A Safe Let

written by
Pam McElroy

With the future uncertain, many rental property owners are unsure how to move forward to fill vacancies. Corey Eckert, founder of Structure Properties, shares how COVID-19 is impacting the local rental market and advice for advertising and filling vacancies while following shelter-in-place guidelines.

Q. Have you seen changes in supply and demand since the shelter-in-place mandate? Has your business been impacted?

A. We are seeing significantly fewer people moving to San Francisco for jobs from out of state. Additionally, we’ve seen the market soften slightly in commuter neighborhoods, like SOMA, the Tenderloin, and Civic Center. As for Structure Properties, our physical office has closed and we’re all working remotely. As a company, we’ve always embraced remote working, so that shift in our business hasn’t been challenging. We’ve outlined new guidelines for our maintenance vendors to keep them and our residents safe. Property management is a very personal industry, so our biggest change was moving to limit face-to-face interaction while staying approachable and keeping our personal touch. 

Q. Have you seen changes in rents? What do you make of these changes?

A. With Uber laying off more than 6,000 employees and Twitter rolling out an indefinite work-from-home policy, my feeling is that commuter neighborhoods will continue to soften since one of the biggest draws there is walkability to multiple tech offices and shuttles. Other renters are using this time to upgrade their living situation to allow for a home office or to be closer to parks and outdoor spaces. 

Q. What changes to the leasing process have you seen since the shelter-in-place mandate?

A. When we prepare floor plans, professional photography and 3D virtual tours for a vacant unit, we have the most success renting that property. These rental tools are relatively low in cost and enable us to provide a clear picture of the unit to renters, prior to the tour. This not only helps weed out people who end up not being interested in the layout or a particular feature of the unit, but it also enables us to 100% focus our efforts on answering questions and closing the sale, rather than simply providing a walk-through of the space. It’s also becoming more common to digitize the application process, which is a good thing. Accepting applications online limits human interaction, while also speeding up the application process.

Q. Have standards changed for in-person showings of vacant units to potential renters?

A. Units should always get a very deep cleaning after tenants move out, including disinfecting. This has always been the case though; we’ve always had strict cleaning standards for our properties. Now I’ve armed myself and my agents with disinfectant supplies so they can sterilize units between showings as well. Whoever is showing the unit should be wearing a face covering and gloves. They should be carrying hand sanitizer and maintain six feet of distance at all times during tours. My team and I sterilize door knobs and other surfaces with disinfectant wipes between each tour. This not only helps renters feel safe during showings, but it also shows them that they’d be renting from a responsible building owner or agent. Rental property owners should also take advantage of the digital applications. It limits human interaction, but it also speeds up the application process. For as long as COVID-19 remains a local threat, only schedule private tours and keep a close eye on current regulations to ensure that you are in compliance

Q. Are open house showings a thing of the past?

A. So long as COVID-19 remains a threat, open houses are not in the best interest of potential renters, other tenants and yourself as an owner. However, we find that open houses bring a sense of urgency to renters who are considering submitting applications. We plan to return to open houses at select properties when it is safe to do so.

Q. Do you have advice for owners who may be at-risk when it comes to showing their own units? 

A. According to local health guidelines, anyone with an increased risk should really not be outside interacting with other people unnecessarily. I recommend for anyone at risk to get assistance with showings by hiring a licensed agent who has already adapted their business practices during COVID, at a very minimum. At this time we have been helping many owners who usually rent on their own by still giving them full control over the final application decision. If hiring an agent is something that’s just not possible, practice social distancing guideline when showing units, host as many virtual tours as possible, and take the time to answer questions from each potential applicant over the phone instead of in person.

Q. Do you predict renters will change their preferences for amenities, such as keyless entry or communal spaces like roof decks?

A. We haven’t had too many requests for keyless entry, but we’ve certainly seen people take this as an opportunity to upgrade their living space to accommodate working from home. Many companies throughout the Bay Area are offering indefinite work-from-home policies, which has resulted in an increased amount of renters looking for an office nook or small second bedroom that could be utilized as an office. Renters are also leaning toward units with close proximity to outdoor spaces, units that let in more natural light, that are quieter, and not on street level. also includes choosing a building with close proximity to outdoor spaces, units with more sunlight and maybe those that are quieter and not located at street level. It’s hard to speak about shared amenities, like common spaces, because at this time they are all closed.

Q. What top three pieces of advice would you give rental property owners looking to fill vacancies this year?

A. The best way to help your listing stand out is by investing in professional photography, floor plans and 3D tours. Be patient and listen to the market: It’s more important now than it ever has been to keep a very close eye on the current market. In some neighborhoods, rents are still very strong and sometimes continuing to rise. While in others, it might be necessary to take minor reductions, offer move-in incentives and be a bit more patient in filling your vacancy. Consider bringing your application process online with Intellirent, which is offered free for SFAA members. And this is a fourth piece of advice, but I think now is the perfect time to considering bringing on an agent to assist in filling vacancies.

Pam McElroy is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine.

Corey Eckert is a licensed California Real Estate Broker and the Vice President of Leasing at Structure Properties. He assists property owners with both leasing and full-service property management. Having previously co-founded a leasing technology startup, Corey is passionate about putting technology to work to create efficient processes that best serve our clients.