specify plants that are too small when purchased but in time will grow to the right size. While this is correct, an apartment manager is looking for quick, lush results. You’re probably better served with fewer plants, large-sized and grouped in a rather tight ring here is rarely enough money in the construction budget to do the proper landscaping job all at once. As a result, landscaping is an expense category that should receive a regular and significant amount in the annual capital budget for the first ten or fifteen years of a property’s life.

Here are a number of points to keep in mind:

• Don’t rely on grass to cover acreage. Grass needs mowing and constant maintenance and can look drab in many climates. Break up the monotony with beds of plants and clumps of trees. Establishing tiny forests where there is space to accommodate them often allows you to use wild plants rather than nursery grown ones. This way you get plenty of impact for fewer dollars. These forest areas also serve as visual breaks, something that is highly coveted by today’s renters.

• Flower beds or perimeter plantings should be regularly tilled and edged to give the richest appearance. Ground cover looks good for a few weeks, but it tends to look neglected as the summer progresses. However, this treatment may be essential in areas that withstand extreme heat during the summer because the ground cover often holds the precious moisture needed to keep plants alive.

• Strive for a pleasing color effect all year. Use evergreens in addition to trees with gray, yellow, brown, and red bark.

• Use concentrated flower beds for accents. Perennials, including flowering bulbs, provide a welcome note of color at the end of a dreary winter, when color is most needed. One note of caution about tulip bulbs: They bloom later and have a more limited life span than other flowering bulbs, leaving you with flowerless plants for an important period in the spring when you would prefer to have annuals in bloom. Many parks or large shopping centers that present flower shows each year get around the problem by digging the tulips up each year. There is another reason for digging up tulips every year: Tulips tend to come up crooked in subsequent years, so it’s best if they are replanted every fall. The optimal plan would be to keep the flowering bulbs you plan to dig up in a separate flower bed. This way you avoid disturbing the other plants.

• Choose strong colors and plant masses of the same color. This maximizes the visual impact. Mixing flowers and colors is a nice treatment in the backyard of a home, but in a rental complex the best results are obtained with large groups of the same flower in solid color arrangements.

• Avoid using boulders unnaturally. Too many owners and managers use boulders as a form of traffic control. Some even paint them bright white so they can be seen at night. If you need curbs to control cars, then add curbs, not boulders. For a different reason, avoid using stones and gravel as a ground cover. Gravel is dangerous underfoot, especially when it spreads to your paved surfaces. Also, children will often find stones tempting ammunition to use against light fixtures and windows.

• Allow your residents to use direct routes. Universities learned long ago that it is foolish to try to dictate how a person will approach a building or facility. They watch the wear patterns that soon become evident and they construct walks to accommodate the traffic. Planting bushes and adding barricades rarely blocks shortcuts, and such things end up frustrating the manager. Walks should always be for the convenience of the person using the building or facility.

• Landscaping and playgrounds don’t mix. Try sand or shredded bark for the playground area. You might even explore interlocking rubber mats that are made for this purpose.

• Plan landscaping for easy maintenance. Lay out lawns, tree clumps, shrubbery, and flower beds so that machines can be used rather than costly hand labor. Avoid narrow strips of grass along buildings and walls, as these usually require hand trimming.

Use water to your advantage. Running or moving water is not only an effective way to deaden obtrusive noise but it is also one of the most relaxing sounds. Fountains, decorative pools, streams, and even water from lawn sprinklers help create a quiet and peaceful environment. Setting up sprinklers in highly visible areas on weekends and other high-traffic periods will pay multiple dividends. Lawns will look greener and fresher, sidewalks and paved surfaces are more attractive when they are wet, and the property will appear cooler. In addition, sprinkling clearly demonstrates that the property is being maintained for the enjoyment of its residents. This, of course, presumes there are no restrictions on water use.

These suggestions can be helpful if you have the opportunity and budget to improve the property’s landscaping. If your budget is too low for immediate improvement, then try to enhance the landscaping gradually. Remember, some sort of regular budget is needed to pay for seeds, fertilizers, and replacements for dead or damaged plants. Even with a minimum budget, try to maximize the appearance of your landscaping with careful maintenance.

Remember, with landscaping it’s important to do things one at a time. There are few owners who can afford to invest large amounts of capital in the improvement of a rental community. The secret is to have a plan and to spend any available funds slowly and steadily to carry out that plan.

Choose an area to begin with and work that area until it is complete. Then, expand by shifting your attention to a section immediately adjacent to the finished area. Don’t skip around and don’t dilute your money or effort by trying to treat too large an area. There will be tomorrow, next month, and next year. Success is determined by steady progress and an ever- increasing level of quality.

Paved Area

A prospect who is attracted by the lushly landscaped appearance of your property will proceed to the paved area, which probably covers the second largest amount of ground. What prospects see and feel provides them with another clue to the kind of property you’re offering.

Driveways and parking areas should be as smooth as possible. Pot holes and puddles caused by poor drainage are discouraging and may make the prospect turn around and leave.

The condition of paved surfaces is often determined when the project is built. The paving may have been inadequate in the first place. The base of gravel may be too thin, or perhaps it wasn’t allowed to settle before the asphalt l or topping was applied. Overloaded trucks may have broken down the surface in spots.

Whatever the situation, your job as manager is to do the best possible job of restoring the surface and keeping it in good condition. The site maintenance personnel should be instructed to handle minor patching as the need arises. Inserting hot asphalt materials into a pothole is far superior to using cold materials. Most patches do not last very long and are unsightly because a vertical edge was not cut prior to filling the patch. Using a circular saw with a special blade, have the maintenance staff cut a square or vertical edge in a rectangular pattern around the hole, remove all materials to a depth of at least three inches and then pack-in the new materials. Ideally, your maintenance people would also roll or tamp the patch until it is even with the adjoining surfaces.

As the surface develops cracks, the cracks should be routed and then filled with a hot sealing compound. This work is expensive, but when done correctly and in a timely fashion, it will add many years to the life of an asphalt surface. Again, look for help in matters such as these from your fellow managers or from managers of large institutions who deal with this particular problem regularly.

If the surface is worn, but still usable, perhaps it should be resealed with a film of liquid driveway coating. When you do this, be sure to alert residents and arrange for cars to be moved so that the coating truck has proper access. Be aware that people will pick up the coating on their shoes and track it onto sidewalks and into buildings; it can be a messy procedure. For paved surfaces that are beyond surface treatment, a new layer of asphalt can be applied. This is an expensive process, but it should produce a paved surface that will serve for at least five years.

What does the prospect see first upon driving into the parking lot? Bright parking stripes can make a world of difference; these stripes and any fire lane indications should always look bright and fresh. Concrete wheel stops are another asset and are needed to keep cars in orderly rows and prevent them from running onto lawns. Avoid half-size concrete stops that are intended to halt only one wheel. A car can miss the stop and run onto the lawn. If snow covers the half-stop, a small plow may miss it and destroy the lawn. Stay away from asphalt wheel stops. While these are less expensive than concrete, they deteriorate fast and can be gouged by snow- plows. Also, they often have rounded edges that permit car wheels to ride over them. Concrete curbing around the parking lot is no substitute for wheel stops. Without stops, a car’s front or rear end can hang over the sidewalk next to the curb. This is annoying to visitors and residents.

