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National resident satisfaction study sheds light on keys to retention; by surveying residents, apartment building management teams are able to better identify the needs and wants of their residents. Survey results can be used to help them devise ways to increase retention rates.

While the attention given to resident retention has clearly grown during the past decade, current soft market conditions make finding ways to "shut the back door" more critical than ever. The financial benefit of retaining residents is obvious. And while there are many potential components of a sound retention plan, in reviewing the findings from the most recent resident satisfaction telesurveys conducted with nearly 8,000 residents completed in half of the United States, the findings again confirm that a significant percentage of turnover is controllable.

The key to maximizing renewals is not "bells and whistles," but instead the effort to satisfy the basic needs of residents--such as promptly and properly taking care of service requests, and making sure their apartment and the community are well maintained and in good condition.

Identifying the issues that most greatly affect retention does not have to be a mystery. Many firms have found resident surveys to be an effective way to obtain such information.

"Resident surveys are a helpful strategic tool that takes a great deal of the guesswork out of developing marketing, resident retention and management plans," said Kimberly Sherrill, Vice President of Marketing for CAPREIT. "The results from these reports assist the property staff and senior management in understanding the issues that are impacting our residents' satisfaction, which ultimately affects their desire to remain a resident with us."

Work Orders and Renewals

Our research clearly shows that staff responsiveness has a significant effect on satisfaction and retention. As the tables in this article show, residents gave an "Average" satisfaction rating for "Office Staff Responsiveness" and "Maintenance Response Time." Along the same lines, another important score is that 28 percent of residents cited that maintenance problems still existed in their apartment after they submitted service requests. Our research shows a clear correlation between how service requests are handled and the likelihood of a renewal.

Graph 1 looks at the effect outstanding work orders have on the likelihood for a renewal. Clearly, as the percentage of residents with outstanding maintenance problems increase, the percent of residents who responded that they were "Very Likely" to renew their lease dropped from 64 percent to 40 percent--a 38 percent decrease.

As Graph 2 shows, the effect of outstanding service requests on overall satisfaction confirms the relationship--scores drop from the "Superior" to the "Red Flag" range as the percent of work orders outstanding increases. The same correlation is seen when reviewing the effect maintenance response time and work quality has on renewal rates.

When considering the myriad retention program component options, our research seems to say that the biggest bang for the budget buck could come from using funds to increase the maintenance staff's efficiency and work quality. For example, given a limited budget, it makes sense for a firm to consider saving some or all of the money spent on resident events, social activities, move-in gifts and newsletters, and instead invest it in ways to improve service, such as hiring additional maintenance staff.

When comparing the survey results of one of our clients (Allen & Rocks Inc.) with the national average, based on our database, the variance caught our attention. Allen & Rocks Inc. received scores across the board that were 10 percent to 15 percent higher for overall satisfaction, response time, work quality ratings and the percent responding "Very Likely" to renew. Even more eye-opening was that the percent of residents citing that maintenance problems still existed in their apartment was 47 percent lower than the national average.

Dave Thomas, Vice President of Property Management for Allen & Rocks Inc., attributed his company's terrific scores to its approach to management.

"We aim to staff appropriately for the routine, as well as special needs of each community," he said. "For a typical 250- to 300-unit community, a maintenance staff of three should be sufficient--but we have four. And we maintain our communities in first-class condition because we know how important curb appeal is to our marketing and retention efforts. Our owners are very responsive to each community's needs--and they know that reinvesting properly has a tremendous payback."

Allen & Rocks' peers also have seen the difference in how the company manages its assets, selecting three of Allen & Rocks' seven properties as top community award winners during their local apartment association's recent award competition.

Issues Impacting Renewals

One critical question the survey asks residents is, "How likely will you be to renew your lease when it expires?" The 48 percent who did not respond that they were "Very Likely" were then asked why they did not answer that way. Fifty-nine percent of these residents cited reasons that are under the control of the property staff and/or senior management. The majority said providing acceptable levels of service and meeting basic apartment and community expectations as the reason for their answer.

The next table shows the top reasons for not answering "Very Likely." Many of the main issues are within the staff and/or senior management's control. Seven of the top 10 reasons, and 13 of the top 20 are controllable to varying degrees. Regarding the effect of how well service requests are handled, it is significant that "Office Staff Responsiveness" and "Maintenance Response Times" were the most frequently listed staff issues.

