How to keep your tenants happy

Here are some tips for small-time landlords who are worried about losing tenants at a time when options for renters are greater than ever. From Multifamily Executive Magazine, these renewal tactics are aimed at professional property managers, but they work for amateurs just as well:

* Start early. Don’t wait for the final month -- or worse, until your tenants contact you. Several months out, contact the tenants to try to determine their intentions. If need be, offer to keep the rent at the same level. And if necessary, offer a holdover discount -- or better yet, a discount if they re-up for more than 12 months.

* Improvements. Offer to repaint or replace the worn-out refrigerator or carpet. You would probably make these fixes anyway after the current tenants leave, so make those repairs now and keep them. More money is lost when a house or apartment is left vacant than is spent by sprucing it up. And besides, the cost is deductible.

“It’s amazing how happy you can make a resident by putting a new refrigerator into a unit,” Mark Fogelman of the Fogelman Management Group in Memphis, Tenn., told the magazine.

Another major landlord visits with tenants a couple of weeks before starting the renewal process, using the meeting to perform non-requested upgrades to lighting and bathroom fixtures.

* Be handy. Make yourself accessible. If tenants get locked out, don’t make them call a locksmith. Run over yourself with your key.

If your tenants need help with cleaning, for example, maybe you can lend them your cleaning company for an hour or two. It’s hard for renters to give up a conscientious landlord and take their chances on an unknown commodity.

* Be secure. If the tenants have been there for a year or more and have always paid on time, there’s probably no reason to keep their security deposit. Give it back, all at once or in installments. Any new place will want a security deposit, so this step alone will put you at least one month ahead of the competition.

Robotic valets in parking garages

Everything else is automated, it seems, so why not parking garages?

Enter Boomerang, a free-roaming system of robotic valets that can move an automobile in any direction, anywhere in the garage. Because there is no rail to restrict the under-the-car robot, parking is being taken to a new direction -- up, down and even around.

Boomerang is a form of automated guided vehicle. AGVs, which increase efficiency and reduce costs, were brought to the market in the 1950s by Barrett Electronics of Northbrook, Ill., to move goods from one place to another in its warehouse.

All kinds of AGVs exist, mostly industrial. The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands employs more than 100.

In the Boomerang application, the driver pulls the car onto the lot and leaves it. A free-roaming robot, traveling on markers or wires embedded in the floor, picks up the car and takes it to a parking space.

Then, when the driver returns, the robot finds the car and brings it back to the spot where it was left. No human needs to touch the car once the driver locks the doors.

All the garage operator has to do is push a button and the car is stored. Push a button again and it is retrieved.

Headquartered in Logan, Utah, Boomerang is the brainchild of Stan Checketts, who built S&S Worldwide Inc. into a leading supplier of amusement-park thrill rides.

Have you been to the Stratosphere hotel-casino in Las Vegas? The Big Shot atop the 1,149-foot tower that shoots you straight up into the sky is a Checketts ride.

The company has created 150 major rides and 180 kiddie rides in 27 countries, including, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, one of the world’s fastest roller coasters, an air-launched missile in Japan that accelerates from zero to 100 miles per hour in less than two seconds and reaches a top speed of 107.

Now Checketts has turned his precision-engineering talents to the self-storage and parking businesses.

The robot can travel in any direction anywhere in the garage. It even can go under one parked car -- or a row of cars -- to reach the vehicle it’s after, and it can rotate the car without the use of a turntable. That way, when the driver gets back into the car, the vehicle is facing out and the driver doesn’t have to back up into the street to pull out.

Apart from the obvious benefit that no one other than the owner gets behind the wheel, the system allows for more cars in less space -- twice as many in the same square footage as a conventional ramp garage.

Labor costs are lower, vandalism is all but eliminated and there are no fender benders. It’s a green application, too -- less carbon emissions from the cars.

Movers offering furniture repair

In what’s being touted as a first for the household-moving business, FlatRate Moving in New York offers its clients an on-call furniture ambulance to take care of those inevitable scratches and dents that come with changing places.

The ambulance -- actually a Mercedes -- is staffed by craftsmen who can make any and all on-site repairs, from mending a scrape in Grandma’s heirloom armoire to reassembling a bed that just doesn’t want to go back together.

Agents willing to cut commissions

Most realty agents and brokers are loath to cut their commissions, especially now when it takes more work than ever to buy and sell houses.

But some 9,000 agents throughout the country have registered with HungryAgents .com, a site that matches buyers and sellers with agents who are ready to take less while still promising to provide the same level of service you would expect if you were paying full boat.

According to HungryAgents’ Michael Gudeman, the site has discount agents “in every major market area.” But the hungriest are in Newark, N.J., where the average commission “bid” last year was 3.75%. That’s not just the selling agent’s share; it’s the whole enchilada. So, if the selling price were $200,000, the fee would be $7,500 versus $12,000 for a conventional 6% tariff, a savings of $4,500.

Rounding out the five lowest bid markets in 2009: Westchester, N.Y., at 3.83%; Fairbanks, Alaska, 4%; Chicago, 4.02%; and Seattle, 4.18%.

On the other side of the deal, hungry agents who represent the buyer also are willing to rebate a portion of their paychecks at closing.

In Dallas and Minneapolis, buyer-agents offered to give back an average of 43% of their commissions last year. In Santa Clara, Calif., Seattle and Indianapolis, the typical discount offered was 42%.

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.