What First-Time Renters Want Most

Posted By: Miranda Crittenden Industry News,

By Barbara Ballinger |

Whether it’s their preference, or they graduated from college and now work, have left their parents’ homes after returning and saving funds or sold a home and want a change for less maintenance, today’s apartment renters come to the market with a variety of priorities.

Those who represent first-time renters are not a single, easy-to-define group. Many new to the process—or who may not have rented in decades—have different budgets, locations, square footage preferences and reasons to rent. Many younger renters have saved by living with their parents and working to afford their first apartment. It may lack bells and whistles associated with the amenity wars of recent years, but it’s their first home or castle and a huge achievement. “The joy of being able to come into a clean, quiet building with everything that I need has been the highlight of my year,” says London Purnell, who started renting a studio last fall at Chicago-based Habitat’s 43 Green apartment community. 

Others, typically older, have equity from the sale of a house and seek to replicate the space and extras they con-note with homeownership, except forgo maintenance. The varied range of wants makes it essential for developers and property managers to understand who resides at each property. 

At the top of wish lists, most renters put price/value, location and convenience, though a strong fourth contender is a sense of community due to the isolation many felt during the pandemic, says Louie Colella, Vice President of Leasing and Operations at St. Louis-based CRG, which operates 2,500 beds at its purpose-built student housing (PBSH) and 1,000 multifamily units in eight states. At the same time, many renters desire quality and privacy within their units, even when apartment square footage is shrinking nationwide, says Michael H. Zaransky, founder of Chicago-based MZ Capital Partners, which operates 2,500 units in three states. The average size of a new apartment shrank in 2022, according to RentCafe, decreasing from 941 square feet a decade ago to 887 square feet. Here’s more to consider. 

Affordability and perceived value

After rents skyrocketed during the pandemic, they stopped their big upward trajectory, though they are still 20% higher than at the start of the pandemic, according to Apartment List. 

Though it may represent a slight nuance, Marcie Williams, CEO of Charlotte-based RKW Residential, which has 35,000 units in nine states, says the majority of those looking at the company’s portfolio seek value more than price. “For example, they know there may be other places that rent for less than $3,500 a month but they don’t want to sacrifice amenities or space for quality,” she says. “Their perception of the value they get for their housing is the same that they seek in other facets of their life,” she says. 

Patrick Burke, Senior Managing Director of Property Management, Build-To-Rent for Atlanta-based RangeWater Real Estate, which has 15,000 units in 11 states, says its first-time residents expect to pay a higher price for the value of what they’re getting, from physical space to amenities, fixtures, hardware and convenience. In some markets where new building inventory has been delivered, competition among Class A buildings has heated up so much that companies have brought back concessions. An example is Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Sands Companies, which currently gives one month free for its apartment “cottages” in Myrtle Beach. In more competitive Nashville, Tenn., concessions may be greater. 

But to reflect value, concessions aren’t usually used month after month, Williams says. Habitat added an incentive to help Purnell afford her first apartment. It let her break her monthly payment into two. “The fact the company was willing to work with me was a huge plus,” she says. 


What connotes a desired location varies among different cohorts but is of paramount importance, says Williams. “One reason is that most renters live in a building for a short term, so they want what they want now and won’t wait,” she says. As a result of the pandemic, many in the student niche, as well as others, place a premium on outdoor space so they won’t feel cooped up. 

Gen X and Millennials want proximity to a job by walking or public transportation and nearby services, especially as work from home or a hybrid continues. Purnell chose her building in part because of the five-minute walk to her job as a teacher and its closeness to her mom’s apartment. 

Mary Cook of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates, commercial interior designers that help guide developers on trends, says the location of the Oleander apartment building in Brookhaven, Ga., on the site of Emory Childrens Hospital grounds and near the Atlanta Hawks training facility and several medical office buildings, was critical since many residents would be medical personnel. 

“They are mostly not working remotely but going into work. This means we needed to dedicate less space to remote and co-working and more to fitness and wellness including 24-hour access to these amenities as many were working late shift,” Cook says. 

That priority was less key, Cook says, for those living in a building in Harrison, N.J., where the majority of residents would be financial and tech workers commuting into Manhattan only a couple days per week and requiring more remote workspace including remote meeting space, Cook says. “Remote meeting space is different from remote work in that it requires acoustic privacy, robust Wi-Fi, the latest audio and visual technologies and appropriate backgrounds,” she says. The WFH requirements depend on who you are designing for and whether they are truly working and meeting remotely, Cook says. On the other hand, Baby Boomers may be looking for more space, parking and safety as well as amenity spaces that allow them to continue to host family members on occasion. “They want to be near kids and grandkids and many have a primary residence in Florida, Arizona or another more tax-friendly state,” she says. 

