Modular apartment building rises in 19 days

All the pieces of The Stack, the appropriately-named, 28-unit, six-story apartment building in the Inwood section of Manhattan, have been assembled. “It almost makes your head spin.”

The Stack

Nineteen days. That is all the time it took to put up a 28-unit, six-story apartment building in the Inwood section of Manhattan this summer. The secret? Modular construction.

Working Monday through Friday from June 20 to July 18, a crew of just eight iron workers, a crane operator, and half-a-dozen helpers installed the 56 modules that make up the apartment building at 4857 Broadway. In a bow to the property’s innovative construction technique, the building is to be known as The Stack. It was created by a partnership of developer/builder Jeffrey M. Brown Associates and Gluck+ architects.

“We’re now done stacking,” said Peter Gluck, principal at Gluck+. “Building any building is a nightmare, but this was not a nightmare. Given that this is the first one we’ve ever done, this went amazingly smoothly.”


Part of modular construction’s appeal of is that by building in a factory, the modules—as well as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and others building them—are protected from the elements, which helps ensure quality control and quicker construction. And when it comes time to put the pieces together, a building can blossom in just a few weeks.

“It almost makes your head spin,” said Jeffrey Brown the CEO of the property’s eponymous developer. There is also the benefit of price, which Mr. Brown estimates as 15% less than conventional construction.

In the case of The Stack, it only took a few months to prepare the site and lay the foundations, and all the while crews were busy building the modules at a factory in Pennsylvania.

As Crain’s recently reported, modular construction is catching on in a big way in New York, and this is one of more than 17 modular projects underway in the city.

All that remains to be done on Upper Broadway is “zipping up” the development: connecting the pipes and ducts, building the elevator—the shaft for which was contained in one set of modules—and attaching the façade.

“Door bells, lights, switches, bathrooms, tiles, kitchens, everything’s in there already,” Mr. Gluck said. “Even the first coat of paint.”

Mr. Gluck could barely contain his excitement for the project, though he did note that modular construction has its limits. “It’s not a panacea,” he said. “For the right job on the right site, it can be a game changer, but it’s not going to work on every application.” In other words, conventional construction will hang around for some time.

Still, both partners said they look forward to undertaking more modular work. Mr. Brown said he’s already scouted a number of sites in the city, including some that, like 4857 Broadway, are irregular and conventional construction is more difficult. Projects like those make modular that much more appealing.

“We’ve already invested a lot in this … it would make sense to repeat it and take our lessons on the road,” Mr. Brown said. “I think this approach is in its infancy. For the right application, we have a long way to go.”

Turning Distressed Property Around

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Under the best of circumstances, being a property managercan be a stressful career choice. Throw a distressed property in a high-crime area into your portfolio, and that stress level can increase tremendously. While it won’t be easy, turning a crime-ridden property into a safe haven for grateful tenants and a money maker for your portfolio can be done. Here are some suggestions to begin the transformation:

  • Put the criminals on notice. This means making it clear that lease violations and criminal activity will not be tolerated. Be prepared to follow up violation notices with evictions, when and if necessary.
  • Patrol the buildings and parking lot on a consistent basis. Remove any graffiti or other defacements promptly, and establish a relationship with an area towing company to patrol the parking lots and remove abandoned or unauthorized vehicles immediately.
  • Consider assigning parking spaces to your tenants and providing them with parking stickers. This will make it easier to spot vehicles that do not belong in the lot.
  • Upgrade property access options. Consider installing security gates and make sure that they are in good working condition. Using visitor check-in options or security guard houses can also help to decrease crime rates; as long as they are manned by qualified personnel.
  • Inspect all property lighting. Replace burnt out lighting and install lighting in previously unlit areas.
  • Post No Loitering signs in conspicuous areas and make sure that you have adequate personnel to enforce them.
  • Do an inventory of all units. In particular, check doors, windows, and sliding glass doors for any security breaches. Upgrade all door locks to include a deadbolt, replace broken or cracked windows, and make sure that sliding glass doors are securely on their track and not able to be breached.
  • Install an alarm system and instruct tenants in how and when to use it.
  • Enlist the help of your tenants. Community residents are one of your biggest assets. The majority of tenants in any community are law-abiding citizens that want a safe environment for themselves and their families. Organizing and empowering tenant patrols that can monitor and report suspicious activity can reduce their frustration while giving criminals notice that they are being watched.
  • Organize regular meetings with local law enforcement to help build trust.

While it will not be easy, in time, you’ll find your problem property has become a safe, crime free home for your tenants and perfect example of what hard work and community involvement can accomplish.

Safety Hazards for Kids

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With the housing market still struggling to return to pre-2008, the rental market has seen significant increases in the number of people renting homes versus trying to buy again. Perhaps they were burnt by the drop in housing prices, perhaps they lost a home during the downturn. Whatever the reason, the rental market is strong and the forecast is for it to remain so. One of the changes that the rental market has experienced is the increasing number of families that are renting. While families have always been active renters for single family homes, the number of families renting in multi-family apartment properties continues to increase as well.

