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Curbside enthusiasm: try these eye-catching--and cost-effective--ways to boost curb appeal and encourage community involvement.

Trash, grass, asphalt, flowers, signage.

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It's all a bit ... boring.

The checklist of curb appeal items may seem mundane, but most apartment professionals agree that creating curb appeal is one of the most important aspects of managing a community.

Prospective residents will judge a community based on what they see, and while team members are focused on occupancy rates and rent hikes, guests are focused on dying tulips and dingy trash receptacles--unless the onsite staff also focuses on appearance.

In order to draw prospective residents out of their cars and into the leasing office, apartment management companies need a fresh perspective, a little creativity and a helping hand from their residents.

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Fresh Set of Eyes

RMK Management Corp.'s competitors drive slowly past the company's Chicagoland communities, windows down, eyes peeled. They're not stealing marketing ideas or prospective residents. They're trying to find something wrong with each property.

It's all part of RMK's approach to curb appeal--one that emphasizes a fresh perspective (and pair of eyes), including that of its competitors.

"I have people shop the property who have nothing to do with it," says Diana Pittro, Vice President of RMK. "Sometimes I'll ask a competitor down the street, 'The next time you're driving to work, can you tell me what you see when you go past my community?'--and I'll do the same for them. It's a great way to interact with competitors who may see things very differently than you do."

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Soliciting the help of competitors is just one way RMK ensures its onsite employees aren't missing obvious curb appeal blunders. Pittro tends to shop her communities on the weekends when she is in casual clothing and out of the normal Monday to Friday work mode. She says this enables her to see things that were overlooked during the hustle and bustle of the work week.

"One Saturday I was driving past some of our properties and noticed that several recently planted bushes were covering up the names of the communities on all of our signs," Pittro says. "We were so focused on other things that we missed it."

RMK also relies on prospective residents to appraise curb appeal by asking them to fill out a survey card that is attached to each guest card.

These survey responses were particularly helpful several years ago when Pittro noticed an onslaught of complaints about excess trash on the weekends. Pittro took the comments to heart and hired janitors to work seven days a week, instead of five.

"Weekends are our busiest time and when the most residents are around to leave trash--all of which seems obvious--but it took someone else to point it out for us to notice," Pittro says. "Curb appeal includes a very mundane checklist of items and it's very hard to have a fresh set of eyes."

A Neighborhood Affair

Creating curb appeal takes effort--but it doesn't have to be expensive.

When Mill Run at Union Apartments won the 2010 New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA) award for Best Curb Appeal, it credited community involvement, not money.

Managed by Fieldstone Properties, the 1,167-unit community spent less on curb appeal by reaching out to several vendors who shared the community's enthusiasm for the NJAA competition. Painting, roofing, tub re-glazing, and apartment cleaning and renovation contractors came in early the morning of the judging and worked with Mill Run's maintenance team, donating their time to ensure the grounds were impeccable.

Trina Higgiston, Senior Regional Property Manager, says Mill Run also relies heavily on its vendors and employees to share imaginative curb appeal ideas.

"Each project is really a labor of love for us and we relish the collaborative creative process," Higgiston says. "Most property management companies do not involve their onsite team in the decision-making process, but we encourage our leasing and maintenance employees to participate in curb appeal brainstorming meetings."

Other companies draw on the help and imagination of their residents. RMK uses contests to tackle curb appeal in private areas of the community--such as resident patios and balconies--that are more difficult to control.

The company has three resident decorating contests each year, Pittro says. Residents compete for a $25 gift card for Best Spring, Winter Holiday and Halloween Balcony Display.

"Instead of sending the standard, somewhat off-putting 'clean up your balcony' letter to our residents, we offer them incentives," Pittro says. "This way, the residents do it before we have to tell them to and that negative undertone is eliminated. And for just $75 a year (in gift cards), our curb appeal is drastically improved."