What effect does an issue cited by 3 percent of the residents have? Three percent of a 300-unit property's 150 move-outs equals five residents. If each move-out costs $2,500 (turnover, vacancy and marketing costs), the bottom-line effect of just one of these controllable issues is $12,500.

Even some issues that do not appear to be controllable should still be addressed. Consider the top cited reason "Buying Home." Can you stop a person from buying a home? Probably not, but you can attempt to delay it by developing a strategic alliance with a homebuilder to offer a "rent-to-own" program. As the resident earns credits that can be applied toward a down payment or closing costs, these programs create for residents who plan on buying a home an incentive to increase their length of stay in the rental property. Or, resident managers can at least try to promote to young, career-oriented, mobile professionals the advantages of renting, such as the flexibility it permits in regard to relocating. Anything that can be done to increase the average length of stay--even by just one month--clearly has a dramatic effect on the bottom-line. And then there's the infamous rent increase. As increases are "controllable" by senior management, does this mean rents shouldn't be increased and that a property should not try to grow the income generated for its ownership? Of course not. It's important to find the balance between aggressive increases and forcing excessive turnover. Some turnover due to increases should be expected. If no residents cited this, then one could argue the property is not being aggressive enough. As the old saying goes, "If you're 100 percent occupied, then your rents are too low."

Jennifer Nevitt, CEO of Bravo Strategic Marketing, has the following perspective. "If our industry is only losing 13.2 percent of its residents due to rent increases, that should build confidence with our leasing professionals to not fear selling renewal increases," she said.

"Let's assume management is able to raise rents for all apartment homes throughout the year at a community. If it only lost 13.2 percent of the residents because of the increase, the net gain to the bottom line is significant. It means rents were successfully raised for all of the other apartments that are occupied or leased. This is astounding, given the fiduciary responsibility to investors."

A resident stating that the rent increase was the cause for concerns about renewing is not always the real issue. We find that in some cases the real issue is that longer-term residents see that they are paying the same rent for their older apartment, while they observe new residents moving into apartments that have received some updates (from repainting and carpet shampooing to varying degrees of renovation). In these cases, it appears the issue is not the increase--it is the resident's perception that they are not receiving as good a value as new residents, and that they are not being rewarded for their longevity.

When a resident gives notice and cites the increase, they must be spoken with and probed. Is the rent now out of their budget, or is it something else? Perhaps it is unresolved maintenance work, problems with their neighbor, or a perceived value issue? If the latter is the case, what can you do to resolve the issues and "save" the resident? If a move-out costs $2,500 and a resident feels their apartment is not as nice as the those being given to new residents who are moving in, would you not be willing to shampoo their carpet or paint their apartment in return for a renewal and long term loyalty?

This issue presents a strong case for considering lease-renewal incentive menus. With such a program, renewing residents are able to select from a variety of in-unit improvements (shampooing carpets, painting, etc.) and the value of improvements offered increases the longer they have been a resident. If they move out, the property owner will have to spend much more, so why not spend less and increase resident satisfaction and renewals?

Suggestions For Improvements

Like the responses to the "Why not very likely to renew?" question, the responses to the question "What can be done to improve the community?" were equally enlightening.

These results confirm that the answer as to how to reduce unnecessary turnover and improve a property's bottom-line begin with focusing on the staff, the delivery of prompt and professional service, as well as meeting residents' basic needs and expectations.

As shown, the response of residents shows that it is important to focus on what are truly "basics" to sound property management:

* A courteous, capable and dependable staff.

* Promptly and properly handle service requests.

* Offer the ability to park nearby.

* Laundry facilities that are dean, well maintained and stocked with operable equipment.

* Buildings that are dean and well-maintained.

* Common areas that are dean and well-maintained.

* Offer a community where one can feel reasonably secure.

* Apartment homes that are attractive and in good condition.

* Meet these basic needs so that the value for the rent paid is clearly seen.

Overall Ratings

The final table shows ratings in a variety of important operational areas. The 3.92 overall national score says residents rate their satisfaction as "Average." Only two categories were rated in the "Superior" range--"Maintenance--Courteousness, Professionalism" and "Office--Courteousness, Professionalism." These findings are a reminder of the significance of the old proverb, "Don't open a shop if you can't smile."

No other categories were rated "Superior"--all others were "Average." Think about the implications of these findings--and how important this tells you it is to strive to be the best you can be within your sub-market. Clearly, this will positively impact both retention and leasing.

