Imagine you’re a leasing agent who just converted a prospect into an applicant with about 5 minutes of work. Or a property owner seeing a 60% boost in in-person tours and a corresponding decrease in vacancies. It feels pretty good from all sides, doesn’t it?
That’s the power of self-guided apartment tours.
Below is everything you need to know about self-guided tours, and how they can transform the way you show apartments and attract applicants.
What are self-guided tours?
A self-guided tour (SGT) is any tour that doesn’t require an on-site staff member to guide prospective renters around your rental apartment or community. Many self-guided tours lean on technology like smart locks, instant ID verification and the prospect’s own cell phone to guide them around your community. The best self-guided tours empower prospects to explore community amenities and units at their convenience, while offering opportunities for leasing agents to add personal touches and streamline post-tour communications.
Investing in self-guided apartment tours, or SGTs, can require some upfront work and a bit of capital. But if you create good ones, they’ll pay off by attracting more prospects, improving occupancy rates and boosting your site team’s efficiency.
What’s the difference between a self-guided tour and a virtual tour?
A self-guided tour is an in-person visit to your community, while a virtual tour is created using video or still photos. Self-guided tours give potential residents the chance to see your community for themselves, helping them feel confident about their decision to apply for a unit.
Virtual tours are a great tool for piquing interest, but they might not show the prospect everything they want to see. They can’t tell how the afternoon sun shines through the living room window or how good the water pressure is.
Virtual tours are best used as a tool to help get prospects on-site, but a self-guided tour can help seal the deal. Not only do prospects get to physically be in the space and get a real feel for your community, but you can also collect contact information when they book a tour.
How exactly does a self-guided tour work?
No two communities are exactly the same, and no two tours are, either. Self-guided tours will vary depending on the technology you use, the way you communicate with prospective residents, and what happens before and after the tour. But there are a few things that all SGTs have in common.
Ideally, prospects are able to book a tour online without any assistance from your team. Most people interested in touring your community on their own will also want to set up the tour without any help or hassle. If your staff has to set up or approve a tour before it takes place, you risk frustrating prospects and bogging down your staff with busy work that could easily be automated.
Most communities offer two ways to book a self-guided tour: by scheduling it ahead of time or dropping-in. Prospects who schedule ahead of time might find your booking tool on your website or via third-party websites like Zillow or ApartmentList. So make sure your booking link is easy to find.
Drop-ins will likely already be at your community or on their way when they decide to book a self-guided tour. So make your tours fast and easy to book from the car using a website that’s designed to be visited from a mobile phone, and add signage with instructions at the main entrances and leasing office of your community.
Since you won’t be qualifying prospects in person, many SGT systems include a qualification process before giving prospects access to the community. There are two main ways to qualify a lead.
ID check. The least intrusive ID checks take photos of a state-issued ID, then compare them to a live photo of the prospect to confirm their identity. This typically happens after the prospect arrives on-site to ensure the person who booked the appointment is the same person standing outside your gate.
Credit card. The other way to qualify a lead requires a credit card, which can be a turnoff for some prospects. Often, you’ll have to charge a small amount to the credit card to use it, which essentially makes the prospect pay to take the tour. And paying for an apartment tour — even a single dollar — can seem unfair to an apartment hunter. The benefit, for you, is that you’ll have the prospect’s credit card on file to safeguard against damages to your property. But there’s no way to know if the person who books the tour is actually the person who takes it.
Self-guided tours officially begin when the prospect gains access to your community. You’ll need to provide access to the individual unit(s) the prospect wants to tour, as well as any access-controlled spaces like fitness centers, pool areas and the main gate.
The simplest way to streamline access for SGTs is to use smart locks throughout your property. However, many site teams get by just fine with smart locks only in shared areas and tourable units.
Some communities use lockboxes that contain all the necessary keys a prospect needs to move about. There’s the classic lockbox that you can hang next to the lock itself, and then there are smart lockboxes that prospects can open using their own smartphone or an interface at your property.