Provide parking for the handicapped, and identify the space or spaces with both the approved sign and the wheelchair glyph on the pavement. If two such spaces are side by side, there is a considerable savings in their combined width. Many managers place these spaces at the main entrance f the building to assist the person using the space. This often opens up and better identifies the entrance since these spaces are frequently empty.

If your development has surplus parking, or if residents crowd the parking nearest the building entries, consider striping the remote sections of the parking lot to provide eleven-foot-wide spaces. Residents with nice cars will often trade proximity for the protection that a wider parking space offers.

Some roadways and drives have speed bumps. These ridges of asphalt give a jolt to cars traveling at high speeds and are very effective in warmer climates. In northern climates, however, these ridges can upset a snow plow or be removed by a plow’s blade. Concrete depressions across the road can provide another impediment to speeding cars.

A prospect may be discouraged if there are a lot of motorcycles, campers, and boats parked in the lot. You can counter this by establishing separate parking areas for these vehicles. For motorcycles, construct a rack of 2½-inch galvanized pipe and embed the ends of the pipe in concrete; motorcyclists will be receptive to this because they can chain their cycles to the rack. Set aside a distant area of the parking lot for boats and trailers. A row of boats lined up not only solves a parking problem, but also gives your property a neat and organized appearance. Do the same for campers and recreational vehicles.

Junk autos should not be tolerated in your parking lot, nor should auto repairs. Check local laws on junk autos before you do anything; but, in general, if there is a car in your lot that is not currently licensed and drivable, ask the owner to remove it. Autos being repaired in the parking lot will attract prospects who like to be auto mechanics, but this will also turn off other prospects. Your rules and regulations should prohibit auto repairs; the only exception to this rule is car washing.

Historically, it was difficult to collect sufficient parking fees to warrant the construction cost of either carports or full garages. That is not the case today. The more-expensive rental developments can usually keep garages and carports full at rather attractive monthly rents. Perhaps that is some thing for your development to consider.

Outdoor Lighting

Lighting provides safety and is also used to accent and beautify. Lighting standards and fixtures rarely receive any maintenance other than the changing of bulbs or gas mantles. Typical eyesores are parking lot standards that are dented, knocked askew, or broken off altogether. Light poles along sidewall set in loose earth or with light concrete ballasts, may be leaning over. Fixtures on buildings may be twisted. The glass in many lighting fixtures may be dirty, broken, missing, or filled with insects. If any of these conditions apply to your property, the response is obvious — correct them. If lights near parking lots are forever being knocked down by cars, install guard posts or move the lights.

Lighting can be attractive as well as functional if it is located properly and maintained well. Landscape lighting, for example, with bollard fixtures (indirect lighting in which a mirror reflects a hidden high-intensity bulb) and spotlights around plants and pools can create a pleasant aura. This lighting must be maintained; to reduce breakage problems, consider using plastic panels and globes instead of glass. The plastic costs more initially, but it lasts longer and requires less maintenance.

Parking lots require minimum levels of moon-bright illumination. Residents may want the light to be brighter for safety reasons, but you needn’t increase it to a shopping center level. The higher level will only make your lot look commercial and safety isn’t likely to improve.

Many exterior lighting fixtures are controlled automatically by timers or photoelectric cells. Photocells generally are more practical because they respond to darkness regardless of the time of day or season of the year, as long as they are shielded from the lights they operate.

There are some disadvantages to photo cells, however. Occasionally it will get very dark during the day, just before a thunderstorm for example; and the lights will come on when the natural light level is still adequate.

This doesn’t happen very often, so wasted power is minimal. Also, some developments only burn every other light or every third light after a certain hour, say 2:00 A.M. To override the photo cell switch in this setup, these lights must be equipped with a timer.

Motion and sonic detectors have found their way into the lighting scheme in rental property and are often attached to light poles. If there is no activity in the middle of the night, this device would shut off unneeded lights. With electricity costs heading the list of expense increases, alert managers are continually searching for ways to cut consumption.

Timers will probably remain the primary method of controlling exterior lighting. This means that clocks must be checked on a regular schedule. It’s a basic industry standard to check and adjust timer clocks every other Monday in a pattern that includes the Mondays following the changes to and from daylight saving time. Obviously, your staff must be alert to periodic power outages that will require resetting your timers.

Rubbish

Even if the prospect has been favorably impressed by your landscaping and paved areas, that impression may be offset by the presence of rubbish. You cannot eliminate refuse, but you can make it as orderly as possible.

In a large building with central trash-collection facilities, trash is not much of a problem, at least outside. Residents deposit refuse in a chute that leads to a collection bin where it’s stored, perhaps compacted, for the crew to remove.

In most garden apartments, however, residents carry their garbage outside to randomly located dumpsters. Usually these receptacles are unsightly and hard to keep clean. They are often dirty, streaked with garbage drippings, and dented by the trucks that service them. Some managers put the dumpsters behind fenced enclosures that are subsequently damaged by the garbage trucks. To try to prevent residents from simply tossing garbage into dumpsters, a manager may install a wire fence that extends above the enclosure. This rarely stops the problem; and if the garbage hits the wire fence and scatters, the situation is even worse.

There are other problems associated with dumpsters and enclosures. A manager could install a gate to keep refuse from blowing out. But residents who come to the enclosure laden with two bags of garbage will not appreciate the gate. Neither will the collection crew, who may refuse to pick up the dumpster unless the manager or one of the on-site personnel opens the gate for them. A tight enclosure that’s closed all the way to the ground will keep refuse inside; however, if a resident confronts an animal that has been trapped in the enclosure, the consequences could be serious. It’s better to have an opening at the bottom of the enclosure so animals can escape.

Finally, the manager may opt for a large dumpster because it is more efficient and holds more refuse without overflowing. WARNING: A large dumpster can be a deadly trap for a child. Furthermore, a large dumpster requires a large truck to pick it up, and the truck is apt to damage the asphalt surface.

Whatever size dumpster you choose, it should be pressure-washed and painted inside and out whenever necessary. If possible, the dumpster should be placed on a concrete pad so it won’t indent the asphalt and set within a three-sided enclosure. Dumpsters should be located away from heavy-traffic areas and particularly away from the main entrance to each building, the rental office, model apartments, and the recreational area.

Don’t bother to add plantings around the dumpster enclosure. Planters almost certainly will be broken and will catch windblown papers. It’s much more important to have on-site personnel police dumpsters three or four times a day. Dumpsters are never attractive, but people will tolerate them if they are neat.

INTERIOR PREPARATION

Stop and think about the reasons some properties are allowed to run down, even when their owners and managers believe they are doing a good job of maintenance. Perhaps it’s because they don’t realize that a building, like other consumable products, has a limited life. A candy bar may be consumed in three minutes; an automobile may wear out in seven years. Compared to these, the life of a building is very long, perhaps more than forty or fifty years. Many managers are lulled into thinking a building never wears out because the deterioration or consumption occurs so slowly. But like all consumable items, a building begins to deteriorate even before the day it is completed. That is why maintenance to counteract the effects of age and decay is so important.

