The Best Property Management Software
- February 28, 2018 - To stay up-to-date with current pricing structures and new features, we re-tested our top picks and updated our review. While none of our top picks have changed, we re-classified Buildium as Best Overall to reflect the fact that it is cheaper than AppFolio regardless of property size. We also took a look at Rentler, but found that most new features will be released later this year. We look forward to revisiting the program at a later time.
- January 23, 2018 - For this update, we've re-structured and condensed our methodology for clarity. We will be returning to this review in the coming months to revisit our top picks and conduct further testing.
The Best Property Management Software
The best property management software allows you to collect rent, manage maintenance requests, and generate vacancy listings — all on an interface that is intuitive and responsive. After interviewing property managers and landlords across the country about their list of must-have features, we tested 15 promising software programs for ease of use and customer service to find the three best.
It doesn’t matter if you’re renting out a single home or in charge of thousands of commercial units — managing a property requires you to be a salesperson, a handyman, an accountant, and a diplomat, all at the same time. And while software may not be able to help you with the diplomat part (it’s not going to negotiate those damage deposit returns for you), the best property management software makes the rest a lot easier by putting every tool you need into one program.
Buildium and AppFolio both met our expectations feature-for-feature. They combine rent-collection tools, maintenance-request systems, robust accounting and reporting, and even marketing systems into one complete package. Better yet, both are simple to set up and use right out of the box — no major learning curve necessary.
Buildium shines for its extensive educational materials, including a unique “Buildium Academy,” which offers courses that teach users the skills and tasks necessary for property management. Its support features are second to none, with step-by-step guides and attentive customer service agents. It’s also cheaper than AppFolio, with plans starting at just $45 for 20 units and tiered pricing dependent on plan selection and number of units.
AppFolio’s main leg up is on mobile: It’s the only property management software we tested that has a mobile-responsive interface with full functionality, which means you can take all of your property management tasks with you wherever you go. Buildium’s app can only handle basic tasks, like managing work orders and manually entering payments. AppFolio is also unique in that it offers plans specifically designed for residential properties, commercial properties, student housing, and community associations — Buildium’s two basic plans aren’t as customized. However, AppFolio’s extra merits come at a cost: While its residential plan shakes out to a reasonable $1.25 per unit, it has a $250 monthly minimum fee and a $400 sign-up fee. Depending on how many units you manage, AppFolio could come out to as much as a few hundred dollars more per month than Buildium.
If you only manage a few dozen units, check out TenantCloud. It’s totally free to use for up to 75 units and has a surprisingly strong set of features that compare to both of our other top picks. Just note that its customer service and accounting features aren’t quite as top-notch as those of AppFolio and Buildium. All the same, it’s a great free service for property managers who aren’t handling too many units.
How We Found the Best Property Management Software
We scouted out must-have features from property managers and landlords.
We started our search for the best property management software with a wide lens, looking at software tailored to residential and commercial properties, for managers of hundreds of units as well as part-time landlords. We preferred SaaS systems to desktop-only options, meaning that the software is managed by a third-party vendor — faster to implement and less maintenance in the long run. We also skipped over niche software programs like those designed for vacation rentals, which require the managing of new tenants every week.
With baseline criteria set, we interviewed property managers and landlords to find out which tools they use and which tasks keep them busy every day. We learned that there are a handful of must-have features for any property management software. With this in mind, we reached out to as many companies as we could find and set up trial accounts to see which of those features they offered:
- Collecting rent online. Almost all property management sites let you manually record and view rent payments, but the best ones enable and assist with every step of rent collection: processing rent payments online, recording payment status and history by tenant and unit, and automatically incorporating information about each payment into the site’s accounting features. Although we couldn’t actually make payments through the sites we tested without registering bank accounts, we went through every other step in the rent-payment process to ensure total functionality.
- Managing maintenance requests. Most property management software allows you to manually record work orders, but to be one of our top picks, a site had to: a) let tenants request work orders online, b) let property managers assign work orders to maintenance workers, and c) let everyone involved track the process. We also favored software that lets you pay workers online and record that payment automatically and accurately for accounting purposes. To test our top picks, we made fake accounts for tenants and vendors to recreate this process from start to finish.
