Access Control: A Guide to the Basics

By: Kathryn Casna

A guide to access control from SmartRent.A guide to access control from SmartRent.A guide to access control from SmartRent.A guide to access control from SmartRent.

Ever wondered what exactly an access control system entails and why it's so crucial for multifamily communities?

Access control isn't just about keeping unauthorized individuals out; it's also about efficiently managing who has access to what areas within your community.

In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the components and importance of access control systems tailored specifically for multifamily properties. From understanding the distinction between physical and network access control to exploring the benefits of smart access technology, we'll navigate through the hardware, credentials, interfaces, and optional components that comprise a robust access control system.

What is an access control system?

An access control system keeps unauthorized people out of your community while providing authorized people an easy way to move around it. An access control system includes hardware like locks and readers, interfaces to manage permissions and credentials, and procedures for who gets access to what.

Worth noting:
You might run into the term physical access control (PAC) as you learn about access control. PAC protects your physical assets, like your apartments, fitness center, and leasing office. That’s different from network access control, which protects digital assets and information like your banking information and residents' personal information. In this guide, we’ll focus on physical access control for multifamily communities.

Why is smart access control important in multifamily communities?

Access control is how you balance protecting your assets and leveraging them to earn income. In short, it’s about letting authorized people in and keeping unauthorized people out. Smart access control is about using technology to make access control more efficient and convenient than traditional key-and-lock systems.

Smart access control:

  • Prevents unauthorized access to areas and equipment.

  • Allows access for emergency responders like firefighters, police, and paramedics, as well as emergency maintenance workers like plumbers and electricians.

  • Gives you insights and tools for accountability with event logs that help mediate disputes, solve crimes, and resolve other onsite issues.

  • Capture more revenue, since you can upcharge residents for access to premium amenities like saunas, business centers, and event spaces.

What are the components of an access control system?

When your staff or residents move through your communities they see just a small part of the system: the credential, the reader, the door. But there’s also an electric strike and a control panel, plus a request-to-exit device—since requiring a credential to leave an area may go against safety codes. Not to mention the effort that goes into planning your system, like accounting for all access points and optional components like cameras.

Here are all the pieces that go into a comprehensive access control system.

Access points

An access point is any entrance or exit in your community. Access points include entrances to your property, like a front gate or garage door, and entrances and exits within your community, like the doors for each building, your leasing office, and the pool area.

When creating your access control system, take note of any entrance where you’ll want to restrict access. You might want to restrict access:

  • for some people

  • at set times

  • under certain circumstances


Credentials are the way you, your staff, and your residents prove they’re authorized to access an area of your community. There are four kinds of credentials: physical tokens, knowledge-based authentication, biometrics, and authority-based authentication.

Physical tokens

Physical tokens use something you carry with you to unlock doors and gates. These include:

  • Keys: Traditional physical keys.

  • Key cards: Plastic cards the size of a credit card that you slide or tap on a reader.

  • Fobs: A small chip, usually designed to attach to a keychain, that you place near a reader.

  • Smartphone: Using an app, you send a signal to the reader when you approach a door.

  • QR code: A code that, when scanned with the camera app on your phone, takes you to a website to gain permission to enter.

Knowledge-based authentication (KBA)

Knowledge-based authentication relies on something you know to prove you have permission to access an area. Examples include:

  • PIN code: You punch a set of numbers into a keypad.

  • Password: You type in a sequence of letters, numbers, and/or symbols to gain access.

  • Security questions: You answer a predetermined question that no one else knows the answer to.

  • Last 4 of SSN: You enter this (nearly) unique number.


Biometrics uses something you are to prove your identity and gain access. These kinds of credentials are rare in multifamily communities but could become more popular as the industry embraces more access control technologies. Biometric examples include:

  • Fingerprint: You place your finger, thumb, or entire palm onto a sensor.

  • Retinal or iris scan: A camera scans your eyes, parts of which are completely unique to you.

  • Face ID: A camera matches your face to previously snapped photos or videos.

  • Voice recognition: You speak a specific phrase into a microphone, and the reader matches it to a previous recording.

Authority-based entry

Authority-based entry requires another person to allow you access, either because they know and trust you, or they can look up your credentials. This form of credential is often used when guests or vendors need rare or one-time access. Examples include:

  • Intercom system with door release: You select a resident or staff member from a list and connect to them via a phone call. They choose whether to buzz you in.

  • Video intercom with door release: Same as a regular intercom system, but uses a video call instead of a voice-only call.

  • Security guards: A person is posted at an entry point and confirms the identity or credentials of each person who enters.

Access control hardware

A comprehensive access control system includes multiple devices. The exact mix will be unique to your community’s needs, but you’ll likely have readers or keypads, locks, and automatic exit devices.

Credential readers and keypads

Readers and cards are the devices people use to scan their credentials and gain access. Keypads allow the user to enter a code, password, or other knowledge-based credential. Readers allow people to use physical tokens to gain access.

Types of readers:

  • RFID: Short for radio frequency identification, RFID can read a key fob, key card, or parking garage sticker.

  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth reads credentials from your mobile phone

  • NFC: Short for near-field communications, NFC leverages the same technology as Apple Pay and Google Pay to send credentials from your phone to a reader.