Another point that many owners and managers may overlook is that the “consumption” of real estate occurs most quickly in the places of greatest use. These are public areas—entryway, stairs, halls, corridors, and elevators. The areas of greatest use are also the places of greatest abuse and, therefore, the areas where deterioration is likely to be most visible to your prospects.

The Entrance Door

The main entrance door to your building is used more often than any other door in the entire structure. If the building has fifty units, the en trance door will get fifty times the use and require fifty times the repairs of any other door. Therefore, the door itself should he selected on the basis of the heavy-duty service it will be required to give. The hardware should also be substantial enough to withstand constant locking and unlocking. If the door and hardware are not heavy-duty, even greater maintenance will be required.

Be sure the door is hung so it opens into the wind. Otherwise, a sudden gust can yank the door from a person’s hand, possibly injuring the person and damaging the door. If the door is not hung properly, have it re-hung on the reverse side, or else build something to shield it. Make sure the door closer is in working order. These devices require frequent adjustments and must be well-maintained. The alternative is a spring-loaded hinge device like those commonly installed on hotel and motel doors. While these cost less and are fairly easy to install, one often has to increase the tension to close the door against brisk winds. This results in loud, annoying slamming.

Vestibule

In some apartment buildings, the entrance door opens into a vestibule, and people open a second locked door before stepping into the apartment hall or corridor. A vestibule has certain advantages; it provides better security and permits the installation of mats to collect moisture and dirt that might be tracked into the building. Without a vestibule, the hail carpeting quickly becomes soiled, and any heat or air-conditioning levels are quickly disturbed.

Also, the lock on the vestibule door is subject to abuse because residents often open it by pulling on their keys rather than on the knob. In a short time, the lock mechanism wears out. If you have a vestibule, consider installing the lock cylinder in the jamb rather than in the door itself.

Doorway Glass and Fittings

Glass panes in the entrance and vestibule doors are subject to constant handling, fingerprints, smudges, water streaks, dirt, and breakage. Prospects will notice whatever is wrong with the glass, so it must he clean at all times. Don’t ignore transom glass either; just because it’s overhead doesn’t mean it’s out of sight. You may overlook it, but the prospect won’t.

To reduce breakage, some managers have switched to sheet plastic. This is expensive and genuinely attractive when new. Unfortunately, plastic is easily scratched and, in time, becomes so badly marred that is never looks clean. I recommend you avoid it.

Most entrance doors are made of anodized aluminum or painted steel: and retain a bright appearance with minimum care. Some doors have brass or bronze fittings, hardware, and kick-plates that become tarnished. These should be polished first and then coated with lacquer to keep them looking bright for as long as possible. Weathered metal detracts from the sharp appearance of your property.

Mailboxes

Mailboxes should be un labeled by management. Boxes indiscriminately identified with business cards, plastic tape, hand printing, and stickers only detract from the building’s appearance. The exteriors of the boxes should be kept neat and clean.

One problem you’ll discover with mailboxes is that handbills cannot he placed in them. In fact, only items officially sent through the mail can legally be inserted in mailboxes. This means that handbills will be dumped on the floor beneath the boxes. Handbills are an unfortunate fact of life in apartments. You can’t get rid of them, but you can provide a special box, rack, or shelf where handbills can be placed.

It’s a good idea, too, to have a small waste receptacle near the mail boxes and a shelf below the boxes. Residents will find the shelf handy when sorting their mail, and the waste receptacle will be convenient for disposing of junk mail that otherwise might end up in the entrance or on the hail floor. Daily pickup of this material should be part of the maintenance schedule.

In the newer single-entry apartment buildings, the Post Office re quires a small mail room that is separate from the vestibule. The mail de livery person must have an area to access the open side of all mail boxes (which is not accessible to residents). Only postal personnel, residents, and those admitted by staff have access to separate mail rooms, and this would preclude the accumulation of handbills and avert solicitations.

Directory

If your building has a directory, be sure it is up-to-date and has the residents’ names arranged alphabetically for the convenience of visitors. For security, I recommend using a code rather than apartment numbers. Incorporating a two-way speaker system permits identification and acceptance of visitors. Residents can give directions to their apartments at that time.

Elevator Cabs

Because of the concentrated use they get, there is more wear and tear in elevators than in any other area of the building. The numbers on the call buttons may be worn away. Inspection certificates may be stolen, gum wrappers are often stuck into openings in the walls and ceiling, and graffiti mysteriously appears on the walls. The carpet gets intensive wear.

The elevator shaft acts as a flue, and a layer of dust will build up on the edges of the elevator doors and the outer frames on each floor. If there is no separate freight elevator in the building, passenger elevators have to be used for moving. Many managers protect elevator cabs by hanging protective pads when people move furniture in and Out. Be sure to take down these pads when the moving is over. Leaving them in place creates two risks: (1) The pads will impair the residential look of the property, and (2) they may be stolen.

Furnishings, Plants and Artwork

Not too many suburban garden complexes have lobbies spacious enough to accommodate furnishings, but you’ll often find such lobbies in larger buildings. Furnishings should be built-in or permanently fastened to walls or floor to prevent theft. To discourage lounging, chairs should be back less; furniture should be scattered, not grouped for conversation. Choose fabrics for their durability and ease of maintenance; flame-retardant fabrics should also be sought. Of course, everything should be spotless.

Whether you opt to furnish your lobby or not, there should always be wall-mounted or weighted cigarette receptacles in the main entrance hall and near elevator doors.

Plants can add decorative interest, but use them only if they can be fastened securely. The same applies to paintings and sculpture.

Floor Mats

Well-managed buildings will have runners or mats that are put out during inclement weather, especially in regions that experience periods of ice and snow. A small rectangular mat is better than nothing, but it will do little to protect corridor carpeting. To be effective, the mat or runner has to be about twelve feet long because it takes at least three full strides for shoes or boots to begin drying. These mats also serve a safety function on hard surfaces such as quarry tile, marble, or granite that can be slippery when wet. Well-managed buildings use mats during inclement weather; they do not use them when the weather is fine. This means that mats must be picked up and stored when the weather is dry.

Doorway mats may be acceptable outside of apartment doors in buildings with direct outside entrances or those constructed with breezeways, but they should not be permitted in buildings with inside corridors. The same is true for boxes that might be used for the storage of boots, rubbers, and umbrellas.

Floor Coverings

The selection of floor-covering materials involves striking a balance between sustaining a sense of the practical and creating a soft, warm feeling. You must understand that the front of a single-entry building gets the heaviest traffic, so the entry’s floor-covering material must be chosen to accommodate this extra wear. As residents and visitors go in different directions, use and wear diminishes and softer materials can be introduced.

The use of different materials should be limited: Two are okay; I don’t think there should ever he more than three. Many designers insist that a person should never see more than two floor treatments at any given point in the building.

Carpet is the standard choice for most residential applications. Carpet is soft underfoot and helps absorb sounds and reduce the glare of lights. Patterns work well in corridors, and the color tone should be a medium value; usually a tight, cut pile gives the best wear. Designers recommend that a contrasting carpet color he used in high-wear areas such as the lobby, the area in front of elevators, or on the floor of the elevator cabs. The carpeting in these areas will require replacement much more often than the materials installed in less-used space, and matching carpet that shows some wear is impossible.

