NREI Readers Write

Multifamily Resident Portals Moving to the Next Level

Multifamily owners, operators and tenants have embraced resident portals as a convenient conduit for paying rent and submitting work orders. Now industry forward-thinkers are looking at additional ways to make these websites more relevant so they will draw visitors on a daily basis.

Clearly, multifamily portals designed to accomplish business between landlords and tenants make sense from an operational standpoint. Money comes in online and is routed electronically, and these payments automatically update the ledger and statements via the accounting system. Or, if someone submits a work order, it will route to the appropriate person. Residents can check on the progress, and once their job is completed they receive an automated notification. Nobody has to touch anything from the operational side, which can cut down processing expenses significantly.

Yet these “Version 1.0” portals provide little motivation for residents to log on frequently. So what else can they be engaged to do? Simply put, Internet portals provide a launch point for people when they go online. General portals like AOL, MSN and Yahoo! include information from multiple sources, such as news, stocks, weather and other items of interest. Niche portals – like those being used in multifamily – are specialized to emphasize a particular interest or subject area. To that end, multifamily owners are starting to customize their portals with information pertinent to their individual communities. This may include:

-Adding a town events calendar and discount coupons from local vendors.

-Offering the ability to make online reservations for community lounges, game and theater rooms, and party space.

-Incorporating a guest book feature, where residents can list visitors who should be allowed into the building.

-Publishing electronic newsletters and announcements, and providing access to documents like move-in packets and appliance manuals.

-Providing package tracking and notification service when parcels arrive at the front office (this is particularly attractive to residents in high rises).

Landlords can take this even further by engaging residents, themselves, in the process of building their online communities. Interest groups and social profiles can help connect, for example, two people who are looking for tennis partners. They can advertise property events and club meetings. Some portals allow chat capabilities so that tenants may interact one-on-one. In these “ground level” scenarios, having resident involvement is critical. Simply put, the people who live at a particular community are better suited than the property owner to understand what will interest their neighbors.

In taking a resident portal to the next level, as with any technology-related venture, it is important to work with the right partner. The first step in selecting a vendor should involve identifying the portal’s requirements and desired features, followed by interviews with and demos from two or three established players. Several portal companies specializing in multifamily have strong reputations, with Ellipse, Property Solutions and Active Buildings among them. Be sure that the service and support culture, as well as the technology, provide a good fit.

Finally, a multifamily firm’s enterprise property management and accounting software should be able to integrate its system with the portal. Service representatives from both the enterprise system provider and the portal development company can work together to set up and ensure that the data exchange needed for those basic functions – payments and work orders – is running smoothly. Enterprise technology providers also should be able to feed resident data into the portal, so that as people move in and out their ability to log into the portal is granted or denied accordingly.

Looking ahead, resident portals will continue to evolve from business tools to exciting platforms for community building. Multifamily property owners and operators who advocate this transformation not only will reap tangible operational benefits but will be looked at by residents as a catalyst for advancing communication and, ultimately, their quality of life.

Michael Mullin is president of Integrated Business Systems based in Totowa, N.J.

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