While property managers are happy to rent to this demographic, renting to families with small children creates some potential liability issues that property managers need to address. Here are some things that you may want consider:

  • Put together a safety pamphlet for parents or guardians of small children that highlight some of the dangers that small children may face and how to prevent them.
  • Be certain that the property swimming pool and hot tub is locked and completely inaccessible to small children. Swimming pool accidents are one of the leading causes of death of small children in the summer months, and keeping the property pool and hot tub area securely locked at all times will prevent tragic accidents and possible liability.
  • If you have a property that rents to a lot of families with small children, you may want to consider putting up warning signs throughout the property. Small children often cannot be seen by drivers backing up, so precautionary signs may make them slow down enough to notice a stray child.
  • While holes in fences, exposed wiring, or downed tree limbs or other landscaping hazards should never be tolerated, they pose an extra hazard to a curious child. Be vigilant about repairs.
  • If you have a playground, it might be helpful to invest in new playground equipment that is heat resistant and provides a soft landing for little bodies. Warning signs about possible playground hazards are also a requirement.

While property managers will happily continue to rent to families with small children, it’s important that property managers are vigilant about eliminating possible threats to small children.  While parents and guardians are ultimately responsible for their child’s safety,it’s best for everyone involved to make your property safe for all of your tenants; even the smallest ones.

What Property Managers Should Not Cut Back On In a Tough Economy

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In my previous article, Ways Property Managers Can Survive a Tough Economy, I discussed some areas where property managers can cut back in order to save some money without compromising the quality of their business.

Here are some areas that you never want to cut back or skimp.

Credit and background checks.
A lot of us have been in this business for a long time, and over time we start to get a feel for people. That’s terrific and using your intuition can certainly be useful, but never decide it’s not necessary to fully screen every tenant. Besides being in direct violation of the Fair Housing Laws, (which state thatall applicants must have the same screening), that well-mannered, well-dressed individual could be hiding something as serious as a felony conviction, or might have just skipped out on last month’s rent. Screen everyone. Always

It’s expensive to operate landscaping equipment and whether you’re paying for gas and maintenance for your own equipment or contracting it out, the outlay for constant, professional landscaping can be significant. But so can the repercussions if you let it go. The appearance of your property is the first thing that potential applicants see; in essence their first impression of you. Make sure your landscaping is neat, and get rid of those weeds! This goes for home rentals as well. Don’t show a property to a tenant until both the inside AND the outside is ready.

Large-item maintenance.
With money tight, it’s tempting to put off repairing or replacing big-ticket items, but delaying maintenance and replacement can cost much more. For instance, if a water heater has been serviced four times in the last year, it can certainly be tempting to ‘fix’ it one more time. But delaying replacement may end up costing even more when the bills come in for replacing the water-damaged carpeting along with replacing that water heater.

Never, ever compromise on safety. Rotted wood balconies, burned out lighting, and exposed wiring all pose serious risk to tenants and visitors. Burned out lighting can attract home invaders, and even random violence in parking lots. Rotting wood is common in outdoor balconies, and must be replaced when the boards become soft. Exposed wiring can be a result of a bad maintenance project or damage. Whatever the reason, be pro-active in finding any potential safety hazards and encourage your tenants to report any safety issues to the office immediately. Taking care of any issues promptly will thwart any potential accidents.

Yet Another 5 Inexpensive Ways to Improve Rental Properties

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Property owners and managers are competing for new residents at an advantageous time. Depending on the area, more people are looking for rental properties now than last year at this time.

One reason is that fewer people can qualify for mortgages. Thus, there are fewer qualified homebuyers.

We are also hearing anecdotally that many areas are still experiencing higher-than-normal vacancy rates.

So to compete effectively and economically, property managers are “turning up their imaginations” to make their properties more desirable. Here are five ideas to consider:

  1. Remove old or tattered window coverings and replace them with inexpensive Venetian-style blinds. Choose neutral colors and models that are easy to replace.
  2. Install portable “odor-eating” air purifiers. If your rental units smell clean, prospective residents will notice. You can also buy some inexpensive plug-in room deodorizers and create the ambiance you think pleases the nose.
  3. Replace the knobs and handles in the kitchen cabinets if possible. Any qualitative touches you can add to your kitchens including sufficient lighting will make your rental feel more like home.
  4. Yes, as we mentioned before, consider putting up a new shower curtain and rod in the bathroom. If you want to go a step further, add a bigger, nicer mirror as well. They are not expensive, and many times, the bigger the mirror, the bigger the bathroom looks.
  5. Make sure the inside of the refrigerator is extra clean and smells great. You can add to the appeal by placing some fresh-baked cookies inside the refrigerator. Offer one to your prospect, and they will remember how kind and thoughtful you were.

