Student Housing, a Different Kind of Property

Las Vegas--The National Apartment Association (NAA) Student Housing Exposition and Exposition in Las Vegas opened with panelists talking about very promising projections, with the number of college students expected to grow from 18.2 million today to about 24 million by 2016 and enrollments expanding all the way through 2025.

Las Vegas–The National Apartment Association (NAA) Student Housing Exposition and Exposition in Las Vegas opened with panelists talking about very promising projections, with the number of college students expected to grow from 18.2 million today to about 24 million by 2016 and enrollments expanding all the way through 2025.

Michael Peter, president and CEO of Campus Advantage, says that student housing has evolved from “a cottage industry to a serious, recession-proof niche” that commands attention from Wall Street. Rents are rising at a higher rate than conventional properties. And with the top 10 players in the industry controlling only 15 percent of the market, there is plenty to go around.

That doesn’t mean, however, that just anyone can jump in and get a piece of the pie. Student housing carries with it several aspects that set it apart from conventional apartments. From an investor standpoint, for instance, universities move at a much slower pace than one might be used to. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Turnover is a different kind of animal in student housing, because nearly everyone moves in and out at the same time. And because of the ubiquity of social media, communicating with and getting the attention of residents requires a whole different set of tools and a new kind of thinking.

Turnover

Imagine having to clean 200 carpets in a one-week window. Or imagine a dozen kids showing up with beds and couches to move into an apartment that they didn’t know was already furnished. Or as Neal Bright, regional vice president of Asset Campus Housing, suggests, picture the damage that a four-week-old puppy could do to a unit a week before turn.

Bright and his team have learned to prepare for turnover in an almost scientific manner, maintaining checklists that start the day the students move in and counting down all the way through the end of the cycle. Preventative maintenance and quarterly walk-throughs help keep the team ahead of the game, so that the year-end scramble is made as painless as possible. This involves anything from caulking and paint to powerwashing and furniture upkeep. In addition to determining, say, how many blinds need to be replaced, Bright stresses the importance of contacting vendors early on, getting at least five vendors to bid, and doing this 16 to 20 weeks before your deadline.

Maintenance is just one piece of the puzzle. Communication with the students is also key (as in the above example of furnished apartments). Renewal notices should be prepared and distributed 60 days in advance. Contractual move-out conditions and consequences should be clearly explained. Roommates should be accounted for, as Bright says that “partial turning is a powder keg waiting to explode.” And things like controlling the illegal pet population can make a big difference, as it could prevent that puppy from annihilating the place.

Social media

Technology plays a big part in today’s leasing and management operations across all property types. Submitting maintenance requests, paying rent, finding roommates—doing these things online or through apps is not exclusive to student housing. But the area where student housing differs from other property types is social media.

It would be difficult to exaggerate how much time 20-year-olds spend on Facebook. They also use Twitter, YouTube and Foursquare, and they use them constantly because they can access everything on their smartphones. As Jonathon Bove, national director for Campus Advantage, describes it, these students aren’t pausing to engage this technology; “social media is threaded throughout their day.”

Campus Advantage is one company that uses this trend to its advantage. To begin with, owners and operators can use these tools to get students’ attention and attract them to their communities. It’s not as simple as having a Facebook page, though. Students want to be engaged. They want photos and property-tour videos so they can see the space and send links to their parents. They want contests and prizes.

At University Crossing in Manhattan, Kan., the community gave away a free t-shirt to anyone who wrote “UC rocks” on their Facebook wall. Students ate it up, and it generated fans on their Facebook page. Another property had a contest where the student who referred the most friends to their page won an iPad. Facebook also has a Deals section where you can reward loyal customers and gain new ones by, for example, offering $200 off an administration fee.

Again, the key is to engage. Campus Advantage has incorporated interactive games into their Facebook platform. In one, students were sent on a photo-tagging scavenger hunt. A photo of a popcorn maker was posted, and students were invited to find the popcorn maker somewhere in the community, take a photo of themselves next to it, and then tag themselves in the photo. At another property, residents were encouraged to film their own property tours in the style of MTV’s show “Cribs” and post the videos.

Social events should be posted to Facebook. Some students say they don’t even know about an event unless it’s on Facebook. And if you want to get really interactive, YouTube Annotated Videos give you a way to set up video property tours where the students get to choose what they want to see.

The efficacy of all this is difficult to monetize. There have been no comprehensive studies on how investing large chunks of time into keeping an active Facebook page impacts return on investment. But it is absolutely essential to connecting with this demographic. By showing that you know how to use students’ technology, you’re showing them that you’re responsive to them and that you can communicate on their level. Students believe that the way you maintain social media is reflective of how you run the rest of your business, and reflective of the attention they believe they would receive in person.

And remember, whether the residents like your property or not, their opinions can go viral in a hurry. You’re more likely to come out favorably in those conversations if you’re a part of them.