The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life in the United States, with office buildings sitting empty in downtowns; millions filing for unemployment; children taking math, science and literature classes remotely from their own bedrooms; and government leaders weighing the benefits and negatives of closing down restaurants, bars and retailers to keep the virus from spreading.
Property managers are dealing with big changes thanks to the pandemic, too, with a survey released in June by property management software provider AppFolio giving an indication of how significant these changes have been.
According to the survey, 82 percent of residential property management companies had at least some of their staff working remotely and 46 percent said they were adopting new technology as a way to prepare their businesses for the future.
The survey found, too, that 71 percent of property management companies said they were placing a priority on virtual showings while 64 percent said that these virtual showings are here to stay.
Stacy Holden, industry principal at AppFolio, recently spoke with Midwest Real Estate News about the ways in which the pandemic has changed the business of property management. Here is some of what she had to say.
We’ve written a lot about how COVID-19 has changed life for brokers and developers. But it’s changed the way property managers work, too, right?
Stacy Holden: The pandemic has changed life for everyone. Property managers, for lack of a better phrase, have turned into frontline workers. All of a sudden, the people in their multifamily properties are living there 24/7. What would have been minor maintenance issues and inconveniences have become mission critical. Property managers had to respond in different ways. They were also restricted from much in-person contact. They couldn’t necessarily do things face-to-face. People still needed to move and find places to live, though. People still needed maintenance and repairs in their units. Property managers have had to shift a lot during this pandemic.
Repairs and maintenance are interesting. How have property managers handled these while being mindful of the need to socially distance as much as possible?
Holden: Technology has played a big role. We changed the way that people make work requests, for one thing. Residents aren’t just filing work orders online. They are filing them with photos and videos to show the actual repair work they need. They are providing more information upfront to property managers in this way.
At the same time, we are seeing building maintenance people increasingly posting videos on how residents can fix the circuit breaker in their units or how they can fix other basic problems. There are some repairs that residents can do themselves. Maintenance workers will drop off supplies they need and might guide the residents through the repair by video. That reduces physical contact between managers and residents.
How has the video component of this change worked?
Holden: Sometimes property managers or maintenance staffers get online and do a video conference with residents as they take on a work order. That is becoming more common. We also have customers who have provided a library of do-it-yourself videos that their residents can access. The maintenance professionals will film themselves walking through a unit and explain how you make common repairs. How do you reset a circuit breaker? What should you check when you have a leaky faucet?
How about with the leasing side? How has the pandemic changed that part of the process?
Holden: The video interaction on the leasing side has increased. Property managers have long relied on virtual tours during the times when people can’t make an in-person showing for whatever reason. The number of virtual tours property managers are doing now, though, has only increased. These are useful tools when two people can’t be in the same room at the same time. It’s a safer way to show an apartment.
Not only are virtual tours more popular now, they will also be more common in the future. We asked property managers what tech pivots they think will remain with us even after the pandemic. The number-one piece of technology they cited was virtual tours. In response to that, we have also seen a big increase in property managers using virtual leasing assistants, like our AI leasing assistant, Lisa. This virtual assistant takes care of the beginning of the resident experience. If residents are looking and have questions about an apartment, 24/7, 365 days a year, Lisa can have comprehensive conversations through AI, with a back and forth between her and residents. Residents can use Lisa to send in applications or schedule an appointment for a virtual showing.
Are virtual showings evolving as the pandemic continues?
Holden: There are different kinds of virtual showings. You and I might be on the phone or you might be on your laptop. I would be in the unit. I would give you a tour of that unit while you and I have a virtual interaction with each other. As I walk through the units, you’d be asking questions. We would all be at a safe distance, and the leasing agents would still have the ability to use their secret sauce, their selling skills, to sell someone a unit.
There are also 3D virtual tours that potential renters can do anytime on their own. They’d pull up a 3D video that goes through the unit. Property managers can post these online. This gives potential renters more confidence that this unit might be the right one before they move on to the next step.
Some management companies offer interactive site plans. We offer these to our property managers. These are 2D. Customers can click on them and get a layout of the complex, the lay of the land of the unit. After customers click through these, the next step might be to interact with our virtual assistant, Lisa, to make an appointment for an in-person or virtual showing.
These will be useful tools for after the pandemic, too. In the dead of winter, no one wants to look at an apartment. Now people have lots of ways to look at apartments without actually stepping into them. From the property manager’s perspective, these tools make their jobs more efficient. With Lisa and other AI assistants, they are no longer asking the same questions over and over. The virtual assistant can answer these basic, early questions. Property managers can spend their time on more impactful tasks, like being there for residents 24/7 because so many of them are working from home now. Property managers can spend more time on the more important things.
What other changes brought on by the pandemic do you think will become permanent?
Holden: I think remote work will remain permanent to an extent. It is more efficient for many people. I don’t think working in an office will completely go away. One of the challenges with more people being in their units for most of the day revolves around efficiency. How as a property manager will I know things are getting done in these units on a timely basis? How do I know that the renewals are being done on a timely basis, or that the security deposit refunds are being paid out in a timely manner?
This is where automation comes in. Property managers can take their processes, policies and procedures and put them in an application itself. The application will guide users step by step through the app on how they can accomplish these important but repetitive tasks.
These apps help employees know what to do. They help property managers to see quickly if they are on time with a renewal or other job. They might see that they are behind three days on a renewal. Why is that? You can use these automated applications to drill into the reasons why something is late. Property managers will use these apps to view the communication that has already happened between the resident and the leasing agent. They can determine if their employees have done things efficiently.
How has the pandemic changed the way residents are using common areas in their apartment buildings?
Holden: There is more demand on maintenance in general. The usage of common areas depends largely on the states and their local regulations. In some areas, for instance, residents can use their common areas like the fitness center but they must reserve a time to use it.
But this isn’t only about common areas. If you look back at the 1918 pandemic that this country went through, one of the things that changed was the design of windows. We made them bigger so that more air could flow through homes. I think we’ll see changes like that, not only in the construction process but in how units are designed. There will be a greater emphasis on more open space. There will be an emphasis on providing spaces that residents can use for home offices. We’ll see more space set aside for package delivery. As residents are changing how they are using their apartments today, you’ll see the design of apartments change, too.