Property managers would be wise to leave a lasting impression on everyone who comes to look at a vacant property. One way is to have an attractive, color flyer or brochure with a list of all the advantages of being a resident at the property you manage.

Don’t be afraid to add creative touches. Something as inexpensive as placing a couple of flowering indoor plants on the kitchen counters may brighten the interior and indirectly remind the prospective resident that your property is livable and cozy.

As property managers, we have to be careful when sizing up potential residents. If we also remember to be friendly and courteous, we will brighten their day and leave a positive memory about your property.

Even More Ways to Improve Rental Properties Inexpensively

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Yesterday I received an advertisement from a rental car company. It simply stated, “The next time you need a rental car call us and receive a free upgrade”, and they meant it.

The word “free” strikes a positive chord for us all. So if I’m a couple looking for an apartment or a rental home and I see the word “free”, I’m likely to investigate this offer.

The first way to inexpensively improve your rental property is to offer something free to both existing residents and prospects.

One property manager in our area made arrangements with the local fitness center. He could purchase a 3 month trial membership for his residents at an extremely reduced price, and then give it as a freebie incentive. Everyone came out a winner.

Another inexpensive improvement for your property is to make it more accessible. Offer free bus passes or a $10 gasoline card to those who come to see your property. Call your local mass transit authority and find out about group discounts and special rates for seniors, children, or frequent riders who reside at your property.

Give out free discount cards, bus maps, schedules or other incentives that makes your property feel like the center of your residences’ universe.

Provide adequate parking at your properties, and that each resident has their own assigned space. Install secure bicycle parking racks and offer a free locking system for every resident that chooses to own a bike.

Another great idea is to provide free tax resources for your residents during tax season. One way of doing this is to bring in a tax advisor once a week for your residents.

If you want more senior residents, make your units senior-friendly. Install shower rails, elevated toilet seats, and extra lighting outside and inside. Call the community ride-share or dial-a-ride program and facilitate pickups and drop-offs for your senior residents.

Call your tax advisor and find out what improvements are tax-deductible. Rental property owners may assume that anything they do on their property is a deductible expense. Not so, according to the IRS.

A repair keeps your rental property in good condition and is a deductible expense in the year that you pay for it. Repairs include painting, fixing a broken toilet and replacing a faulty light switch.

Improvements add value to your property and are not deductible when you pay for them. You usually can recover the cost of improvements by depreciating the expense over your property’s life expectancy.

For more ideas on improving rental properties, take a look at the “Repair & Maintenance” section

Making Sure Your Properties Shine On The Outside

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First impression matter as much as ever! Curb appeal still can make a big difference when it comes to attracting quality residents. Don’t believe me? Do what I did and interview rental shoppers. Location and the area of town is one of the “Big 3 Criteria” for prospective residents. Affordability was also one of the 3 biggies. Then I asked prospects, “How important are the exterior looks of the rental property?”

Sure enough more than 80% of the people I polled said, in essence, “If it doesn’t look appealing upon first glance we don’t even stop to look at the rental.”  My anecdotal poll reminds us that most residents want to live in a house or an apartment building that they’re proud of. Owners want residents to “take pride” in the rental properties they own as well.

Since there’s a direct correlation between the number of average vacancies per year and the condition of the rental unit, it literally pays in the long run to have properties that look well-maintained and attractive. After you’ve done the obvious cosmetic improvements like painting, replacing rotting trim and adding touches like window shutters, the way to make your properties look good on the outside is to invest in some low-maintenance but attractive landscaping.

Whether you live in a dry area or not it makes good sense to consider replacing old or sickly shrubs and bushes with some attractive drought-resistant plants. You’ll be surprised at how beautiful they are too. Many drought-resistant, low maintenance plants are colorful, have lush texture and bloom during many seasons of the year. Take a look at this collage of amazing photos which will demonstrate the beautiful diversity among these kinds of plants.

These photos also offer a wide variety of landscaping ideas and designs. They include walkways, patios and even a minimalist approach that utilizes an abundance of ground-cover like wood chips and bark dust. Make sure if you have an office for your property management business or apartment complex that it’s a glowing representation of your maintenance standards and good taste.

Remember that locations that receive a great amount of direct sunlight are prime areas for this landscaping approach.  If the area is blasted with continual sunlight consider a landscape plan that focuses on drought-tolerant perennials. Your local nurseries can give you many ideas on which ones to consider for your region. Emphasize color and how the plants will look when driving or walking by the properties that you’re trying to improve.

If you don’t have the budget for a full-blown landscape upgrade then pick small, highly visible areas of your rental property to adorn.
Make each spot a showcase of good taste that you can’t miss or pass by without sneaking an admiring glance. Corners and places away from walkways and parking areas are perfect for beautification.

Finally, we can’t all be good at everything we do in our professions. Yet we all have family, friends, employees and local experts who can give us ideas and valuable opinions on what we can do to improve the attractiveness of our rental properties.
Ask for ideas and suggestions. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn.