Some day soon, shopping lists across the country will read: Buy 1 dozen eggs, pick up prescriptions, and pay rent.

Or at least, that may be the case at Wal-Mart, says Ryan Gilbert, co-founder of PropertyBridge, a multifamily payment systems provider based in Oakland, Calif. His firm's acquisition by MoneyGram in 2007 will allow residents to pay their rent at MoneyGram locations at retail stores, including more than 3,100 Wal-Mart locations nationally. While the service hadn't been rolled out as of press time, Gilbert indicated that King of Prussia, Penn.-based Morgan Properties, which owns and manages more than 1,000 units on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, is starting to implement the service for its residents. Morgan Properties did not return calls for this story.

This change would be a departure from the way apartment owners and managers collect their rents today. “The whole concept of paying rent has its roots in feudal times. Tenants would physically bring a portion of their crops to the landlord so that they could stay on the land,” Gilbert says. “Basically, that's the same hierarchical structure that still exists today.”

If Gilbert has his way, though, that won't be the case much longer. After all, Americans now pay more than half of their bills electronically, according to a report from Emeryville, Calif.-based Joshua Tree Consulting, an industry research firm. Yet, for an area that represents the single largest chunk of “wallet share” for a third of the U.S. population, getting the multifamily industry and its residents onboard with electronic rent payment has proved vexing.

Now, PropertyBridge and other firms are bringing the fundamental transaction of the multifamily industry—paying rent—into the 21st century. Namely, they're trying to make it easier for residents to pay their rent online with credit or debit cards, or through automatic withdrawals from their checking accounts.

THE LAST E-HOLDOUT Part of the challenge to updating the rent collection process is that the industry is often glacial in adopting technology. Rent collection, billing, and payment systems remain a frozen backwater.

Gilbert estimates that only 10 percent of all rent transactions are paid electronically today, though he notes that this is major progress from five years ago, when the number was an anemic 0.5 percent. He wants to see that number at 25 percent within two years. “We've gotten an excellent response,” Gilbert says, adding that his firm's new service is particularly attractive for the “unbanked”—those residents who don't have bank accounts.

Still, with door charges that typically start at $5, but can range as high as 3 percent of collected rent each month, the systems and related charges for accepting electronic payment can take a noticeable chunk out of a portfolio's net operating income. flat scenario causes many to ask why they should pay good money to make it easier for residents to pay what they already owe. The answer, of course, is that implementing these systems can often lead to more efficient operations and actually save you money in the long run.

For example, Alliance Residential Management, a Houston-based operator of approximately 45,000 units nationwide has been implementing rent and utility billing and payment systems from Irvine, Calif.-based NWP Services Corp. across its portfolio since 2006. A key components of that system is NWP's Resident OneBill, a single statement that goes to Alliance residents, detailing all charges, including rent, utilities, and other fees. Residents can then pay online through their checking accounts, or in traditional ways, such as bringing a paper check to the leasing office. One unexpected outcome? Residents began paying early.

“If they get the bill on the 26th or 27th of the month, many people will pay it the same day,” says Brian Head, Alliance's assistant vice president of business services. A more tangible benefit, in fact, was a boost in the firm's interest income from those earlier payments, says COO Mark Copeland.