A decision may hinge on convenience and how spread out or dense a location is, Colella says. “In suburban St. Louis, more may drive between locations while those living in downtown Chicago are more likely to walk or use public transportation,” he says. Many who gravitated to the new 12-unit The Ellis building in Chicago’s North Kenwood Oakland neighborhood like being near surrounding art galleries, historic buildings, proximity to the beach and Lake Michigan, and public transportation, says Ivan Mariduena, Director of Real Estate Operations for Evanston, Ill.-based Jennings Realty, which has 41 units in Illinois and Florida. 

Some developers like RangeWater try to meet different residents’ location preferences by building at a range of sites such as near a city, which may come with a higher rent, and in more suburban or rural places. In the later cases, the company tries to introduce a greater sense of community by hosting food trucks and other events periodically so residents don’t have to leave to meet their needs, Burke says. 


Ease of living comes in numerous ways, from being able to tour a property to sign a lease, make monthly payments and schedule repairs promptly online, which helps renters when they’re home but also when they’re at work, at a second home or traveling, says Burke. 

 Many found touring virtually during the pandemic saved time and worked well as technological improvements improved the process. Many renters want to continue to use such features, though others also want the option of looking in person or having both choices. “It’s again a matter of letting the residents have what they want and need when they want it,” Williams says. Purnell visited the property so she could compare studio layouts and choose one on the seventh floor to be near the building’s communal space. To make life even easier, many buildings offer more of a one-stop-shop through apps that control everything, sometimes in a proprietary system, which RKW Residential does, or through a third-party, which Jennings Realty uses. “It’s the number one amenity buildings can have to make residents’ lives easier,” Williams says. After reviewing how often residents paid online, RangeWater found it was upward of 90%. It tries to help first-time renters learn how to access these systems, including their resident portal. “It gives us a hands-on opportunity to bond with them and drive adoption of online services,” Burke says. 

Open plan layout and other rooms

More continue to seek an open plan and within it a nook or corner to work. The openness also makes it easier to arrange furniture, Williams says. The favored number of beds for students in a single room depends on location due to rising costs, says Kizer. How many bedrooms they want in an apartment also varies. Those living in groups of four, five and even six bedrooms currently outpace those wanting studios and one bedrooms, which were popular during the pandemic for health concerns, Kizer says. 

In market-rate apartments, Zaransky finds many single renters seek studios and one bedrooms because they no longer want to live with a roommate. Other priorities among market-rate renters are for stainless steel appliances and quartz countertops in kitchens, a balcony and ample closet space, he says. More affluent renters also seek a nice entry, a garage and several bedrooms. 

At its most luxurious units, RKW Residential has added wireless speakers, steam showers, wine fridges and gas appliances. At its new The Ellis, Jennings Realty constructed 9-foot-high ceilings for an old-world feel that fit brick and limestone building in a historic Chicago neighborhood. Many renters who want the feeling of a home rather than multifamily shared space opt for the growing number of BTR units, which generally have more bedrooms, more square footage, a private outdoor area and garage. Burke’s company makes a large primary bedroom a priority, along with living space, but has found that its renters care less about the size of other bedrooms but want them to work as flexible spaces such as an office. 

Zaransky tested the waters with the acquisition and renovation of a community of 90 single-family apartment homes in Knoxville, Tenn., in April 2023 and found high acceptance. Levi Walters, Director of Asset Management and Capital Markets, at Sands Companies, says its cottage version appeals for that reason, and the company has added larger 1,693-square-foot models. “All our units are priced 20% higher than comparable multifamily Class A apartments, but many want this, especially those moving from another state. Due to a lack of stock, they rent while they adjust to their area,” he says. His cottage communities also include a clubhouse with pool, gym and business center. Currently, Sands Companies has 1,235 units in North and South Carolina, and is breaking ground on a 212-unit community in Gainesville, Fla. RKW Residential has also added BTR units in the last five years, which now represent about 15% of its portfolio. As it expands, it adds customized features such as doggie doors in units.

How managers can help first-time renters 

In an age of electronic signing of leases and payments and fewer in-person visits before moving in, Colella says it’s important to explain in detail what each payment includes, and what it doesn’t. He also stresses the importance of explaining how many security deposits are required since some buildings ask for them at the start of a lease—for the first and last months. He also says it’s important to spell out in detail what will trigger a deposit not to be returned in whole or part. No matter how sophisticated virtual tours and videos have become, nothing can replace an in-person tour of a unit, model rooms and shared spaces to experience the vibe, views and understand the scale of a space, he and others say.

