Curious to see how your rents stack up against the competition? Log on to Rentometer.com, an apartment mapping tool aimed at small owners and potential residents. There, you'll see comparable units in your neighborhood, both rented and available, along with their respective rents, all plotted on a Google map. How about quantifiable, comparative data on the convenience of your property's location to use as a marketing tool? No problem. Visit WalkScore.com, which gives your address a “walkability” score based on its proximity to restaurants, shops, libraries, parks, and other amenities. Got a GPS-enabled cell phone? Download the Smarter Agent application and you'll get a GPS-generated map of available units in your area with direct links and phone numbers to the appropriate leasing office.
With the advances in location-based mapping technologies on the Internet in recent years, more and more applications are emerging that can literally put multifamily properties on the map. Many of them are being developed by third-party firms that have little direct connection to the multifamily industry, yet how they're being used—by both prospective residents and your competition—can directly impact your bottom line. Observers say understanding these technologies, where they're headed, and how they portray your properties is increasingly important in order to stay ahead of the competition for residents.
Take Trace Lofts, a $30 million, two-building, 142-unit condo project created by Seattle developer Ted Schroth. Located in the heart of the city's Capitol Hill district, Trace Lofts has been marketing its perfect WalkScore of 100 since October. Despite the dreary housing market, Seattle-based broker ek Real Estate Group has been able to sell 37 of the 42 units in the project's first building, thanks in large part to the credibility of the WalkScore metric.
“Our WalkScore has played into at least half of our sales,” says Damon Thomas, a site sales agent whose office hung a giant banner touting Trace's WalkScore on the side of the building after stumbling upon the Web site. “It really helps because it's not just us talking about the neighborhood. It's an independent third party—somebody else who's saying, ‘These are the characteristics here.'”
WHAT THE WEB OFFERS Perhaps most interesting is WalkScore's origins, which have little to do with the multifamily industry. The Web site was built by Seattle-based Front Seat Management, a social purpose firm founded by former Microsoft executive Mike Mathieu. “Front Seat's primary goal is to promote environmental living,” says Matt Lerner, Front Seat's chief technology officer. “The WalkScore site is just one of our projects that helps us do that.”
The program is indicative of a larger trend to use online marketing sources for your property—some of which you may not even be aware. For instance, Google Maps, an Internet-based mapping application that allows software developers to create new programs around it, now offers a “street view” with actual ground-level photographs for some addresses. Search for 2000 Post Apartments in San Francisco, a 304-unit wrap community owned by Denver-based REIT UDR, for instance, and you'll see a street-level photograph taken at the corner of Post and Steiner streets. The image shows the elegant glass-and-masonry façade of the Jones Memorial United Methodist Church across the street from the building.
While that street view could be a selling point, other sites may not fare as well, depending on their immediate surroundings. “We take fantastic photos for our clients, but we can't really do anything about the eyesore across the street,” points out Chris Brown, vice president of product development at Internet listing service Apartments.com. “The kind of information consumers can get now using these new mapping technologies changes the game quite a bit. Now, the neighborhood amenities have become far more visible.”
WHAT YOUR RENTERS KNOW In fact, industry observers say the game now revolves around the information that potential residents can get about your apartments, whether you give it to them or not. For instance, revenue management systems have finally allowed owners and managers to push rents to maximize revenue. But the increasing availability of comparative rent data to the public may give residents a way to push back.
At Rentometer.com, a Web site launched by Newton, Mass.-based Investment Instruments, a property management firm that provides marketing and rent-collection services to smaller landlords, residents can see how the deal they're getting compares to rents in the neighborhood. A recent search in Sacramento, Calif.'s leafy Tahoe Park neighborhood of starter homes and rentals, for instance, showed that a studio apartment with a monthly rent of $700 fell in the sweet spot of average rents among 117 comparable units within a 2.6-mile radius. But another studio unit listed for $1,075 elicited this recommendation from the Web site: “Your rental unit should be in top condition and have more amenities than the median rental in your area. If it does not, then your rent may be way too high.”
Because the site includes data from individual landlords as well as listing services such as ForRent.com and Rent. com, the application provides insight into the elusive “shadow market” for rentals, says Allison Atsiknoudas, Investment Instrument's CEO. “I would say that the majority of the data [comes from individual landlords], which helps us provide a very accurate picture of the marketplace.”
Armed with such comparative rental information, potential residents—or even current ones—might rethink their decision about living in your property. On the other hand, in order for your listings to appear on sites such as Rentometer.com, you have to provide the relevant data.
WHAT THE COMPETITION KNOWS All of these innovations make competition in the multifamily industry even tougher. “It just means you have to compete way more on services, amenities, and the experience. You're providing a place to live now; the product has become much more of a commodity in the last five to 10 years,” says Dan Haefner, chief information officer at Atlanta-based owner and manager Lane Co., which partners with MyNewPlace.com to map its units, while also feeding data to several other listing services.
To stay ahead, of course, you need to know what your competition is doing. That's where applications such as PadZing come in. A mapping-enabled comparable rent database developed by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Realty Data Trust, PadZing lets owners see average rents for a particular unit type in any given city or zip code as well as vacancy rates—a key factor in making acquisition and development decisions. Haefner, for instance, says Lane has used the application to do just that.
Realty CEO Mike Mueller says PadZing will ultimately plug into Microsoft's mapping software, which will allow users to draw their own neighborhood boundaries and see what's for rent in a given area. Since it pulls real-time numbers from the property management systems of Realty's VaultWare clients, Mueller says it's a highly accurate tool. “Apartment owners and managers [can] benchmark the performance of their property against the marketplace in real time,” Mueller says. “It's Zillow for the apartment industry.”
And as the real estate valuation Web site Zillow did with for-sale housing, mapping applications focused on apartments will arm renters with more information than ever before. Whether that's good or bad for apartment owners depends on how they work the technology. But one thing's for certain: When it comes to information, knowing is better than not knowing. And it's up to you to figure out where your properties fall on the map.
Joe Bousquin is a freelance journalist living outside Sacramento, Calif.
Follow these tips for making the most of Web-based mapping tools, and you'll stay ahead of the competition.
- Know thyself. To determine on what mapping applications your properties are popping up, search for their addresses on the Internet. You may be surprised. If it's out there, you can be sure potential renters have already found it.
- Market it. Leverage the information that's favorable for your properties. If your community has a great street-level view on Google Maps or a favorable WalkScore, point that out to prospective renters.
- Use caution. Negative information is also plentiful on the Web. Crime rates can easily be researched on LocationInc. com, and undesirable neighbors can be quickly discovered on RottenNeighbor.com. If your property comes up on those searches, be prepared to address the issue with prospects.