Property managers, whether they work in the commercial/industrial or residential market, have discovered the computer. This is not entirely facetious -- in the old days, a property manager might do just fine with a number of ledger books, an adding machine and a clerical staff to keep the numbers flowing in all the right places. Today, all that has changed.

Today's institutional investors demand more detailed information about their properties than property managers have had to generate in the past. Also, today's owners want information much faster than previously. There is also an increasing emphasis on analysis and projection as opposed to simply presenting historical data.

As a result, the property management industry has turned to the computer -- not merely as a faster adding machine, but as an electronic partner who can juggle endless reams of data, find patterns, draw insightful graphs, provide "what-if" possibilities and generate all the complex reports that the investors need to see -- in the time frame they need to see them.

At least, that's what many among the herd of software vendors crowding the market would like property managers to believe. Property management software has evolved rapidly in recent years from strictly accounting-type functions to fully integrated packages that offer market analysis, lease structuring, contact management, facilities management and more. Add to that the fact that there are now close to 75 different companies that are offering products that claim to be suitable for the property manager, and the situation becomes almost unmanageable.

Nearly every vertical application software segment (such as property management software) goes through its "wild west" phase on the way to maturity. The PC corral becomes packed with offerings, both established and new. Functionality increases, as do size, complexity and the learning curve. At some point, there is a shoot-out (more politely called a shakeout), and a handful of products emerge as market leaders.

That shakeout has not yet occurred for property management software. As a result, the following overview is not an exhaustive listing of every available property management software offering, nor is it intended to be. Choosing a software package (as the accompanying article illustrates) is a long, challenging, often arduous process. The more all-encompassing the package, the more you are essentially entrusting your company to the computer.

Forming a buying decision based solely on the brief information in a survey article such as this would naturally be ill-advised and problematic, at best. Therefore, use this guide as just that -- a guide to types of capabilities currently available.

Actoris Software Corp.

Tenant Pro for Windows. A complete accounting system and information management system for any number of units from single or multiple owners, including apartments, single-family residential, duplexes/triplexes, condominiums, mobile home parks and light commercial. New features include: full built-in word processor, lease generator, digital imaging and MIRC check encoding. Prices range from $395 to $1,995, depending on number of units and network options. For more information: 1701 N. Greenville Ave., Suite 901, Richardson, Texas, 75081, 800-964-2792.

American Computer Software

Management +Plus. Property management software with built-in programmatic links to Great Plains graphical accounting software. Modules include graphical report writer, remote terminal access, retail management and Subsidized Enhancement. Prices range from $3,480 to $19,200 depending on the number of leases entered into the system. Expansion kits are available to increase the capacity of the system. For more information: P.O. Box 6408, Madison, Wis., 53716, 608-221-9449.

AMSI

The POWER OPTION Series[TM]. Residential/commercial system that integrates property management and accounting functions. Targeted at asset managers, financial institutions and REITs. Modules include residential management (PowerSite), commercial management, general ledger, accounts payable, budgeting, executive information system (PowerCentral), MICR check generation (PowerCheck), maintenance/work orders, communications and report writer. Prices range from $4,000 to $20,000. For more information: 9801 Westheimer, Suite 600, Houston, 77042, 800-231-0605.

Argus Business

RE[center dot]View Information Manager, a database product, and RE[center dot]View Online, an online commercial real estate data service. Primarily an inventory and portfolio management tool targeted at leasing agents in the commercial and retail environment. RE[center dot]View Information Manager features include predefined templates, tickler lists for lease expirations, options and escalations, ability to track investor buying criteria and acquisition plans. RE[center dot]View online features online access to NRB Shopping Center Facilities, Tenants and Transactions, UDS demographic data, retailer's expansion plans and national real estate listings. Prices range from $895 to $1,595 for RE[center dot]View Information Manager. RE[center dot]View Online runs $379/year, unlimited access. For more information: 6151 Powers Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, 30339, 800-524-4279.

