Going it alone in business, rebranding and leading landlords, tenants and staff through a global pandemic is not the typical climate you’d elect to open your new property management agency during.
But that’s exactly what Alana Spruce did in July 2020 when she bought out her business partner, Stefan Deffert, and started Spruce Real Estate in Melbourne.
The move had been in the pipeline long before the word “COVID-19” was a part of staple vocabulary, but Alana says taking that leap of faith was both challenging and rewarding.
“Last year was nuts; it really was,” she says.
“But it was also exciting. I knew that if I could survive this, then I could survive anything.”
The hurdles she needed to jump came thick and fast, with vacancy rates soaring across Melbourne as the impact of the global pandemic triggered lockdowns, job losses and economic hardship.
Rental property vacancy rates climbed as high as 10 per cent, and the Spruce Real Estate team received multiple notices to vacate from tenants every day.
High vacancy rates meant there was increased choice for tenants, and this pushed rents down by as much as $100 per week, which caused issues for landlords, many of whom were struggling to pay their mortgages.
“There were days I would get up, go for a run and then not leave my computer for the rest of the day,” Alana explains of the work required to keep the agency running.
“But when things are down, you’ve got to roll your sleeves up, get in there and do what needs to be done.”
Alana says her most important role in those tough, early days was to “be the voice of reason” for her clients and assure them everything would be ok, even though she couldn’t predict the future.
“It was definitely mentally challenging,” she explains.
“But I took the view that, ‘This will pass’ and that things would get better.”
A positive mindset
Alana says she was conscious of leading her team through the pandemic with a positive attitude and that mindset choice proved critical in keeping everyone pushing forward with the ability to get the job done.
Without such an upbeat mindset and an ethos focused on adapting and changing, Alana says there was a real risk the business would not have survived.
“If you don’t adapt, you get left behind, and you don’t have a business left to manage,” she says.
“It was hard work. There were crazy days, but that’s life. That’s what makes you.
“If you don’t have struggles, you don’t grow. If everything is hunky-dory, then there are no lessons being learnt.”
One of the key ways Alana and the team, which comprises property manager Alanah O’Donnell, leasing manager Annabel Webb, property manager Emily Nolan, trust accountant Tammy McLaren and virtual assistant Mickaela Mae, adapted was to use technology to create 3D virtual tours and to involve property owners in taking photos.
Innovation is key
Not only have tenants become more accustomed to using digital technology to virtually inspect a property rather than an in-person inspection, but landlords are also much more willing to adapt to different ways of marketing and promoting their properties.
Alana says during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, the owner of a St Kilda investment property took photos herself after the professional photographer could not access the home.
“We went back and forth with me guiding her and saying, ‘Take the photo from this angle or that angle’,” Alana explains.
“We did the 3D tour as well and it all worked out.”
Alana started in real estate 20 years ago.
Never one to want to go to university, Alana says she has always had an interest in real estate, with her parents having investment properties.
“I was never really one that wanted to go to university… but I was always a go-getter, and the minute I could work, I wanted to work,” Alana says.
“I started as a checkout chick at Safeway Mordialloc as soon as I could work and I’ve always enjoyed being able to help people.”
A strong career
Real estate also appealed to Alana as she loves system-oriented work and meeting new people.
Rather than being attracted to the trappings real estate could provide her, Alana sees the profession as a way she can give to others.
“I love being able to help people move through the different chapters of their life,” she says.
Alana’s first job in real estate was as a receptionist at Ray White in Elsternwick, before moving up to become an assistant property manager.
After a stint overseas, Alana joined Williams & Co, which is now known as Williams Batters, where she worked as a leasing consultant.
“That was back in the olden days where there were three of us, each with a desk behind the other, and each listing was written on an A4 piece of paper and kept in a foolscap folder,” she recalls.
“You’d have to flick through your folder to search for a property that would suit the person that had come into the office to see you.”
After that, Alana moved to Structured, where she worked alongside Stefan Deffert for the first time, along with Jonathan Rooney.
Starting with a rent roll of 20 properties, Alana built that up to more than 1000 doors in four years before switching to work for a developer for a couple of months ahead of going overseas.
When Alana returned, stints at Biggin & Scott and Hodges followed before Stefan Deffert got back in touch, and together the pair launched Mypm in April 2015.
“You always hear that PM is the poor sister to the sales department, and I really had a passion for wanting to give good service and do things right,” she says.
Mypm leased a lot of new developments, which saw them manage multiple doors at the one property, as opposed to a traditional rent roll with one or two properties per street.
“We’d have a development with 30 apartments to lease and we’d do an open and think, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got 30 doors to open’,” Alana says.
“It was fast-paced, but it was fun.”
Alana’s passion for property management saw her go out on her own and create a PM-only agency with highly knowledgeable, experienced staff focused on exceptional service.
“I got sick of agencies run by male sales agents that had never worked a day in property management,” she says.
“It’s like me showing you how to drive a car but I have never driven a car myself.”
Alana says her main point of difference is that she’s hands-on throughout the rental process and prides herself on providing boutique customer service.
“I don’t want to be that big office that churns and burns staff, properties, owners and tenants,” she explains.
“This business is about people, relationships, being hands on and personable, retaining staff and making each encounter with either a tenant or a landlord stress free and that we will go the extra mile.
“To us it’s not just another management on the books.”
Alana believes in transparency throughout the rental process and uses Cloud software such as PropertyMe, Inspection Express and Inspect Real Estate.
You’ll also find Alana opening her clients’ properties rather than bundling that job off to someone else.
She loves ‘selling’ the property to potential tenants and getting to know them and processing their applications along with the help of her team.
“I’m also always checking in with the owner and making sure that their expectations are being met,” Alana says.
“I feel that as a small business, we can do that a lot better than a larger business.”
Alana is also known for going the extra mile to find the perfect tenant for her landlord’s properties, and she never judges a book by its cover.
“Sometimes, you have to put extra work into the application process to end up with an amazing tenant,” she explains.
“Not every application is straightforward. Mary might have just put her mother in a nursing home and hasn’t got a rental history because she’s been living in the family home for the past 10 years.
“That doesn’t mean Mary won’t be a wonderful tenant.”
Alana is also well aware of the property management industry propensity for burnout and says one of the key strategies she has put in place to support her team is hiring a virtual assistant.
But she says the success of a VA is based on having clear, easy to follow systems in place for them to follow.
“You have to put a lot of time into those processes, but once you’ve got it all in place, there’s no looking back,” Alana says.
“It means the team is not bogged down with admin tasks that don’t need someone with that level of experience doing them, such as putting a property on the internet where everything is templated.”
One aspect of the rental property market that concerns Alana is that with a limited number of investment properties coming on, rents will rise.
“We have two per cent interest rates, which is great, but what happens when that’s five, six or even 10 per cent?” Alana asks.
“I’m a bit concerned about how that’s going to look.”
While Alana can’t say precisely what the future holds, one clear business goal she has set is to get 500 doors under management.
“You have to continually evolve and look forward,” she says.