PHOTO: Courtesy Cortland Partners

It’s not unusual to catch Melanie French sitting across the street from a new property for a few hours, gauging the community and watching people pass by.

As executive vice president of operations for Atlanta-based Cortland partners, French knows a thing or two about properly marketing and staging an apartment after spending 30 years in the business–namely, that the staging process starts right at the curb.

“The staging process really begins with the overall branding,” French says. “It ties to the curb appeal, and signage.”

Properly staging a new apartment could mean the difference between signing a new lease, or losing a prospective renter to your local competitor. It helps consumers look past four walls and a roof to envision what their own life will look like in the unit, French says. And tying it in with the overall theme of the community will bolster a leasing agents’ sales pitch.

PHOTO: Courtesy Cortland Partners

By watching the community, French is also able to learn the neighborhood demographics first-hand, a critical component which informs the design of a model unit. If there are many families around, it might help to set up a second bedroom as a child’s bedroom, as opposed to an office that might appeal to a young professional. Demographics will dictate the taste in design, as well.

“If I own a high-rise in midtown Atlanta, I’m not going to put completely traditional furniture in the units,” says Linsey Herrick, design and marketing coordinator with Atlanta-based Stonemark. “I’ll use something contemporary, young and fresh. If I’m out in rural Kentucky, I’m going to do the completely opposite, and be conservative with the selection.”

Effortless Style
These days, designers are trending toward bright colors and stepping out of the box with nontraditional accents. They’re also featuring furniture with multiple uses that can transition into different trends every few years.

Typically, a model unit should be refreshed every three to five years on average to keep up with trends. But if it’s staged correctly, a full makeover won’t be needed in that short length of time, though updating accessories like drapes, linens, and softer items is important.

Developers can expect to spend about $15,000 on a typical two-bedroom, two-bath model unit. But the initial cost of staging a unit at a Class A property can go up to $50,000, as more emphasis is put on high-end furnishings and accessories.

PHOTO: Courtesy Cortland Partners

For communities with a tight budget, furniture rentals are a convenient option. Cortland’s French suggests partnering with rental companies to fill the big spots, leaving room in the budget to purchase linens and other accessories to fully accentuate the space.

“I’ve had good luck making models look great for $500 once you have the furniture,” she says.

But no matter how much money goes into the unit, developers need to be smart about picking the right unit to model, and avoid careless mistakes in execution. Lower-level units and those in the back of a building are a hard sell; a unit that shows off the natural light of an apartment will drive renters instead.

“The biggest mistake that I see developers make in staging an apartment is not paying attention to the basics, such as lighting and scale of furniture,” Herrick says.

Herrick suggests adding floor or table lamps if there’s only a ceiling light in the main room, for added dimension. The extra lighting, along with upping the wattage, can improve the look and feel of a space to a prospective renter.

Similarly, the scale of the furniture is often an overlooked aspect. Something too big for the apartment will easily make the space feel too small.

“Make sure there’s a choreographed path through the space for the rental agent,” adds Adrienne Albert, CEO of The Marketing Directors. “They have to get to certain points to be able to properly demonstrate it. And if the designer has filled it up in such a way that they can’t do that, then you’re not going to have the effect you want on the presentation.”

Additionally, picking a universal floor plan will ease the decision process for renters, especially at communities where there’s a unit mix of more than 10 different floor plans. And it’s always a good idea to make sure model units are cleaned daily.

“Keep in mind that any apartment home is basically a building with four walls,” French says. “People can find that anywhere in the city. It’s the value of the team members and the staging that comes with it. We want to build romance with community.”

—Linsey Isaacs is an assistant editor with Multifamily Executive magazine. Follow her on twitter @LinseyI  to continue this conversation.