What residents put at the top of their wish lists has gone beyond good locations, affordable leases, appealing amenities and ample apartment square footage.
Apartment residents have more options to consider when choosing a place to reside, and owners and property managers are paying heed to what appeals most. While wish lists may vary based on climate, budget, type of community, site, demographics and the overall economy, interviews with developers and managers reveal that the following wishes are more prominent.
Listened and catered to. Residents want more of a say rather than having owners and property managers plan without their input. Many operators now conduct surveys, host focus groups, question prospective residents visiting a site, hold exit interviews about what worked best—and least, and some hire a third-party management company to handle the process. Alan McMahon, Senior Development Manager, Charleston, S.C.-based The Beach Company, says his firm also visits similar buildings, studies market comps and asks staff what’s working well and what isn’t. Levi Walters, Director of Asset Management and Capital Markets at Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Sands Companies, says his company determines interest from potential residents regarding projects under construction and asks them which features matter most. Some like Elie Rieder, CEO of Suffern, N.Y.-based Castle Lanterra Properties, regularly visit assets. He does so quarterly and also has management show up more often. “I learn something each time. No two properties are the same,” he says.
He and others take to heart what they hear. At one property for seniors in Florida, Rieder found residents wanted community events and activities to be adjusted to better fit their schedules.
Chicago-based Habitat heeded suggestions after being hired to rehab a downtown 1950s affordable high-rise property, Marine Drive Apartments, in the Canalside neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y. After it was determined that buildings couldn’t be salvaged, the developers agreed to replace them with more than 600 new affordable units that will incorporate residents’ suggestions when work commences in late 2024, says Jeff Head, Vice President of Development at Habitat. Since those buildings were first constructed, ADA regulations have become a requirement for structures with more than four units built for first-time occupancy.
Location, location, location
Living by the water is highly desirable despite concerns of hurricanes, floods and other severe weather, especially since renters are less worried than those who buy, Rieder says. In building its new Buffalo complex, Habitat heard from residents that the existing Lake Erie site was a strong draw, particularly because the city cleaned it up and added waterfront activities. The same interest in waterfront living inspired architects at Cooper Robertson when they were hired to develop a masterplan and lead the design of outdoor public space for the 1,500-unit West Wharf project in Brooklyn’s rezoned Greenpoint neighborhood, which along with adjacent Williamsburg, had previously been utilized largely for manufacturing and industrial facilities. The project’s developer was able to add significant square footage to the building designs in return for making between 20% to 25% of units affordable and including open public spaces with waterfront activities, seating, dark sky lighting, jogging path, walkway and ground-floor storefront amenities, says Cooper Robertson architect and Partner Donald Clinton, AIA, MRAIC, LEED AP. For non-waterfront sites, many developers like Cleveland-based Geis Companies prioritize an area’s healthy job growth as a way to attract residents and has found many suburban locations offer promise, says President of Geis Development Conrad Geis. Proximity to schools, work and retail are other incentives, as many residents want to be no more than a 15-minute drive away. Within a building, preferred locations include those with a view, balcony, on a top floor or away from an elevator for noise control and on the ground level or first floor to avoid steps if no elevator. Many also want to be close to parking.
Lower prices, more space
Many renters want it all, along with no price increase, says Diana Pittro, Executive Vice President of Chicago-based RMK Management Corp. In certain cases, getting a more affordable lease may outweigh a location or certain expected amenities, says McMahon. But others are willing to give up square footage in their unit—usually in the living area—if they can have more bedrooms or some concessions, which have begun to re-emerge, says Jenni Nichols, Director of Design, at John Burns Research & Consulting. Pittro concurs and cites the rise of expansive outdoor areas with a pool, seating, grilling stations, bocce ball, chess, pickleball and more, along with smaller areas for intimate gatherings. McMahon says his company has recognized the popularity of one- and two-bedroom units by increasing their number in communities and decreasing the number of studios. Part of the growing appeal for build-to-rent (BTR) communities is that the overall size of the units is larger than comparable traditional apartments, plus they include a private yard. At a forthcoming project in Myrtle Beach, Sands Companies will offer its largest apartment cottage with three bedrooms at 1,693 square feet. Some residents will still go smaller if that means a lower rent, Nichols says. Rieder says he has witnessed that trend of late. “In the past two to three years, space was more important but now the total dollars spent are,” he says.
