(Last updated: May 14, 2021)
Welcome to your intercom journey!
Whether you’re replacing an existing apartment intercom system or deciding on one for a new building, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to help you find one that fits your budget, makes tenants’ lives easier, and improves building operations for property managers and owners.
As you begin your search, you’re probably wondering: what is the right intercom system for my building? That all depends on your unique needs and priorities. Perhaps security is a concern, or maybe you’re constantly missing deliveries. Maybe you also need to provide remote property access to visitors. Whatever you’re seeking, there’s an intercom system that will meet your needs. Today’s apartment intercoms offer wireless installation, video calling, and smartphone-based access — and it’s important to understand the costs and benefits of each.
To help you find the right intercom for your multi-tenant apartment building, we’ve created this complete guide. It describes all the important features and decisions you should consider.
This guide will answer:
- What is an apartment intercom system
- How does an apartment intercom work
- Why every multi-tenant building needs an intercom
- The 14 most important things to consider before making a purchase
- What’s the best apartment intercom system
What is an apartment intercom system
Sometimes called an apartment buzzer, an apartment intercom system is an electronic device that enables two-way communications and grants property access between building tenants and their visitors. Installed at the entryway of a building, the intercom includes a microphone, a speaker, and sometimes a camera. The intercom captures audio and video and transmits them to each tenant, which lets tenants see and speak with visitors before giving them access to the building.
The modern apartment intercom is the product of many innovations throughout history. Beginning with the first telephone entry system patented in 1894 to the cloud-based intercoms available today, these systems have become essential tools for apartment living.
Today’s intercom systems:
- Allow residents to open and manage doors from anywhere
- Let managers instantly add, revoke, and review property access
- Reduce installation and maintenance costs for property owners and developers
Images of video intercom systems
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How does an apartment intercom work
When a visitor needs access to an apartment building, they use an intercom system installed at its entryway. To enter the building, the visitor must use a directory on the intercom to look up the person they would like to request property access from. Typically, visitors call a resident or staff member.
When the visitor has found the individual in the intercom’s directory, they push a ‘call‘ button to notify them. The tenant or staff member receives this notification on either a buzzer installed in their apartment unit or on another device such as a smartphone. From there, the resident or building staff can either dismiss the call, talk to the visitor, or open the door.
If the tenant or staff member decides to open the door for the visitor, an electronic relay is triggered inside of the intercom installed at the building’s entrance. Triggering this relay sends a signal to a door releasing mechanism (an electronic or magnetic lock), which unlocks the door at the entryway and lets the visitor enter the property.
Watch how ButterflyMX works:
Why every multi-tenant building needs an intercom system
Though intercom systems are commonly seen in residential buildings, they are also necessary for commercial buildings. This is because multi-tenant intercom systems have directories that visitors can use to call tenants within the building. Other property access solutions, such as video doorbells or access control systems, don’t.
Video doorbells are built for single-unit buildings, such as homes, apartments, and condos. They lack a directory for visitors to select the tenant they’re visiting in a multi-unit building. Also, they don’t have electronic relays to unlock the door, which means tenants and building staff have to manually open the door for guests.
And while access control systems offer many benefits, they are designed to only manage property access for tenants and building staff. Just like video doorbells, access control systems lack a directory. As a result, visitors such as friends, family members, and food or delivery drivers cannot notify individual tenants and staff when they need access to the property.
More reasons every building needs an intercom:
- Keep your building secure and your tenants safe. Intercoms are a vital layer of security that lets staff and tenants control who enters the building. They give tenants peace of mind that anyone who visits the property has been vetted and authorized.
- Enable package deliveries. Package management is a huge pain point for property staff. With an intercom in your building, staff and tenants can grant seamless property access to couriers. Some intercoms also connect with solutions like package lockers and package rooms.
- Allow seamless communication between tenants and visitors. Multi-tenant properties need a way to communicate with visitors and grant them property access. An intercom is the best solution.
