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Move-In Season: How Student Housing Owners Manage The Onslaught Every August

When college students come back to campus for the fall, they are focused on reconnecting with friends, stocking up on school supplies and learning their class schedules. But for landlords, the days leading up to the start of the semester are a hectic whirlwind as they undertake the herculean task of preparing a large apartment building for a surge of simultaneous move-ins. 

Varsity College Park
College Park, Maryland's 258-unit The Varsity student housing building, owned and managed by American Campus Communities

In a typical multifamily building, property managers gradually move tenants in and out throughout the year, refurbishing units as they become available. But for student housing owners, that year's worth of work is packed into just one or two weeks. That may sound like an impossible workload to manage, but they have gotten it down to a science. 

American Campus Communities, the nation's largest student housing REIT with nearly 200 properties owned or managed, typically creates a two-week gap between the end of one lease and the start of another. 

During that period, referred to as "the turn," the building manager brings in employees and vendors to replace carpets, patch walls and repair any other damage to make units look new again.

"This is our most intense time of the year when all of our properties are turning," ACC Senior Vice President Jason Wills said. "In the corporate office, we actually have everyone from secretaries to executives fly to various properties to help with the turn. In our culture, it's a pretty important thing."  

The building managers prepare agreements with local contractors months in advance to help with the turn. In some college towns where ACC has multibuilding projects, Wills said, the company runs out of contractors to hire. 

"We actually consume the entire labor pool," he said. "There are times when we run out of labor and we have to bring something in from neighboring cities."

EDR turn photos
EdR employees cleaning out a unit at the Retreat at Oxford, a student housing community it manages near the University of Mississippi

The 83 communities student housing REIT EdR owns or manages also have two-week turn periods. On move-out day, typically July 31, EdR managers line up dumpsters and bring in an army of employees with trash bags to scour the building. 

"It's amazing how much stuff students leave in the unit," EdR Chief Operating Officer Christine Richards said. "We start at the top and go down to the bottom and throw out everything that was left behind."

The managers then bring in teams of vendors, from painters to flooring installers to mechanics. Richards said about 30% of student housing residents will typically renew their leases, so some buildings will put up red signs on units that are already fully occupied. Since they lease individual beds rather than full units, some can be partially occupied but still need some refurbishing, adding another challenging wrinkle to the process.

EDR turn photos
One of EdR's outside vendors pulling out carpet from a unit
in its Retreat at Oxford building

Richards said her teams spend months before the turn period planning and making sure everyone knows their assignments. 

"You're trying to refurbish all of these units in a two-week period, so you've got to have a lot of people on-site and be incredibly organized," Richards said. "If there's ever been a turn that hasn't gone as smoothly as you'd like, it's because they weren't as organized as they should have been." 

By the time move-in day comes around, most of the hard work has already been done. Student housing buildings typically come fully furnished, so students are not pulling up U-Hauls full of furniture to the loading dock or hauling couches up the elevator. 

"On move-in day, we're just dealing with cars stocked full of clothes and dishes," Richards said. "Because everything is done so far in advance, with the paperwork all turned in, all they have left to do is show their ID and pick up the key." 

EDR Arizona State Roosevelt Point
The 326-unit Roosevelt Point student housing building EdR built at
Arizona State University in 2013

As soon as students move in, the leasing process for the next school year begins. Just as student housing buildings have more hectic turnover periods than typical multifamily properties, there is similar pressure on the leasing teams.

At some large campuses, students finalize their housing arrangements for the next school year in September or October, while others wait until the spring. If a leasing team misses the wave of housing decisions and starts a school year with major vacancies, it may have to wait another 12 months to fill them, a challenge unique to student buildings.

Because of this pressure, experienced student housing owners devote heavy resources to leasing, start early and make sure the buildings look as good as new from day one. 

"We first start with a robust renewal campaign," Richards said. "Obviously, the first impression is on move-in day. If those students and parents move into an apartment that’s well-kept and what they expect, they’re more likely to renew."

Related Topics: American Campus Communities, EdR