Leasing a Home in Austin TX – Then and Now

When Sylvia and I started leasing and managing rentals in Austin in the early 1990s, the business operation was phone-based. I had a phone, answering machine, and spiral pad on a desk in our kitchen nook. All business happened there. I also had a Windows PC, a 386 with a dot matrix printer which ran the DOS version of my property management software. If you don’t know what 386, DOS or “dot matrix printer” means, you’re probably less than 40 years old. Oh, it probably had a 2400 baud modem as well, and a 50 meg hard drive. It wasn’t until 1996 that I put up my first website and started using email for business.

All rental inquiries thus originated with a phone call to that one phone. It was a “single channel” communication system. Those callers either saw a yard sign or a 3-line ad in the Rentals section of the Sunday newspaper, and called to inquire. That was the extent of the entire communication system with regard to advertising a rental listing and taking inquiries. We did also have the Austin MLS, so Realtors could show our homes for lease, same as today, but if they called, it came through that same 1-phone system.

Today leasing inquiries come through multiple channels. So much so, it’s difficult to control, and impossible to manage manually.

In the early 1990s, those who inquired by phone about a rental listing were in fact generally interested in the home and worth talking to. Today, most of our online rental inquiries are “junky leads” from internet surfers who often don’t even take the time to read the basic information about the home. This is frustrating.

During the summer leasing season, I receive hundreds of email leads each month from people who “click and send” the default “I am interested” inquiry from Hotpads, Trulia, Zillow, and other online rental advertising sites. When people do take the time to type something other than the default blurb, they often ask questions that are answered in the listing comments and/or photos, not even bothering to read the information, thus exasperating the communication overload.

I use to type a personal response to these inquiries, or call the prospect and talk, which is time consuming when you’re returning 30+ messages at a time. It became overwhelming. So I eventually set up a “canned response” where I could reply then send a pre-typed generic message with a few clicks. The vast majority of those emails never received a followup or showing request from the prospect. So, still a lot work just to keep spinning wheels.

Now, for the past year, through a service I use called ShowMojo, the generic reply is sent automatically with a link to more info and an online booking calendar to schedule a showing. A human doesn’t even read the initial inquiry. There simply is no way to cull through all of the worthless leads and phone calls manually anymore. Callers can press a button to have the listing info texted to them, and read the info, see the photos, and book a showing from their smartphone. Same with sign callers, they text to a number on the sign and receive an auto-responder link that will answer all of the questions instantly.

In the old days, a home would lease after 5 or 10 calls and showings. It usually took about 30 days to lease a home, and it was a slow, calm process with big gaps between phone inquiries. Weekends were always busiest. Today, one home alone can generate dozens, even hundreds of inquiries, but the home doesn’t lease any faster than it would have in the early 1990s. We simply have to field a lot more inquiries and weed through way more people to lease a home than was required in the past when inquiries were of a higher quality and from more serious lookers.

The result is a less personalized, more automated system. I don’t like this. Part of the joy of being in real estate is all the personal contact with other humans, from all sorts of places and backgrounds. Talking to people, hearing their stories, why they are moving, the new job, the school they are seeking, etc.

I use to speak with every renter who inquired by phone about a home for lease. Now, with technology, they book a showing without speaking to anyone, see the property with an outside agent I send (though I do still personally show as many as I can myself), sign the lease electronically via DocuSign, pay deposits and rents online via Paylease. Finally, they meet me at move in, which I still do personally myself instead of leaving keys for pickup at our dropbox location because it’s often the only time I will ever actually meet my tenants in person.

In the old days, I would have talked to them by phone initially, met and showed the property myself, met again to collect applications and fees, met again to sign the lease, and met again the day of move-in. Sounds like a lot more work, but it really wasn’t.

And, while technology does save some manual effort (all of our tenants now pay online – we don’t even take paper payments anymore), the “technology overhead” and communication overload more than wipes out all of the efficiency gains. It’s not “better” when you factor the new headaches that were not part of the “old school” process.

And when I do meet and talk to prospective renters, I like to ask the same question I’ve curiously asked since the early 1990s – “what’s the hardest part about leasing a home in Austin TX?”, the answer hasn’t changed in 25 years. It’s still “getting ahold of someone to schedule a showing” That was what renters said in the 1990s, and it’s still what they say today. Nobody returns their calls or emails they say.

And when I ask, “did our automated showing system work well for you?”, the response is almost always “yes, we LOVE your set up”. So I guess it’s here to stay. Every now and then some old guy, like me, will leave a ranting message saying they can’t get a live person to talk to, and they are agitated about that. Sorry dude. Get with the times. Everything is self-serve, do it yourself NOW. It’s what people want so it’s how we have to lease homes in the “new age”.

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