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Software review: Prentice Hall's On-Site.

Software Review: Prentice Hall's On-Site

As computing power becomes less expensive, the number of computers per worker increases. Someday almost every employee of a property management firm or department will have a computer terminal. A major step in that direction is to put a computer at each property site.

Prentice Hall's "On-Site" software program has been one of the leaders in the area of decentralized computing. The On-Site program was born more than seven years ago as the "Little Buddy" system developed by Johnstown American. Prentice Hall has continued to expand and improve the program since buying it over five years ago.

On-Site is strictly for apartment properties and is appropriate for use at one or many individual sites. Several buildings on one site may be handled with the same program. In addition, a single copy of On-Site can be used for multiple unrelated properties. For example, a property without an on-site management office can be tracked independently by the On-Site program at a nearby property with a site office.

Program design and depth

The On-Site program is one of the best designed property management programs in the market. The program structure and menu systems are based on property management procedures, events, sequences, and task groups. Most property management programs are organized around information and data categories; On-Site is organized around events and the work related to them.

A key foundation of the program is the "Scheduled System Processing" menu. "Month Begin" creates the charges for the new month. "Day Begin" opens the way to process the day's activity. "Day End" closes the activity for that day. "Advance Property Date" moves the system to the next day. "Month End" closes the system for the month. At any time you can "Extract Data for Home Office" and send it off by telecommunications or diskette.

Within the context of the Scheduled System Processing, another set of menus is organized by "Leasing Tasks," "Bookkeeping Tasks," and "Management Tasks." Even if only one person is handling all three of the roles, the program is very easy to learn and to operate with this kind of organization.

The "Setup" function of the program is clearly and cleanly separated from the operations functions. The setup procedures are exceptionally well structured and documented. The conversion from a manual system to the On-Site system is exceptionally well organized and guided by the program and procedures.

Another distinction between On-Site and other property management software programs is that On-Site is "deep" while most others are "broad." Because On-Site was designed exclusively for apartments, it is built to handle the nuances, exceptions, and "little things" better than its less specialized competitors.

One simple example is the treatment of NSF's. Most programs, apartment or otherwise, do not handle them very well. On-Site handles them as a daily menus option and automatically recharges a late fee along with an NSF charge.

Tenant charges and payments

On-Site provides for a full range of charges for apartment properties. Up to 11 different recurring charges can be defined for each tenant. Rent concessions can be distributed in any pattern on a monthly basis for the term of the lease. The "Resident Utility Billing System" portion of On-Site provides a means to pro-rate, charge, and bill for reimbursable shared expenses.

The due day is the first of the month for all tenants. The late charge grace periods and amounts are standard for the property and can be varied for each tenant. The options are to charge a fee after the first grace period followed by either a daily charge or set fee.

Rent increases must be entered tenant by tenant instead of in a group, making rate changes time consuming. And, while "market rent" is entered and available by unit-type groups, it is not available as a default for rent-increase implementation.

The cash-receipts function of On-Site reflects the program's orientation toward concern for accuracy and data integrity over concern for speed and freedom in the use of the system. For example, speed-oriented programs do not require data entry if the payment received equals the balance due. (You merely accept the balance as the default cash receipt.) In On-Site, each payment must be entered one tenant at a time. Similarly, speed-oriented programs do not require daily closing; in fact the trend is toward not requiring monthly closing. On-Site requires daily closing as well as monthly.

On-Site always requires keyboard entry of the payment amount received. If the payment received matches the total recurring monthly charges, the program then supplies them as the default. This is especially convenient for prepayments made prior to the first-of-the-month charges. If the payment received is equal to the actual balance due, the program provides that detail as default. The default is in the form of the balance forward, or recurring charge, amount for each charge type; e.g., rent, deposits, and utilities. With either default, the operator can register the total payment by accepting it or by changing the amount shown for any charge type.

A very convenient feature is immediate access, through a "window" on the screen, to the detailed ledger history for the tenant. The system can be set for up to five months of history.

The program does not provide for tenant receipts. Even though receipts are not posted until the first day of the month, advance statements can be generated. Consistent with the concern for accuracy and data integrity, the program does not provide a deposit slip. Instead, summary data from the manually prepared deposit slip is entered into the program during the process of closing the cash receipts journal. This helps build the audit trail and assure integrity.