Stair carpeting receives heavy use, especially where the carpet passes over the nosing of the tread. One way to extend the life of stair carpeting is to have the carpet installer leave enough material at the top of each flight of stairs to allow you to lift the carpet and shift it the length of a tread. This moves the worn portion into the crevice between step and riser where it can’t be seen easily—doubling the life of the carpeting. The extra carpet is first placed under the carpeting that covers the landing beyond the top step and is cut off when you shift the length. Stair pads, that fit over the nosing of the tread underneath the carpeting, are another way to extend carpet life.

The building may have a breezeway or outdoor stairs that you maybe tempted to cover with indoor-outdoor carpeting. This material looks fine when first installed hut quickly loses its appearance because of weathering, stains, and spills. It’s better to leave outdoor stairs and landings in their natural condition.

Indoor Lighting

Lighting equipment and efficiency are improving all the time. If the property that you are managing isn’t new, there are probably many innovations you can implement to improve its appearance or energy usage. Bulbs using only five or seven watts of power can produce the light level of those that once consumed sixty watts. Bulbs that will last for 20,000 hours are commonly available, and bulbs with an even longer life span can be expected in the future.

Take the necessary time to study your lighting scheme and search for ways to take advantage of the new light systems available. Many complexes do not have the funds to change all their lights, but most can afford to schedule replacements in a breezeway or on one floor every other month.

The most important lighting to change is that which would improve building appearance because this has an impact on marketability. The next most important are lights that burn continually because the payback will he the greatest for these. Stairwells, corridors, and basements are among them. Then, work your way to the lighting that is used only a few hours each day. If lights are used in areas that have little or no activity, consider motion detectors that will quickly turn on the light when needed.

Apartment building corridors tend to be either too bright or so dark that visitors have difficulty finding their way. I recommend investing in a light meter and establishing light levels that you find satisfactory.

Exit Signs

Most localities require exit signs in apartment building corridors. Most of these signs must be illuminated. If your exit signs have incandescent bulbs, replacement with long-life fluorescent bulbs will eliminate frequent and expensive bulb changes. Unfortunately, exit signs have a habit of disappearing from halls and doorways. You then have a problem of finding a replacement that matches the others. This may be difficult to do because of varying sizes. It’s best to order a supply of replacement signs all at once and keep them on hand because you certainly will need them.

Fire Extinguishers and Hoses

In the days when water or soda acid fire extinguishers were common, they were seldom stolen because of their bulky size. But the modern, compact, pressurized ABC-type extinguishers can be used in home, car, and boat. This is why they vanish so quickly from apartment buildings and the prospect may notice the absence of fire extinguishers while walking through the halls.

Some local ordinances will permit you to place an extinguisher in a cabinet behind a glass door; this discourages theft. Extinguishers that are simply hung on the wall may be stolen and then must be replaced. I’ve found that it’s a good idea to place each fire extinguisher in a wall recess; this avoids the creation of “shoulder busters” in the hallways. If you follow this advice, make sure each wall recess is kept free of the litter that’s almost certain to accumulate.

Fire hoses in corridors or stairwells should be checked to make sure they are hung neatly. Like extinguishers, the brass nozzles on hoses are often stolen. It’s up to the manager to replace them immediately.

Numbering

You may wonder why numbering is included here. The reason is that people need a sense of personal identification and status, which the right number can provide and the wrong number may deny. The numbers a prospect sees on the building and the individual apartment doors can be designed to appeal to the prospect’s ego.

The building should be identified either by an address or a special flame, never by its construction project number or a single letter. Apartments should be identified by numbers that refer to their floor. Consider the difference between a person whose address is Apartment 802 at 415 Park Terrace and the individual who lives at Apartment 14 in building 10. The first person is proud to tell people where he or she resides, the second may feel rather like a convict from a cell block.

The common practice is to have the first part of an apartment number Identify the floor and the other part refer to a specific apartment, with numbering starting at the northernmost or easternmost apartment and Proceeding clockwise. For example, apartment 302 would refer to the second apartment on the 3rd floor, apartment 2102 would mean the same apartment on the 21st floor.

Numbers should be applied uniformly to apartment doors, or they can be inscribed on the door knocker. Check the numerals on all doors to make sure none are missing. Residents shouldn’t be allowed to put any thing else on corridor doors; occupants’ names, stickers, hand-lettered names, numbers, and signs detract from corridor appearance.

Odor

In a discussion of property preparation, one cannot ignore the very sensitive subject of odor. The sense of smell (olfactory sense) is the most easily fatigued of all the senses. This means that it is very easy for a property manager to become accustomed to unpleasant odors and, before long, not notice them. But the prospect who notices a bad smell is apt to remember it.

Mildew is one of the most common odors, especially in humid areas. The odor from backed-up sewers is another annoyance. These odors are especially common in inexpensively built garden apartments with poor sewer systems and leaky construction. Cooking odors are also prevalent, especially in buildings with kitchens that back up to the corridor walls.

Most corridor odors can be removed by opening exterior doors periodically to air out corridors. If necessary, set a window fan in the doorway to speed up the exhaust. If bad odors are a chronic problem, consider in stalling a ventilation system in each corridor. Don’t use deodorants; they add an odor of their own, which is a sure sign to prospects that you’re covering up something.

In a permanently enclosed hall, the easiest way to deal with odors is to provide exhaust fans. This advice is not always so easily applied; consider the building with pressurized halls, for example. In such a building, exhaust fans would defeat the system. You are best advised to consult an ex pert on these matters.

The best approach is to correct the source of the odor if you can. Poorly designed sewer systems should be fixed. Seepage around windows, doors, eaves, and overhangs should be eliminated so that building components will not mildew.

The odors caused by fire and decay need special treatment. Local exterminators can usually apply a foam that will absorb the odor in a few days. The smell caused by water-soaked carpet padding can only be corrected by removing and replacing the padding.

Amenities

Product preparation should also cover the amenities of the building (i.e., those features a prospect who becomes a resident will have the opportunity to use). If these areas are maintained properly, they are assets well worth showing. If maintenance is neglected, you will not want to show them and thus lose a chance to impress prospects. In addition, poorly maintained amenities will irritate existing residents, who may move. Check and clean the following areas regularly: the laundry room, storage room, garbage chute room, and all recreational facilities.

SAFETY

The expression “safety first” should always be on the property manager’s mind; it is an important aspect of preparing and maintaining an apartment complex. A manager’s safety-related responsibilities are substantial; they involve maintaining a safe environment for both employees and residents. To begin with, the manager must make sure basic equipment is provided and maintained (e.g., fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, generators for emergency lighting, safety goggles for appropriate maintenance personnel, etc.). It is also important for the manager to conduct regular safety inspections and develop evacuation plans. To reinforce such a safety scheme, it is a good idea to publish evacuation procedures in employee and resident manuals.

Matters of safety extend beyond the limited responsibilities I’ve de scribed above—this text is not intended to serve as a safety manual. Before going on to another topic, let’s take a closer look at two significant safety concerns that affect the property manager.

Hazardous Substances

Unfortunately, one hears about toxic substances all the time. Such sub stances become a property manager’s concern when they exist on his or her property and present a threat to the health of employees and residents. Asbestos (previously used for fire-proofing and insulation), formaldehyde (used as an additive in some insulation and building materials), polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs (found in electrical equipment), and radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas) are examples of substances that exist in residential buildings and are a menace to human health.

