It's been almost two decades since the Spice Girls delivered their pointed request for a confession of what we really, really want. And during those two decades, apartment owners and managers have been making the same request of residents and potential residents.

But while the question is seemingly simple and direct, apartment residents’ answers haven’t always been so. There’s what they say they want—but also what they’re willing to pay for and what they can ultimately live without.

To better crack the code on what apartment renters want, the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) and Kingsley Associates have partnered on one of the largest surveys of apartment resident preferences. The survey was sent to 200,000 residents across the country, and responses were collected from renters in 38 states, covering 84 MSAs and a wide variety of property classes and building types and sizes.

The survey results, to be released next month, at the 2013 NMHC OpTech conference and exposition, cover the gamut, from marketing to community amenities to on-site services.

Perks Go From a Plus to a Must
One of the clearest takeaways from the survey results was that the right level and mix of community amenities has become a much more important factor when renting an apartment.

“More than ever, apartment renters are focused on lifestyle, because for so many of them, renting is a choice rather than an option of last resort,” says John Falco, a principal with Kingsley Associates. “This means they want and expect more amenities.”

In fact, respondents cited amenities as one of the top three reasons they decided to rent versus own, after location and lack of a down payment. More interesting is that, compared with previous surveys, a larger percentage of respondents in 2013 pointed to community amenities as a top factor, while a smaller percentage indicated the lack of a down payment as such.

While simple perks like dog treats and on-site car washes weigh heavily in the rent-versus-buy equation, they’re also a major differentiator between communities. When looking for a new apartment, nearly seven out of 10 respondents labeled community amenities as a “high” or “very high” priority.

Moreover, amenities are even more important for people looking to rent in higher-end communities. More than 75 percent of respondents at Class A properties cited community amenities as a high priority, compared with 58.8 percent in Class B properties and 49.2 percent at Class C properties.

Amenities also factor into lease renewals. The percentage of residents (12.2 percent) citing amenities as a significant factor in their renewal decisions has more than doubled from just two years ago (5.1 percent).

Getting Down to Green Business
Also increasingly desirable are green practices. Roughly 37 percent of respondents cited them as a high or very high priority in their decision to lease at a community, a 2 percentage point jump from 2012.

“Many green amenities have been viewed simply as marketing tools, giving owners and managers something new and cool to promote,” says Kingsley’s Falco. “However, the data show there’s been a transition, and more renters are beginning to look at a community’s green practices and services as must-have amenities.”

Rick Haughey is vice president of industry technology initiatives at NMHC in Washington, D.C. Contact him at [email protected] for more survey information.