- Added convenience. Modern tenants want convenience. Don’t make them go downstairs to open the front door for guests — let them grant remote property access with an intercom.
- Deliver an excellent living and working experience and retain tenants. The security and convenience an intercom brings to your building will help shape a positive experience and keep your renters year after year.
The 14 most important things to consider before buying an apartment intercom:
- Is it wireless or wired
- Does it provide video capabilities
- Is there a mobile app
- Is it a cloud-based intercom
- How will it release the door
- Can it integrate with other systems
- How does it help with deliveries
- Will it call a front desk or individual residents
- How much does the intercom hardware and installation cost
- Which property access methods will it offer
- Does it need to manage multiple entrances
- Are there contactless and touchless entry options
- Will there be any ongoing service fees
- Does the company have a good reputation and track record
1. Wireless vs. wired apartment intercom systems
Intercom systems can be wired or wireless — and we can’t stress the importance of this choice enough. When selecting an apartment intercom system, you need it to be wired when it’s important, and wireless when it’s not.
When apartment intercom wiring is important
We generally recommend against intercoms that operate over a cellular connection or WiFi. Systems with a wired internet connection are far more reliable. Cellular or WiFi issues outweigh the benefits of a wireless connection. Instead, use a direct connection to the internet.
Buildings are made of concrete, steel, and lots of copper wiring. These materials cause issues for most wireless devices. Internet connectivity issues frustrate residents, couriers, and visitors alike. Imagine your visitor being stuck outside in a rainstorm, and you’re unable to open your door for them because of your intercom’s internet connection.
We suggest you pick an intercom that is wired directly to the internet and the door it controls. This way, no one’s ever stuck outside in the rain.
When apartment intercom wiring is not important
Wiring and installation costs will quickly add up if your intercom requires wiring to each apartment unit. What should be a quick and easy addition to your property becomes a costly and time-consuming project. On top of that, future upgrades will require you to rewire the building all over again. To save time and money, select an apartment intercom that does not require building wiring to each apartment or in-unit hardware to receive calls.
96% of Americans own a cell phone, and 81% of them own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center. There is no longer a reason to spend time and money installing wiring and hardware in each unit. Instead, residents can use their smartphone to speak with visitors and buzz them up.
A good intercom system will send those calls to residents’ cell phones so they can speak with visitors and open the door for them. A better intercom system will let you send video calls to a mobile app so residents’ can see visitors. The best intercom system will let you do both.
This type of hybrid system is a great choice. It ensures that residents who don’t have a smartphone can still get calls and provide access. It also prepares your building for a future where 100% of Americans have a smartphone and will receive video calls through a mobile app.
Multi-tenant apartment buildings are made of dense materials. These materials interfere with your intercom system’s wireless internet connection. To ensure your video intercom works as intended, do not use WiFi or a cellular signal to connect your intercom system to the internet. Instead, connect it directly to your building’s internet.
Avoid wiring the intercom system from the entryway to each apartment unit. It is expensive to install and maintain. And since everyone has a smartphone that can receive video calls, choose an apartment intercom with a mobile app. This way you can save time and money by not buying and installing building wiring and apartment hardware.
- Connect your intercom directly to the internet
- Avoid a system that requires building wiring and apartment unit hardware
- Pick an intercom system that makes video calls to smartphones
2. Apartment intercom systems with video
The ability to transfer video is a major benefit of ditching a telephone-based intercom and upgrading to a video intercom. Telephone entry systems cannot provide video because their analog signal cannot carry the data load. Nothing takes up more bandwidth than video transfer.
Plus, today’s apartment residents get countless visitors in the form of friends, family, service providers, and delivery people. While you may remember a time when you could trust anyone you let into your building, those days are gone. Thanks to social media, the rise of e-commerce, and the gig economy, tenants need to be able to see who they’re letting into the building.