On-Site is not for the casual manager who "catches up" with paperwork from time to time. Rather, it is for organizations that operate systematically and follow set procedures. The system is closed daily. It is possible to delay and close a few days at one sitting, but there are definite disincentives. You cannot pre-date any transaction or adjustment. And, you cannot back-date any transaction or adjustment except moves. Therefore "catching up" becomes progressively more onerous.

Leasing/tenanting tasks

Move In and Move Out are menu functions. The move-in process begins with the rental application for a specific unit. Some of the tenant and lease data is entered in the system at this point. Application fees and deposits, if charged at this time, are recorded as receipts.

On the move-in day, the status of the renter is changed from applicant to current resident, and the remainder of tenant data is entered. A deposit received between the application date and move-in date is entered as a cash receipt and treated as a credit until the move-in date.

The move-out function changes the tenant status from "current resident" to "previous resident." The final reconciliation of the tenant's account is implemented by processing the statement of deposit accounts. This process, which can be done at any time, takes all reconciliation elements into account and is irreversible.

A menu option is available to calculate deposit interest. The interest is added to the original deposit and is not listed separately. If you must pay or credit interest periodically to tenants who are not moving out, this is a cumbersome, tenant-by-tenant task.

On-Site provides leasing agents with other tools. For example, an applicant not assigned to a specific unit can be entered into the system on the priority waiting list. An on-screen proration calculator is handy for advising applicants about partial first-month rent. The applicant data entry screen shows both market rent and quoted rent, which can be higher or lower, depending on market conditions.

On-Site is not intended to be used for unit-selection counseling nor for prospect follow-up. If the prospect does not apply for a unit or for the waiting list, the program has no way to store information about him or her.

Bookkeeping, accounting,

and management tasks

Beyond basic bookkeeping and accounting, On-Site has some functions that are special and even unique. For example, the "Budget Projection Tool" is a rarity. It is used to project a sophisticated 12-month income budget for the property on a unit-by-unit basis.

Other functions specifically addressed by On-Site include transferring a tenant from one unit to another; renewing a lease; recording a notice to move; tracking units that are down or used for model or employee; and updating market rent for any unit type.

On-Site is not one of the programs that stores much "fat" in the form of information-only data that is not used by the program functions. In a few cases, On-Site is too lean. For example, deposits can be designated only as "security" or "pet." Tenant contact information is also inadequate. Only a single phone number field is available for a unit allowing up to four different resident names. The program could also use more comment fields. It does allow for the possibility of several previous tenants and/or applicants in addition to the current tenant.

Reports

On-Site provides extensive predefined reports. The menus divide the 27 reports into leasing, bookkeeping, and management reports. Some are available on screen in addition to printing. While a few users might want all reports on screen, that is less important in this program because it is oriented toward controlled and systematic operation.

The screen reports that are available in On-Site are the ones most likely to be used for ad hoc, or inquiry, functions. "Unrented Units," "Priority Waiting List," "Days Vacant," and "Delinquency" are examples.

The selection method for printing reports is superior. Selection lists can be accessed from several places in the program instead of from only one menu path. All reports can be printed in one batch without tending the printer.

On-Site provides for several different kinds of notices and allows the user to modify and/or define new ones through the use of the "text processor/editor" capability of most word processing programs. The result is straightforward user-created notices that are automatically personalized with information from the On-Site files. The criteria/screening methods that On-Site provides for selecting which tenants receive a particular notice are very comprehensive.

The program does not provide a report writer to produce reports of your own design, although this is planned for future revisions. Meanwhile it might be possible, but cumbersome, to produce some reports by using the ASCII files.

Expense Controller

On-Site does not include functions to monitor the expense side of property managing. The Expense Controller, a separate program for the site, fills that need. Its primary purpose is to help manage and monitor site expenses. To accomplish this, it provides means to process purchase orders and invoices and the option to print checks at the site. It also provides for expense budgets and for several reports. Included are a vendor history, a 1099 register, and an account analysis.

Telecommunications

The existence of computerized information at the site is only part of the full picture of a property management department or firm. Another important consideration is transferring this data to the central office. On-Site and Expense Controller offer two relay methods, mail or telephone. You can transfer summary data to diskettes or send it over the phone through the Property Management Communications System.

To transmit information, the system operator at each site first prepares by executing the "Extract Data from Home Office" option from the menu. Then, by accessing the site communications program, the computer is left on in a "waiting for incoming calls" state. Meanwhile, the regional office's communications program has been set up with a list of sites to call. When the clock in the computer matches the scheduled time of the call, the computer automatically calls the site and receives the information.