- Bringing in new tenants. There’s no point in owning or managing property if there’s no one to occupy it, so we also looked at how different sites let you advertise vacancies online. Can you generate a listing for a given unit or property with the click of a button? Can you easily publish that listing on Zillow, Trulia, and other real-estate sites? Can you screen and manage prospective tenants? The best property management software programs can answer yes to all of these questions.
We also assessed each software’s bookkeeping capabilities.
In addition to condensing all your tasks into one place, property management software should let you accurately keep your books, generate reports, and store your important documents. Here’s what we looked for in each of our top contenders:
- Accounting. We wanted to find property management software that could take care of all your accounting needs — no QuickBooks or other accounting software required. All property management software lets you manually enter information about income and payments, but the best goes beyond a simple ledger and lets you receive and make payments online, code transactions for tax purposes, and perform bank reconciliations. It should also automate as much of that accounting work as possible.
- Reporting. According to Jan Winters, an assistant commercial manager in Chicago, “Reporting out on financials is one of the tasks that commercial property managers spend the most time doing.” Budget reports, forecasting reports, delinquency reports, work-order reports, occupancy reports — your software should be able to quickly and easily answer any question that anyone might have about any aspect of the property you’re managing.
- Document management. In addition to reports, we wanted to be able to easily create, store, and search other documents and files like leases, eviction notices, and vendor lists. If a site let us upload and store files according to tenant and unit, that was good. If it provided templates we could populate with specific information — for example, filling in a generic lease with details about a unit, a tenant, rent, and late fees — even better. To get a full five out of five points, the software had to offer all that and a search feature, so that a user can still, say, find a certain lease even if they forget which unit or tenant it belonged to.
After comparing specs, we narrowed down our pool of contenders to the 15 most promising. Then we dove deeper, signing up for demos and trial accounts to find out which were easiest to navigate, offer stellar customer service, and increase functionality with features like mobile apps. Within these programs, we scrutinized payment features, work order tracking, and prospective tenant screening. We also called and emailed customer service multiple times to see which provided quick, thorough, and friendly assistance. Winning companies provided thoughtful customer service reps, dedicated learning center resources, or individualized technical support. We wanted our top picks to be a combination of intuitive design, thorough bookkeeping features, and excellent customer care.
Three software programs stood out for their ability to make life easier for landlords — two for residential and commercial property management and one for properties with fewer than 75 tenants.
The 15 Property Management Software Programs We Tested
- Greenhouse PM
- Property Boss
- Property Boulevard
- Property Manager Cloud
- Rent Manager
- Rentec Direct
- Smart Property Systems
- Total Management
Our Picks for the Best Property Management Software
When we began testing Buildium’s software, we realized: This is what “easy to use” means. As with all of the best softwares we tested, Buildium’s dashboard design was organized and easy to navigate. However, what really stood out was the smartly designed “Guided Tours” feature at the top of our dashboard. From “Tenant Screenings” to “Property Accounting,” clicking on each module begins a step-by-step guided tour of each function. And we literally mean step-by-step — the tour told us which tabs to click and which features to select, and it provided constant commentary through text or video to explain what every feature did. And even if you’ve already run through a module once, it’s still available at the top of the dashboard for when you need a refresh. For those new to property management software, or property management period, this thoughtfully designed digital tour is a valuable tool.
If you do happen to get confused while using the program, Buildium offers plenty of resources to help you figure things out. We liked that a real-life human sales consultant, Owen, reached out to us within an hour after we signed up for our free trial, letting us know that he could answer any questions we had as we explored the software. When we sent him questions, we got answers within the same business day, if not the same hour. And while we found that support excellent, it wasn’t pushy: When we eventually told Owen that we preferred to explore the software on our own and turned down an optional demo, he simply directed us towards other resources, including the “Guided Tour” feature and Buildium Academy.
