Hours upon hours and days upon days can be spent planning and executing student housing lease-ups. Vendor schedules must be coordinated, leases approved, apartments assigned and roommates matched. Property management technology can assist but the sweat of the brow is often necessary. Most of all, listening to students and parents as they embark upon one of the biggest events in their lives when students venture from the family nest to a place of their own, becomes more important than ever. And no matter what, industry professionals say, always expect the unexpected. It’s those unforeseen events that test even the most well-oiled student housing staffs when moving trucks and mini-vans are unloading in a frenzy. Or, in the case of one California property staff that was tested a few years ago when occupancy permits weren’t granted days before move-in. Elicia Ribeiro, an eager 25-year-old student housing leasing consultant who learned to manage one surprise after another.
Managing unexpected events
Ribeiro had moved to Sacramento, Calif., on January 2011 to assist with leasing up West Village on the University of California-Davis campus for Carmel Partners. The first leasing consultant hired, she had never leased-up a property still under construction and the August move-in date was fast approaching. Also, because of campus rules, the property could be only be leased to UC-Davis students, limiting the pool of prospects, and no models were available to show prospective renters. Ribeiro and colleague Casey Carnegie leased apartments from an office in downtown Davis and gave site tours in hard hats. They worked with students and parents helping them to pick out apartments based on maps and drawings. To help students and parents feel at home and match roommates, the company hosted a pizza party off-site. A lot of hand-holding, Ribeiro remembers, but things were moving along. Before moving to a makeshift office on-site, about 30 percent of the units in the first phase was leased up. Students were lined up to move in weeks before the first day of class and construction was on schedule. Staff was working well through the adoption of an automated property management system and spreadsheets and paper ledgers used to track leases and payments were being phased out. Then the bottom fell out. Construction lagged because of an unusually wet summer and some apartments wouldn’t be ready by move-in date. West Village couldn’t get the city’s sign-off and obtain the necessary occupancy permits. Plan B was put into action. Staff scrambled and found local hotels to temporarily house incoming students. Residents were shuttled to campus and storage units rented to house belongings. The property hired movers as units became ready for occupancy. Also, the Fire Marshal rejected the property’s building and apartment numbering system, which was set up in accordance with postal guidelines. A young staff typical of student housing management shrugged it off as best it could and started from scratch with new numbering. As is typical with new openings, other unexpected issues had to be worked out, some that required the staff to think on its feet. Students were becoming more immersed in the online experience and West Village didn’t have enough bandwidth. Reviews weren’t favorable, forcing staff to learn some quick lessons in brand management.
Lending a helping hand during student turns
Ribeiro, who along with Carnegie now work for RealPage, remembers it like yesterday. The duo revisited the property nearly a decade later in September as part of the company’s “Move-in Relief” initiative to assist student housing operators with lease-ups. Each looks back and realizes how far student turns have evolved and how basic organization and technology can make a difference. While the adoption of a student property management system was a big help, some technology available today wasn’t around then and move-ins took several steps and lots of organization. Early in the onboarding process, West Village didn’t have document management so the leasing process was, well, a process. That required a lot of communication with student residents and parents just in the normal course of business. And in the heat of the turn eight years ago, good and frequent communication was essential. Ribeiro spoke with residents so much she felt like she knew their life stories. “That was rocky,” she recalled. “That was a learning experience like no other. It really taught me a lot about the lease-up culture and really how to handle things that don’t go well.” Ribeiro now manages training and Carnegie is an asset optimization account manager for YieldStar. They are among several RealPage student team members who have helped customers during turns since early August. They share wisdom and how technology assists so that normal turns aren’t hectic. And also reminded to plan ahead and stay focused, and be ready for things that are often out of the property’s control.
Communicating and thinking on your feet
Ribeiro and Carnegie learned the importance of communicating with parents at West Village, which is now managed by Greystar. She said it’s an experience that has stuck with her and helped her overcome situations when things weren’t going too smoothly. “It was a lot of conversations, emails and phone calls with parents,” said Carnegie, who was the property’s resident relations manager. “A lot of communication and thinking on our feet.” Because parents have an equal stake in the game properties should make every effort to keep them in the loop even if it requires different forms of communications. While a student may want to be informed via text, parents typically prefer emails and phone calls. That’s just one piece of the that can be improved upon by student housing property management technology, Ribeiro said.
Technology’s role today ensures smoother lease-ups
Student housing leasing and resident management technology have come a long way in the last 10 years. Ribeiro fast realized the benefit of a property management system during the Village West lease-up, so much that it helped change her outlook on the industry. Staff began the leasing process like many other properties of the day and created spreadsheets with leasing information, paper guest cards, ledgers in notebooks to track payments and other tedious manual processes. Soon after adopting RealPage’s OneSite suite, the property became one of the first to employ online leasing, and property management became more seamless and automated. “(West Village) was one of the very early adopters of online leasing for students,” Ribeiro said. “RealPage offered great support. At that point, I knew I wanted to go to work for RealPage.”
A good day to revisit West Village
On the third Sunday in September, Ribeiro and Carnegie returned to West Village and observed student housing technology in action. As parents and students filed onto the property, lines formed to finalize leases, hand out keys, match roommates and inspect apartments with RealPage’s Student Property Management solution running in the background. While Ribeiro and Carnegie assisted by collecting inventory forms and answering questions from students, parents, and representatives, West Village’s student team had done their homework. The system was very organized from the point students walked onto the property and moved into their apartments. Carnegie said things really haven’t changed much at the property since 2011 with the exception that turn day was far less hectic. She believes the industry’s evolution from manual move-in processes to automation has lowered blood pressure. “What changed was how calm and streamlined the process was, given that they’ve had the last few years to perfect the process and now use RealPage software to streamline and automate what used to be pretty involved, time-consuming and chaotic.” Ribeiro noted that electronically signing documents helped quicken the pace. “There was no panic or long lines with issues because documents needed to be signed. They were able to streamline the process by using document management and technology. That’s a huge part of the move-in.” Unlike eight years ago when the sky seemed to fall on Ribeiro and Carnegie. “It was a good day.” Learn more about student housing technology in this free eBook!