ASI International

ATTACK [R] Real Estate Management System. Includes modules for portfolio management, real estate management, contact management, inventory management, commercial and residential MLS management, lease facility management and brokerage process management. ATTACK uses the Lotus Notes facility to enable rapid consolidation, organization and analysis of data. Prices start at $9,950 for a five-user suite. For more information: 111 Pine St., Suite 950, San Francisco, 94111, 415-421-8191.

Bishara Computer Systems

Lambs Property Management Software. Client/server software package based on the IBM AS/400. Built around open database, open systems and open access. Features include Leasing Agent's Power-tool and Integrated Long-Range Projections. Fully integrated package that encompasses job cost, accounts payable, general ledger, budgeting and lease accounting. Price depends on system and features. For more information: 8440 Market St., Youngstown, Ohio, 44512, 216-726-0153.

CLR Professional Software

Infosaic EIS (Executive Information System). Home office application that allows property managers to retrieve financial and leasing information from the sites and produce either pre-defined reports available in the software or use Microsoft Access to create custom reports. Ability to interface with other Microsoft productivity tools as well as with supporting software from other vendors, including Great Plains and Blue Moon. For information: P.O. Box 723597, Atlanta, 31139, 800-241-3306.

Colonial Systems Inc.

The Property Management System. Information management, addressing the needs of commercial, industrial, residential and retail property managers and accountants. Modules include property management with tenant accounting, accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, AIA/contract control, batch reporting, cash basis reporting, customer services, equipment distribution, inter-company transfers, inventory, job billing, job costing, office automation, operating expense billing, order entry, payroll with labor distribution, property management, purchasing and tenant services. Prices range from $1,895 to $31,500. For information: 670 Exton Commond, Exton, Pa., 19341, 610-363-0155.

CTI Limited

Single Step Lease Entry System. Front end package that gathers lease information that can later be transferred to the company's CTI Real Estate System. Primarily targeted at commercial/industrial leasing managers. Modules include terms and conditions, proposal letter, broker's agreement, lease cover page, lease copy letter and commencement letter. Uses the Lotus Notes data exchange facility to maintain databases of rental summary, vacancy summary and sales reporting. Prices depend on number of users licensed. For more information: 14135 Midway Road, Suite 230, Dallas, 75244, 214-233-7575.

Execudata

Horizon/2. The package provides both commercial and residential property management capabilities. Modules include commercial/retail property management, residential property management, general ledger, accounts payable, construction job cost and payroll. The system supports both central and remote-site processing and features laser check printing, lock box processing, percentage rent, pass-through billing, prospect tracking and asset management. Price ranges from $4,900 to $38,750. For more information: 6850 Canby Ave., Suite 108, Reseda, Calif., 91335, 818-343-1300.

GEAC

ReAL. Client/server package running under Windows. Modules include retail, budgeting, general ledger and more. Prices run $8,000 and up. The system can be expanded to accommodate hundreds of users. For more information: 14140 Midway Road, Suite 105, Dallas, 75244, 214-490-3482.

ICA Inc.

CenterSoft. Property management and accounting product designed to assist real estate develpers and property management companies to better manage tenant leases, tenant accounting and general accounting activities. Originally designed for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Price ranges from $5,795 to $15,205. For more information: 714-667-6010.

J.D. Edwards & Co.

Commercial/retail package written for the IBM AS/400 minicomputer environment. Software can be custom tailored using non-programming methods. Modules include World Foundation Environment, accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, financial modeling and budgeting, fixed assets, property management, work orders, job cost, contract management, payroll, human resources, contract service billing, change management and equipment management. Price depends on number of users connected to the system and the specific platform. For more information: 8055 E. Tufts Ave., Suite 1200, Denver, 80237, 303-488-4000.

Landlord Software

Landlord. A residential property management package, with applicability to a wide range of properties including mini storage, FBO airports, and marinas. Land-master package includes property management features for commercial as well as residential properties. Modules include general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable and MICR interface. Price ranges from $595 to $3,042. For more information: 427 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md., 21701, 301-695-1544.