These continue to be a magnet as a way to interact. What’s high on the list are work-from-home (WFH) spaces, both open and more private, according to what John Burns hears from developers. Some companies use them as a revenue generator and charge by the day or hour, says Lesley Deutch, Managing Principal at John Burns Research & Consulting. Even before the pandemic, more residents owned pets, and many buildings have increased the amount of square footage they devote to them through pet parks—sometimes more than one for different size dogs, trails and spas, says Deutch. More residents vote with their stomachs, too, and want more than coffee and tea for free or from for-sale kiosks with grab-and-go prepared foods, some from a nearby retailer. More food trucks also regularly visit sites; at Beach Company’s Jasper property in downtown Charleston, the property hosts a variety of trucks every Friday. Package rooms continue to grow. “The big trend is that we are designing fewer amenity spaces that serve only one function as space is at a premium,” says architect Darin Schoolmeester, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, a Principal with KTGY.
Curated programs and pampering services
Besides having a range of amenities, many residents want a variety of curated programs. There are two prime reasons. Multigenerational living is on the rise, with 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds living in their parents’ homes, the highest percentage since the 1940s, according to Pew Research Center. Many want to socialize with like-minded residents. Rieder talks of rooms used to orchestrate speed dating get-togethers. College students opting for purpose-built student housing (PBSH) want to go where their friends are, says KrisAnn Kizer, Vice President of Marketing and Leasing at San Diego-based Pierce Education Properties. The second reason is that residents like instruction, according to FirstService Residential, which plans amenities and programs at more than 9,000 residential communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. What’s favored now are places to eat, work out, learn, do crafts and wrap gifts known as maker rooms, as well as concierge-style services. AI technology helps by sending a group text message to invite residents to sessions or a thank you to those who attended. Because the new technology is constantly improving, many can’t differentiate an AI communication from a live one, says Jeff Klotz, Founder of Atlantic Beach, Fla.-based The Klotz Group. AI offers other benefits, Klotz says, explaining, “It handles requests faster, makes fewer mistakes, will remember key information such as birthdays and a resident’s or pet’s name.”
Practicing wellness is a major focus of residents, and managers are planning more services. For residents of Klotz’s buildings, there are rooms to mediate, do yoga, work out and attend seminars. Schoolmeester has designed rooms for nutrition and mental health classes. More properties have begun to feature hot tubs and cold plunge pools and even sensory deprivation tanks that eliminate light and sound. “More residents want to disconnect from the world,” Klotz says. As part of offering activities, more attention is paid to how these spaces are laid out so they can be flexible and encourage both sociability and privacy at different times and easily open to the outdoors through sliding or roll-up glass doors, says McMahon. For example, a mailroom might have seating to trigger conversations, he says. “Residents like the comfort of living, playing, working in one facility,” Geis says. To add to camaraderie, more of these spaces have a resort-style look so residents think they’re on vacation, he says.
Greater resiliency, sustainability, energy savings
Climate change continues and more residents look at locations where the weather and a developer’s building decisions work together to provide confidence about the safety of their homes in worst-case possibilities. Residents also continue to want to cut energy use and their carbon footprints for myriad reasons. While the trend is not universal, many pay heed to buildings that invest in sustainable materials and systems to improve their quality of life, says Nate Thomas, AIA, CPHC, Director of Sustainability at Boston-area-based The Architectural Team (TAT). Thomas predicts that within the next few years, more than half of new multifamily projects will use a passive house approach to achieve better indoor air quality, deep energy retrofits, carbon tracking and enhanced noise attenuation. Another expectation is for more electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.
Besides the continued desire for an open layout, residents most want an in-unit laundry, Energy Star appliances and fixtures, parking and smart features from the front door to within the unit to operate systems and handle tasks such as paying bills and requesting maintenance service, says Eddie Ring of Encino, Calif.-based New Standard Equities which re-develops workforce properties in Northern California and the Seattle area. Certain managers try to differentiate their properties by offering tech-hungry residents more options such as smart speakers, plugs, light systems, security detection and pet stations that automatically dispense food and water, Klotz says. In bathrooms, he cites the popularity of double vanities, along with a bidet as an upgrade at some properties. Other requests are for custom paint colors. Geis says many want an upgraded luxurious feel that comes from fully tiled shower walls or backsplash walls in kitchens, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) flooring that resembles marble, balconies, an island in the kitchen and spacious entry and bedrooms. Those in more affordable buildings also want the feeling of luxury through more affordable options, says Head. Low maintenance choices remain high on wish lists, with carpetless bedrooms a growing trend, Walters says. Many also want good closet space even as some units get smaller, Schoolmeester says. For students, more favor private bedrooms and bathrooms if priced right, quality appliances and furniture and the highest-speed internet, Kizer says. The highly desired kitchen island may win more kudos if on wheels for flexibility, Rieder says. Because of the continued popularity of working from home, many like having corners and nooks to do so, ceilings higher than 8 feet, good light exposure and the ability to control their thermostats.
The icing on the cake may be an attentive, caring staff, though it can be a challenge to attract and retain employees, Rieder says. “Residents seem happier when this is the case. And they comment about this preference when they give us feedback,” he says.
Barbara Ballinger is a frequent contributor to units.