The past 12 months have been like no other and now that it (finally) feels as though there may be some light at the end of the long Covid-19 shaped tunnel, it seems like the right time to reflect on what impact it’s had on the PRS industry. The Sigma team explore how managing neighbourhoods – large portfolios of properties – has changed in the last year and what lessons have been learnt along the way.
Landlord and Customer Relationships
Rob Sumner, Residential Investment Director at Sigma Capital, said: “It would be remiss of pretty much any industry to have gone through this global pandemic and not learned any lessons.”
“We’ve always worked hard at making sure our customers feel valued and that we have solid relationships with them. Taking on board the events of the past year, this has never been more important. In our market research report, launched in 2020, we found that one of the barriers to renting was that renters could feel like a burden to their landlords and that the relationship was one-sided.
“This year, we’ve certainly responded to that and showcased how a corporate landlord like ourselves can offer a high level of security and flexibility. When Covid-19 hit, we spoke to our residents and told them if they were financially affected by the pandemic, we would try to help them, to give them some respite and so we deferred rents for a number of our customers and created payment structures for after they got back on their feet, and we are happy to say that the feedback on this has been excellent. We had just over 80 customers who took us up on taking out a payment plan, deferring around £80,000 in payments, and the vast majority of these have now been settled. This cements our brilliant relationships with our customers and highlights the mutually beneficial connection we have; ultimately, we want to keep customers in their homes, even if that means doing what we can to support them through temporary crises.
“We believe that the events of the past year have provided more meaning and understanding of what a corporate landlord is and helped to highlight the benefits to the customer too, which is a positive for both parties. We are always transparent with our communications, something that we know is important to our residents and we found it was particularly important during the pandemic as situations could change on a daily basis.”
Luke Lightfoot, Director of Regional Asset Management at Sigma, explains: “The pandemic has compelled us to find new and innovative ways to use technology and some of these will certainly be here to stay.
“Interim property inspections (or what we call property health checks) are the norm when renting and they were another point raised by renters across the UK in our industry market research. Some participants said they felt like the number of inspections forced upon them felt like an invasion of privacy. We invoke trust in our customers and wanted to decrease disruption and potential nervousness around having a property health checks conducted by a member of staff due to Covid-19 and social distancing measures which is why we introduced virtual property checks.
“We’re trialling virtual property heath checks, which are carried out by residents themselves if they feel comfortable doing so. This helps to make our residents feel safe and empowered and depending on how our trials work out, virtual health checks could be a long-term solution for interim inspections. The added bonus to this is that our team are traveling less and therefore having a positive impact on the environment.”
Vicky Hurcomb, Head of Marketing, said: “We’ve also found that our virtual open days carried out on Facebook Live have been a real hit. We’ve had huge levels of engagement on these open days which have allowed potential new residents to take part in live Q&A sessions with us – and we were even joined by some of our existing residents for these.
“New customers are therefore not just hearing from us as a brand, but from those already living in our communities and we think that’s really valuable. This means the customer can get a real flavour of our homes and what we are about without having to travel. This is also a benefit to us as we can funnel interest more easily.”
Vicky Hurcomb, Head of Marketing, continues: “Those who know the brand well will already know how much community is at the heart of everything we do and with various lockdowns in the past year, community has been more valuable than ever. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of community and as a society, we’ve almost taken a step back in time,to a period where we would chat to a neighbour in the street or over the garden fence. Fostering these functional neighbourhoods is a win win; our residents are happy and therefore stay in their homes for longer which is obviously excellent for us.
“We’ve found that these communities have shifted online which has meant some truly authentic virtual communities have been formed and it’s been brilliant to see. There’s been lots of chats on social media comparing homes and décor and resident relations seems to be even stronger than ever. Virtual workout classes and workshops have become the norm over the past year which is why we’ve reinforced our wellness activities with customers, helping them where possible to stay healthy in body and in mind and this is something that’s certainly here to stay.
“Of course, community doesn’t end within our new neighbourhoods, we’ve continued to invest in the wider community too, in donating money to schools and foodbanks in the vicinity of our developments.”
Rob wraps up the discussion: “Renting has very much evolved into a lifestyle choice and the pandemic has definitely reinforced this. Buying property can be high risk and unpredictable, and more than ever people’s lives have shifted to valuing experiences over belongings – let’s face it many of us can’t wait to eat out with friends or go on holiday again. Demand on our sites has been high; at the end of 2020 we had just 2% of our portfolio available out of a total of 3,163 completed units. We have been able to eradicate the single biggest concern for customers in the rental sector which is security of tenure – we aren’t going to sell your property from under your feet. This has therefore made renting a real alternative to owning a home.
“The marketplace continues to mature and we’re ready to ride that wave, taking away a new way of thinking and combining this with our expert knowledge honed from many years of providing high quality Build to Rent homes.”