Once a prospect gains access to your property, they’ll need to navigate to the unit and any amenities you want to show off. Most self-guided tours have a map on the tour app or website. The best SGTs track the location of the prospect’s phone and deliver tour narration or helpful content when appropriate. It’s like having one of your staff share points of interest, which can feel very personal and helpful.
The low-tech solution here is to set out maps, arrows and other physical signage around your property. This is an inexpensive option, but it requires maintenance and upkeep from your staff.
After a prospect tours your community and returns any keys or key fobs, your team can follow up with them. You might send them a survey to find out what they liked or disliked about the tour, giving your staff the opportunity to address any concerns in follow-up communications. You can also prompt the prospect to fill out an application or reach out to your team with additional questions. If the prospect doesn’t take action, you can follow up with them using the contact information they provided when they booked the tour.
The apps, technology and hardware behind self-guided tours
While it’s possible to implement low-tech self-guided tours, doing so risks making a poor impression with prospective tenants who are accustomed to smart technology in their daily lives. Generally, you’ll need a few key elements to offer a quality self-guided tour while maximizing your site team’s time.
According to a 2021 Pew Research study — the latest of its kind — 85% of Americans have smartphones. To leverage this common tech for your self-guided tours, you’ll need a website or an app that’s designed to be viewed with a smartphone. Whichever route you go, the solution should include tools for scheduling, ID verification, access control, wayfinding, tour narration and follow-up. You can build a solution by combining multiple tools, but most proptech providers have an all-in-one solution to make this easier.
Additional features you should consider are live chat or a chatbot, the ability to white-label the website with your own branding and colors, and full integration with your CRM and PMS.
Smart locks eliminate the need for prospects to carry around physical keys — and the need for your site team to manage them. Leasing professionals won’t waste time wrangling and organizing physical keys in between tours, and you won’t risk losing keys when prospects accidentally walk away with them.
There are two types of keyless smart locks:
Numeric smart locks allow the prospect to type in a unique access code. This helps you confirm that the prospect actually showed up for their tour so you can follow up with them later. Typically, they receive this code as soon as they confirm their ID outside your community.
Bluetooth smart locks don’t use codes. Instead, prospects use their smartphone’s Bluetooth to connect to the lock and confirm digital credentials. Some Bluetooth locks also have a numeric keypad, allowing for access by either method.
Lock boxes are a good choice for communities that don’t have smart locks installed throughout their property. A classic lock box holds one set of keys, and every prospect unlocks it by entering the same code. You can hang these lockboxes at units, on gates and near amenities.
You can also combine key access with your mail package system. Your team will leave keys in small lock boxes in your mail room, and prospects can access them via a keypad or smart hub. When the prospect leaves, they’ll replace the keys and close the lock box so the next person can access them.
If you’re looking to transition to self-guided tours without a large up-front investment, lock boxes can be the answer — or at least a temporary solution. However, your site teams will still need to keep track of physical keys on the property, which could limit your options for after-hours tours and decrease overall efficiency.
Most site teams appreciate the ability to monitor a tour without looking over a prospect’s shoulder or secretly trailing them around the property like a CIA agent. In most cases we recommend installing motion and contact sensors inside your tourable units instead of cameras.
Motion sensors sense movement within a unit. Having just one in an apartment alerts your staff when there’s someone in the unit. Having multiple sensors can help you understand how prospects move through a unit and where they spend the most time.
Contact sensors are installed on doors or windows in the unit. They tell your team when the prospect enters and leaves the unit. They can also alert your team if a door or window is left open so you can secure the unit manually if necessary.
Cameras are used by some communities instead of (or in addition to) sensors, but we recommend using them sparingly, if at all. Being on camera can make prospects feel like you’re watching over their shoulder, which might make them more timid about opening all the closets or lingering in the space to fully imagine living there. If you must use cameras, limit them to entrances and shared spaces.
