Since the first rental units were built there have been property managers, a profession which requires both real estate expertise as well as a keen understanding of the human psyche. Property managers not only collect the rent and undertake repairs, they are also the bridge between owners and tenants -- two groups often in conflict.
But have modern times changed property management? How does management today differ from 10 or 20 years ago when there weren't electronic credit checks, computerized accounting systems, or online resources for both tenants and owners? Is it really possible that in the near future we'll lease properties and pay rents online?
"Things are always changing, and yet they still remain the same," says Howard M. Haberman, the vice president for sales and marketing with ReManage, a major supplier of property management software.
"The property manager's function is to manage the lease agreement and maintain the physical property, that often involves fixing things that break. Sure, we now have the Pilot, notebooks PC's, and lots of tools, but the job isn't much different.
"On the other hand," he continued, "since the tools have become more complex, the professional manager and the entrepreneurial property manager may be required to have a greater technical knowledge than in the past."
Haberman points out that automation can free managers from repetitive tasks, which means more time is available to work with tenants, vendors and owners.
"As simple a thing as posting the monthly rent charge to the tenant ledger card takes time," says Haberman, who has an extensive background in accounting. "It can be replaced by a keystroke that will post from one to thousands of rent charges automatically."
Haberman says that the bookkeeping aspects of property management are fairly straight-forward -- until it comes to do taxes and handle large numbers of units.
"If it were not for the tax requirements, much of the accounting, especially for smaller ventures, could be done on the back of an envelope," says Haberman.
Owners with small properties, says Haberman, those with 8-unit strip malls or four-plex apartment units, can often satisfy their bookkeeping needs with a basic accounting system. The cost of such software can often be quickly recovered in the form of reduced accounting fees.
On the management side, a simple software system can offer several benefits.
- Track maintenance and work orders. This saves the property manager time and assures that needed work will be completed.
- Improve maintenance. Properties need constant maintenance. When maintenance is deferred or ignored, future costs of ownership increase and tenants are less satisfied.
- Reduce the chance of paying invoices twice.
- Tracking bills to know which vendor is least expensive.
- Most importantly, respond quicker to tenant problems -- thus improving tenant/resident attitudes and bettering retention rates and lowering vacancies.
Unfortunately, says Haberman, many of the larger management systems have become so complex that many owners and managers can't take advantage of sophisticated options. Even today, some large property owners and managers still user older, DOS-based systems, because such programs do basic management and are easy to understand. Because the old systems are in use and often work well, managers ask, "what additional benefits can I get with new software that I do not get from my current system, and will the new software be able to incorporate the data from the system I now have in place?"
"With rare exceptions, most people I've spoken with over the years, when looking for software for a commercial situation, will require that the program does complex CAM, CPI and other additional rent calculations," he says.
"They'll reject software that is more limited in that functionality. Invariably, however, a year after what they would consider a successful implementation, they're not using those features they demanded, and are calculating the additional rents on the same spreadsheet they've been using over the years."
"One of the benefits of a simple program is that you'll use it," Haberman explains.
As well, he says, simple systems make sense because new people are always entering the field.
"Turnover is a reality in any business, and certainly so in the property management field. The simple program is easy to get up-and-running, and consequently is easy to teach the new person. The complex program takes more time to implement, and takes time to train the new arrival."
In the future, says Haberman, we're likely to see more landlords relying on electronic funds transfers, or EFTs, both to collect tenant rents and to pay vendors who supply services to the property.
ReManage 4.1, the company's latest management tool, runs on desktop, LAN, wireless, and Internet technologies. In essence, the system can use just about any medium to screen potential tenants, pay bills electronically, schedule repairs, and keep the books.
And in the near future, it wouldn't be surprising if the system also collected rents directly from tenant bank accounts.
"We're just beginning to see the use of electronic funds transfer for automatic repayment of rents," says Haberman, who suggests that in the San Francisco Bay area -- where rents are high, the availability of residential units is low, and many tenants routinely use computers -- owners may be among the first nationwide to routinely collect rents electronically.
"The Internet is really going to be a major factor over the next few years. Won't it be nice to have the prospective tenant go to a web site, and drop in the personal information required, as well as their credit card information to pay the credit check fee, and automatically, the credit report gets transmitted to the landlord?"
"Even better, wouldn't it be nice to have that information delivered to the landlord's property management system?"