An intercom with a built-in video camera is a security must-have because:
- Residents and building staff can see who is at the door before letting them into the building. This lets you confirm that your visitors are who they say they are.
- It can reduce the risk of vandalism. When a visitor approaches your property and sees themselves displayed on the intercom screen, they will believe they are being recorded. A reminder that a camera is watching is all someone needs to not vandalize your property or break-in.
Some video intercom systems also document all door entries with a picture for added security. Property staff and residents have a management dashboard to view time- and date-stamped photos of who has entered the building.
3. Mobile app operations
For the best resident experience, select an apartment intercom with a mobile app.
Intercom systems that pair with a mobile app allow you to open the door from anywhere in the world. This lets renters grant entry to delivery people and service providers — such as house cleaners or dog walkers — even when they aren’t home. It also lets building staff grant remote property access to maintenance people and prospective renters. If your intercom also has video capabilities, you can see who is at their door before letting them in via a smartphone call.
Finally, intercoms with a mobile app let you see everyone who has called or messaged from the intercom. You’ll also get a history of door releases.
Before choosing a system that comes with a mobile app, check the app’s ratings. If users report that the app is buggy, unreliable, or the app simply has no reviews, it might not be the right fit. The last thing you need is for your residents, staff, or visitors to be locked outside because the app doesn’t work.
4. Cloud-based intercom systems
Property staff isn’t always on-site. Just like tenants want to remotely open the door for their guests, property staff wants to remotely manage their intercom system. Choose a cloud-based video intercom with online management capabilities so building staff can remotely manage who enters the building.
Cloud-based intercoms also allow property managers and owners to remotely:
- Update the resident directory
- Add/revoke tenant permissions
- Offer self-guided tours, eliminating the need for an onsite leasing agent
- View audit trails of door releases to keep track of who has entered the building
5. Apartment intercom system with door release
An apartment intercom system requires a door release device. This allows tenants and building staff to open the door for visitors by simply pushing a ‘door open’ button. When someone pushes the ‘door open’ button, a relay on the intercom sends a signal to the door release device to unlock the door. The door release device is typically an electronic strike or magnetic lock.
The difference between electronic strikes vs magnetic locks is small but important. Electronic strikes are considered fail-secure, which means they require power to unlock the door. In contrast, magnetic locks are considered fail-safe, which means they require power to lock the door. Choosing the right one for your building depends on your security needs. We recommend speaking with a licensed electrician in your state to understand which door release device is right for your apartment building.
6. Integrations with other systems
We’ve established that residents want convenience, but why shouldn’t that go for property managers, too? Choose an apartment intercom system that can connect with the other systems you’re using, whether that’s your property management or access control system.
For example: if you connect your intercom to your access control system or you wire it directly to the automatic door operator, you can provide touchless entry into your property.
Another example: If your apartment intercom connects to your property management system, you won’t have to waste time updating multiple databases. When you add or remove tenants from your property management system, they’re automatically added or removed from your intercom, too.
For residents, connecting to other proptech amenities such as smart locks provides a seamless living experience. Tenants can open the building door and their apartment door from the same mobile app. If you can’t make all these upgrades, focus on overall property access before individual unit access. After all, everyone accesses the building’s front door, but only limited people need access to apartment doors. Choosing a multi-tenant intercom with integrations will allow you to continually improve your property in the future.
The most important reason to select an apartment intercom with integrations is that you’ll have total control over what technology you install in your building. You won’t be locked into one company for smart locks or access control. This is even more important if you already have those systems up and running.
7. How will it help with deliveries
With the growth in e-commerce, managing package deliveries has become a big issue for apartment renters and owners. With everything from a bar of soap to a king-sized bed being ordered online, apartment buildings are having a difficult time accepting and storing all of the packages. What’s worse is when the delivery person cannot access the property to make their delivery. They’ll either leave a note on the door or leave the package outside — both are not great outcomes. You need an apartment intercom system that ensures you never miss a package delivery.