What are some of the reasons for the "Average" ratings? Reviewing the tables on issues impacting renewals and community suggestions sheds light on some of the underlying points. The second lowest rating was for the resident's apartment itself, which is significant. If a resident doesn't like their home, what are the chances they will be a long-term resident? Low apartment scores appear to be due to appearance and condition. Likewise, the score for exterior curb appeal tends to be related to community cleanliness and parking lot issues. Building interiors, with the lowest average score, tend to be impacted by issues regarding elevators, hallways, cleanliness and laundry rooms. Like other findings covered, these results show the importance of supporting the details of sound property management.

Conference Speaker

Doug Miller, along with Julie Smith, will present Resident Satisfaction and Renewals: What a National Study Reveals at the 2002 NAA Education Conference & Exposition in Orlando, Fla. It will address the reasons that thousands of residents gave for why they were not very likely to renew, their suggestions for improving the community, as well as cover practical ideas that address these issues. The session runs 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Thursday, June 27.

Summary Of Controllable Non-Renewal Reasons (59.1%)

Staff and Staff Performance Related 15.4%
Staff Controllable Issues 18.6%
Management Financial Decisions (i.e. rent increase) 13.2%
Property Improvement Issues 4.6%
Apartment Feature/Appearance Related 7.3%
"Why Not Very Likely To Renew?"-Top Reasons *

Category Frequency

Buying Home 17.2%
Rent Increase 13.2%
Relocation 10.2%
Moving Home 9.8%
Can't Afford 3.3%
Office Responsiveness 2.8%
Maintenance Response Time 2.8%
Office Courtesy 2.7%
Maintenance Quality of Work 2.5%
Found Better Deal 2.5%
Neighbors 2.4%
Roommate Change 2.2%
Community Parking 2.0%
Apt/Need Different Size 1.7%
Maintenance Courtesy 1.6%
Community Cleanliness 1.6%
Convenience to Work 1.6%
Renting Townhouse 1.5%
Apt/Design 1.5%
Safety -- Community 1.4%
Office Quality of Work 1.3%

* Expressed as a percentage of residents who
did not respond "Very Likely" to renew
How To Improve The Community-Top Suggestions

Category Frequency

Community Parking 8.2%
Lower Rent 7.7%
Community Cleanliness 6.5%
Maintenance Response Time 6.4%
Better Residents 5.6%
Office Responsiveness 4.8%
Safety -- Community 4.6%
Safety -- Building 4.5%
Maintenance Quality of Work 4.1%
Office Courtesy 3.5%
Safety -- Neighborhood 3.3%
Recreational Facilities 3.0%
Landscaping 3.0%
Laundry Facilities 2.8%
Maintenance Courtesy 2.5%
Apt - Carpeting 2.5%
Community Social Activities 2.3%
Community Halls/Lobbies 2.3%
Apt -- Painting 2.2%
Apt -- Appearance 2.0%
Average National SatisFaction Scores
For 1-5 Scaled Response Questions *

Category Score Comment

Overall Average Score 3.92 Average
Maintenance - Courteousness, Professionalism 4.12 Superior
Office - Courteousness, Professionalism 4.10 Superior
Office Responsiveness, Dependability 3.92 Average
Maintenance - Quality of Work 3.93 Average
Exterior Curb Appeal 3.94 Average
Safety, Security 3.92 Average
Maintenance - Response Time 3.80 Average
Apartment 3.80 Average
Building Interiors 3.76 Average
Maintenance Problems Still Exist 28% --
"Very Likely" to Renew 52% --

* 5 point rating scale, with 1 "Extremely Dissatisfied" up to a 5 being
"Extremely Satisfied". SatisFacts considers a score below 3.0 to be a
"Warning Signal," a score of 3-3.5 a "Red Flag," 3.5-4.0 is "Average,"
while 4.0-4.5 is "Superior" and scores above 4.5 are "Exceptional."

Doug Miller, President of SatisFacts Research and the Miller Marketing Group, has more than 16 years experience in multifamily marketing, research and training; and has worked with more than 500 communities nationwide. Chris Pulket is Research Analyst for SatisFacts. To reach SatisFacts, call 877/733-0672, send e-mail to, or visit their Web site at
COPYRIGHT 2002 National Apartment Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Pulket, Chris
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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