Making a Profit on Multi-Unit Housing

Features - Commercial Pest Control

It is possible to control German cockroaches in multi-family housing and earn a profit doing so, but you’ll need to make some changes first.

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August 11, 2019

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Controlling German cockroaches in multi-family housing is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. Sure, the pest is formidable. So is getting customers to cooperate. But the greatest barrier to successful control, say pest management professionals, is the thin profit margin on these jobs.

Low-income housing, in particular, is notorious for awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. These contracts usually are bid ‘per door’ with little regard for the sanitary conditions and level of infestation found inside the individual units. As such, PMPs often are torn between giving the property manager exactly what he or she paid for and spending more time in units to get the job done right.

Experts and pros-in-the-know said it is possible to solve German cockroach problems and make a profit at these properties, but this requires some changes in treatment protocol and business practices.

Burt’s Pest Control in Columbus, Ind. revamped how it approached these jobs 10 years ago. “It really changed things for us” compared to “spraying door after door after door,” said Owner Doug Foster.

A sustainable, profitable control program puts the focus on:

ASSESSMENT. First, assess every apartment in the complex. Do this by conducting inspections or by placing large sticky traps in units for 24 hours and then counting (or visually estimating) the number of trapped roaches to determine each unit’s level of infestation.

Categorize units as having low, medium and high levels of infestation. If a unit has no cockroach activity, strategically place sticky traps so they can be evaluated at the next inspection.

THE WORST INFESTATIONS. Instead of doing a cursory treatment in every unit, focus your efforts only on units with cockroach problems or on those with the worst infestations. These units may require more frequent, even weekly, service visits.

Virginia Tech entomologist Dini Miller successfully field-tested an assessment-based program for German cockroaches in low-income housing last year. Based on this protocol, she urged pest management professionals to treat the top 25 percent of the most-infested units for three months. Then, move onto the medium-infested units for three months, followed by the minimally infested apartments. After the first year, monitor all the units again to determine how to re-divide them up for treatment, she said.

(CREATIVE) USE OF BAIT. Gel bait is more expensive and takes longer to apply in apartments than liquid insecticide spray but it can be more effective, reported PMPs. Gel bait was the primary control measure used by 46 percent of pest management companies, according to the PCT 2019 State of the Cockroach Control Market survey that was sponsored by Syngenta and conducted by Readex Research, an independent market research firm.

Miller applied an entire tube of bait (30 grams) in units with high infestation levels, or where 100-plus roaches were initially caught in sticky traps. If more than 500 cockroaches were trapped over the following two weeks, she applied two tubes of bait in that unit. Apartments with medium infestations (50-100 trapped cockroaches) got 15 grams or a half tube of bait; low infestations (0 to 50 cockroaches) received 7.5 grams of bait.

Controlling German cockroaches in multi-family housing is one of the industry’s biggest challenges, in part because the profit margin is so thin on these jobs.
©ivanastar | iStock

Miller applied bait to folded squares of wax paper and slipped the packets into cabinets, behind stoves and refrigerators, underneath microwaves and into stacks of clutter and mail where the roaches were harboring. Similarly, Trey Howard, owner of Bug Out Pest Solutions in De Queen, Ark., puts bait between small pieces of cardboard, which are easier to insert into hard-to-access areas near appliance motors and that also prevent the bait from fouling the machinery.

Rotate bait active ingredients every 90 days to help prevent bait aversion and insecticide resistance in German cockroach populations.

In addition to get bait, Foster’s team uses dust products and exclusion (foam/caulk) to permanently seal harborages. “Very seldom do we use liquid sprays anymore for this type of service,” he said.

LITTLE OR NO PREP. By using baits, PMPs do not need to ask residents to prepare their apartments prior to cockroach treatment like they do when using liquid spray. Removing the contents of cabinets and shifting clutter around likely drives the roaches deeper into harborage areas, Miller said.

“There are a million reasons why the residents need to clean up but cockroach control is not one of them,” said Miller, who got control of the pests in her study without burdening residents with this task. The no-prep approach is similar to how bed bug treatments are trending, said PMPs.

RE-EDUCATING PROPERTY MANAGERS. One of the biggest hurdles to a program like this is getting property managers on board. They want every unit treated three or four times a year (whether units have problems with cockroaches or not) because that’s what they know to ask for, said Foster, who admitted to getting “a lot of resistance” from property managers early on.

“They’re not used to someone saying, ‘Hey, that’s not our program.’ Most companies just kind of follow along and say, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want. Here’s our price,’” he said.

Miller urged PMPs to negotiate separate contracts for assessing and then treating units.

STICKING IT OUT. Burt’s Pest Control lost some existing clients when it changed its program and it missed opportunities to bid new jobs because property managers didn’t want the new approach.

The turning point came eight years ago when the company took on a 300-plus-unit apartment complex known for having the worst cockroach infestation in the city. The complex was spending $20,000 a year on German cockroach control and the problem was worse than ever, Foster recalled.

“Within six months we had it down to where we had maybe three units that were having problems and that opened everybody’s eyes,” he said.

Miller likewise saw “miraculous results” in her study. Summer cockroach trap counts dropped from 800 to 1,000 roaches caught in a single night to one or zero, she said. She continued to trap “onesie-twosies” in units for some time after the initial knockdown, treating these as low-level infestations.

Foster said the new program has been a hit with technicians, who no longer have to scramble between units, find the right keys to enter them, and unnecessarily disturb residents. “It actually improved the morale of the guys who were doing the multi-unit housing. They took more pride of ownership” in that they could actually make a difference, he said.

Best of all, these jobs are now more profitable. Instead of getting $5 a door, the company is earning $20 to $35 a door, although the doors are fewer because they’re only working in units with cockroach problems, said Foster.

“We keep reminding our guys that not all work is good, profitable work and to have the confidence to charge what you need to charge and to change your ways of doing things,” he said.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.