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The tech savvy PM

By Staff Reporter
29 August 2013 | 11 minute read

Residential Property Manager looks at the property management cycle and uncovers how you can use technology more effectively to streamline your processes

Most property managers’ lives could be much simpler, promises Sam Nokes, property management group manager at Jellis Craig Corporate. Technology isn’t the only answer, but it can certainly help.

“Technology assists property managers in streamlining their processes so they become more productive, saving money and, more importantly, saving a hell of a lot of time,” Mr Nokes tells Residential Property Manager.

He warns, however, that technology should not be seen as the solution to every problem.

“The key is to use as little technology as possible, but to get the most out of what you are using,” he says. “So many people have an issue with one piece of tech, so then [they] move on to the next. When I ask them how long they used it for, their answer is usually ‘about five minutes’.”

For technology to assist you in your business, you must go through the teething process, he says.

“Think about any of your paper-based, hard copy processes in the office – they initially had teething issues that meant you had to re-think your process,” he says. “Technology needs to be treated the same.”

But according to John Goddard, general manager for marketing and sales at Rockend, when it all works it can save your business labour costs.

“Information and communication technologies have made a major impact on property management businesses in the last 20 years,” he says. “Always remember that ‘increasing productivity’ simply means doing more with less.

In a property management office, labour is the biggest business cost, typically taking 40 to 70 per cent of total business revenue.”

Andrew Reece, owner of technology provider InspectRealEstate, is more than familiar with the tasks property managers face every day, having worked in the industry for over 10 years. For him, using different technologies to streamline the management process is a no‑brainer.

“Technology provides property managers with the opportunity to have a portable office with them while they are on-site,” he says.

“They can collect and collate data on the spot, rather than writing it down on a clipboard and then having to go back to the office and input the data.”

Ferdi Chavez, CEO of Bill Exchange (a company that connects billers and payers by facilitating the delivery and aggregation of electronic bills) believes the best technologies are those that integrate easily with the software that a property manager already has.

“Technology should streamline workflow practices by replacing the manual and cumbersome steps within the workflow rather than replacing the actual workflow,” Mr Chavez says.

“When designing new technology or products, the benefits should be that there be very little training required for staff, suppliers, landlords or tenants, which ultimately means acceptance and rapid take-up.”

Many property managers and principals, however, are reluctant to adopt new technologies, says Alan Hashem, owner of Inspection Manager.

“Property managers are a mixed bunch,” he says. “Some are early adopters, with the latest and greatest gadgets and new systems for everything they do. Some property managers still love the old ways – forms in triplicate and lots of paperwork.

“One thing we do hear all the time when property managers make the switch to technology-based systems is not just about time savings, but also about better results. [They have] more professional documents, easier to find information on their clients and [it’s] easier to keep track of things.”

Technology, however, is only as good as its user, concludes Mr Nokes. “No matter how cool an application is or how fantastic the software you have purchased, if the people using it do not understand it then it is irrelevant. You have got to invest in training and learning the technology first for you to see results in your business,” he says.

1. Getting new business
Your CRM system is your best friend when it comes to obtaining new business, according to Mr Nokes.

“CRMs can generate reports, send out newsletters and keep that client relationship open,” he says. “Most of the software providers will have the capability to facilitate that; it is about the agent working the CRM to its full capabilities.”

Mr Reece adds that it is important for property managers to think outside the box when it comes to securing new business.

“Winning new business is about showing your point of difference and what you can offer the landlord,” he explains. “When a rental property is vacant, everyone loses money – the owner, the property manager and the agency. However, the InspectRealEstate software provides real-time data about the level of interest in a property – even before an inspection is held.

“With this live data at their fingertips, property managers can keep owners fully informed about the level of interest in a particular property, and the prospects of securing a lease in the shortest possible timeframe.”

According to Mr Reece, this function revolutionises the way open inspections are held. Thanks to the technology, inspections are only needed when interested parties can attend. This not only reduces wasted time for property managers but also allows landlords to be kept up to date with the entire process.

“In the old days, a property manager arranged an inspection on a Saturday, then called the owner on the following Monday or Tuesday with the results,” he says. “If there was little interest in a property, it could be vacant for longer than anticipated.

“[Now], a property manager can see on the Thursday before the inspection how many prospective tenants have registered, and can report to the owner in advance. Then, at the inspection, the property manager can collect the tenants’ feedback and email a report to the owner before even leaving the property.”

2. Finding the right tenants
This stage is one of the most important in the property cycle. Frequently, it can also be one of the busiest, hopefully with phones ringing off the hook with tenant enquires.

If this stage is handled correctly, a property manager can save themselves time further down the track. InspectRealEstate’s software goes a long way toward streamlining this process.

Once a tenant finds a property in which they are interested on one of the major listing sites, they enter their personal information into the contact fields. The tenant is almost immediately emailed a customised message with information on the property – including open inspection times – and this can occur at any time of day.

“About a third of all our bookings occur after hours, so it’s like the agency is open all the time to take bookings. It’s becoming commonplace now,” Mr Reece explains.

