Would YOU Live In These Apartments?

One of the more revealing conversations I had was with one of my former managers who ended up quitting suddenly a few months later.   She had been in the position for about 7 years at that point, had no oversight, and was doing a terrible job.  

She was on her way out whether she knew it or not, but it surprised all of us when she gave us her resignation letter one fall afternoon.   

Throughout the previous year, I had worked with her, repairing and improving the apartments seemed to be just an impossible obstacle to surmount.  “Nothing around here works.” “The apartments are shitty.” “The tenants are a bunch of low-life’s.”(Even though she herself was embezzling money from both us and the tenants at that time!)  “No need to do repairs, the tenants won’t even know you did them.” 

Obviously, you can tell her attitude was the thing with no life in it.  And the apartment complex matched her sentiments almost perfectly. She had let the place get run down, didn’t do repairs, hired family and friends to come over and do the repairs and pay them whatever they wanted, whether the job was finished or not.  

She let vacant units sit literally the entire time she had tenure there without doing a single thing to them. “There just wasn’t enough time.” Was always her answer. 

In comes myself…  My brother and I were brought on to turn the complex around from a losing venture to something that made money.   For me, too much of this responsibility lay at the feet of the manager, who we will call “Barb”.  

Barb was one of those people who talked about their own business and meant it.   But saying all those negative things in front of other people no less didn’t inspire her to make anything better.  

In fact, as time went on, it appeared as Barb was running the place into the ground intentionally. (I will go into all the shenanigans she pulled on us in another post, another very long post.)   

But in this article, I really want to get across the insight I came to when dealing with Barb one day.  We were walking across the yard, going to find paint or something, and she was grumbling, blaming everyone else in the world for what was wrong at the apartments and not saying anything she could be doing herself to help matters.   But I digress. 

We were talking about repairs and she said something that just stopped me in my tracks…

She said… “I wouldn’t live in these apartments.”   

EXCEPT SHE DID!!!!!   And she HAD for the past 9 years!!!  Her PARENTS also lived there! And we owned the place, so it was a direct knock-on us too!  (Yes, we were paying her a salary, giving her 3 units to occupy, 2 garages, and she was actively killing the golden goose that was providing all of this.  That is primarily on us as owners to let this situation come this far, to begin with, but I will touch on that in another article.)

If I would have been as good of a manager back then as I am today, I would have fired her on the spot and had her kicked to the curb within the hour.  That was one of the most revealing, and over-the-top disrespectful things I have ever heard uttered.

Not ONLY was she calling our apartment complex a “shit-hole”, but she also carried her view of that onto anyone who rented there. 

She looked down on the tenants like they were scum, especially ones that came from other countries.  And she was non-discriminate with this scorn. She was an equal-opportunity hater. The amount of vitriol that would come out of her mouth was astonishing, and she would flip it off like a switch when someone was coming in to look at a new apartment. 

She had one side that was more her true self, and the other that could sweet talk a person into leasing the shithole and make them feel good about it all day long.  

However, her comment got me thinking.   Would I choose to live in my own apartments?  That was quite a question to ask yourself.  I just thought of the apartments as a business, and while I truly do care for my tenant’s happiness, somewhere inside I know that I was never going to live in any of them. 

So, what did that say about my management practices and techniques?   And what did it say about the apartments in general? Was she really right about that all along, and felt forced to live there?   

These questions began to pile up and I got to thinking.   I finally came to a revelation. Simply owning the apartments and being hands’ on wasn’t going to turn the complex around. 

I had to care for it on the inside and outside the way, I would my own house or anything else of value I owned. To turn the place into somewhere that I myself would choose to stay.    

Now, I know that many people don’t “choose” to stay in an apartment for fun.  Some have to due to financial constraints, I know that. But they still have a choice between which complex to patronize, and how long any one of them would end up staying, and what they are going to say around town about you. (Let’s just say at that point, our turnover rate was prodigious.) 

Lucky for me, she was gone in a few weeks and ended up hiring the best manager we have had in several decades.  I decided I would start making the apartments into something closer to what I would be happy within my own life and with my own kids, instead of going about the business the way we were.  

The new manager was proud to be at the complex, was proud to be the new manager, we treat him exceptionally well, and in turn, he is protective like a parent with a small child with our apartments, and works incredibly hard.   

Since we brought him on, we have turned the apartments into something that just isn’t another complex, it is a place where both the manager and the owners would be proud to stay because of how it works on the inside, and how it looks on the outside.  

Every one of the units we flip now feels brand new, and the work put into deep cleaning and repairs for every single one of these is spectacular.   

As the shift in focus changed to this new way of looking at running the complex, the units began flipping faster, our turnover rate began to decline, and amazingly we started getting word of mouth referrals and positive reviews online!!   That was something that both had NEVER happened before!  And I mean NEVER!  

There came a day where the new manager and I were just finishing up a unit and he stopped and said, “Man, I wish I could move my family down to this one it looks so good.”  And then kept going about his day. WOW!! That was an awesome thing to hear!!  And just a few months after he had been there.  

It wasn’t that his apartments were bad at all, no!  The one we were standing in was just that good.  We had taken a place that was utterly destroyed and turned it into a place where we literally had a bidding war between a couple of tenants to move into the apartment first!   

But we had also turned it into a place that was desirable.  And that came from wanting to make the unit, the business, and the grounds of the complex, into something that I wanted to improve and a place I would be proud to bring my own family to stay.  

When you are out searching for your new apartment, ask your manager: “Would you be willing to live in these apartments yourself?”     

See what they say.   Maybe they do live there.  Maybe not. Watch their faces as they answer you.  Do they wish to be anywhere but in front of you answering this question?   Well…… there’s your answer. 

However, if the manager goes on and on about how great the people are and how much improvements they are making, and how much you will just LOVE the place, then maybe you have a winner.  

If they are turning the complex into someplace desirable, then you have something to build on as you do your walkthrough and browse around the complex.  

If not, well, maybe this place isn’t for you. But ask the question… you may learn more about the complex than just a quick walk-through.

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John Boettcher

Co-Founder of Apartment School and a previous renter turned owner of many multi-family properties across the United States, with many years of experience in all aspects of the apartment, real estate, and investing world.

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