The legislative picture is constantly changing in this arena; be aware of new laws (local, state, and federal). While there may be no legal requirements to remove hazardous substances, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have established tolerable limits of exposure—these guides should he taken into consideration. Obviously, there are ethical reasons to recognize the problems presented by hazardous substances. It is also necessary to acknowledge the possibility of incurring future liabilities; the owner faces an obvious liability risk when hazardous substances are found on his or her property and the property manager may inherit some of that liability. Finally, there is the issue of protecting the owner’s investment; a property that contains hazardous substances may be impossible to sell (and state or local law may require disclosure of the hazardous substance to the party purchasing the property). Property managers must be aware of the dangers hazardous substances present as well as the requirements for removal or containment. Public concern regarding this subject is surely going to increase and more stringent laws will be enacted.

When hazardous substances are located in an apartment building there are no easy solutions to the problem. It should be noted that the mere presence of a hazardous substance does not have to result in a health threat to residents and employees. Nevertheless, the best plan of action may be to remove or contain the dangerous substance. One thing remains constant: Any kind of action (even the decision to do nothing) requires the advice of specialists. Inspections should be conducted by knowledgeable consultants and removal (or containment) should be carried out by qualified contractors.

Security

Prompted by reports in newspapers and over radio and television of soaring crime rates—assaults, rapes, and increasing numbers of burglaries— many managers have seized upon security as a lure for rental prospects. A quick look at apartment advertisements will prove this point: One building claims to offer regular security patrols, another advertises security en try gates, and a third touts armed, uniformed guards. Each manager at tempts to rent apartments with the promise of maximum protection for the life and property of the resident.

The public is concerned for good reason: In a single year’s time, one out of every twenty people is the victim of burglary, vandalism, mugging, robbery, or car theft. No wonder managers think they’ve hit on something special when they promise security. Nevertheless, such a promise—either in the form of a direct claim or an implied commitment—should not be made without knowledge of the consequences. Prospective residents will not take the promise lightly, nor will the public, a judge, or a jury.

To begin with, promoting security may make prospects fearful or aggravate fears that already exist. Prospective residents may dwell on security when they would not normally focus on the subject. Promoting security may even cause the prospects to think that the security protection is not what it should be — and off they’ll go, looking for something better. The truth is that no apartment property will ever be 100 percent secure.

Security is a frame of mind. Hotels generally do a superb job of pro viding security, but they never promote it. Yet try something funny in a hotel lobby and watch how quickly the house detectives materialize. Hotels know that the suggestion of security is disturbing to guests, so they provide security quietly. Apartment managers would be smart to do likewise.

What happens when you promote security? Not only do you raise people’s fears, but you may very well incur a liability that you would not normally be exposed to. That liability could materialize if a resident is robbed, injured, or killed, and you are blamed because you did not provide the security that was promised. No matter how good the security system is, an injured party can always claim management could have done more (e.g., doubled or tripled the guards, increased surveillance, trained personnel better). Right now, there are court cases pending and already settled in which this very principle was the deciding factor.

If you are thinking of promoting security to attract prospects, I have one thing to say to you: Don’t do it. When I recommend against promoting security, I mean two things: Never install systems that seem to “guarantee” security, and never mention security in your advertising or promotional literature. If you have already ‘promised” building security, you may face risks (these will be discussed later).

Whatever you provide in the way of security, make sure that it is done correctly at all times. Security patrols (should you choose to use them) must be regular and all security equipment in perfect working order. In my opinion, your guiding principle should be to avoid systems that involve people other than the residents. Gatekeepers should not he dressed like guards and should not carry guns. Canine patrols are unacceptable.

Don’t give an apartment rent-free to a law enforcement officer in exchange for part-time guard service during his or her off-duty hours. All of these measures imply that management is assuming the responsibility for security. Again, I want to stress the importance of deciding what security you’re going to offer and then doing it right.

Do provide residents with security devices they can use themselves. For instance, dead bolts that must be locked by the residents are excellent. Apartment-to-lobby intercommunication and TV systems that allow the residents to screen visitors are acceptable because residents have to use them. In short, anything that can be controlled by the resident is acceptable; anything that involves another party is not.

Security requirements vary from one location to another. For example, some cities require such things as dead bolts on doors and bars on ground-level windows. Beyond such requirements, does the property owner have an implied duty to provide security beyond putting locks on doors? This question is being debated in the courts. As yet, there is no clear answer. One decision that seems to have set a precedent requires Owners to meet the standard of protection commonly provided in the community. This would mean that if most of the buildings in the community have round-the-clock guards, your property must have the same; it also suggests that there is no need to provide more than what others are offering. It is important to be aware of any laws or high court decisions that may have an impact on the amount of security you should provide.

There is another important piece of advice I should share: Take immediate steps if you are aware of any criminal activity on your property that implies a breach of security. For example, if a burglar enters a unit by way of a faulty patio door, make sure that all the patio doors in your complex are secure. If a resident is mugged in a dark area of the parking lot, in crease the level of illumination immediately. You want to prevent “copycat” crimes that come about because a security weakness has been discovered in your building. If you choose to do nothing and subsequent crimes occur, you and your owner are at a much greater liability risk because you were aware that a problem existed and failed to act to remedy the situation.

Most crimes in apartments occur because of resident carelessness — residents doing such things as holding the lobby door open for strangers, failing to screen callers before pushing the switch unlocking the door, or propping doors open for convenience. People should be warned against such practices. The best way to keep residents informed is to ask the local police department for literature on security and regularly distribute it to all residents. Do not reproduce security advice under your name or the building’s name because this may imply liability. Always use police literature; the police department should play the major role in any security situation.

Now that you have avoided any system that implies guaranteed security, the next step is to make sure that security is never mentioned in advertising, sales literature, or by rental personnel. Not only should the word “security” never appear, but you should refrain from describing any feature of the property that implies security. If you deal with an advertising agency, be sure that it adheres to this rule.

You are fortunate if you have avoided security promotion to date. If you are already promoting the building’s security system, you’ll have to live with a few problems. There is a definite risk in suddenly reducing security because someone may claim you are reneging on your security promise should an incident occur. Even if you maintain the status quo, you run the risk of being accused of providing insufficient security be cause of your residents’ heightened security awareness. The first plan of action should be to increase liability insurance to cover the added exposure.

The whole security issue is a difficult one. Perhaps problems can be avoided if owners and managers refuse to play on residents’ fears and in stead focus on the positive aspects of their developments.

THE APARTMENT

If you have skipped over everything else in getting your product ready, the one place you should never neglect is the apartment you’re going to show the prospect. It should be absolutely perfect. This is the rule: When there’s no further reason to enter the apartment to make any improvements, when the apartment is absolutely market-ready, then and only then, should you should it. More prospects will be lost through violation of this rule than for any other reason.