Security in the form of a password is present for telecommunications, but not for in-person access at the site.

In general, telecommunications between offices and sites can be costly. The system used by On-Site and Expense Controller is relatively low cost because it communicates in only one direction, night phone rates can be used, and summary data instead of transaction detail is transferred by On-Site. Two-way communication may be available in the future.

Management Controller

Data collected from On-Site and Expense Controller systems at various sites is fed into a Management Controller program. The primary purpose of Management Controller is to produce reports. Several are printed, and a dozen of them are displayable on screen. Most provide summary data, but a few provide details. For On-Site, the reports organize the summary data. For Expense Controller, some provide details - for example, open purchase orders, open invoices, and check register reports.

Management Controller reports focus on activity, status, trends, budgets, variances, and analyses. Several statistics, ratios, and productivity measures are provided. Various reports can be generated for individual owners, off-site managers, and, of course, leasing consultants and marketing sources. Up to twelve months of history can be retained in the system.

Management Controller does not provide for an income/operating statement, but does allow for the data generated from the site to be combined with other information in your own general ledger program. Prentice Hall does offer general accounting software, including a multi-entity general ledger called The Financial Reporting System.

A small program called The On-Site Import System can be used to import summary data for each account type (rent, deposit, parking, etc.) from On-Site into The Financial Reporting System. No similar import system is provided from Expense Controller to the Prentice Hall accounts payable program or to The Financial Reporting System.

Data transfer from On-Site to your own general ledger system may be achieved through the same method as the transfer to The Financial Reporting System. Otherwise, the reports from On-Site, Expense Controller, and Management Controller may be used as sources to keyboard data into your accounting system.

Documentation

In many respects, the documentation for the On-Site, Expense Controller, and Management Controller modules is excellent. Both tutorial and reference material are provided.

The manuals are generally well written and easy to read. But even though there is a great deal of information, it is sometimes hard to find. To develop a clear picture of the way some aspects of the program work - for example, entering a deposit before move-in - can require looking in four different sections, plus experimenting on the screen. The "Help" system is limited to menu screens. No on-screen help messages are provided for input items.

Ease of use

On-Site is generally very easy to use. It has clearly been designed with user-friendliness in mind. For example, the menu system has very convenient and visible shortcuts. Reports can be accessed from several different menu paths. And several options appear on different menus.

The program incudes most of the ease-of-use features found in the competitive marketplace. Those missing are the most recent ones that have lately changed the evolving standard of excellence in user friendliness. For example, On-Site and Expense Controller could be enhanced by adding "look up" windows for tenants, charge codes, leasing agents, marketing sources, and vendors. The ability to select an item by cursor from these look-up lists would also add to user friendliness. Additionally, the rent increase and deposit interest procedures should be implementable for groups of tenants instead of one by one.

Conclusion

On-Site remains a market leader in functionality for its purpose. In documentation, ease of use, and report writing it is not currently setting the pace; but it is not very far from the top. Fundamentally, On-Site is powerful, and it is much more usable than the average program. Overall, it is a very good tool.

Author' note: This review is based on a combination of the current Version 2.02 of On-Site and pre-release information on Version 2.10, due out in September 1989. The specific differences in the two versions, as reflected in this review, are as follows. * Recurring charges: 2.02, three; 2.10, eleven. * Rent concession distributions: 2.02, limited; 2.10, flexible. * Residential Utility Billing System and Budget Projection Tool: 2.02, separately priced modules; 2.10, included as part of On-Site. * Documentation: The section provided is improved.

Michael J. Hanrahan is president of Real Estate Software Test Lab and Real Estate Software Advisors in San Francisco. He has been a software review consultant for the Journal for the past three years and has independently evaluated more than 50 property management software programs.

Mr. Hanrahan has been in the real estate business for more than 20 years. His academic background includes advanced studies and bachelor's and M.B.A. degrees in real estate, urban economics, applied economics, and international business. Prior to his current activities, he was director of research of Questor Associates, the predecessor company to Roulac Real Estate Consulting Group of Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

Mr. Hanrahan speaks to, writes for, and advises real estate companies, trade associations, and publications about real estate software for property management, investment, and other real estate applications. He also maintains the Real Estate Software Information Bank.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Software Review
Author:Hanrahan, Michael J.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Article Type:evaluation
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:2823
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