How BTR Designs Differ From For-Sale Plans

Here are some of the single-family home features that are most important to renters.

Lew Sichelman

Designing houses that are being built to rent is not the same as designing those built for sale.

Yes, single-family rental units have roughly the same number of bricks and sticks as for-sale houses. They require the same tradesmen to erect them. And they often have the same number of bedrooms and baths.

But, according to a new report from John Burns Real Estate Consulting, some features are either totally different or need to be located differently.

Take windows and doors, for example. Burns staffers Jennie Nichols and Deanna Vidal say these features should be standardized as much as possible. “Not every window needs to be the same size,” they advise, “so limit the selection to a select few.”

Standardization saves money, and not just because it simplifies the construction process, but also because builders can buy them in bulk. Moreover, it allows for uniform window blind sizes so they can be replaced when necessary.

“While windows do not often need to be replaced,” Nichols and Vidal say. “Blinds are another story.”

In a telephone interview, Nichols told MHN that her firm’s research has found that blinds are pretty much standard in the BTR sector. And they are often found to be broken or otherwise damaged when an occupant moves on.

With a stockpile of blinds on hand, she said, property managers don’t have to search for the right size and hope they are still in stock somewhere else.

Uniformity is one of six design strategies the Burns firm outlined in its report. The Irvine, Calif.-based marketing and advisory company calls them “tenets,” saying that conceptualizing is not something they hear much about when researching trends. “While build-to-rent is a hot topic,” Nichols and Vidal say, “we find that great design is rarely discussed.”

Nichols writes many of the company’s monthly publications and supports clients with their design and trend inquiries. As a senior manager, Vidal focuses on helping clients turn the firm’s consumer research and design insights into practical applications.

BTR developers also are advised to focus on materials that are highly functional, durable and easy to clean. Not just because they won’t have to replace things like cabinets and flooring as often between renters, but also because that’s one of the things single-family renters value most.

“Renters want flooring, counters and cabinets that are easy to take care of (so they can) keep their security deposits,” the Burns staffers say.

Easy Access to Equipment

Another BTR design imperative is keeping items that need servicing on the ground floor for easy access.

For example, many for-sale builders place their washing machine and clothes dryer upstairs closer to the bedrooms, Nichols told MHN, many BTR units don’t even have a second floor. But even if they do, it’s best to keep the mechanical equipment and appliances on the first level so  maintenance can get in and out quickly to make repairs or replacements.

“The further someone has to come into the house” to service the HVAC unit, plumbing or appliances, she pointed out, the “more of an intrusion it is for the residents…And if there’s a leak, water damage will be minimized, if not minimal.”

Speaking of easy, another of Burns’ tenets is designing the house so it simple for tenants to move in and out. On this point, wider doorway and stairs are recommend, as is a well-defined TV wall.

Wider doors and stairs make it easier for people to move furniture without damaging walls, and an obvious spot for the TV will cut down on the number of holes people punch in the walls when they move in to hook up their TV sets.

When it comes to technology, developers are better off focusing on items that help monitor the home’s mechanical systems without having to go inside. Smart tech is a key service aid, according to the report. While smart locks and Ring doorbells are nice to have, it’s better to be able to know if there’s a leak without having to rely on the tenant to report it.

The sixth key BTR design feature is amenities. They are important for both renters and buyers. But when it comes to renters, the proper amenity package depends on the type of house, according to the Burns staffers.

Of course, it always helps that the rental neighborhood is located within a larger master planned community. That way, it can share the amenities offered to the entire property. But beyond that, developers may not need to go overboard.

If the unit is a detached house, just the fact that it comes with a yard and a two-care garage may be enough to appeal to a lot of consumers, Nichols said. But since attached units are more like apartments, the more amenities the better in a cottage-like configuration, otherwise known as a horizontal apartment.

“There isn’t anyone living above or below you in cottage-style designs, but the units still share walls,” she explained. “So in that way, they are more like apartments than detached houses. And in that way, they are competing more with Class A multi-family properties.”

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