Picture this: The manager is showing an apartment to prospects and immediately steps on a stack of literature that has been slipped under the door during the past few days or weeks. The apartment itself is musty, dirty, and either overheated or chilly. The carpet is stained, and the walls are full of holes and marked with dirt where pictures have hung. In the kitchen, the refrigerator has food stains, the stove is encrusted with baked-on debris, the sink is rust-streaked, and powdered insect poison is spread in the cabinets. The bathroom has a tub with dead spiders, a dried- up toilet bowl, and a medicine cabinet with rusty shelves and a dc-silvered mirror. To top it all off, bulbs are missing from the light fixtures or the power is off, so the manager has to show the apartment by flashlight. This may sound like an exaggeration, hut a good many of these conditions are present in many vacant apartments that are shown. The standard response of the leasing agent is: “We’ll fix it before you move in.”

This approach seldom works. Prospects judge by first impressions. You can never get the maximum rent for an inferior product. If you ask for and obtain the rent you want for a product that is not in its best shape, then you automatically know you could have received more if the product had been in perfect condition. Prospects respond on the basis of what they see, not on what you promise, and they will predict future service accordingly.

If you don’t accept this argument, then ask yourself, “What kind of per son is the prospect who will move into an apartment that’s not first-rate?” People generally want to move up in status. If a filthy apartment means moving up, just how bad is the prospect’s current apartment? Again, do you want this kind of person in your building? It’s vitally important to make the apartment as perfect as possible be fore you show it. If you do this, you’ll get higher rents and attract better residents What’s more, your property will be ahead of the competition. In addition, the closer to perfection your apartment is, the more confident you’ll be when you ask for the maximum rent.

Let’s state the rule again: When there no further reason to enter the apartment to make any improvement—when it is absolutely market-ready then, and only then, should you show it.

Market Check List

There’s no need to have all of your vacant apartments ready for showing at the same time. Instead, have an assortment of every type and kind of apartment in what can be called market-ready condition. The number of apartments that must be kept in this condition depends on the pace of the market at any particular time and the variety of apartment sizes and floor plans. For your guidance, here is a list of nine items that should be checked to make sure an apartment is market-ready:

1. All walls and ceilings should be freshly painted. Don’t overlook closets or shelving.

2. Carpeting should be freshly shampooed. If there are any stains or burns, remove them or else the carpeting should be replaced.

3. All windows should be washed, both inside and out.

4. Windowsills, the tops of double-hung sashes, ledges, and shelves should be wiped clean of dirt and dead insects.

5. Light fixtures and switches should be in working order. Fixtures should be clean and there should be no dead insects inside the globes.

6. The temperature should be set at the level appropriate to the sea son. On moderate days, open the windows to air out the apartment.

7. The kitchen should be immaculate with all appliances clean and in working order. Make sure the refrigerator has the proper number of ice cube trays and that the cabinets are clean. Pay particular attention to the cabinet under the sink. There should be no stains in the sink and no dripping faucets.

8. Bathrooms should be spotless. Watch for dripping faucets, stains or worn-out enamel in the tub, and stained or dirty toilets. The medicine cabinet should be freshly painted and empty, with no leftover razor blades or other personal items. Tub and tile grout should be tight and clean.

9. Watch out for the typical apartment starter kit (i.e., a few bent hangers in the closet, some half-used soap in the bathroom, and a few sheets of toilet paper left on the roll). Get rid of these.

To help get the apartment ready, you should make a market-ready check list of all items that need to be inspected. This check list can be printed on a card that the manager personally signs and posts in the apartment in a prominent position, testifying to its first-rate condition. The card should not be dated; you wouldn’t want a prospect who comes in February to see a card dated last November. This would indicate that you’re having trouble renting the apartment.

The supervisor should check to see that only the manager’s signature is on the market-ready inspection card and that the card is never placed in an apartment that is not ready to be shown. This procedure is critical because it forces the manager to inspect each apartment carefully.

Daily inspection of the market-ready apartments is essential to make sure they stay in top shape until they are rented. Every day, before the start of business, the site manager should personally inspect the apartments. The procedure accomplishes several things:

1. To visit the apartment, the manager must first obtain the key. This ensures that the key is available. It’s surprising how often the key is missing when the manager or rental agent wants to show an apartment to a prospect.

2. Daily inspection eliminates the possibility of showing an apartment that is not ready.

3. Daily inspection also reveals problems that may have developed since the last inspection, such as leaflets slipped under the door, a dead insect that fell into the sink, or a window leak that has stained the carpet.

4. The manager is reminded to check the function of lights in the apartment and adjust the heating or air conditioning.

5. Finally, this procedure compels the manager to walk the property, during which time he or she may discover other things that need attention.

In summary, getting an apartment ready means inspecting it to make sure it’s in the best condition, and then doing a daily follow-up to make sure it remains an apartment to show prospects.

Window Covering

Draperies, Venetian blinds, and other window coverings merit special consideration as part of product preparation.

Draperies are frequently included in suburban garden apartments as a marketing aid. Some city apartments provide them, too. Uniform drapes can give the building a neater appearance from the outside. Drapes also are appreciated by residents whose budgets for furnishings are limited.

However, drapes can present a problem. Generally, the drapes that come with an apartment are not of the highest quality and they don’t hang well after a while. Discerning residents realize this and prefer their own drapes. Prospects may even resist renting an apartment because drapes are included; this is an example of negative marketing.

Meanwhile, transient residents who like drapes sometimes neglect them. They may leave windows open, exposing the drapes to dirt, soot, and rain. M a result, the drapes need cleaning too often, certainly every time there’s a change in tenancy. Because the drapes are usually poor quality to begin with, they seldom last more than a few years.

Nor do drapes accomplish the uniform outside appearance that many managers want. Even with drapes, some residents will place aluminum foil against the windows to reduce heat in the summer, and others will put up newspapers, especially on bedroom windows, to make the room darker. In many garden complexes, the drapes can’t be seen from the Out side because balconies interfere with the view. So the effect on external appearance is negligible.

Mini-blinds are the preferred choice of many owners as well as apartment renters. They have a neat and uniform appearance and allow light and ventilation, while at the same time they preserve the resident’s privacy. Blinds also divert direct sunlight, which helps hide many imperfections and indentations in the finished walls.

Children often bend and crease the metal blinds when they separate the slats to peer out. The vertical blind, which is often made of a more pliable material, seems to take such abuse better. If you opt for the vertical rather than the horizontal blinds, it is recommended that you invest in the more-expensive, double-mount type. Vertical blinds that are mounted only at the top will be blown by wind and can actually become tied in knots and destroyed.

Floor Covering

In most suburban complexes, wall-to-wall carpeting is standard in all living areas (living room, dining room, bedrooms, and hall). As mentioned, carpeting is an excellent sound absorber and buffer—but only if it’s wall-to-wall. Some apartments are finished with hardwood or tiled floors and managers may require residents to install their own carpeting on at least 80 percent of the floor area. This requirement is hard to en force, and the practice does not adequately reduce noise caused by vibration and by furniture moving.

Carpet styles change with fashion trends, so what is “in” today will probably be “out” tomorrow. Durable sculptured patterns were replaced by shag carpeting. Subsequently, shag carpeting was replaced by “splush” pile, which was replaced by cut pile, and so on. Carpet manufacturers will continue to come up with other new looks. Don’t make the mistake of buying high-priced, long-wearing carpeting for apartments. It will show wear patterns and is just as likely as lower-grade carpet to suffer from stains, burns, and spills. A reasonable life for carpet is five years and rarely more than six.