Fetching and Frugal

Landscaping can be a budget buster at communities with a tight budget. To save money at those communities, RMK hires its own maintenance employees to plant flowers on the weekends. Although the additional work is part of the job, RMK pays its maintenance technicians overtime for helping out. Pittro says doing so is still far cheaper than hiring a professional landscaper.

The company also saves money by displaying a standard American flag year-round rather than purchasing several seasonally themed garden flags that must be changed every three months.

While RMK has cut some corners, Pittro says companies shouldn't take shortcuts when it comes to the entryways, the clubhouse and the leasing center--all of which are focal points during a prospective resident tour.

Manuel Perez, a former Maintenance Manager at Mill Run who now works as a Project Manager for Franklin Park at Greenbelt Station, a Fieldstone community in Maryland, adds that communities with a limited budget should focus their attention on high-traffic areas--including those in the surrounding neighborhood. Often, establishing a relationship with local authorities is the first step.

Employees at Mill Run first introduced themselves to Union, NJ., township officials when the community was acquired--sharing their plans of improvement for the area--and continue to meet regularly.

Consequently, old traffic signs around Mill Run have been replaced and the community was granted permission to repaint the curbs.

"I don't think re-painting the curbing and replacing the signage alone makes a big difference in curb appeal, but they are details that add a crisp and neat finishing touch to the community that are accomplished using little money and labor," says Higgiston.

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Perez agrees. "You would be surprised what your town is willing to do to improve the neighborhood--which, in turn, improves your curb appeal," he says. "We tend to forget this, but the curb appeal of the neighborhood is just as important as that of the actual community."

Mill Run at Union Apartments, a 1,167-unit community in Union, N.J., managed by Fieldstone Properties, won the 2010 New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA) award for Best Curb Appeal.

RELATED ARTICLE: WINTER WOES

NOTHING looks more disgusting than dirty snow.

Or so says RMK Management's Diana Pittro, who has the tricky challenge of creating curb appeal in a Midwest climate known for its harsh winters.

"If you're in the Midwest or East, you certainly have to put more thought into curb appeal than you would in San Diego or a more moderate region," Pittro says. "When you get past the holidays here, you have a couple of months of dismal yuck. All of the curb appeal has to be above ground."

To combat the winter blues, RMK leaves clear holiday lights up until March 1. Pittro says it's one of the few things that can be done to improve curb appeal when everything else is blanketed in snow and nothing can be planted.

When the spring finally rolls around, RMK does the first of three plantings for the year. Pittro says it's the company's most expensive season because the work is very labor-intensive, especially if the winter was particularly rough. --L.B.

RELATED ARTICLE: CURB APPEAL DO'S AND DONT'S

DO

1 Bake breads and cookies. It's simple, inexpensive and better than any fragrance--and it makes people feel at home. Apple cider in the winter smells great, too.

2 Think carefully before mulching. Some mulch smells terrible for several days and you don't want that stench near your clubhouse, pool or leasing center, where people are constantly walking by.

3 Maintain trash and refuse containers. If the fence around a garbage container looks sloppy, so will your community.

DON'T

1 Put pet areas in front of your property where everyone will see them. Damage will happen.

2 Get too personal with your color choices. Listen to a good landscaper.

3 Walk past trash. Everyone--including leasing consultants and property managers--should be trained to pick it up.

4 Get too cutesy. No one wants to see cheap plastic pinwheels in the ground, leading up to the leasing center.

5 Use too many fragrances. Pick one, stick with it and follow it up with candles of the same fragrance. If a prospective resident gets five different smells during a five-minute tour, that's confusing.

To discuss curb appeal with fellow community managers, visit the Marketing Discussion Forum by clicking the Forums tab. Sign in at http://community.naahq.org.

Lauren Boston is NAA's Staff Writer. She can be reached at lauren@naahq.org or 703/797-0678.
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Author:Boston, Lauren
Publication:Units
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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