Multifamily operators know well that turn is a high-pressure endeavor: countless tasks to address in the tightest time frame possible. With this in mind, HappyCo spoke to operators about one of the trickiest aspects: project management.
“There are bound to be disputes.” NAA writer Les Shaver offers these words of warning in a March 2019 article covering tips to improve turn, a process he describes as “high-intensity.” On the subject of student turn specifically, San Miguel Management VP of Marketing Jennifer Messina adds this piece of advice: “You don’t let [parents] become angry and loud in front of others.”
Needless to say, turn can spark tension between multifamily management companies and residents leaving units. Fortunately, most operators have the process under control to the point where scenes like this never unfold. HappyCo shares insights from multifamily leaders who make the ordeal as seamless as possible for staff and residents — while remaining hopeful about possibilities to improve project management. Here’s a sense of the organizational challenges they face operating student, conventional, and affordable communities.
A window into student turn: insights from Aspen Heights.
In the realm of student housing, Aspen Heights Director of Business Process Chris Amrich has faced the challenges of turn since he was an undergrad himself, working as a leasing associate. Now, he’s got the expertise required to chart out timelines that keep Aspen teams ahead of the curve. “We start bidding for vendors in March of Q1 — even though move-out is not until July.” As Amrich sees it, this kind of headstart gives regional managers a solid sense of overall repair needs so they can communicate effectively with vendors and secure the best quality and price combination.
Still, Amrich admits, one challenge to advance planning within the student housing world is that “you may still be leasing right until move-out day. You could have a property 80% pre-leased, but we’ll get people right up until the last minute who renew, which can change the scope of repair work.”
Facing this climate of uncertainty, Amrich says digital inspections are a valuable way to keep tabs on the fine-print needs of units as the spring months roll on. “For the actual move-in, move-out inspections, we use Inspections. Slightly different than the template used for annual walks, with turn, we’re marking down specific damage to units and what furniture may require replacement. Plus, a few months before move-out, we complete a pre-walk to get a sense of what those needs may be.”
To tackle the project management challenge that follows, Amrich says Aspen teams “export data from Inspections and our Data Analyst configures formulas to translate the information to organize it within our make-ready board, which is essentially an Excel workbook.” In that digital setup, tabs indicate each type of vendor service for a unit, “so the report may say: ‘beds A and C need full painting, but B just needs partial painting.’”
Meanwhile, Aspen works to promote effective communication along the way by holding thorough turn training and follow-up during weekly “Listen and Learn” calls. Amrich notes how, “at Aspen, we make sure to give our teams a due date of when the vendor bids have to be submitted, as well as explain the template form they’ll need to use.”
As for the Excel board reflecting these maintenance needs, Amrich describes how, “once it’s noted in the make ready board that repair services are requested, the general managers assign vendors to units. Before Inspections, we used paper, so that meant the inspector would go in, complete the work, and mark by hand whether the unit needed full paint or partial paint.”
Amrich says transparency has improved considerably now that those paper-and-pen days are over. “Since we’re now paperless with HappyCo, there’s less room for error having to read handwritten inspections. It’s saved the general managers a full day of work having to manually input the work that’s needed.”
However, despite the improvements and integrations Aspen has made to their turn project management process, on occasion, manual review is sometimes a must. Amrich notes that, “right now, our general managers are reviewing Inspections data before they drop a report into the make ready board.” As a result, Amrich says, “there have been times when someone drops data in but then it’s later discovered that the inspection wasn’t quite accurate and you need full paint, for example, instead of partial.” From there, Aspen teams “have to be sure the versions are the same,” so they’ll “go back into the inspection report to make a change and then do the same in the excel workboard.”
All told, Amrich admits: “gaining real-time visibility to vendor assignments and unit repair status can be tough sometimes because the data has to be manually updated by our general managers.” With the demands turn can put on a general manager, regular updates aren’t always possible, adding time to an already-ticking clock.
Typically, daily data is available by the end of the day, but as Amrich points out: “the Excel system doesn’t provide notifications when there’s been a change, so regionals have to be on their toes about checking in regularly.” Though turn is inevitably a frenzied time, Amrich says he’s glad Aspen has risen to the occasion by developing systems and processes that pave the way for success. Despite the challenges that can arise, Amrich stresses his gratitude that “Aspen teams are really detail-oriented, always!”
Hoping for seamless task updates: insights from Sequoia.
