Customize Your Units to Make Renters Feel at Home—and Renew Their Leases

February 23, 2016

Industry experts say allowing residents to add personal design touches to their units increases the likelihood of lease renewal, often at little or no extra cost to either party.

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When Kellie Falk, managing director at Drucker & Falk Real Estate, received a letter from a longtime resident at one of the company’s properties, she hadn’t realized the lengths renters would go to to turn their apartment units into a permanent home.

The letter came after Drucker & Falk had sold the property to a new owner but stayed on as the property manager. The new owners were looking for capital to reinvest in the development, which meant raising rents about $200 per month for existing tenants.

The resident, a woman in her 80s who had been living in the building since it opened nearly 15 years prior, couldn’t afford the new cost of living. But she hadn’t planned on moving, ever. As she told Falk in her letter, she had invested at least $3,000 over the past decade and a half to create a garden oasis on her balcony.

“I went out there and looked, and, sure enough, she had planted trees and bushes and takes care of it every day,” Falk recounts.

While the average resident may not be spending a large sum of money on extravagant home features, Stephanie Williams, president at Bozzuto Management Co., says there is a regular demand for small changesthat tenants want to make to their space. Often this includes small tweaks to elements such as the wall color or light fixtures, but it can include requests for the addition of a ceiling fan, rearranged cabinet storage, different flooring materials, or the repositioning of movable kitchen islands.

While property managers say making such changes hasn't been found to be a noteworthy source of revenue for their companies and, in fact, is often offered at no charge, the benefits are found in the increased retention that comes with allowing tenants to make a space their very own.

“We’re really focused on the resident experience and giving them the ability to make their home a sanctuary,” says Williams. “Just because it’s an apartment doesn’t mean there aren’t modifications that residents want to do.”

Bozzuto is one of the property management companies that allows residents to make small changes or assists them in customizing the apartment. Residents can paint walls in the unit, usually as long as they return the room to the original condition before leaving. Changing out light fixtures or installing ceiling fans is also an easy way for tenants to make a unit feel more like home at little hassle or cost.

“We don’t typically charge for [something like that] because we want them to take some ownership of the unit and to personalize it,” says Williams. “If it’s not a wholesale change to the unit, then we're more than happy to help them do that.”

For future residents of new-construction units, it can be a lot easier to tailor an apartment to personal tastes by letting customers select finishes before they’re performed.

“We usually try to have a minimum of two packages of different kinds of flooring, carpet, cabinets, and countertops, and there’s no up-charge because they’re going to go in there anyway,” says Falk.

A downside to letting residents make changes in their units is the possibility of a messy cleanup process, especially when DIYers opt to do their own painting or switch out light fixtures themselves. Likewise, a room that's been painted a very dark color can be difficult to restore to its original hue, or mistakes can be made when installing a light fixture that could damage drywall.

But many management companies have an easy fix by recommending painters and contractors, or providing services through an on-site building service person who will do the job at no extra charge to residents. In fact, having an on-site employee to assist with these services can make residents feel more comfortable in the building.

“It actually helps build a relationship with that service person, which I find, again, encourages someone to stay,” says Williams. “That’s a really important relationship too—the one between the customer and the service staff.”

All in all, allowing changes in a unit makes for happier, and more attached, residents who will want to make your property their longtime home. Modifications on a small scale may not generate any extra form of revenue for your company, but it will pay off in the long run when renters feel invested in their space and, therefore, decide to renew their leases.

“I think we find a benefit, and, quite honestly, I think the more you allow a resident to customize a unit, the more it encourages them to stay,” says Williams. “It makes it special, and we love for someone to do as much as they can to feel comfortable in their home.”

Lauren is a content producer for Hanley Wood's residential construction group. Find her on twitter: @LShanesyHW