Illustration by Seb Agresti
In the US, build to rent giant Cortland has a top priority for 2023: to retake the number one spot when it comes to online reviews.
Last year the firm, which has 150,000 residents across the US and UK, was ousted from top place on the Reputation.com index, and replaced by rival Bozzuto. Such is the importance of reviews today in not only attracting potential tenants, but to overall reputation, that Cortland is pulling out all the stops to regain its crown.
“Pride is a factor in being number one. To be able to make that claim is so powerful,” says Tim Hermeling, Cortland’s EVP of marketing. “The reason we focus on the online reviews so much is we understand how important it is to prospects when they are planning where they want to live next.”
Looking at the forecasted growth of the BTR sector, which is part of the multifamily market in the US, future competition between operators for tenants will be immense. This means every positive review will count.
The UK's BTR market, still in its infancy, is set to jump fivefold in the next decade. A Savills and British Property Federation analysis of the sector last October stated the number of completed BTR homes could leap from 76,000 today to 380,000 by 2032, with the sector’s value growing from £30bn to £170bn. Cortland broke into the UK market in August 2019 when it bought LIV Group.
Many online platforms such as Google offer reviews, but dedicated property review sites are more commonly used by landlords and developers. These help them guide and develop their brands and respond to residents’ issues.
Reputation.com then analyses the review ratings for each company, assigns a score and produces a ranking every July: Cortland was first crowned number one in 2020.
“We are transparent about what we deliver but there’s nothing better than hearing from your peers about that community and what it is like from online reviews. It becomes a much more credible way for people to learn what a BTR development is like to live in,” says Hermeling.
In the UK, HomeViews.com is the go-to site, which cover 89% of completed UK BTR developments. It currently has 40,000 resident reviews, for 2,500 developments around the UK, with over 2m people visiting annually. Co-founder and CEO Rory Cramer says the idea for the site came from his career in residential development, with eight years as a senior director at CBRE: “There was a lack of transparency in the housing sector from the consumer’s perspective.”
“Whether you’re renting or buying, it’s the biggest financial decision of your life, but there’s more objective content out there to help you make an informed decision when buying a car, TV, or booking a hotel. That is where the foundation for HomeViews came from.”
So important have the review sites become that they are collectively helping to raise industry standards. “In the same way TripAdvisor put the onus on the hospitality sector to improve its service because there’s this level of transparency, we have done the same for housing,” says Cramer.
He adds: “Brands we proactively work with use us like a customer insight tool and they use that information to make sure they are providing the best possible resident experience.
“This is where BTR is really leading the way – [operators] have a long term vested interest in making sure these buildings perform over many years, and they are hungry to understand how to improve the residents’ experience. We are part of that.”
Anna Whitton, head of corporate affairs, at Get Living, which has almost 2,000 units in London and Manchester, says reviews are not only important for attracting tenants, but are also a useful source of feedback and, ‘help us ensure that we’re always delivering the resident experience we should be.’
Every HomeViews review is moderated by staff, with identities and residence verified by systems used by credit card companies. Hermeling says trust is put into the hands of platforms to regulate the many comments.
For operators, greenwashing is pointless, says Matt Smith, CEO of Allsop Letting & Management, which looks after homes nationwide in the UK. “It’s much better to be open and honest when engaging with customer feedback and tackle it head-on,” he says. “That’s why we go for the verified routes.
“We also do a dedicated survey within our buildings every year, which provides us with a greater insight into the customers’ requirements and feelings towards their building.”
Allsop has data on everything, from residents’ attitude towards the environmental footprint and features of the building, to whether they would recommend their landlord.
“It’s about trying to delight your customer,” says Smith. “We can provide excellent levels of service even in what are very challenging economic times, if our residents feel like they’re being listened to and looked after.”
In an increasingly digital world, the strength and importance of internet reviews is only set to grow along with the BTR market: HomeViews is already planning to explore which international markets it will go into this year.
For companies as big as Greystar, which manages just under 800,000 multifamily and student beds globally, it recognises, ‘there is intense competition alongside some very cool innovations, causing congestion and disruption in the market,’ says the company’s Rene Hulls, senior director, customer marketing and insights, for Europe.
Speaking about its UK market, that she describes as ‘nascent and growing’, Hulls says: “Ultimately, as the market matures, differentiation between schemes will be driven by the customer experience, both digitally and in-person. So, less of a focus on the physical attributes of the community, and more of a focus on the lifestyle and customer experience provided by BTR living.
“The review platforms are important in this context, as reviews act as a window into the community for prospective residents.”
Hermeling simply says: “Reviews will become the way in which people will evaluate what community space they will go to.” And being number one will be a goal chased by everyone.