“You can book an airline ticket online, you can book a rental car online and now you can also book an inspection for a rental property online.

“Imagine shopping around online for a rental car or a hotel, but then finding you couldn’t make a booking over the internet. What would you do? You’d go to the next hotel or the next rental car company and deal with them instead. This is what tenants are now doing with regard to booking property inspections.”

3. Let the application begin
At this stage of the process, one of the property manager’s biggest responsibilities is to ensure the condition of the property is correctly reported. Luckily, there are several technologies that can assist you with this.

Mr Nokes advises using technology that syncs with the software your office already uses.

“Don’t make it difficult for yourself – make sure you use an application that syncs with your current system,” he says. “Using technology will reduce the margin of error, it means a hell of a lot less manual input and less time between tasks, and it will literally save you hours of time.”

Recently, software providers Rockend and Inspection Manager have partnered to provide a mobile phone/iPad-compatible application for businesses that want online and soft copy reporting.

The application is a good example of the way in which technology can streamline the property management process.

The property manager accesses the application on their phone while they are conducting the condition report.

It works in the same way as a written report but cuts out the time spent typing it up back at the office.

“Landlords want to know that you care about their property. You show this care in the level of detail in your reports,” says Mr Hashem, owner and developer of Inspection Manager.

“A routine report with a ‘clean’ for each room and one or two photos – if any – doesn’t say much, but is generally expected,” he says. “An ingoing or outgoing with only a few photos can also mean less confidence that you will have the comparison to ensure the property is well maintained.

“Using technology like Inspection Manager to capture the maximum amount of detail means your landlords can see that you’ve made the effort to thoroughly inspect their property and – [if] all your data is populated into the report upon synchronisation – it’s done with little additional effort on the PM’s part. Win-win!”

4. Exchanging money
The days of physically collecting the rent are all but gone, which means a safer environment for real estate professionals, with the process completely automated.

According to Mr Chavez of Bill Exchange, products like theirs, which facilitate the delivery and aggregation of electronic bills, simplify cumbersome tasks.

“It helps agents move towards a paperless office by delivering bills directly to their desktop as PDF images,” he explains. “It removes manual steps from the accounts’ payable process, such as opening mail, manually keying the information into their system, filing and scanning the bills and paying by cheque.

“This benefits agents by enabling staff to manage more properties, allowing for growth, and to reduce back-office costs, which inevitably increases profit margins.”
Mr Nokes, however, advises that real estate offices should be using one payment system to avoid confusion.

“Some older [agencies] I come across, that have moved from one [technology] company to another, still allow some tenants to use the old technology – this won’t work,” he says.

“Synergy is necessary in all aspects of business, but particularly if you want your technology to work well together.”

5. Repairs
Repairs are the bane of every property manager’s existence and unfortunately, according to Mr Nokes, technology has not yet been able to automate the repairs process successfully.

But he believes this is a gap in the market that is soon to close.

“There are a few applications that the maintenance workers use; however, these do not sync with our property management software,” Mr Nokes explains. “I would like to see a product that our tradies can use that can sync with our software and when you need an electrician or a plumber you can jump onto the software and alert them of the job and then track their progress.

“So, keep your eye out for this. It is not there yet, but I do believe this will happen soon.”

6. Routine inspections
Just as technology can streamline the processes involved in completing a condition report, it can also do so with routine inspections, saving a property manager valuable time.

“The amount of money and time these applications save is just ridiculous,” Mr Nokes says. “It shocks me that there are still managers out there that use manual reporting to do their routine inspections.

“[However, by using an inspection application], as you walk around the property you are filling in the report. If there is a mark or a broken appliance you can take a photo of it and then the landlord can see it and the entire finished report,” he explains.

“We figured out an inspection with the app saves our business about 15 to 20 minutes. We do 2,400 inspections a year. Times that by 20 and it is basically a staff member that we are saving.”

But according to Mr Hashem, property managers can still get more out of the technology they are using: “With our product, property managers can add additional rooms or items to your inspection to cover every aspect of the property,” he says.

“We’ve even got predictive phrases capability to ensure you capture detailed notes. By doing this you capture all the right information and ensure you’ve got all your bases covered.”

Inspection Manager can also find the previous inspection data, so a property manager can compare notes.

“If you’ve previously completed an inspection at the property, you can choose to load the data from the last inspection to compare and/or reuse comments, conditions or photos,” says Mr Hashem.

7. Trust accounting
“It is important to have a good software provider to assist your office with end of month and trust accounting,” says Mr Nokes. “This part of the process is really the crux of what our business is.

“We are there to essentially collect rent, so without good software to manage and distribute that rent effectively you are really not doing your job properly.”

According to Mr Nokes, 40 per cent of a trust accountant’s time is taken up with invoicing; with the right technology, this could be cut down to five or 10 per cent.

Software packages REST and fileSMART can complete the full month end accounting of a company with over 2,000 properties in less than half a day, according to Mr Goddard, while small businesses often complete month end within 30 minutes.

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