Competition for renters creates amenities boom

Forget about swimming pools, basic exercise rooms, and security systems when looking for an apartment these days. They are standard - even pass. Today's savvy and demanding renter wants more.

From Atlanta to San Diego, luxury apartment complexes are offering an increasingly enticing array of amenities to lure the discriminating renter, providing extras like urban vegetable gardens, movie theaters, and rock-climbing walls. And developers are happily cashing in on this growing market.

The focus on amenities reflects changes in apartment dwellers and the nation's ever increasing desire for luxury.

Complexes are now catering to the "renter by choice" - young, affluent professionals who could easily afford a home but don't want to deal with the problems associated with ownership.

"We have a lot of ... young professionals whose income levels allow them to pay more - and they expect more," says Martha Logan, executive vice president of management for Post Properties in Atlanta, one of the industry's leaders.

The other group turning away from home ownership is empty nesters who, according to Ms. Logan, "want to enjoy life but don't want to be burdened with home maintenance issues."

While the exact numbers are unclear, the Washington-based National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) contends the already strong demand for upscale, high-density housing will continue to grow, due mostly to the rapid increase in childless households.

Thanks to baby boomers in their late 40s and 50s, the number of childless households is projected to increase by about 16 million from 1995 to 2010, says a NMHC report written by urban analyst J. Thomas Black.

"The prevailing view and limited evidence suggest that a significant portion will opt for higher-density, urban-style" housing close to work and entertainment "where community and home-based amenities are high," the report says.

BOTH young, affluent professionals and empty nesters demand - and can pay for - a higher level of service, explains Logan. And meeting the needs of this clientele can drive the quality and quantity of a property's amenities.

The combinations are endless, and include lines for fast Internet connections, remote-control security systems, full business offices, attached garages, concierge and valet services, car washes, and sports centers. Less tangible amenities include 30-day guarantees, same-day maintenance, and even relocation assistance.

While amenities like parquet floors, marble bathrooms, and granite kitchens may help move apartments, fitness, the faithful standby, remains a top priority for renters.

Fitness facilities are standard almost everywhere, but a few overworked pieces of exercise equipment aren't enough anymore, at least not in upscale complexes.

"People really do want more elaborate fitness equipment," Logan says. Fitness centers now rival independent gyms.

Not surprisingly, Manhattan apartments are taking the health angle one step further - and tailoring it to a dense urban area - by installing rock-climbing walls.

Based in Houston and San Diego, The Morgan Group is also addressing this increasing desire for luxury. Newer properties may include both a state-of-the-art fitness room and aerobics room. And the developer has added a putting green to one of its San Diego properties.

This health focus extends into eating as well. Some Post properties offer space for individual vegetable gardens. Residents can raise produce on their own eight by six feet plots of land - and Post staff will even help tend the garden.

The quest for amenities isn't just for fitness buffs. Some developers are including movie theaters in high-end properties. They are equipped for VCR, DVD, cable, or laser-disc viewing and feature 18 to 20 theater-style seats, surround sound, and a video library. Residents book the room the same way they would a clubhouse - with a refundable deposit and advance notice.

Some upscale apartments even offer wine cellars, high-tech clubhouses with computer rooms and periodical libraries, and sports pub/party rooms, complete with billiards tables.

One factor driving the selection of certain amenities is the notion that the apartment community truly is a home - not a stop on the way to home ownership. Some of Post's new properties are mixed-use villages with town squares, restaurants, banks, dry cleaners, and other retailers. Some are intentionally located adjacent to malls and shopping centers.

Developers also recognize the growing presence of telecommuters: Apartments often are wired for Internet access, multiple telephone lines, and built-in computer desks. A few even offer business-office services. Soon, renters may never have to leave their apartment complexes.

But when they do, things are taken care of for them. "People are traveling more than ever," says Alan Patton, executive vice president of The Morgan Group. Living in an apartment community, "they have fewer worries."

And if worry-free is what they want, worry-free is what developers will continue to provide. "People lead busy lives," says Carol Smith of The Marketing Directors, a New York real-estate marketing and brokerage firm. "You have to give them what they need."

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