Look for a system that allows you to create delivery PINs that can be given to a delivery person. This way, they can access the building and make their delivery without the involvement of tenants or building staff. The intercom should also take a photo of anyone who uses a delivery PIN, just in case it needs to be deleted for any reason. Once the delivery person is inside the building, they can either leave the package in the lobby or store it in a package room or package locker. Package rooms provide a secure and convenient way to receive and store packages at your building.
8. Front desk vs. multi-tenant intercom system
You’ll have to decide between a front desk intercom — which only places calls to the front desk or leasing office — and a multi-tenant video intercom that lets visitors call a specific tenant within the building. In nearly every situation, multi-tenant intercoms are better.
They are more convenient for residents, who can speak directly with their visitors. And for building staff, who don’t have to man the intercom system at the front desk around the clock. Property managers are always on the go: showing apartments, fixing issues, and interacting with tenants. They don’t have time to receive calls from the intercom and grant property access.
Front desk intercoms are too limited for modern multifamily buildings that have many visitors. Multi-tenant intercoms are much better suited to accommodate package deliveries, on-demand services like dog walkers, food deliveries, and other visitors.
9. Intercom hardware and installation costs
Today’s intercom systems cost between $1,000 and $5,500, which does not include installation or maintenance fees. While intercom hardware varies in price, it’s easy to estimate the total hardware cost because the price is known. Installation and maintenance costs, however, are more difficult to calculate. Each installation company will estimate its fee based upon the materials needed and the difficulty of the installation. And ongoing maintenance costs will vary depending on the number of hardware purchased and the amount of wiring used to install that hardware. Since every building has different hardware and wiring needs, you need to contact a certified installer and compare your options.
Five factors that affect intercom hardware and installation costs:
- The number of intercom systems needed. If your building has one entryway, you may only need one intercom system. However, if your building has multiple entries such as side doors, garage entrances, etc. you may need to purchase multiple intercom systems for each door.
- Location of installation. Intercoms installed on a wall near the door it controls will typically be cheaper to install than an intercom mounted on a pedestal 20 feet away. This is because of the additional labor and materials needed. Expect to pay more if your install requires running new wiring, knocking down walls, etc.
- The intercoms wiring requirements. Wiring costs can add up quickly. From purchasing the cables to opening up walls to run those cables to hiring people to do all the work. If the intercom system you select requires wiring throughout your building, the total price tag will be higher.
- Installing hardware in every apartment unit. If you choose an apartment intercom system that requires in-unit hardware, you’ll have a higher upfront bill. Not only do you need to purchase the additional in-unit hardware, but you will also need to pay the labor and material costs to install it. In addition, your future maintenance and upgrade costs will be larger since all of the in-unit pieces of hardware must be maintained or replaced.
- Your installer’s knowledge. Possibly the most expensive cost is an inexperienced installer. They can recommend unnecessary costs, damage your building, or worse. If your installer is not certified, you may end up paying more than you need to. Only a certified installer should accurately assess your building’s unique requirements, provide an estimate, and install your intercom system safely and correctly.
Before you pick an apartment intercom system for your building, be sure to get a quote for both the price of the hardware and the installation. Reputable companies will not only ensure you’re paying the best price on hardware, but they’ll also connect you with a local certified installer that will get the job done right.
10. Property access methods
Aside from enabling communication between residents and visitors, intercom systems provide remote property access. Traditional intercom systems usually only offer a door-open button on in-unit hardware — think of the old-school buzzer system where a resident pushes a button in their apartment to open the door for their guest. Over the years, however, intercom systems have been designed to offer added property access methods.
Property access methods include:
- Door PINs: Some systems allow residents to create their own door PIN, which they can enter at the intercom panel to unlock the door. Property admins can also assign door PINs to couriers to simplify package deliveries.
- Mobile app: If you choose an intercom with a mobile app, residents can open the door from their smartphone.