Libra Corp.

Signature by LIBRA. Package integrates standard accounting features with extensive property management capabilities. Primarily targeted at mixed use/commercial applications. Modules include accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger and reporting. Price ranges from $5,000 to $40,000. For more information: 1954 E. 7000 South, Salt Lake City, 84121, 801-943-2084.

Melson Technologies

Skyline. Commercial and residential property management system. Company also offers Cumulus dynamic data exchange (DDE) module to transfer data between Skyline and Lotus or Excel spreadsheets. Prices vary depending on installation. For more information: 707 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook, Ill., 60026, 800-445-7638.

Minicom Data Corp.

Minicom. Commercial property management system. Modules include property management, lease management, accounts receivable, cost recovery and escalations. Prices vary depending on installation. For more information: 185 Renfrew Drive, Markham, Ontario Canada L3R 6G3, 905-475-5522.

MRI Property Management Systems

The SYSTEM[TM] for Commercial Property and Asset Management Control. Targeted at commercial property management. Modules include commercial property management, advanced retail sales reporting, remote sales entry, lease-level budgeting, treasury management, HUD reporting, traffic reporter, lockbox interface, accounts payable, purchase order, general ledger, report writer and more. Price ranges from $7,200 to $57,140. For more information: 23945 Mercantile Road, Cleveland, 44122, 800-321-8770.

Real Pro-Jections Inc.

WinStack. Windows application designed to produce lease stacking plans quickly and easily. Oriented toward commercial brokers, property managers, institutional investors and asset managers, it utilizes data from lease-by-lease analysis and property management systems. Prices vary from $495 each for one to 25 copies, to $425 each for 26 to 50 copies and $375 each for 51 copies or more. For more information: 2945 Harding St., Suite 211, Carlsbad, Calif., 92008, 800-774-5077.

Realwise Inc.

Realwise. Commercial property management software package designed to be both flexible and scaleable. Users can select only those features that apply to their situation. Modules include general ledger, accounts payable, loans payable, budgeting, job cost accounting, accounts receivable, basic property management, asset management, work order/maintenance, payroll and more. Prices range from $100 to $71,200. For more information: 26074 Avenue Hall, Suite 15, Valencia, Calif., 91355, 800-488-4428.

Rent Roll Inc.

Rent Roll. Software packaged targeted at residential multifamily property management. Modules include Account On It!, Market Survey, Budget Builder, Telephone Poll, purchase orders, prospects and traffic, general ledger and more. Price ranges from $695 to $4,995. For more information: 17780 Preston Road, Dallas, 75252, 800-274-5007.

TenMan Systems Inc.

TenMan/400. Commercial and residential property management software package designed for the IBM AS/400 environment. Applicable to a wide range of situations including residential, associations, mobile home communities, subsidized housing, retail, commercial and industrial. Modules include Development, Commercial Escalations, Retail Sales, Payroll, RightNOW, StreetSite and StreetSite HUD. Prices range from $4,995 to $50,000 and above. For more information: 1699 Wall St., Suite 500, Mount Prospect, Ill., 60056, 800-276-0400.

Timberline Software

Property Management Gold. Commercial/industrial mixed use application. Modules include accounts payable, general ledger, work order, property management, financial statements. TS-Report and Executive Information System. Prices range from $8,900 to $50,000 and above. For more information: 9600 SW Nimbus Ave., Beaverton, Ore., 97008, 800-441-5845.

Yardi Systems

Yardi Advantage for Windows. Property management package for residential and commercial/industrial applications. Features include general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, CAM expense reconciliation, maintenance tracking, work order entry, job costing and asset management. Prices range from $12,000 to $30,300. For more information: 819 Reddick St., Santa Barbara, Calif., 93103, 800-866-1144.

