Property Management system crisis: Why you probably want to switch and why you can’t.

Outlook 97 was a beautiful email client 15 years ago. My Property Management system shouldn’t look similar to this now.

Our Property Management system’s iterations look like DOS and Outlook 97’s love child. It’s ugly. It’s loaded with features that are cumbersome and counter intuitive. The accountants, of course, love it.

“If you say GL I say Entry… GL, Entry, GL, Entry!”

For those leasing agents and managers misfortunate enough to have to use it’s graphical user interface satanical design, it’s a brutally frustrating experience.

Most of us aren’t accountants.

Our property management system was designed around accountants. I hear we aren’t alone. The problem with this approach is that accountants aren’t the driving force behind the renting, and so tasks that should be simple, such as viewing a resident’s rent, are overly complicated and require basic knowledge of credits and debits. And although our system does handle the full range of accounting tasks with aplomb, it isn’t web based and relies too much on outdated technology. So, some time ago, while discussing the future of our software systems, we realized it might be time to look around.

The Property Management System 5677 error message. Quick! See if the answer is in the manual, in the meantime, I’ll wait on hold…

The grass isn’t greener on the other side.

Over several months, we researched the systems in the marketplace and what we found was shocking. We’re a medium sized property management company, and we quickly realized that there wasn’t a single system that made sense for us. The only user experience I saw, that reminded me of what decade we were in, was AppFolio. The others were too complicated, with too many options, that you can tell were built for property management companies whose unit counts are so large, they fluctuate daily.

brown grass

The grass on the other side is brown.

We learned that our data wouldn’t really be ours anymore, as we’d be forced to pay extra fees to be able to access it, or not access it at all. I’d heard people complain that some systems seemed slow, and I got confirmation of that during one demo, when the salesman chuckled “… running a little slow today!”. Then the bombshell – the cost. Before we even added a portal site, lead tracking, online applications, maintenance program, and a purchasing system, we’d be looking at a cost increase of 600%. If this cost increase could be justified with major NOI increases, we’d be on board, but the increased value of these systems is not six fold. Sure ours is clunky, but it does work.

The consensus I’ve heard, is that the overall software experience stinks.

Screen shot from a popular Property Management system portal. Web based should mean all browsers, otherwise you should call it IE based. Restricting yourself to IE means you don’t work on anything but a PC. That’s not future proof.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to many people in this industry about their Property Management system, and it’s rare to hear praise. I’ve heard complaints, ranging from little to no access to their data, to customer service problems, to being difficult to use and integrate. As an industry, how did we get here?

It’s partially our fault. The end goal of every property management company is to rent their apartments… right? What I find amazing is the different roads we take to get there. We can’t even agree on terminology; Is it a prospect card or a guest card? We constantly ask these software companies to change this, tweak that, add this, or reinvent that because “We don’t do it like everyone else”. So the software companies, over the years, have obliged us. The result is what you see today. Bloated, feature too-rich, property management systems that still have the look and feel of their original release. What got lost is the re-imagining, the future proofing, the real innovations that got them to the top of the heap. Steve Jobs once said, “For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Maybe the new players can shake things up a bit.

I like what AppFolio is doing, and even though, in my opinion, they don’t have enough features to meet the needs of a medium to large property management company yet, I like their focus on the site personnel experience and their monthly update cycle. Entrata has created great awareness this year with their excellent marketing campaign, and we can only hope, they don’t fall into the trap set by the existing models.

Our Utopian needs.

As an industry, our current selection isn’t good enough. We want easy access to our data, we want an intuitive, future proof system that is platform independent, which shouldn’t require months of training, and we want it for a reasonable cost. Is that too much to ask, or are we the victim of our own individual needs, and get what we deserve?

What do you think?


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  • Spot on Bill! Not sure why this hasn’t been addressed or fixed by now. The underlying issue is that this industry is mostly run by two groups, Money-Accounting types and Fair Housing types. Leasing and Marketing are not at the table and do not have much of a voice. Companies give lip service to be marketing driven, yet their actions and behavior tell a different story.

    • I think the best solution is to separate the two sections out. Have the back end that accountants want but layer the leasing side so it’s seamless. The leasing side should be a completely different experience not the accounting side minus a layer or two. Technology should be part of the solution – not the problem. Thanks for commenting Eric.

  • Avishai

    Great post. Probably the biggest problem is the closed nature of most of these systems. If Yardi or similar don’t want to build X feature, then fine, but they shouldn’t keep your data trapped in some obscure schema with no API or other documented way to get to it to write your own add-ons.

    Once you expose the data with an API, the accounting types can be happy, and people working on the leasing end can move forward into the 21st century.

    • Exactly. It’s why we are grateful that, although our PM system’s front end is atrocious, we’ve been given access to our raw data. This has allowed us to make a web-based front end that works better. It isn’t perfect, of course, but worlds better than what we’d be forced to use if our data was closed off. The irony is that – IT’S YOUR DATA – and yet these closed systems won’t let you access it as you want. Terrible. Thanks for commenting Avishai.

    • This begs the question of *what* are you exposing with an API? There is no standard format for property management systems, so even if the data were exposed it’s not other software could use it.

      If you mean a simple export, then we totally agree with you.

      • Avishai

        No, there isn’t a standard format, but if software exposed its data as a simple REST style API, it would be pretty straightforward to write client libraries for them like people have done with twitter, Facebook, etc.

  • Property Management Software developer here. Our personal opinion is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t focus on accounting AND owner statements AND tenants AND move-in move-out AND vendors AND maintenance workflow, etc.

    At CleverTower, we’ve focused on the leasing and tenant communication side, letting you export to a dedicated accounting software. We prefer to do one thing well, rather than everything poorly.

    • You are right about there not being a one-size fits all solution. As I said in the post, we PM companies are a finicky bunch and don’t all look at renting the same way. I feel like, from a design standpoint, that lots of systems I’ve seen, have missed the mark on the leasing side. They are too cumbersome. I like your approach. Clearly you guys took a look at what was wrong and chose to avoid it. Thanks for stopping by.