Unlike smart locks, sensors and cameras are relatively easy to install and move between units. You could purchase one or a few sets of sensors, and move them between vacant units as necessary if you want to limit your upfront costs (and have the maintenance support to do it).
The Benefits of Self-Guided Apartment Tour Tech
Self-guided tours can be a game-changing investment for multifamily communities. Prospects appreciate their convenience, site teams appreciate the ability to focus on other tasks, and owner/operators love the impact to their NOI. But what, specifically, are the benefits of implementing SGTs at your community?
Why prospective residents prefer self-guided tours
Renters love self-guided tours for 4 reasons:
1. SGTs are flexible and convenient
Modern renters don’t want to alter their routine to make it to your leasing hours. They want to tour apartments on nights and weekends — the times when many site teams minimize coverage or close up completely.
If a prospect has to take time off work to tour your community, it doesn’t endear you to them. With self-guided tours, prospects can schedule tours on their own timeline or even on a whim if they happen to be driving past your leasing office after work.
2. SGTs deliver a better picture for your community
While your leasing agents might be friendly and knowledgeable, a tour guided by them can feel awkward for some apartment hunters. Many feel timid about fully exploring a unit or your community with someone looking over their shoulder.
Self-guided tours allow prospective residents to tour your community at their own pace, taking extra time to explore the details and amenities that are important to them while skipping the stuff that doesn’t factor into their decision-making process.
3. SGTs are low pressure
Another hangup for prospects is the potential for a high-pressure sales situation. No one likes to buy anything with a salesperson persistently asking them if they have questions or whether they’re interested in financing. That sort of sales dynamic is even less appealing when it comes to big decisions like housing.
Leasing teams often feel like they need to convert every prospect to an applicant before they leave the property. But according to Zillow (https://www.zillow.com/research/renters-consumer-housing-trends-report-2022-31265/), 71% of prospective renters take up to four in-person tours before choosing a place to live. If they have to fight off a leasing agent at every tour, they’re going to dread the next one — which might be yours.
4. SGTs can be no-contact
During the pandemic we all became painfully aware of just how often we come into contact with germs when we interact with others. While the pandemic is officially over, those memories haven’t faded. Even prospects who aren’t immunocompromised can be concerned about how easily germs can spread. Self-guided tours remove the stress of being in an enclosed space with a stranger.
Why site teams prefer self-guided tours
Before the pandemic, self-guided site tours were understandably rare. SGTs presented fewer opportunities to build personal connections while still requiring leasing agents to be onsite to hand out keys or monitor tours. It was the worst of both worlds.
But self-guided tours are more common and much easier to implement these days. Thanks to advances in prop tech like smart locks, smart apartment hubs, sensors and better integrations with tools you already use, SGTs benefit site teams just as much as renters.
1. SGTs increase efficiency
A property manager’s day is full of interruptions. Most site teams answer calls, handle packages, respond to resident questions, field maintenance requests and manage payments. And that’s all for just current residents. Stopping multiple times throughout the day to show a prospective resident around the property or even just unlock a unit pulls your staff away from their core responsibilities.
Offering self-guided tours can take work off your site team’s plate. Instead of waiting for a prospect to arrive a leasing agent can get an alert at their desk when a tour begins. They can get additional alerts when the prospect enters and leaves the unit — and know within seconds whether the door was closed tightly or accidentally left ajar.
A good SGT system automates nearly every part of the leasing process, leaving your staff free to focus on more personal touchpoints like answering uncommon questions or qualifying applications.
2. SGTs improve occupancy rates
Filling vacant units is, to some extent, a numbers game. The more tours you give, the better your chances of getting a quality resident into a unit. But there are only so many guided tours an agent can give in a day, and predicting how long each tour will take is nearly impossible.
With self-guided tours, you don’t have to wait for a free hour to conduct a tour. You can book tours after your leasing office closes for the day or before your team arrives in the morning. With the right technology, like smart locks and sensors, you can even run multiple tours at once. That means getting more prospects on-site — and more applications in your inbox.
3. SGTs deliver quicker conversion
When apartment hunters have to wait until the weekend or change their schedule to accommodate your leasing hours, it extends their shopping timeline. Instead of finding a great place to live in a matter of days, it can take weeks or months.
If you offer more flexible touring hours than nearby communities, you can get prospects in the door sooner while showing off your ability to cater to residents’ needs. That leads to quicker conversions.
4. SGTs improve marketing ROI
When you let people book tours online, track their location as they move throughout your community and digitize much of your follow-up protocol, it’s much easier to follow individual prospects through every touchpoint. It’s also easier to know which part of your funnel to credit when a prospect converts, allowing you to maximize your marketing dollars. And if you can integrate your self-guided tour solution with your CRM or PMS, that attribution gets even easier.
Attribution is the key to knowing which of your efforts are most effective. Leaning into what works and minimizing what doesn’t is critical for increasing your ROI.
Why owners prefer self-guided tours
More and more renters are looking for tech-driven leasing experiences. Communities that offer them will be more competitive than those that don’t. According to a 2022 Zillow report , 36% of renters signed a lease electronically in 2022, up from just 21% in 2018. A similar tech-forward trend is sweeping existing residents. More than half (56%) of residents surveyed paid rent online, up from 36% in 2018. Even more telling, 68% would pay online if only their communities offered the option.
Community owners and operators who don’t keep up with this trend toward tech in all aspects of their business will be left behind. Offering self-guided tours helps show off your tech-savvy communities as soon as renters discover them — and helps lower the costs associated with leasing.
1. SGTs make centralization easier
If you own multiple properties, you know that anything you can do to scale your operations is better for your bottom line. To scale efficiently you need to share centralized resources across as many properties as possible. But when on-site staff are needed for in-person tours, your ability to centralize is limited.
SGTs help by creating digitized — and often completely automated — systems for your leasing funnel. With the right tools and tech you can handle self-guided tours from across town or even across the globe. A single leasing team can work with multiple site teams to set up, maintain and follow up after a self-guided tour.
2. SGTs appeal to affluent renters
In a Yahoo! Finance article , Qualcomm IoT (Internet of Things) marketer Winnie Bekmanis noted that affluent households are more likely to be early adopters of technologies like smart home tech. More affluent renters want smart apartments.
If you want to attract these prospects, you need to prove you’re as passionate about technology as they are. Self-guided tours are the best way to show just how tech-savvy your communities can be.
3. SGTs improve NOI
Whether you’re looking to sell some of your portfolio, attract funding or build investor confidence, optimizing your net operating income (NOI) is critical. SGTs can help by improving both sides of the NOI equation: raising your revenue and lowering operating costs.
SGTs help fill vacancies faster and boost occupancy rates, so they tend to increase revenue after an upfront investment of time and technology. One SmartRent customer saw a 104.3% return (https://smartrent.com/case-studies/ivey-homes/) on their investment in self-guided tours.
SGTs can also free up time for your site teams and leasing team while eliminating the need for even light staffing during off hours. In this way, they keep operating costs low and even eliminate a few expenses for some portfolios.
Are self-guided apartment tours right for my community?
Self-guided tours are a critical part of the leasing process for any tech-forward community. They can deliver a great prospect experience, save your site teams time and improve your NOI. But choosing the right SGT solution means exploring the types of tech you’ll need — like smart locks, a tour website with great content, and integration with your CRM.
Carefully weigh the upfront investment of time and money given your current equipment and systems, and get input from your leasing and site teams early. Consider whether installing community-wide smart locks is a good first step, or if purchasing a single-unit SGT kit makes more sense. And don’t forget to factor in the benefits of your new system for current residents, who will also enjoy smart locks and any after-hours self-help options you create.
If you have questions about your self-guided tour options, contact Smart Rent. We can help you add our Self-Guided Tour product to your current SmartRent solutions or help you build your tours from the ground up.
Contact the SmartRent sales team to see a demo.