Property management software is booming -- both in number of offerings and in range of functionality. As a vertical market application, the evolution of property management software is tied pretty closely to the hardware and software trends of the computer industry in general. As hardware becomes more powerful and less expensive, programs can be written to do more and do it faster. As users come to expect a graphical interface, software is written or rewritten to take advantage of that capability. As computers proliferate, business owners want to be able to consolidate all the information generated throughout their organization, and the software vendors comply by writing more integrated, multi-function packages.

The move to PC-based environment

Desktop computers are everywhere. You can buy them at the local mall, you see them advertised in the Sunday paper. At the same time, truly useful application software continues to multiply, and property managers are seeing the value of being able to run their lease management software on the same system they use for correspondence, spreadsheets, contact management, e-mail, etc. Also, in an effort to help on-site managers be more productive, the central offices are realizing the value of giving their field personnel their own personal computers which can then link up with the central LAN over standard phone lines from wherever the remote PC might be located, for data sharing and group communication.

As a result, many packages which started out on expensive minicomputers or private-label dedicated hardware systems, are being rewritten to run on the PC platform and specifically in the Windows environment.

Open data - open systems

There is a consolidation movement taking place in the property management industry. Large institutional investors such as Aetna and Met Life are looking to reduce the number of property management firms they work with. At the same time, large property management firms are looking for ways to simplify their data collection, analysis and reporting functions so they do not have to maintain multiple vendor's packages just to be able to produce reports in the format required by their various investor clients.

The goal is to be able to input data just once and then share it among all users (and among their programs) without extensive reformatting and re-keying. The technology is so important that it has become the subject of a special IREM task force.

"IREM has had their Standards for Property Management Software since 1984," explains Tim Schaefer, president of American Computer Software.

"The 1995 standards concern an open architecture type structure so that finally you can come in, and you can export my data over to some other package, and I can support your data from another software vendor over to my package. It's much better for the users, although of course it will take all the vendors a good amount of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-do their software to make it meet the new standards. But in the end it's going to be good for the industry."

Greater integration

Property managers are being asked to do much more detailed lease-level budgeting, and these budgets have to support individual tenants' rents. This forces a change in perspective on software packages that are primarily accounting oriented, since accounting typically looks at the past.

Asset management tools are another hot area. With the institutional investors requiring tighter controls and more indepth analysis from their property managers, the property management software packages have had to respond by incorporating ever more sophisticated modules and capabilities. For example, packages now integrate marketing data, demographics, floor plan and building design data, along with lease information and tenant profile data.

An outgrowth of the open data-open system concept combined with the move toward greater system integration, is the notion of the data warehouse.

As Steve Southerland, vice president and chief information officer of the Koll Co. explains, "The data warehouse is a repository of information that comes from disparate systems throughout the organization such as your accounting system, your budgeting system, competitive survey data, the 10-year discounted cash flows, work orders, preventative maintenance systems, etc."

All that data is consolidated into a single system and, once it's there, you can pull out pieces and combine them for unique analytical views that would have been almost impossible (because of the labor involved) to achieve before.

"Say for example I wanted to analyze the cost of certain work orders for all of Aetna's properties," Southerland offers. "I take out the general ledger cost for repairs and maintenance, take out the work orders to track the types of calls, the duration, whatever I want, and now I can create ratios that I normally would have had to have done in a spreadsheet -- and I can do this on an ongoing monthly basis."

As the accompanying article illustrates, there are dozens of property management software vendors eager to sell you a solution to your needs. But with so many choices, and with so many vendors claiming that they have the best solution available, where is the best place to start your search?

Identify your needs

According to JoEllen Hothem, a computer specialist with Equity Residential Properties Trust, the long journey to software happiness begins by knowing what you're looking for.

"You need to know why you are looking for new software and what you want to get out of it," she explains. "If you don't have any goals and objectives and you start talking to vendors and looking at software, you're real vulnerable to them selling you on all these bells and whistles which you may not truly need."

The solution is to ask yourself a series of questions: What do we want the software to do? What is the problem in our company that we want software to help us solve?

