When I was 14, my younger sister and I got in a huge fight over a bejeweled denim skirt that my aunt had given us “to share.” (She had toddler boys, not teenage girls, so she had no idea the trouble her gesture would cause.) We both wanted to wear it. There was screaming. My sister pinched my arm; I pulled her hair. We tried to lock each other out of our shared room. It wasn’t pretty. Meanwhile, my mom walked in without saying a word, took the skirt away, and, to this day, I have no idea where it went. That summer, we got our own bedrooms. Fast forward to earlier this year, and I once again found myself living with my sister—this time in a tiny San Francisco apartment. What was supposed to be a temporary arrangement turned into a six-month-long test of patience as we searched high and low for a two-bedroom apartment to share—one with a large patio for her, an in-unit washer and dryer for me, and massive amounts of closet space for us both. (We’re still clotheshorses.)

We spent months combing various ILSs, Craigslist posts, even Google (which can search for real estate around an address and give you a sense of what kinds of units are available in the vicinity—a new feature from the mega-search engine that I think may fundamentally change the way apartment search is conducted). Ultimately, however, I got my apartment through a referral. I talked with a friend of mine in the industry—the CEO of a management firm, who had taken over the stabilization of this community in the heart of San Francisco.

Granted, I had seen the property before and looked at floor plans on one website or another. I had even driven by it once. I checked it out on Yelp and ApartmentRatings.com prior to hearing about the unit availability. But when it came time to fill out the guest card on the day we signed our lease, I wrote down “referral” as the lead that got me in the door. Sure, it’s not 100 percent accurate, but it was the most recent interaction I’d had with the property.

The fact of the matter is, I am not unlike most renters, who will spend an average of four to six months researching a new apartment, reviewing up to 20 properties before seriously considering at least five of those. Prospects comb every source of information available about an apartment, which leads to what is perhaps the most complicated question in multifamily marketing: Where the heck are my leases coming from?

The reality is that in an environment of hard-pressed budgets and reduced advertising dollars, marketing managers have to be careful about where they spend their precious dollars. Particularly when you consider that the cost per lease is so widespread across the industry (anywhere from pennies per lease to $50-plus per lease, depending on the source) and that each market—and property—may benefit from an altogether different marketing strategy.

Some operators look to call centers as a possible solution, since many will field calls from multiple phone numbers and create distinct identifiers to help determine where those leads originated. Of course, revenue management systems can sometimes affect the conversion of these leads to leases, particularly when a prospective renter looks at a price on, say, Google and then goes to the property a week later only to find out that the price is $250 more a month. The bait-and-switch feeling that these potential renters are left with can undermine the very likelihood of a lease signing.

The bottom line is that the lead/lease equation is a complicated one, and finding a system that works is, at best, a game of educated experimentation.

In the meantime, my sister and I are enjoying our new apartment so far. Let’s just hope no more denim skirts get in the way.