Let's say you purchased software to help building staff streamline rent-check processing or let residents sign up online for cable. Perhaps you contracted with a service to handle the screening of prospective tenants. You may have had to struggle to incorporate these little islands of technology into existing paper-based systems for collecting rent, maintaining units, and marketing your building. In fact, you may be pushing still to realize the promise of the Internet to make your processes run more smoothly. Maybe you've even wondered whether it is worth the hassle.

The good news is that the technology that may ultimately help you do this is slowly gaining momentum.

More than three years since it was established, the Multifamily Information Transaction Standards initiative, or MITS, is becoming part of the everyday language of multifamily owners, managers, listing services, software developers, and others involved in automating varying processes of the apartment industry.

The goal: To develop a set of common electronic data standards that would let software applications communicate with one another across the Internet. MITS is essentially a customized version of XML (extensible markup language) that allows for data-sharing across different companies and software platforms.

For multifamily companies, that means that owners and managers can use multiple software programs to run and manage their business, regardless of major factors such as the application's origin and minor details such as the use of the term "apartment" versus "unit."

Such an initiative also helps technology develop–fast. When a wide range of companies rally around a software standard, it means more developers–from Realty Data Trust to Yardi Systems, from Intuit to Blue Moon to RealPage–have more incentive to create products that adhere to it, industry executives say.

Case in point: A MITS-compliant way to conduct tenant-screening got "cooked pretty quickly," notes Kevin Carter, a software developer at United Dominion Realty Trust in Richmond, Va. Now, other components such as integrated online lease applications and utility-metering software are being prepped for their debuts.

The multifamily industry as a whole had been "virtually starved for technology," notes Thomas Bumpass Jr., an executive vice president and CIO at JPI Cos. based in Irving, Texas. While there have been "a lot of point solutions" proffered by software vendors to permit online tenant screening or gauge unit availability, there has been no way for such products to be woven together by multifamily owners' IT staff into a comprehensive solution. Now, with more software vendors writing or acquiring code that covers the gamut of processes related to multifamily housing, MITS is the common denominator helping to propel forward the "fairly significant transformation going on," Bumpass says.

Nevertheless, MITS' early successes are not yet prevalent everywhere.

"I think the industry is a few years away from adopting MITS wholesale," says Jim Thomas, president of Sares-Regis Group's multifamily property division, which is based in Irvine, Calif. "I'm not sure the wheels grind any more slowly [in the multifamily industry than in others], but resources and training will be needed to make the change" over to MITS-compliant products, he says.

"I don't think [MITS] is as mainstream among owners as [its advocates] would like it to be, but I don't know that that is a bad thing," observes Eric Brouwer, director of IT at Village Green Cos. in Farmington Hills, Mich. "It's more important that the vendors know, because they are the ones who need to be [adhering] to it" in the products they develop.

Integration Action

Among the vendors making the changeover is Javier Gonzalez, president of Blue Moon Software, an Austin, Texas-based developer of online leasing software. The company is moving its homegrown Web interface over to a MITS-compliant one.

"I view MITS as an opportunity," says Gonzalez. "It's essential to have these standards to move data back and forth. I only wish MITS had [come along] faster!"

On the owner and manager side, apartment firms are requesting and using MITS-compliant products. "We see this as an iterative process that the vendors are going to go through," says Carl Bonner, senior vice president of IT at Post Properties in Atlanta.

Yet the burden of MITS compliance lies not only on the vendors, Bonner says, "but also on the owners to remind the vendors that we want them to work toward standards-based software. Whenever we do a request for proposal for software, it is a standard discussion point for us to ask about [vendors'] plans for MITS."

At Post, the company is making use of MITS, relying on the set of standards to connect its property management software with its resident screening program, each of which are provided by different companies.

So are its counterparts. Forest City Residential was among the first multifamily property owner to mandate that its vendors comply with MITS. Still, it wasn't the decision that Lori Reeves, Forest City's vice president of information technology, expected to make.

At one time, Reeves recalls, she thought that federal agencies and financial companies would devise a standard communications language to which owners, Internet listing services, and others would adhere. Since no one knows the industry's processes and quirks like multifamily companies themselves, though, "I saw the advantages of coming up with our own standard," Reeves says. "It's been great for our industry. Now we have the interest of" not just software vendors but officials in the affordable-housing space and others.

Vendors are adopting the standards as well. At Apartments.com, MITS allows the online listing firm to map its clients' data fields to its own. As a result, "we can present more accurate data to [prospective residents] coming to our site," says Jerry Gately, vice president of product development at the Chicago-based company. The benefits extend up-stream as well: for property managers advertising vacancies on a number of Internet listing services, the adoption of MITS-compliant software means "they no longer have to fax or email each of them in order to communicate a change" in a floor plan or cost of rent, Gately notes. "It saves an enormous amount of time."

Next Generation

This fall, a 2.0 version of the core MITS standard will be released for review, says David Cardwell, vice president of capital markets and technology and MITS project director at the National Multi Housing Council. Both NMHC and the National Apartment Association make MITS code available on their Web sites (www.nmhc.org and www.naahq.org, respectively).

Cardwell continues to believe that the original strategy of publishing code that building owners, lenders, Internet listing services, and others could use relatively quickly was "the right way" to introduce MITS, allowing apartment execs and technology companies to test and develop the standard.

The recent 1.1 update of the resident-screening module will be eclipsed by a forthcoming 2.0 version–what Cardwell calls "the next generation MITS"–when it's published later this fall. Given the work behind it, it's "killing me" that the 1.1 version will have a relatively short life span, Cardwell admits, half-joking. But a continuous upgrade cycle means that multifamily companies can experiment with leading-edge technology, he says.

Looking ahead, MITS advocates expect the technology to further change the daily business of renting, financing, populating and maintaining multifamily buildings. "The intent ultimately is that [MITS] permeates further into resident management facilities, vendors, and purchasing exchange programs," says JPI's Bumpass. He hopes to have all of JPI's properties running MITS-compliant software by the end of 2005.

–Amy Rogers Nazarov is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.