We were impressed with how thorough Buildium Academy page was. Whereas most other companies’ “learning center” pages are either minimal or so packed with information they are difficult to navigate, Buildium’s is neatly organized into “courses” targeting specific tasks and skills related to the software or property management in general. Each course comes with a course description, course objectives, and outlines of quizzes, along with estimated time for completion. For the busy landlord who’s looking to optimize their property management software strategically, Buildium Academy is a big help.
Like our runner-up, AppFolio, Buildium has a mobile app that lets you do some important tasks, like managing work orders and manually entering payments. Unlike AppFolio, however, the site itself isn’t mobile-responsive, and you will lose out on a lot of functionality if you’re on the go. It’s probably enough for most property managers, especially if your business is smaller-scale. However, if you’re often in-transit and need full mobile functionality, AppFolio is worth checking out — even if it’s more expensive in the long run.
Buildium’s monthly minimum fee is as low as $45 for 20 units, with a tiered pricing structure based on number of units. To see the exact cost for your property, check out Buildium’s sliding price scale. For such a relatively low price, Buildium has all the comprehensive functionality we looked for, including online rent collection, online work orders, and strong tools for creating, storing, and sharing reports and other documents, and it will serve any type of property manager well.
Like Buildium, AppFolio covers all the bases of a property management software. You can collect rent from your tenants and pay vendors online; tenants can make maintenance requests, which you can then assign to maintenance workers and track each step of the way; and AppFolio’s accounting features let you go far beyond a simple money-in/money-out ledger. In addition, you can generate an astounding variety of reports and other documents, list vacancies across all the industry-standard real-estate sites, and manage prospective tenants without ever handling a single piece of paper. AppFolio also offers a wider variety of plans than Buildium, from residential and commercial properties to student housing and community associations, allowing you to customize the types of properties you manage.
What really makes AppFolio stand out is its mobility. You’re not always sitting in front of your computer as a property manager; sometimes you’re out, checking on construction projects, inspecting different properties, or responding to after-hours emergencies. Being able to use your software anytime, anywhere is a big deal. A few other property management sites, like Buildium and Rent Manager, have apps that let you perform basic functions from a mobile device, but AppFolio’s entire platform is mobile-responsive. You have all of its considerable functionality at your fingertips, no matter where you are — and it’s one of the only property management software programs that does this. The inspections feature, an especially impressive mobile capability, lets you upload pictures from your phone’s camera and take verbal notes with a speech-to-text tool. Even the most old-school, least tech-savvy contractors can easily use it while performing an inspection. Then property managers get instant, paperless access to all the data those contractors input.
Unfortunately, the company currently doesn’t offer free trials to prospective customers. However, it’s easy to set up a free demo: Fill out a form on their site and a customer service representative will reach out within 24 hours. The demo itself was thorough — plan on setting aside an hour and a half for the walkthrough — and it was easy to ask the agents specific questions about the software in real-time. We found that customer service on their phone lines was top-notch as well. Though we had to wait for over two minutes to speak to an agent, we were provided with friendly, knowledgeable service shortly after. The service agent also gave us his direct line so we wouldn’t have to sit on hold again, and he followed up soon after through email to make sure our issues had been resolved.
The kicker is the price. AppFolio’s service starts at $1.25 per unit per month — but with a $250 minimum monthly payment and a unique $400 onboarding fee. If your property has a large number of units, AppFolio is worth checking out, but it will be slightly more expensive than Buildium. Managing 1,000 residential units on Buildium, for example, costs $1,060 per month, compared to $1,250 on AppFolio. We recommend comparing prices with Buildium’s sliding scale and AppFolio’s plans to see exactly how much you’ll pay.
If you’re managing fewer than 75 units, TenantCloud is your best bet for affordable but quality property management software. Even though it’s free, TenantCloud does a respectable job of nearly matching all the functionality of our other more expensive top picks. Online maintenance requests, vacancy listings, and rent collection are as good on TenantCloud as anywhere else — two roommates can even pay their individual shares of rent independently of each other, a feature we didn’t see anywhere else.
Comparing prospective tenants is actually easier than on most paid software, due to the site’s exceptionally intuitive design. Minimalist visuals, pleasing colors — TenantCloud is kind of fun to use (and we dig that cute little cloud icon).