Carpeting must be shampooed with every resident change and no less often than every two years. If the carpet is badly stained but not worn, consider having it dyed; this usually costs one-half the price of replacing the carpet. Call in a carpet expert before you decide. Be aware that if you have the carpet dyed, the dye may get onto the baseboard woodwork and re painting will be necessary. Dyeing should be done with the carpet in place. If the carpet has to be taken to a plant, it will undoubtedly shrink. Also, the cost of picking up and re-installing the carpet will add to the total cost, possibly eliminating the savings difference between dyeing and re placing the carpet altogether. You should also be aware that dyed carpeting will occasionally change color when exposed to sunlight, and the new hues can be undesirable.

Less common than carpeting, tiles are a good alternative in buildings with concrete floors. Some buildings provide asphalt or vinyl tile as standard; others may have resilient sheet flooring.

Hardwood flooring is common in many older buildings and may also be installed in some newer, wood-frame buildings. Oak flooring is expensive to buy and install. Although attractive initially, it can show scratches and stains and must be sanded and varnished to remove these mars. Each sanding removes roughly 1/16-inch of hardwood floor surface; eventually the flooring nails are exposed, at which point no more sanding is possible. During the life of a hardwood floor, you can expect to be able to sand four to six times. Hence, it is important to avoid unnecessary sanding. Admittedly, a hardwood floor that has been used by a careful resident can last for years and years, but generally carpet is better choice when you compare the cost with that of sanding and eventually replacing hard wood floors.

ESTABLISHING PRIORITIES

Let’s talk about establishing an action plan for improvements. When making improvement plans, a property manager may face limitations imposed by the goals, objectives, and financial situation of the owner of the property. In this discussion, however, I want to talk about developing the optimal plan for improvements. Knowing how to develop such a plan will lead to an understanding of what to do when you are faced with limitations.

The best place to start might be with an examination of the components of a new, soon-to-be-opened development. However, at the beginning of a property’s life, there are few things that will require our attention (not to mention the fact that the process of decay progresses very slowly at first). The impact of condition is best assessed in a property that is in trouble and approaching the bottom of the condition cycle.

Let’s assume that you have been appointed to manage a property that has been allowed to run down. The neighborhood is good and most of the neighboring properties have had much better care over the years. Consequently, the competition enjoys much higher rents. It is up to you to map out a program that will bring this new account up to standard.

When faced with such an assignment, the best place to start is to identify the problems. There are three distinct categories of improvement: must-do, should-do, and could-do. The following is an explanation of the three improvement levels.

Must-Do

This category includes the required replacements or repairs to the structure. Examples would be the roof, the facade, mechanical and electrical systems, plumbing and sewer lines, modifications to remedy safety concerns, etc.

Most of the money in an upgrade program will be spent correcting problems in this category. Items like a new roof or boiler or replacement windows have costs that range into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

The unfortunate aspect of a must-do investment is that there is almost never an associated increase in the rent. A renter expects the roof to be watertight and is not willing to pay more because the property had to spend money to ensure that this is the case. The same is true for the plumbing, heating and air-conditioning system. When you put out a “for rent” sign, there is an implication that the major components of the building function normally. This is a disturbing fact for many owners since they traditionally like to measure their return on invested capital, even when it is spent just to bring the property to a livable standard. Owners often ignore the fact that money was not set aside from operations and placed into a reserve fund. If the property was recently purchased, the must-do items are really an addition to the purchase price.

In the final analysis, managers are graded by their ability to achieve better occupancy levels and higher rents by making changes in the property and its operation. Money, usually the limiting factor, often leads us to play down must-do improvements in favor of the should-do and could-do items that have the greatest effect on our scorecard as managers. Usually there is a limit to the money available. If the available dollars are invested in a roof that brings no additional income, there is a proportionate reduction in money for lush landscaping, new carpet, better decorating, and up graded apartment layouts. While this is certainly true, your reputation will quickly suffer if you direct a turn-around of a property where most of the money is invested in visible upgrades, but your residents live under a leaky roof or with old rusty pipes just waiting to ruin all of the new improvements. Must-do items form a foundation for the rest of the work that you are planning. Don’t ignore these critical items even though you can’t demonstrate an immediate payback.

After carefully inspecting the entire property and placing each job in one of the three categories, it will he necessary to write specifications. This is certainly essential for the items that fall into the must-do category. As we said, these are invariably big-ticket items and they almost always involve a level of knowledge that requires expert advice.

For example, say that we will need a series of new flat built-up com position roofs. The cost will be in the many-thousand dollar range, and there are almost a dozen different types to choose from. We can choose one of the old standbys or experiment with some of the state-of-the-art roofing methods. In most areas consultants are available to explain the pros and cons of each option and to prepare the specifications that will be sent to selected roofing contractors. The cost of this service is minor when it is compared to the cost and problems that can result from a mistake. After gaining experience from a number of jobs, you may apply what you have learned from your consultant by repeating the process yourself in the future. Always learn carefully with the help of experts first; do not move quickly to try new products until they have really proven them selves. As a manager, you are spending other people’s money and if you err, let it be on the conservative side.

Even with a set of well-written specifications, the bids will often vary widely. Never do a job after receiving only one bid. When the bids have too wide a variance or the amounts are much higher than expected, hold a bid conference and identify the items or procedures that are driving up the cost. The contractors will usually inform you of changes in the specifications that will result in a reduction of the final cost. At this point you can judge whether or not to make a change.

Many experienced managers develop a “stable” of dependable contractors who are used for most of the work needed. This is comfortable because the manager knows that he or she can rely on these particular firms; and if something goes wrong the contractors will he there to back up their work. Unfortunately, this arrangement almost always ends up costing more. If you were to have a conversation with one or two of the premier builders in town, you would learn that they work with a list of at least three subcontractors for each trade. They constantly bid one against the other, and they never rig the bids or give one contractor a last look. They know that when they do, the word gets out quickly and the benefit of competitive bidding is lost. After you solicit bids from numerous sub contractors for a while, you will witness the variance in the bids and be able to calculate the savings from following this method.

When you receive widely differing opinions from a number of con tractors and are confused about identifying the better solution, seek out an expert who has dealt extensively with that problem. If your problem has to do with resilient flooring, talk to a facilities manager for a school or hospital where a lot of that type of floor product has been used. Rarely will you receive the objective opinion you need from the person who is at tempting to sell you a particular product. A phone call to another manager or someone who has considerable experience in a given area can save the Property a great deal of money and save you the embarrassment of making the wrong selection.

A must-do item is purchased to provide trouble-free service over its life expectancy. You should be more concerned with the quality of its performance than with its appearance.

Should-Do

In preparing our should-do list, we should include items that will help the Property meet current modern standards. Included in this list are carpeting and appliances in the apartment units; upgrading of entries, stairways, or corridors; resurfacing of parking lots; and a general renewal of the landscaping.

Should-do items will help keep existing residents and attract qualified new ones. The money spent in this category can be meaningful, but the return on investment is often considerably less than the amount the owner might earn in alternative investments. Money spent on these improvements simply protects the money already invested. However, without this periodic reinvestment, the property would begin a decline in the quality of its residents and thus in its value.

