Not so long ago, when an apartment building was described as “going to the dogs,” it was considered a problem. These days, that phrase is seen in a much different light. Gone are the days when property managers would shun pet owners, or residents tried to hide their pets rather than come forward openly and communicate their needs. Such landlords are a thing of the past.
“People have always had pets, but now, as landlords, we understand the importance of pleasing our pet owners,” says Elaine Williams, vice president of operations for Highlands Ranch, Colo.–based REIT UDR, which manages 62,037 units across 218 communities. “Before, we were like, ‘They have a pet; it’s going to create damage and be an extra burden.’ Now, we recognize that pet owners are like families, and if we want to have a competitive advantage, we need to be pet-friendly. This is an opportunity for us to cater to those people whose pets mean the world to them.”
Thanks to this pet revolution, spurred on by pop culture and animal-loving organizations, more multifamily property managers are now courting pet owners with amenities, special services, and features designed specifically with a pet in mind.
“We’ve always been pet-friendly, but there’s been more of a focus on it in the past five years,” says Dave Ferszt, vice president of operations for Detroit-based Village Green Residential’s Detroit and Minneapolis offices. Village Green manages 35,000 units in 130 communities in 16 states. “As you can see on TV or the Internet, pets are everywhere. Even the top designers in the world are making clothes for pets.”
A Growing Opportunity
It’s no wonder why: Pets are more prevalent than ever, with 39 percent of all U.S. households owning at least one dog and 33 percent owning at least one cat, according to the American Pet Products Association. Savvy apartment managers realized a few years ago that this was a renter they needed to target.
“During the downturn in the market, it was important—and still is—to capitalize on all potential traffic, including pet owners,” says Michelle Betchner, vice president of performance for Dallas-based Pinnacle, an American Management Services Co., and one of the largest property managers in the country with 150,000 units under management at 750 properties in more than 300 cities. “In addition, many previous homeowners who were moving into rentals had pets, and we needed to accommodate this renter profile.”
Williams estimates that pet owners make up 30 percent to 40 percent of all multifamily renters. By catering to their needs, a property can expect residents to stay longer. “I do think it promotes resident retention, because it creates a sense of community. If you have like interests with your neighbors, you are less likely to move out,” Ferszt says. “You will see two pet owners outside walking their dogs and striking up a conversation, and the next thing you know, their dogs are playing together daily or going on a walk together. It’s great for building camaraderie.”
Plus, Williams adds, with people getting married later in life, pets serve as great companions for singles living in small, urban apartment units and focusing on their careers and education.
The Royal Treatment
As a result, the industry has seen a dramatic shift to rolling out more and more pet-friendly amenities, particularly at new Class A and B developments in urban areas.
Most new developments include on-site pet runs or doggie parks. At one UDR high-rise built in Denver two years ago, residents have access to two enclosed areas on either side of the building, complete with crushed granite, toys, fresh water, and other pet-enticing amenities. Another UDR development, also in Denver, built a fenced-in pet park on the roof, complete with a toy area, obstacle course, and fresh running water. “In our garden-style communities, we have more of a pet park. We offer benches, trees, fresh water, all in an enclosed area with grass or mulch,” Williams says.
For existing properties without those on-site amenities, there are still options. “You can attract pet owners through concierge or third-party services,” Williams says, pointing to potential partnerships with vendors that provide doggie day care, pet walking services, and pet grooming, all at a discount for residents.
At Pinnacle, the staff also offers referrals for pet walking and pet sitting services, along with holding pet-friendly events. “We hold ‘Yappie Hour,’ have pet-waste stations, and partner with local doggie day care and other services,” Betchner says. “Pets are part of the building, and we make sure to recognize their importance to our residents.”
At Village Green, the staff goes so far as to help foster play dates for its community pets, holding events and activities that help neighbors connect over their pooches. (For some of their ideas, see “Four-Legged Fun,” at right.)
“In all of our urban communities, especially, the concierge and all of the staff know the pets’ names,” Ferszt says. “We don’t ask them to do that, but it’s natural for that to happen when you see a pet every day and they come by because we have treats for them.” In fact, in most cases, when the dogs come back from their walks, their owners will stop by the property management office with them to get their treat. “It creates a friendly atmosphere that helps with the landlord/resident relationship,” Ferszt says.
What’s great about these pet-friendly services and amenities is that many are cost-effective to implement, and even the higher-cost ones are worth the investment for the goodwill they create with residents. “Supplying pet treats is a minimal cost, whereas pet-waste stations can run about $300, plus the cost of baggies and can liners,” Betchner says. “Full dog runs and parks are priced differently based on the setup of the park, the size of the area, type of fencing, granite versus grass, benches, shade coverings, lighting, water, and so on.”
Still, despite their cute, furry faces, pets also require maintenance, so for buildings that welcome pets, it’s important to include a pet addendum with your standard lease in order to outline the expectations for the pet owner. This addendum will typically cover elevator rules, leash requirements, and limitations on the number of pets allowed.
“A photo of the pet should be taken at the time of move-in or at the time of adding the pet to the home, so there is a record of the pet,” Betchner says. “You should also check with your community’s insurance carrier to determine if there are any breed restrictions, as that could play an important role in additional liability for the community.”
Consider requiring residents to obtain normal renter’s insurance, which would cover the resident if their pet gets into some sort of altercation or trouble and protects the building, as well. Most insurance carriers will have a list of acceptable breeds—often the only excluded breeds are German Shepherd Dogs or dogs often associated with fighting, such as American Pit Bull Terriers or American Staffordshire Terriers—so that should be the basis of any rule. Of course, each apartment building will be different, but a good rule of thumb is to allow no more than two pets (and only one dog) per apartment. While the majority of pets are dogs and cats, most multifamily dwellings will accept birds and smaller animals such as hamsters and guinea pigs, as well. Reptiles are normally frowned upon, as an emphasis is placed on domesticated pets.
In addition, keep the size restrictions of any animal around 35 pounds. “We do this to be fair to the pets,” Ferszt says. “Apartments are small, and dogs need activity and need to roam, so we don’t want them trapped in too small a space for their size. And we also have residents who are afraid of dogs, so limiting the size helps.”
It’s also a good idea to collect an initial pet deposit and monthly pet rent. “It’s a misconception that pets do a lot of damage; normally, it’s the pet owners,” Ferszt says. “We charge a $150 refundable deposit for each pet, just in case they do damage to the blinds or something, and we charge a $20 a month rent per pet.”
At the end of the day, pets are like family for their owners, and catering to that makes smart business sense. “Amenities for pets do make a property enticing to pet owners,” Betchner says. “It is important to the pet owner to have a convenient area where the pet can be exercised and socialized, and it helps your community stand out from the competition.”
Keith Loria is an Oakton, Va.–based freelance writer specializing in real estate.