For insights on turn from a conventional housing vantage point, HappyCo spoke with Felicia Estrada, Risk & Safety Coordinator with Sequoia Equities, Inc. Estrada admits she’s excited to see a change in the company’s approach to move-out inspections and, relatedly, turn. “We’ve been primarily using Inspections for annual inspections, curb appeal, marketing audits, but now we’re starting to pilot it for move-in, move-out inspections.”
Estrada notes that switching to digital inspections for move-in and move-out is “one of the things managers have been especially eager to try.” Better still, she stresses that the “ability to have a clear report that has pics, and dates with those pictures, is something we lacked with pen-and-paper forms.”
In this spirit of transparency, Estrada says that one of opportunities Sequoia offers “but that not all residents take us up on, is the preliminary move-out inspection. We see it as a valuable opportunity for residents to have a service team knowledgeable in maintenance get an eye on things, to give them a thorough expectation of the charges they might be facing after move-out.”
As for organizing the repair tasks those charges inspire, this process kicks off an organizational challenge every operator faces. Of Sequoia’s game plan, Estrada notes the first step depends on “whether the unit will be turned or renovated.” From there, Estrada describes how, “a site managing a number of renovation projects may already be using a shared Google Sheet to communicate status and completion dates with a trusted vendor.”
After that, Estrada notes, “the series of standardized make ready checklists are referenced to schedule tasks for vendors and team members, accordingly.” She admits, however, “teams still rely on maintaining up-to-date make ready boards to keep track of unit status. For many locations, that means maintaining a physical board, but others may choose to maintain their make ready board as a shared spreadsheet.”
Yet, Estrada pinpoints one “practical shortcoming” of these make ready boards: they “rely on users updating content.” It’s why she’s holding out hope for a much more streamlined approach, admitting: “any opportunity to have completed tasks feed into an automated make ready board would be a welcome enhancement.”
Above all, Estrada makes clear, “from my view, knowing the status of any asset at any time is the ultimate goal we want out of multifamily tech.” As the ability to forecast is critical to her team, Estrada emphasizes: “it’s ideal for us to have as much data as possible when we need it.”
For now, Estrada says, “we have tons of metrics for leasing, sales, and more, but I think getting work order data out of a somewhat messy format and into an elegant setup incorporated with tasks would be a huge benefit to us.” Fortunately, Estrada sees opportunity on the horizon: “honestly, this is why I’m excited to learn more about Tasks. I think it would be a traditional work order software killer for us.”
Pushing for greater transparency: Habitat America weighs in.
Meanwhile, Habitat America Director of Maintenance Services Mike Crampton describes the distinct pressures operators face when they manage affordable housing in addition to conventional communities. “For affordable units, we are required to finish turn within a certain time frame. But for any unit we offer, it’s always the case that we strive to have turnovers done quickly, typically within 3-5 days.”
Against this high-stakes backdrop, Crampton says digital inspections are a key factor in Habitat’s successful completion of move-out inspections. In exploring digital inspection apps about six years ago, Crampton decided to opt for Inspections as he found it “worked the best, since it was really easy to use and to modify on the fly.” Overtime, Crampton says Habitat has seen the benefits of using a mobile app and consequently made the transition from doing solely site inspections digitally to using Inspections for preventative maintenance, move-in, and move-out.
Now, Crampton says his teams at Habitat find Inspections’s features remarkably helpful in their everyday, especially the ability to include time-stamped photos in reports. By conducting move-in and move-out inspections using this time-stamped photos feature, Crampton says his teams can effectively gather evidence of damage, smoothing out any potential for tension during turn.
Additionally, when move-out inspections are in full swing, Crampton stresses it’s particularly valuable that Inspections enables his teams to take up to 16 photos per item, offering his staff a “full photographic image of the apartment home.”
With this quality of documentation at their fingertips, Habitat teams embark on the toughest part of turn: project management. Like others in multifamily, Habitat staff members make use of a mix of physical make ready whiteboards and work order software that integrates with Inspections. However, it’s precisely at this juncture of turn where Crampton believes there’s room for improvement — particularly in the realms of time-saving and transparency across departments.
Crampton says he’s excited about the possibilities Tasks presents in these areas. He suspects it’s also bound to spell wonders for accountability among his teams by “bridging the gap between inspections and work orders.” Ultimately, in Crampton’s view, “what Tasks is going to do is force staff at the site level to get things done in a timely manner. That will be the end of our compliance team having to search for something. Instead, they can look at a report and submit the paperwork needed in a timely manner.”
Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.