Most of us have witnessed the need for should-do items in hotels or motels. The lobby begins to look seedy and so do the corridors. The carpeting in the guest rooms is matted and stained. The furniture shows signs of hard wear. The bathrooms are Out of date. If you are a regular traveler, you know that this is about the time that you begin searching for new accommodations. Money must constantly be funneled back into the property if it is to maintain its position in the market. If this doesn’t happen, you can see the beginning of the end. As a property manager, you will consume considerable energy explaining this transition process to the individuals who own the properties you manage.

If you are considering the purchase of new appliances for certain kitchens, you might examine the feasibility of buying refrigerators with one or more special features rather than the stripped down models. You need to ask yourself if the more expensive refrigerators will give you an edge in the market, and you need to know if you can charge additional rent for it. If the answer to either question is yes, the best advice usually is to opt for the fancier product. This advice runs contrary to some past practices. In the past, owners and managers often opted for stripped-down equipment because it had the fewest parts and the lowest price. This strategy led to the continued downgrading of the rental unit and drove many families to seek homeownership when they might otherwise rent. Renters are very aware of the modern conveniences available in the market, and they would like to enjoy these conveniences, too. This recommendation is not intended as a license to go overboard and purchase ovens and dish washers with every conceivable button and function. Increased purchase costs and service costs are still considerations. This is just a recommendation that we as property managers should strive to provide the conveniences that are commonplace in a modern lifestyle.

Light fixtures, faucets, shower heads, medicine cabinets, mirrors, woodwork, hardware, windows and windowsills, paint, floor coverings, even bathtubs and vanities in an apartment complex, have often been the cheapest type available. That fact does not go unnoticed by prospective residents. When one of these components fails or requires replacement, don’t search Out one of equal quality. Spend the extra money necessary to begin a systematic upgrade program. Investigate better alternatives and begin to replace these poor-quality components with the latest and most durable designs.

Now, for our purposes, let’s assume that we have carefully detailed the must-do items, solicited the professional help needed to write the specifications and supervise the work, and set aside an adequate budget for implementation. We’ve also addressed the should-do items on our list; we’ve done some landscaping, repaved the parking area, and improved the development’s lighting. Now we’re ready to turn our attention to an even more subjective category of improvements.

Could-Do

The final column on your inventory sheet contains those items that are truly optional. This work might include enlarging a small bathroom, converting a bedroom to a get-away-room,” or adding a private patio off the living room of one or more of the units. Adding wallpaper, changing wall colors, installing new hardware, and revamping the bath or kitchen layout are just a few more possibilities in the category of could-do.

Unlike the first two categories, money spent on could-do items brings substantial rewards. Returns on invested capital can range as high as 30 percent. Anything that is done to set an apartment apart from the run-of-the-mill or gives a unit a special personality pays quick rewards in both added profits and a better clientele. Unfortunately, we cannot ad dress could-do issues first, as there is a built-in assumption that you have already taken care of the problems identified in the must-do and should- do categories.

Variety and Change. In the could-do category, variety is one of the most important ways to increase the property’s appeal as well as its rental level. A formula that does not work today could be described as “a lot of the same,” and that happens to be exactly what most apartment complexes offer. Apartments with routine layouts and everyday appointments cannot attract and keep good residents. Rental housing will simply become the temporary housing for those people who are saving for down payments.

Take a ride down a Street with rows of single-family homes and you’ll understand that people have different needs and the desire to establish their own identity. Even though many of these homes began as “cookie cutter” versions of the same plan, the owners have made their own special modifications in the rental world, the job of beginning an individualizing process belongs to us.

Starting with the structures themselves, don’t end up with fifteen identical buildings: Vary the color schemes, alter the landscaping, add different treatments to the stairways or corridors. When striving to achieve variety, exercise caution in the addition of new materials and textures. It doesn’t take long to create a circus atmosphere. Vary the combination of colors, but maintain a common thread that ties the separate buildings together.

In the individual units, find ways to get away from the standards (i.e., one-bedroom, two-bedroom). You will always have enough of them. Re move a wall, if you can, to create one great room. Perhaps you could expand the kitchen and eliminate the dining area, or, double the size of the bathroom. A bedroom without an accompanying bathroom can be transformed into a den, library, or get-away room. End units offer opportunities to add bay or bow windows. These alterations will change the exterior appearance of the building and can improve the look and use of the apartment. (Obviously you must keep the exterior design of the building in mind when making such structural changes.) Even though a building was originally constructed with sliding glass doors, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to them. Sliding glass doors dictate furniture arrangements in the living rooms. The addition of a large wooden deck to connect an apartment’s living, eating, and sleeping areas will pay for itself in just months. You’ll also reap the benefit of attracting top residents. Many two- or three- story apartment buildings can be modified to include skylights. Converting three so-so units into two dynamite units will pay dividends for years to come. Connecting a first- and second-story unit together into one with its own staircase is another way of adding variety and value.

Many of us have had the opportunity to visit major rehab projects where very creative architects and designers have taken old factory buildings and converted them into very special apartments. That’s what should be done with ‘cookie cutter” apartments. Break away from the routine. Give your apartments a different look and layout. You should start slowly and become more creative and aggressive as you develop a feel for the market. Most of us do not have the training or the skills to conceive major changes on our Own. Seek help from people with training and talent. It’s usually best to begin with a progressive professor and his or her class of architectural or design students. They are not intimidated by the past, and their minds bubble with fresh ideas and approaches. Tell them what people want today in the way of living spaces, bathrooms and kitchens. Visit something like “The Parade of Homes” to understand the lifestyle changes taking place and the things people perceive as desirable. Once you take the time to understand what people want, it is fairly easy to scale down a version to fit the space and pocketbook of an apartment complex.

You shouldn’t serve up the same old tired apartment layout month after month. Take each apartment as it becomes available, study it, and then begin to make changes. Soon, you will have the variety of housing stock necessary to compete successfully today.

Up to this point, I have unequivocally recommended that you seek opportunities to implement could-do improvements and changes. Now a word of caution is appropriate. Few will argue with the premise that most people would enjoy a better lifestyle and improved living conditions; but you as manager cannot ignore the issue of affordability. Unfortunately, those residents who constitute the low- and limited-income groups are not in a position to pay the additional money to cover the cost of could-do improvements. Owners and managers of low- and limited-income housing should work to slow down the constant decay process and extend the life of the property. These same owners and managers must also recognize that their residents may be unable to pay for a better lifestyle.

This is not an issue for the segment of rental housing that caters to people of the adequate-or ample-income groups. In these cases, the obstacles are surmountable: First, you must obtain the funds for could-do improvements and second, you must have the imagination to conceive a constant flow of new ideas.

Must-Do

• Roof repairs

• Boiler work

• Hot water heater replacement

• Electrical switchgear

Should-Do

• Repave parking lot

• Upgrade landscaping

• Replace worn carpeting

• Redecorate hallways

• Update appliances

Could-Do

• Add new features and equipment (e.g., ceiling fans, ice-maker kits)

• Change some apartment layouts

• Add customized decorating schemes

Amount of expenditure, $60,000

Amount of expenditure, $195,000

Amount of expenditure, $45,000

Percentage of total spent, 20%

Percentage of total spent, 65%

Percentage of total spent, 15%

Return on money spent, 0%

Return on money spent, 4%

Return on money spent, 30%

Total budget, $300,000

Overall Yield, 7%

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