In this article...
The property management profession encompasses many different operations and responsibilities; property managers must manage accounts, accept legal documents and rent, maintain the physical plant, operate within a budget, advertise vacancies, and manage the lease lifecycle. It can be difficult to efficiently manage these responsibilities with manual business tools like spreadsheets, email, or paper. Property management software — sometimes casually referred to as landlord software — automates key processes and brings operations together in a unified system.
Part of the difficulty in selecting the best property management software comes from the sheer diversity of the market. There are solutions available for small and large-scale use in a number of subgenres, including multi-family housing, single-family housing, homeowners associations (HOAs), vacation/short-term rentals, commercial property management, and self-storage facilities. Some solutions even offer more advanced budgeting and forecasting features to manage real estate investment portfolios.
As with any business software vertical, the property management market is home to a handful of free or open-source options. These are usually designed to give private owners, landlords, and growing firms the chance to work efficiently without committing to a monthly subscription rate or heft upfront licensing fee. Most of these are limited to basic rent-collecting features and document management, and free software vendors aren’t known for their longevity or reliable customer support.
Free Property Management Software Vendors:
Free property management software is certainly not the best choice for every use case. If your operations span multiple locations or involve complicated maintenance and billing/invoicing functions, you’ll probably be better served by a paid solution. Thanks to the popularity of cloud platforms and the software-as-a-service pricing model, even smaller firms can afford to pay for a basic property management system.
Although there are considerable product variations depending on vendor, price, and industry vertical, most property management systems address the following areas:
Most property management software gives users built-in accounting capabilities, ranging from basic ledgers for tracking payments received and bills paid to more advanced financial planning and investment management. These features help you track the way money flows through your communities and properties, and can help you design a budget that maximizes profit.
Similar to customer relationship management (CRM) systems, some of the best property management software will allow users create contact entries and store relevant data for tenants, contractors, property owners, and other parties. Usually, these contacts are tied to other system modules, like work order systems or online rent payment, to help you track and control the appropriate aspects of your relationships.
Lease management features help users organize and automate key processes of the tenant lease lifecycle. This may include advertising vacancies, screening applicants, scheduling inspections and viewings, drafting and filing documentation, and managing renewals or move-outs.
Maintenance management helps property managers create work orders in a centralized system and track progress. They also provide communication tools (for contractors and maintenance staff) and the ability to schedule multiple requests within limited time frames. Some property management systems even include an online portal where tenants can directly submit new maintenance requests.
On a more granular level, the common features of property management software typically include a mix of the following:
More sophisticated systems will often include additional features such as investment management and forecasting, after-hours answering services, check printing, and built in renter’s insurance. Not every property manager will have a need for these, but should consider their needs and select a product with the right balance of functionality and affordability.
Some property management solutions fall into the “best-of-breed” category, meaning they specialize in serving a specific aspect of property management, such as online rent collection, computerized maintenance management (CMMS), or marketing and advertising. This is especially true where you find tools billed as landlord software.
While these tools can help landlords and leasing companies perform well in certain areas, they are only valuable insomuch as they integrate with larger workflows. An unseasoned software buyer can often end up using — and paying for — eight or nine different systems to manage one community.
Often, the better strategy is to find a solution that addresses your property management needs from end-to-end. In the industry, these are referred to as “software suites” or “integrated systems.”
Purchasing a software suite, of course, means you’ll need to evaluate any legacy applications. Are you satisfied with their functionality? Will they be duplicated by a new system? Some vendors also offer modular pricing, which means you pay only for what you use and can select and add features as needed. This can be helpful if you want to address multiple operational areas without paying for an enterprise product suite.
No matter your inclination, make sure you read property management software reviews and run a free trial or demo before making a decision.