However, its customer service is not on the same level as the rest of our top picks; we received an answer to our email the next business day but didn’t experience any personalized follow-up or as much individual care as we did with AppFolio and Buildium. And, surprisingly, there’s no option to reach the company by phone.
TenantCloud’s accounting and reporting features aren’t as comprehensive as our other top picks, either. Accounting is limited to a basic money in/money out model, and there are only seven report types offered (compared to dozens on Buildium and AppFolio). But if you only manage a few units, these basic functions will get the job done.
Rent Manager has, for all intents and purposes, just as much functionality as our top picks. It’s also the most customizable property management software on the market. You can tailor everything to your individual needs, down to what icons appear on your dashboard and what choices are available in drop-down menus. In fact, Rent Manager actually runs its business using a very customized version of its own software.
Rent Manager charges $75 per user per month (most companies charge by the rental unit), so if your property management firm has relatively few employees handling a relatively large number of units, it could also be the most economic choice.
However, Rent Manager didn’t quite make it as our top pick because it’s simply not as easy to use as Buildium and AppFolio. It’s remote-desktop-based, rather than browser-based, which can make it a little laggy if your Wi-Fi is bad or if you’re using a Mac. The design also isn’t as intuitive as Buildium’s or AppFolio’s — think vintage Microsoft Outlook versus modern Gmail. But it does offer a virtual training course called Rent Manager University to help make the transition easier.
Like Rent Manager, Total Management doesn’t look as sleek and shiny as some of the other sites we visited, but don’t let the outdated aesthetics fool you. If dashboard design isn’t a big priority for you and you want to save some money without compromising on convenience features, Total Management is worth taking a look at. When it comes to features, Total Management keeps up with the rest of the competition, and it even has some extra goodies we didn’t see on AppFolio or Buildium, like a call log (so you can track phone calls to your office) and a package wizard (so tenants can track the arrival of their Amazon deliveries). It’s also cheap, ringing in at $1 per unit per month with a $75 monthly minimum.
However, Total Management has a noticeable learning curve. Because of its Windows 98 vibe, it’s harder to navigate than our top picks. The ability to open multiple windows at once introduces visual clutter, though it is a good multitasking tool — once you get used to it. As if it understands the navigational challenges of its site, Total Management (like Rent Manager and AppFolio) provides webinar-style training in addition to the tutorials available on the website so you can get over that learning curve as quickly as possible.
Know Your Property Management Software
Online rent collection and tenant screenings almost always cost extra.
Virtually every property management software, including our favorites, charges extra for two features: collecting rent online and conducting background/credit checks on prospective tenants. The extra money is to pay the third-party companies they usually rely on to perform these tasks, like Dwolla and Rent Payment (rent collection) or TransUnion SmartMove and Experian (background checks). You’ll typically spend between $0.50 and $15 per use to take advantage of these features. If you don’t want to absorb that cost, you can always pass it along to your tenants by raising rent or your application fee by a small amount.
Although it costs extra, collecting rent online has advantages. It saves you time and effort, and, as Landlordology phrases it, “eliminates the factor of human error — i.e., tenants ‘forgetting’ to pay their rent.”
Don’t expect perfect mobile functionality.
Taking work orders and tenant information on the go is becoming more important for property managers, but software companies have been unable to keep up. “There is a lot of important functionality that absolutely needs to work,” says Paul Belmore, a property management associate in Lynnwood, Washington. “Because of that, the vendors are very slow to upgrade their systems, as nobody can afford any downtime.”
Some companies offer a mobile supplement that lets you perform a few key features through an app. Buildium, for example, allows you to manage work orders and manually enter payments. Other companies offer no mobile capabilities at all — which is surprising, given that all 15 software programs we looked at were cloud-based SaaS products. Right now, AppFolio is the only property management software with truly mobile capabilities. This may change in the near future as companies work to keep up with the pace of advancing tech, but if it’s important for you or your tenants to be able to manage their rental affairs through a smartphone, it’s something to keep in mind.