  • Biometric: These readers vary in appearance depending on whether they’re reading faces, fingerprints, or other identifiers


Some readers are also locks, but most often these will be separate devices in your access control system.

Types of locks:

  • Maglocks: Use magnetic force to hold a door closed or release it.

  • Electric strikes: Use electrical force to lock or release a door. Depending on the type of lock, a door might remain locked or unlocked if your community loses power.

  • Automatic exit devices: Allow people to leave an area of your community from the inside. These devices include crash bars, motion sensors, and request-to-exit interfaces.

Control panel

Behind the scenes of your access control system, you’ll need a control panel (also known as a controller), which should be locked away where only a few authorized people can get to it. A control panel has three functions: networking, power, and permissions.

  1. Networking: Connecting all your system’s devices—like locks, readers and safety lights—so they can communicate.

  2. Power: If your access control has wired hardware, it might come from your control panel.

  3. Permissions: The control panel is responsible for confirming a credential and telling the door to unlock.

There are two strategies for placing control panels: You can have a single central panel that controls everything, or you can have multiple edge controllers throughout your community. If you choose a central panel, you may have to run more wires. If you choose edge panels, you’ll need multiple secure locations to house them.


Whichever control panel placement you choose, there’s one last consideration: how your staff will interact with the system.

They’ll need to interact with your control panel to create and assign new credentials, grant or revoke access, and program rules into the system—like automatically locking the leasing office after hours. This interface can be located at the panel itself. Or it might be a cloud-based system that gives your team control from anywhere they have a cell signal.

Optional components

Depending on your needs, you might add some extras to your access control system to increase security and safety.

  • Surveillance cameras: When placed at entry points, these allow you to see who used a credential, in case there’s ever a security incident.

  • Monitoring system: Allows you to actively ensure only authorized people enter your community. You might have guards who monitor surveillance footage or a system that alerts you when a door has been left open.

  • Access lights or speakers: Illuminate entry points or sound alarms in an emergency.

Benefits of smart access control

If you’re considering smart access control, you’re ahead of the curve. Investing in this technology now can help you stay ahead of the competition in ways that benefit you, your site teams, and your residents.

Here are some of the perks of switching to a smart access control system in your multifamily communities.

For owner/operators

Smart access control might seem like a luxury amenity for residents, but it’s so much more. By investing in smart access control, community owners can boost revenue, save money, and lay the groundwork for future technology upgrades.

Owners and operators love smart access control because it helps them:

  • Monetize more amenities: When access control is simplified and automated, it’s easier and less expensive to turn premium amenities like saunas and business centers into income generators.

  • Save on keys: No need to budget for cutting keys, replacing locks, and tracking down lost or stolen keys.

  • Boost NOI: Smart access control increases efficiency among your leasing agents, office staff, and maintenance technicians—which means lower staffing costs and higher productivity.

  • Raise rents: Most renters are willing to pay more each month for smart locks, video intercoms, and the ability to create temporary PIN codes for guests.

  • Connect with other technologies: Smart access control paves the way for improving your communities with additional technology. One prime example: Keyless entry allows you to provide better self-guided tours, even after hours.

For site teams

For site teams, there never seems to be enough hours in the day—especially when the day is filled with interruptions. Smart access control minimizes many of these interruptions while allowing for improved move-ins and move-outs, sales, and other important activities.

Here’s what site teams love about smart access control:

  • Fewer interruptions: Vendors, guests, delivery personnel, and forgetful residents don’t need to bug office staff for keys.

  • Less key management: Say goodbye to manual access logs and walls of key rings. It’s all handled digitally, where nothing falls through the cracks and every event is automatically logged.

  • Easier move-ins and move-outs: When paired with a PMS, your access control software can automatically activate new resident credentials on move-in and deactivate them on move-out.

  • Efficient movement throughout the community: When your team’s work takes them to common areas across the property, the trip is faster because they don’t have to grab keys first.

  • Easier sales to quality tenants: Affluent renters are willing to pay more for secure, tech-forward amenities, and smart access control accomplishes both.

For residents

To attract and retain quality renters, resident satisfaction is critical. Smart access control can add convenience, peace of mind, and greater control—all benefits that improve the resident experience.

Here’s what residents love most about smart access control:

  • No carrying keys: Residents can move around the property without keys. This is especially convenient at the pool and laundry, where carrying keys is a hassle.

  • No losing keys: Residents avoid that panic moment when they can’t find their keys and hurry to the leasing office for help—only to realize it’s closed for the day.

  • More control over who gets in: Using an app on their smartphones, residents can set up recurring access (like for a dog walker) or one-time access (like for their DoorDash delivery) anywhere, anytime.

Is smart access control right for your community?

Over time, smart access control can pay huge dividends, but it likely requires a substantial upfront investment—in both time and money. You’ll need to carefully plan your system. Hardware is more expensive, and you may need to run wires or pay for regular monitoring software. Convincing your staff and residents that the benefits outweigh the learning curve can be a challenge, too.

Luckily, SmartRent is here to help. Our experts can help you design the best system for your community. We install everything and provide plenty of training materials for staff and residents. And we keep you up and running with 24/7 customer service.

If you have questions about your access control options, contact SmartRent. We’ll help you make your community Next-Level Smart™.