- Virtual keys/QR codes: Some intercoms offer a virtual key feature. Virtual keys are QR codes that a resident can send to visitors for easy property access.
- Facial recognition: Some intercom systems offer facial recognition technology. Residents can use this feature to unlock the door simply by looking at the intercom’s camera.
- Voice controls: Modern intercoms may offer integrations with Alexa– and Siri-enabled devices, allowing residents to open the door with just their voice.
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth-enabled intercom systems let residents open the door with a device that has been connected to Bluetooth.
11. Managing multiple entrances
Will your apartment intercom system need to control multiple building entrances? Perhaps you have a vestibule with two doors in a row. If this is the case, sometimes you may want both doors to open (like when a tenant grants property access to a guest). At other times, you would like just the first door to open (like when a delivery person is dropping off a package). Asking yourself questions about how you want your intercom system to work is important. Many intercom systems can only support granting access to one door.
The best intercom systems will also give you the ability to manage multiple entrances from an online portal. This way, you can control each individual door and update your system remotely without being on-site.
12. Contactless and touchless entry options
Touchless and contactless building entry options are becoming increasingly important for apartment buildings.
Contactless entry is the ability to provide remote property access to a visitor. This means you can grant property access to guests, delivery people, and maintenance professionals remotely — without physically being at the building or coming within close contact with that individual. Apartment intercom systems that offer contactless entry options are a must-have for tenants who are always on the move. They’re also crucial for building staff who work remotely or manage multiple properties.
Watch how touchless entry works with ButterflyMX:
Touchless entry allows residents, visitors, and building staff to open doors without touching them. Touchless entry for apartment buildings adds convenience and safety to a property. It’s convenient to not have to manually pull open building doors while your hands are full of groceries. It’s also safer because it reduces the risk of spreading germs through contact. In order to offer touchless entry at your building, be sure the apartment intercom system you pick has the ability to connect to an automatic door opener.
13. Ongoing service fees
In addition to budgeting for hardware and installation costs when buying an intercom, you may also have to budget for ongoing service fees. Some traditional intercoms may only require a one-time payment for equipment and installation. However, future maintenance and update costs will quickly add up and you will end up paying more over the long run for a system that actually does less.
If you choose an apartment intercom system with cloud-based management, you may have to pay a small fee for the software and ongoing updates. But this also ensures that you’re receiving the latest features, functionality, and integrations with other useful services such as food and package delivery providers.
The price of software for cloud-based systems varies between companies and systems, so be sure to request a quote before making a purchase.
14. Company reputation and track record
If you’ve narrowed down your options to just a couple of intercom systems but still can’t choose, take a look at the company’s reviews. See what others are saying about their products. The apartment intercom you install should be a worthwhile investment that lasts for years to come. So, be sure to buy from a company with a positive reputation and a strong track record of reliability and service.
Search for reviews of the company online before purchasing. You can also ask fellow real estate professionals for their advice and opinions.
Finally, it’s also smart to purchase an apartment intercom from a company that offers live support in the event you need it. Some intercom providers simply don’t have the staff to offer ongoing live support. Others are based outside of the U.S. in different time zones and cannot provide live support at the times you’ll need it.
What is the best apartment intercom system?
You’ve read this guide, done your research, and asked yourself all the tough questions. You know which features you want in your apartment intercom system. But how do you know which intercom to select?
Choose a ButterflyMX intercom
We’ve reviewed the best video intercoms for apartments, and ButterflyMX is the clear winner. In addition to opening and managing doors with a smartphone, ButterflyMX lets you grant remote access for guests. It offers touchless entry options and integrates with your property management system. Also, it eliminates the need for building wiring and in-unit hardware. The intercom features an intuitive touchscreen display and a mobile-first user experience. Since launching in 2015, ButterflyMX has been installed in more than 5,000 buildings and more than 465,000 units. The company also has the most five-star reviews in the industry with more than 6,000.