The day the leasing office died

Back in the old days, the landlord was in charge of the relationship. The landlord, or in more modern terms, the property manager, kept certain office hours, whereby tenants and prospective residents could visit, inform the manager of maintenance issues and pay rent. Apartment shoppers could go on tours, fill out a bunch of papers and snack on cookies.

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The landlord selected an apartment for the prospect, that is, as soon as the results of the leasing application and credit screening were deemed acceptable. An obedient tenant could sit and wait for the outcome of his or her housing fate in a comfortable chair opposite the leasing agent who sat in total control of the transaction.

Fast forward. Today, things are a little different. Actually, a lot different. Something significant has happened to the pecking order of landlord and tenant.

Now, people are searching for and leasing apartments from their computers where and when they want, many in the wee morning hours donning their ruffled night clothes. They are self-directing through Internet Listing Services and property websites. They are finding apartment communities they like, dismissing the ones they don’t, and even selecting their move-in date.

None of this has gone unnoticed by the Internet giant, Google. Sometime in May, Google quietly entered the apartment market leasing frenzy.

I made this discovery quite by accident when I entered “apartments” into the main Google search window. I was shocked to see a refined search box asking where I wanted an apartment. After requesting Scottsdale, Arizona, Google then asked me how much I wanted to pay, and how many bedrooms and baths I wanted. It was as though I had walked into a leasing office. Google, always astute observers of web surfers, saw what was happening in our industry and changed the rules of the game.

Another sign the tide has turned
So is the leasing office dead? Is the leasing agent on the endangered list? Maybe and yes. First, I propose a few new titles to replace “leasing agent.” How about “property advocate, resident ambassador, or property welcome agent?” Today, leasing agents are present to provide human interaction, create spirited community events, and welcome shoppers; who by the way, have already visited online and, having pre-sold themselves, are now just checking out the property in person.

Who’s in charge then? Google? Who’s controlling the information? ILSs? Who started this whole thing? Property managers who buy ILS listings, virtual tours and check availability software?

None of the above. Your renters are in charge. So, metaphorically get up, give them your seat and let them run the show. Because, you know what? They already are. They are doing business the way they want to do business, not the way you dictate that business is done.

Property managers have officially lost control. Don’t panic. It’s actually cause for celebrating. Customer-driven relationships are statistically stronger and longer-lasting. People like being in charge of their own destiny (take, for example, the success of democracy) and everyone likes lower leasing costs, all of which are outcomes of the fulcrum of power swinging the other way.

Still not convinced?

I recently spoke with Cecil Phillips, CEO of Place Properties. They manage over 15,000 student apartments nationwide. All of their renters go online to find and lease an apartment with Place Properties, the country’s only total web-based leasing system. Good thing, too. Forty percent lease between midnight and two in the morning. Is your leasing office open then?

The students of today are your renters of tomorrow, and Google is ready for them.

They want the ease and convenience of conducting life on the Internet. And as Cecil mentioned, the Internet is more important to them than television, especially as the two coalesce.

Wow. They want life on their terms. And that extends to housing decisions. It’s time for change.

I wish you could all personally hear what Cecil had to say.

Wait there is a way. Go to www.multihousingpro.com and click the “Hear Cecil” button.

It’s an eye-opener. Plus, it’s another cool example of how we can get information we want, when we want it.

It is only a matter of time before Google will amass the largest inventory of apartments for rent.

Why? Because it’s free. Google will crawl the Internet looking for your apartment community so when a request is made through Google, it will return the “relevant” search results.

Today, I was disappointed in the search results, but it is just a matter of time before they figure out the algorithms to give me what I’m looking for. After all, that’s what makes them the number one search engine.

The best way to respond to the inevitable changes in our industry is simply to get with the times.

Build the killer property website that gets indexed by Google’s spiders and gives prospects what they want: a fully interactive experience. Build a site that lets prospects see what you have with facts and photos; one that invites them to jump in and experience your community through tours and aerial shots, and interact by checking availability and getting a credit check to reserve an apartment.

Make your website fully interactive allowing residents to do business with you by making rent payments, submitting maintenance requests and renewing leases. Let them shop your sister properties right on your site and even build a community by connecting with others living there (think MySpace.com).

So, relax. Admit that you no longer have control. Relinquish the reigns to your prospects. Hire some resident ambassadors for your property, fool around on a Google search and spice up your website. Things are only going to get more interesting.

Author: Mike Mueller is president and CEO of Realty Data Trust in Scottsdale, Arizona.