Some Amenities That First-Time Renters Really Want

Amenity changes keep evolving, with the latest iteration reflecting life post-COVID and a desire for greater healthfulness and wellness, more socializing for some cohorts and more taking advantage of good weather and a specific location. Some attribute new features to the highly amenitized PBSH buildings students have become accustomed to such as Florida International University’s 22-story building in Miami with a huge sundeck, retractable walls, study labs, pet services, hammock lounges, hot tubs, lounge pools, cold brewed coffee and more, says Cook. Here are amenities that matter most: 

  • Value of location. It’s not just the location but what the location beyond offers all living there to become the hub of a community, says architect Joshua Zinder of Princeton, N.J.-based Joshua Zinder Architecture. “We’re designing buildings with balconies to overlook the city’s downtown and campus and connect people to their surroundings,” he says. 

  • Outdoor space continues to be prized on shared rooftops, courtyards and lawns and private balconies if units have them, and also at dog parks and walking trails due to the increase in pet ownership among all cohorts, including students. When Jennings Realty constructed The Ellis, it knew to maximize its rooftop with barbecue and seating with views of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan for young professionals it anticipated leasing, says Mariduera. In Minneapolis, where outdoor areas also may be used as briefly as in Chicago, they’re still popular, says Colella. In general, Williams sees more melding of outdoor spaces with indoor areas, so it’s easy to take a laptop from home to work outdoors, Williams says. At some of its BTR communities, the company carves out walking and self-guided fitness trails and pet paths, Burke says. 

  • Pet priority started before Covid but has ramped up more since it waned. However, once popular pet spas are less important, according to Zaransky. 

  • Healthfulness and wellness have soared in interest but how it’s achieved varies. Renters may want a pool in their building but fewer use it, according to Kizer. Instead, many seek other ways to get and stay fit and maintain mental wellness such as doing yoga or stretching in studios rather than through workouts. But eliminating a gym isn’t happening yet since many like the idea of having one rather than knowing they’ll have to pay for an outside facility, Zaransky says. 

  • The work from home phenomenon has led to fewer private study spaces and more collaborative areas to congregate, including in lounges with furnishings with charging plugs, Cook says. “In a post-Covid world, developers have to anticipate people working from everywhere—in the lobby and in their unit—and also meeting remotely so good acoustics for privacy and good backgrounds are key,” she says. This is also true in PBSH, where more students want to work from flexible seating to move around and work on group projects together, Kizer says.  Amenity changes keep evolving, with the latest iteration reflecting life post-Covid and a desire for greater healthful-ness and wellness, more socializing for some cohorts and 

  • Food remains a big draw but in different ways. Communal kitchens are another feature used less by many cohorts but are still desired because managers use them to host resident-wide events, Kizer says. Small beverage centers that dispense coffee, tea and soda are favored, especially when offered for free, and food trucks continue to make periodic stops due to renter requests. Some buildings also find that residents like occasional events with free meals included, Zaransky says. 

  • The absence of in-unit laundry equipment can be a deal breaker for many these days, says Zinder. “It’s an amenity, especially with the younger generation, and rapidly shifting to a necessity,” he says. 

  • High speed, reliable internet service is another essential, and some look for it to be included in the lease, Zaransky says. 

  • Large package rooms are key as more residents purchase online, but staffed package rooms are disappearing. “It’s a room full of lockers, with delivery workers who have key access to get in and drop off packages, and residents are alerted to get their delivery,” Zinder says. “Besides saving staff, it also takes up less space.” 

  • Important security features cameras, visible signage near entrances, good lighting and a buzzer or keypad system, Zinder says. 

  • Programming ramped up during the pandemic when people felt isolated, but now varies, often by residents’ ages. Kizer has seen a decline at her student communities, except related to food and yoga. There, many look to managers to help them connect with their outside community through volunteer projects, she says. Empty nesters or Baby Boomers enjoy slightly different activities, Cook says. In one project, Hathon, in Medway, Mass., outside Boston, the majority of renters are divorced and in their 50s who want to live near a former spouse or partner and kids to participate in raising children. “They are socially active and cocktailing in the lobby every day or doing potluck appetizers, etc., for a very fun community experience,” she says. Others like additional activities managers organize. MZ Capital Partners mounted an oversized Scrabble board on a common area wall, which proved a success, Zaransky says. Colella’s company still adds virtual golf simulators, tanning booths and podcast recording studios at its student housing. RangeWater uses programming to involve local small businesses in loosely structured ways such as farm-ers hosting a market, Burke says. One of the best reasons to keep programming in place is that when residents become engaged and get to know their neighbors in a building and community, they’re more likely to provide a favorable review and renew, says Williams.

Barbara Ballinger is a frequent contributor to units.