uForis Charlie Matthews COVID Leasing Trends Blog Header

Many factors go into a successful student housing lease-up. But some elements are more important than others, especially in this unprecedented age of social distancing.

“The properties you see that have a strong digital campaign also have good property performance,” says Charlie Matthews, Co-Founder & Principal of CollegeHouse, the developer of the CollegeHouse platform. CollegeHouse delivers real-time market data and analysis in more than 222 markets and also offers real estate listings exclusively for student housing properties.

CollegeHouse recently started a data sharing initiative in early April which they work with each individual company to syndicate property data from their internal databases which allows them to access data points at the floor plan level that no one else is able to do. This information is also contractually obligated to be accurate. With over 400,000+ beds already on board with the effort, CollegeHouse is excited for the growth and warm response from the industry thus far. The agile young startup is able to work with each individual group and facilitate unique requests in a timely manner as every company has their respective needs.

Charlie Matthews recently sat down with uForis’ Founders Dora Cheng and David Li to discuss the growth of the CollegeHouse platform, recent student housing trends, and expectations and predictions for the Fall 2020 leasing season in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dora Cheng: Why did you decide to focus on the Data product?

Charlie: We launched our first product, a listing platform, in early 2018, and then ran that for about 6 to 8 months in about 400 cities across the U.S. But it was cash heavy and low margin.

Through my network and my partners’ networks, we started working on some lease-up marketing, and through that whole process of marketing these new assets, we dipped into understanding our competition.

That allowed us to re-focus and say, “Well, what’s the bigger piece of the pie here?” In the beginning of February 2019, we started building the whole data analysis platform from scratch.

After about 12 to 13 attempts of looking at the product, we brought something with a bunch of Band-aids and duct tape to [the INTERFACE trade show] and everybody loved it. Coming out of INTERFACE, we mobilized a research team, opened an office in Athens, [Georgia], where we house that research team, and began mapping out the entire student housing industry. We had our initial launch of the product in late Fall 2019.

Dora: What are the benefits to your product? What does CollegeHouse offer that property managers and operators can’t otherwise find?

Charlie: Student housing companies need the same detailed information they’re getting from their internal market surveys, so they can see apples to apples. Other products in the marketplace don’t allow that to happen. We created an industry-level market survey with data quality at the forefront.

We cover over 215 markets across the U.S. and we update all the information on an average of every 7-10 days. It’s as detailed as a company’s internal market survey would be, including floor plans, rents, giveaways, concessions, amenities. With properties we have on our syndications, we are able to show other data points that no one else can – floor plan level occupancy and pre-lease.

And it’s delivered in a format that’s visual and exportable. So, if you need to put together a report, you can download an excel or CSV file and leverage your own internal processes to consume the information.

The platform is very user friendly. I can give people demos of the platform, but I can also just give people a trial login to check it out and normally everyone can find everything they are looking for without a walkthrough.

The whole concept of the digital age of real estate is slowly becoming the norm. People are learning that technology can really help you when applied appropriately.

Dora:  If I were a client for the data platform, what would I see?

Charlie: The data platform is very user friendly and built in a way that is flexible so we can work with a multitude of other platforms. It allows you to go industry-level all the way down to the finite details of an individual property. So depending on the user, the value proposition changes as each user leverages information in different ways. If I’m a property manager, I know there are only a certain number of students that can rent within a given market. If your product is built for that core consumer, you’re battling neck-and-neck with the property next to you and all others in the market. You can see detailed information to better operate and position your property and make decisions in a timely manner in addition to what you may be collecting internally.

If you’re a builder, developer, or investor, it allows you to find your new opportunity or help underwrite the opportunities in a very detailed and timely way.

Dora: As far as the rental velocity, what trends are you seeing since the pandemic started?

Charlie: I’d say there was a larger breadth of volume on leads towards the latter half of the 2020 leasing year, as schools came out with information on the on-campus housing and virtual learning situations. The results varied of course by school and market but for the most part, there was a much-needed uptick towards the end of the summer.  I think the ability for the university to just close campus facilities, has pushed students to look more intently at the off-campus market where there are many options and price points to fit each unique renters’ needs. As renewals are underway and new leases are starting, velocity continues to grow and leases are being signed which gives optimism for the coming months.

Dora: It sounds like students were still going out and leasing for 2020. So, they were confident schools will re-open?

Charlie: I think they were doing everything in their power to not be in Mom and Dad’s basement come September, honestly. We had a handful of undergrads working for us this summer, and they all said they don’t have any plans to be living at their parent’s house. The general consensus among the students is, “Get me back to school ASAP.”

I think schools will come back to some sense of normalcy. But there’s going to be some strict social distancing guidelines that will continue I’d imagine. You may see a downtick in occupancy for on-campus housing as schools address outdated facilities and communal living which I think will bode well for the off-campus market.

Dora: What are you seeing in terms of leasing trends right now?

Charlie: Properties are definitely focusing on locking in renewals as they start their new leasing efforts and rates have been adjusted. It’s a market-by-market case on timing though as some markets started this process even earlier than last year.

The pandemic has changed leasing for sure. For companies that were somewhat dependent on their on-campus marketing, that’s been taken out of the equation. It’s really hard for those that did not have virtual tours or the other digital elements they need. But I think that was a shift that was going to happen sooner rather than later, pandemic or not.

Dora: How would you measure the success of a virtual tour when it comes to leasing?

Charlie: I think it’s all-encompassing. I think giving the prospective renter the ability to see everything the property has to offer from their computer or phone, without having to physically be there, only helps the leasing process. They are more informed and more familiar, which also helps the parents co-signing the leases be more comfortable as well. I think a good virtual tour can only help.

As much as we don’t want to say it, a lot of companies are budget-conscious when it comes to marketing. I don’t think that’s anything new. They’re operating on slim margins already.

But if we’re looking at 12 new assets in this market and 8 of them are using virtual tours, you seemingly have to do it, too. I think the value is centered around the sophistication of what they’re doing and giving the prospect the ability to see what the property can offer without having to physically step foot there.

From what I’ve seen, the properties you see that have a strong digital campaign also have good property performance.

It should be a box checked. It gives your marketing team something to show. People are going to take a deeper dive into digital marketing because they can’t just rely on foot traffic, especially at schools that are primarily virtual at this given time. They can’t all just rely on referrals. I think it’ll be interesting to see from a Fall 2020 leasing perspective, what companies do differently this year.

I think being proactive instead of reactive and spending a little bit of extra cash for the digital campaign is can only benefit the property.

Dora: Do you see a difference in the data sets analyzed pre-pandemic or now? Have users changed behavior? Are they using your platform differently?

Charlie: With our product, we’re covering 215 markets in the U.S. A large portion of our client base is operators who are leveraging a second set of eyes for what they are collecting on the ground. Their teams have new challenges from the pandemic so we are able to help provide value to help bridge the gap as they continue to work under these new circumstances.

Dora: You have some exciting new initiatives in the works. Can you share a little about those? What benefits will your users see?

Charlie: One of the things that we are excited about is of course, our data sharing initiative.
Through this effort our clients will gain the assurance that the information they’re getting is correct. Student housing is a transparent industry as it’s one of the reasons the sector has remained resilient for so long. What we want is to be the intermediary in that whole process, to validate the information being shared. Our biggest value-add is centered around timely and accurate information – if we can continue to keep that at the forefront, I think the future will remain bright.