"Each package generally has a strength in a given area," Hothem says, "so you need to find something that does best what you want most."

Involve everyone

"Frequently," Hothem says, "the accounting department will want new software because they're frustrated with what they currently have, and they will essentially drive the process." The only difficulty is that everyone else involved such as the property managers and operations people, may be dissatisfied.

"It's really important to ask everybody's opinion," she continues. Although you may not be able to find a system that does everything for everybody, at least people will know they had an input.

Talk to friends and competitors

We all learn from each other. When it comes to buying business software, even supposed competitors are generally happy to share their experiences and reactions.

There is probably no such thing as an off-the-shelf solution

"If you manage a mixed portfolio," says Hothem, "you're going to have to compromise somewhere. The software packages that are tailored to residential apartments really don't handle commercial buildings and commercial leases very well. And the opposite is true as well -- the ones that really are strong on commercial and can do things like common area prorations for commercial buildings don't handle apartments very well.

"A lot of the vendors out there will say 'Oh no problem, our system will do that,'" she observes. "But unfortunately a lot of what sounds really simple actually takes a tremendous amount of time and effort." As a result, it is all the more important to be well-focused on your goals.

"Customizing software can be expensive," continues Hothem, "so you have to know what you want to achieve and what's going to make this cost-beneficial for you, so if the project does take longer and cost more than the vendor said it would, you're still satisfied with the end result."

Find a vendor you can work with

Finally, according to Hothem, one key factor in the software selection process is to find a vendor with whom you feel you can develop a comfortable, mutually respectful, long-lasting relationship. Buying property management software is not like going down to the mall and buying a pair of shoes -- your vendor's local tech support person may well become like a member of the family before the adventure is over.

"Think of it like a marriage or like a partnership," Hothem says. "If you can work with them today, you're probably going to be able to work with them after that next revision and the next, and when they rewrite it to Windows, you'll still be able to work with them."

Tour the trade shows

Just like when you are in the market to buy a car, and you go down to the auto show so you can see all the different models and styles together in one place, it makes sense to attend a software trade show where you can see all the various packages up and running and do a little comparative tire kicking.

Janet DaVall is a vice president with Carlsberg Management Co. Her organization is currently going through the software evaluation process for a second time.

"The first time we did a software search (about five years ago), it was more just to get onto a computer system," she says. "This go-round, it's more to take advantage of better technology -- for us, finding a system that will let us pull information out of the database and write customized reports ourselves."

For DaVall, the most efficient way to develop an overview of the available offerings is to go the trade show route. "IREM and BOMA both have technology fairs, and that was where we started," she recalls. "It's very convenient. You go there, they have booths set up all over the place, and you can collect sample reports and talk to the sales reps about your needs and how their package might address those needs."

"The key of course," she says, echoing Hothem's advice, "is you have to be able to go in with a clear idea of what you need and what you're looking for."

Don't overbuy

One of the trends in property management software is a move toward highly integrated, do-everything packages. For a management company just starting out along the automation path however, the question is whether or not such advanced sophistication makes sense -- both economically and from a learning curve standpoint.

"The problem with buying a more complex system," says DaVall, "is you can bite off too much by doing it that way."

On the other hand, it may make sense for a less sophisticated user to buy a completely integrated package, as long as they don't buy it all at once. "A lot of these companies allow you to buy their software module by module," DaVall points out, "so you can get the basic GL/AP/AR system, and then as you grow and get more sophisticated and have a better understanding of what you need, you can add more sophisticated modules."

Check references

The last piece of advice applies to everything from new employees to the guy you hire to fix your roof. Before you commit yourself to any product, you have to do your homework on the company behind the package.

"Find out how well they support current users," DaVall urges. "The company will give references, so call them up and ask what kind of support they get."

If you don't, you may end up in the same boat as DaVall. "We have user groups and suggestion slips that you send to the developer, but nothing so far has worked. We're not a big enough user that we have any clout. Technology changes very quickly, and you want a company that will respond to their users' needs."