The role of a professional property manager has always been a balancing act. Emotions can run high, particularly when they are working with tenants frustrated with delays in maintenance and landlords who need a bit more time to get funds to put in that new stove.
But in March this year, the issues faced by property managers changed dramatically when COVID-19 hit.
On a daily basis, they had to work with tenants and landlords – people who were unable to pay their rent, unable to meet mortgage repayments, and struggling to get their basic needs met. While JobKeeper and JobSeeker supplements helped bridge the gap for both parties, not everyone was eligible.
When the government announced that tenants would need to negotiate any rent relief with their landlords, in April, property managers became mediators in difficult situations.
“It’s a delicate balance,” says Independent real estate’s head of property management growth, Grace Hooper. “Landlords are worried about losing their properties, and tenants are worried about finding themselves at the end of the pandemic with debts they can’t pay.
“Our job is to facilitate conversation and really listen to both parties. By focusing on the relationship, we can have more meaningful conversation and hopefully find a solution that everyone can live with.”
Grace says for some tenants, anxiety is so great that they’ve been pushed into a mental health crisis.
“We’ve had tenants reach out and tell us they’re feeling hopeless and really struggling with their mental health,” she says. “We’ve really tried to be a source of information so that we’re offering meaningful help as well as a sympathetic ear. We put together fact sheets with information about resources they can access, including charities and support services such as Lifeline. But it’s a challenge.”
Landlords who are worried about meeting their financial obligations haven’t been left out, either. To assist, Grace says Independent has reached out to financial advisers for help, meaning landlords can get specialist advice on their situation so they can negotiate with tenants and lenders from a place of further knowledge.
“It definitely takes its toll on everyone involved,” she says. “We’ve had to provide a lot of support to our team to help them manage the situation effectively and also to help our property managers deal with their own emotional response to the situation.
“We’re lucky we’re a large agency with an experienced team. While we’ve never dealt with a situation such as this in such magnitude, the team has dealt with tenants and landlords in financial crisis before.”
But it hasn’t only been the increase in crisis management that property managers have had to deal with. A sudden influx of properties available to rent and restrictions on open homes saw Canberra’s vacancy rate increase significantly, putting pressure on property managers to get tenants into properties during a time when social distancing restrictions were upending day-to-day operations of property management agencies.
“When COVID-19 hit, we had to change everything we were doing all at once,” says Grace. “Instead of holding open inspections with anywhere up to 40 people coming through, we could only do one-on-one private appointments. Obviously that was a huge resourcing issue. We needed to double our leasing consultant team almost overnight so we could pre-qualify and pre-approve applicants and then make private appointments. Thankfully we had a large enough team so we could shift people to where they were needed most.”
Grace says there have been some positives for the industry overall.
“COVID-19 has been devastating, of course, but it has also meant we had to adapt quickly to a changing market and changing client expectations,” she says. “The new tools we adopted, such as virtual tours, have been so popular with clients that we’ll use them forever.
“More significantly, we’ve all come together and supported one another. We’ve built relationships with our clients that will endure long into the future.
“Through all this, we have made our most important focus dealing with people, their challenges and the experience we can provide.”
Grace says this focus has paid dividends for Independent, which has achieved a significant number of five-star ratings during the past few months despite the challenges.
“We have been humbled by the way our owners and tenants have responded during a time of great stress for many,” she says. “To be recognised as Canberra’s most five-starred property management team is a great reward for our team and the work they have done.”
For more information about how Independent has managed the COVID-19 crisis, visit its website.
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