After what has turned out to be one of the toughest years for the industry and the world, Drucker + Falk Managing Director Wendy Drucker is optimistic about the multifamily market and her firm, which manages a portfolio of properties that spans 13 states but is mostly based in Northern Virginia.
In a conversation with Multi-Housing News, Drucker shared her insights on how the pandemic has changed the multifamily leasing process and long-held norms for how prospective residents shop for a home and experience apartment living.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
It’s been almost a year since the pandemic really took hold in the U.S. How has it impacted the leasing process for operators and property managers?
Drucker: COVID-19 has had an impact on every aspect of our business, not just the leasing business. It’s, of course, changed the way we deal with prospects, but it also changed the way we deal with residents, how we complete work orders, the techniques we use to market available apartments, how we work with our vendor partners, how we educate employees, and how we participate in industry events, including trade shows that were virtual.
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Within the leasing process, we had been doing a lot of virtual and online marketing before COVID-19, but within three days, we reinvented our leasing process and really kind of went back to the basics where we had to sell our apartment communities and our apartments over the phone. It was almost like when I started in the business. We didn’t have computers. We had nothing. We had a telephone, and we had our apartments we had to show. We had to really sell people over the phone and paint that picture for them so that they would want to come out to the community and see the apartment. But the video and self-guided tours—that all has become the new normal and it happened virtually overnight.
We polled our readers about whether the winter leasing season would be impacted by COVID-19 and the majority of respondents said yes. Do you think the spring season will be impacted, as well?
Drucker: I do. Is it impacting the way we lease? I think the way we lease has changed forever. We’re at the end of January, and we’re getting 60-day notices. So we are leasing for spring right now. In a lot of states where we do business, all the first responders have not even gotten their vaccine yet. So I think COVID-19 is absolutely going to impact our leasing season for spring.
The industry has had to adjust from being an in-person business to one that is much more virtual. As we start 2021, do you expect virtual and self-guided tours to remain a part of the leasing playbook going forward?
Drucker: I have to be honest with you, we have an amazing marketing team. Even before the pandemic, the team came to us and said, ‘Our prospects are asking for more innovative ways to communicate with our apartment communities.’ They wanted the online application functionality. They wanted virtual tour options, because a lot of people are moving from one area of the country to another. So even ahead of COVID-19, ahead of spring, we had many communities that had implemented video tours, the phone numbers that are text-enabled and the 24/7 leasing agent chat function to the website. We had some self-guided keyless tour options and we, of course, had online applications. We also do electronic lease signings, which we’ve been doing for years.
I think what’s going to be important going forward—COVID-19 or no COVID-19—is that all of us have to stay abreast of new technology. Things are happening all the time. We are testing things that are coming up to help our industry on a weekly basis. In order to stay competitive, we have to give our prospects and our residents—we can’t ignore our residents—what they want and what is easy for them.
How important is having videos and up-to-date apartment community websites? Has that really made a difference in getting communities leased-up during the pandemic?
Drucker: I can’t say absolutely enough. It is personally one of my hot buttons. I, probably every month, go on every website that we have. I wish I could do it every week, but I would never sleep. But I also am Facebook friends and Instagram-connected with all of our apartment communities, and I’ve found misspellings and (grammar errors). But I also applaud those that are doing very creative, very fun stuff.
You know, living in an apartment community is a lifestyle. If you really look at it, they’re all white boxes and they all have kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms or whatever. But it’s the lifestyle that you sell. It’s “what is it going to be like when I move in” that you’re selling.
So, the website, the Google business listing, all those social media outlets need to be reviewed not only for accuracy and not just that they’re portraying the image you want to portray but also for functionality. I sometimes find that links are broken, phone numbers don’t work. The site teams should, really every single week, go into the website and dive deep into it to make sure when you’re clicking in it that everything comes up and that it all works the way it’s supposed to work. The price of getting good photography, video tours and good 3D floor plans is really affordable now. To have good digital assets is crucial.
What about amenity packages? Are common-area amenities a harder sell for renters since they may be closed or have certain restrictions?
Drucker: We’re transparent and honest with our prospects and our residents about what’s going on this week vs. last week—because, as we know, the governors change the rules and expectations—and we build trust with them that we’ll keep them informed. Communicating is the key, so we really haven’t had an issue. Our prospects and our residents respect and understand, for the most part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines. Yes, we’ve had one or two here or there who have really been unhappy, and we just meet with them and let them know why we can’t have the fitness room open 24/7.
In your experience, has it taken more work to get residents to renew leases?
Drucker: You know, it’s interesting. Turnover has significantly dropped. It’s been about 35 percent overall in our entire portfolio for all apartment community types on average. Typically, it’s 45 percent, and for higher-end properties it tends to be higher. So, renewing leases has not been difficult, and I think our residents have appreciated how we’ve handled things, like doing only emergency work orders in March, April and May, then arranging the other work orders at a time convenient to residents so they could be out of the apartment. And of course, we came in with N95 masks, gloves and protective gear, being respectful of them in their home.
I don’t know what’s going to happen once 75 percent or 80 percent of the country is vaccinated. I don’t know if people are then going to start moving or start going back to their offices. I think, because of COVID-19, a lot of our site teams have stepped up their customer service because everyone’s been so on edge. So, just a smile with a mask on and a friendly hello to a resident walking their dog or service teams seeing people out in communities because so many of them are home goes a long way.
What do you think are the most important things leasing professionals should have in their toolboxes right now?
Drucker: Back to basics: Customer service is really so important. In my business, this pandemic has taught us to be kinder to each other and to our residents and to really value what’s important. And for our residents, that’s where they live. We are good listeners, and we’ve helped residents find money to pay bills and pay their rent. We’ve helped residents connect with food or home health care providers.
I think we’ve gotten to know our residents more personally because they’ve come to us to share their struggles and what’s going on with them right now in their lives. It’s always been a people-to-people business, and, no matter how many computers and digital things you throw at it—which are very important—it’s still a people-to-people business. And anyone who forgets that, won’t win. They won’t succeed.
Millions of Americans are receiving vaccinations. Do you think the vaccinations will reverse some of the changes leasing teams have had to make, or do you expect some to become the new norm?
Drucker: I think it’s going to be both. I think people still like to see where they’re going to live. First of all, because people need to see if their furniture’s going to fit, and the only way you can really do this is to see the space. But secondly, if someone previously had a negative experience in an apartment community in another place or a negative experience with a quote/unquote “landlord,” they might distrust us. I think people are going to go back and want to see the actual apartment, the amenities, meet the people that work on site. But I think the virtual tours, the Matterport tours and the 3D floor plans, and perhaps even a quick FaceTime tour if someone’s moving from out of town and can’t get up there right away, those are still going to be a part of it. Those aren’t going to go away. I think the in-person tour will come back. We’re already doing them now, safely.