The Rise of the Smart Apartment

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

When residents of the 156-unit Isle Apartment complex in Manayunk, Pennsylvania reach home, they open their doors with a tap on their smartphone. On their way out, they can switch the lights on or off remotely, and adjust the temperature or thermostat schedule.

At the Isle Apartments, property managers don’t need to collect the keys when renters vacate their apartment. With a few keystrokes on their laptop, they simply change access to the empty unit. Managers don’t worry about which lights were left on by a leasing agent or if the painters forgot to turn off the AC. Property managers can also set up leak sensing alerts to avoid major flood damages and repairs.

“Smart home technologies, formerly restricted to single family homes, are now coming to multifamily buildings and dorms,” Felicite Moorman, cofounder and CEO of StratIS, an automation management startup designed for multifamily and campus communities, explained. “Internet of Things (IoT) devices will create a seismic shift in multifamily and campus communities and create new opportunities.”

Rentals Not Far Behind

If this study by Wakefield Research and Schlage is any indication, smart home technologies, like that at the Isle Apartments, could give property owners an edge in the rental market—particularly among millennial renters.

“Internet of Things (IoT) devices will create a seismic shift in multifamily and campus communities and create new opportunities.”
— Felicite Moorman, Cofounder and CEO, StratIS

More than 61 percent of the renters who responded to the survey were likely to rent an apartment specifically because of electronic access features. Returns could be higher, too. Millennial renters, on average, indicated they were ready to pay one fifth more for smart home features, according to the study.

For Moorman, connected homes and smart IoT devices can also reduce operating costs, increase security, and mitigate liability.

“Consider this,” she said, “if there is a fire or water incident in one apartment, chances are that it will also impact several other units in the property.” Smart devices can sense this damage early and send an alert to mitigate destruction.

“This can reduce insurance costs, too,” she explained—and Moorman would know. StratIS has already installed smart devices in about 200,000 apartment units and has bigger plans now. “We are ready to go national next year, when we start selling our software platform jointly with Best Buy.”

StratIS is not the only company trying to capitalize on the opportunity to bring smart home technology into rental market. Several others, such as DweloVivint and NWP are working with property owners to install smart door locks, lights, and thermostats.

Most of these smart home technology companies charge property owners for initial installation of the IoT hardware. They then run subscription pricing for managing the dashboard to support the hardware for owners and app for renters. Several companies also integrate voice-activated devices, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, to be the hub of information. In these cases, energy conservation is as simple as stating, “Alexa, please switch off the kitchen lights.”

Multifamily Challenges

The benefits of smart home technology seem obvious: renters can enjoy the comfort and convenience of controlling their devices remotely; owners can mitigate damage and operate efficient complexes. Yet installing and managing hundreds of smart devices across many apartments can be much more complicated than setting up a few gadgets in a suburban home.

“Imagine managing smart locks, thermostats, lights and several other devices across 200 units bundled with 200 distinct logins,” Dwelo CEO Michael Rovito explained. “That’s a bit of a nightmare.” As an alternative to this chaos, Rovito integrates technologies from different vendors to work together on a single dashboard.

Rental properties have unique needs, he insisted, pointing out that companies like Dwelo have to manage multiple stakeholders. “Property owners, managers, and residents all have different demands,” Rovito said. While residents value fun and convenient smart devices, he explained, they also don’t want to give up any privacy. Property managers want to keep their jobs as simple as possible; at the same time, owners want to lower operating costs and improve returns.

“Imagine managing smart locks, thermostats, lights and several other devices across 200 units bundled with 200 distinct logins. That’s a bit of a nightmare.”
— Michael Rovito, CEO, Dwelo

Yet balancing privacy and convenience presents a new set of challenges. Property managers and maintenance staff need to be able to access the building without violating residents’ privacy. “In rental properties, we have to work with so many more roles, permissions, and use cases,” Moorman explained.

Consider the situation when renters vacate. Property owners and managers want to regain control over devices, and residents need to be assured of their privacy. Companies like Dwelo and StratIS have caught on to this problem. These software platforms tie all the Internet of Things devices and a user-friendly dashboard together, while setting up roles and permissions to ensure the right person gets the correct level of access at the proper time.

This rapid multifamily home automation is setting new expectations in the rental market. “Just like people look for a gym or a granite countertop today, ” Rovito said, “renters might start to expect smart devices in apartments soon.”

In five years, Rovito predicts the majority of the institution-owned market rate multifamily rentals will be smart apartments or will have started the process to become one.

“And that,” he said, “will be the turning point when smart doorknobs, connected thermostats and lights will become standard amenities in rental communities.”