If there’s one constant in the property management industry, it’s that there is no constant in the property management industry.
Every day, every week, is different. There’s never a dull moment; it’s always challenging. And the biggest complaints managers deal with on a daily basis seem to revolve around the three “P”s—pools, pets and parking, with a fourth P being “people.”
Ken Foley is principal of NextGen Property Management in Woburn, Massachusetts. He attests, “One day you wear your plumbing hat, then switch it off for your roofing hat, then all of a sudden you’re a psychologist, or a marriage counselor. And funny things do happen. One day I got a call [that] a hot water heater had exploded in a unit. I called the service guy and went over to the check the problem… The owner answered the door and requested ‘please take your shoes off,’ just as rusty water is swirling around on the floor.”
It’s amazing how different one day can be from the next. For instance, Foley notes, “Some years ago I was working for a small management company that got a request from a property in trouble, with unsold units—where the developer had died. This caused family ownership issues and problems with financing. It was a real mess, they were delinquent with sewer and water bills, things like that. They were using a big management company and they needed someone [smaller] to step in and steer them through and untangle the mess.
“By contrast,” he continues, “the very next night, I attended a board meeting at a different, more well-to-do community, where there was a heated debate over whether to paint duck feet on the walkway from the clubhouse to the swimming pool. In this job, you’re dealing with people of all different income levels. While some communities barely manage with a finance committee, at the other extreme, you might see one with a flower committee, social committee or a welcome wagon in action.”
“One day,” adds Foley, “a couple of weeks ago, I met with the head trustee and a graphic designer, along with the sign-maker, to create a really nice sign [for the property entrance]. The association had collected about $14,000 in back-due fees from a unit owner, and we were able to use part of the money. That was a good day. Later that week, I was on the phone negotiating with insurance companies, trying to get better pricing for three of our properties. After that, I had to negotiate with a bank for a loan to do re-roofing and possibly vinyl siding and gutters at another property. It will require a special assessment for the unit owners but the amount hasn’t yet been determined. My plan is to come up with three options for the board to pick from.”
This illustrates a major theme among property managers—extensive hours of preparation that clients never see. “The majority of board members and property owners,” Foley states, are unaware of all the preparation. “For a five-minute presentation, to describe roofing options, it could maybe take three or four hours of work that they don’t see—all that effort behind the scenes. I may start with seven contractors; you have to be familiar with their work before you even start talking numbers and pricing, then narrow it down [to those three options].”
Keeping an Eye Out
Keeps Complaints Down
Steve Miller, a principal of Maguire Management in Hampton, New Hampshire, points out that condo board members or trustees “are typically novices in the business. Property managers really serve as consultants, with a variety of roles every day, assisting homeowners with repairs and [knowing about] current lending practices.”
Miller describes how an association’s reserve fund as well as language in condo docs are often scrutinized by mortgage lenders, especially since almost half of home mortgages are backed by some federal program, such as Federal Housing Administration or Veterans Administration (VA), not to mention the recent predominance of Fannie Mae [Federal National Mortgage Association] and Freddie Mac [Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation]. “Today, as an example, I spent two hours sending out 6D certificates for several different owners at different communities [in Massachusetts, 6D assures that all common area fees and outstanding special assessments have been paid by the current owner],” says Miller.
“With condos, the FHA has very strict requirements. I’ve had great clients with good credit and credentials who got turned down” and it was the fault of the language in the condo docs. He notes that it is the property manager’s task to help the association keep their documents up to current standards as required by financial institutions or government agencies.Miller described a list of daily tasks that were echoed by other property managers. “Mornings are spent on the phone or email, following up on complaint calls, contacting contractors and vendors for budgeted projects. After [office work] I might go out to properties where work projects are underway, maybe routine maintenance such as replacing siding or re-roofing. Right now, at one community, we’re painting garage doors.” An important advantage of visiting properties regularly is to nip problems in the bud. “If you’re proactive” by personally keeping an eye on things, he adds, “the complaint calls are much fewer.”
A recent day’s schedule, for instance, began with “one call from a unit owner describing a problem with his ceiling. The second caller was wondering why a walkway that suffered hurricane damage wasn’t repaired yet. The third call was our HVAC guy letting me know, so I could notify residents, that his work was starting” and he would soon be on their rooftops. There are also seasonal needs, Miller says, “Last week I sent out bid requests for snowplowing.”
A recurring reason for on-site visits is to keep residents informed about the presence of work crews and equipment, especially when contractors need access inside people’s units. Miller states, “You have to advise residents as best you can, two or three weeks before the project and then one week before. We can communicate by posting notices, using the association’s website, email and also send postal mail to owners who are not [on-site] residents. I’ll even go door to door as a last-minute reminder.”
Miller considers the trustees or board members as his “clients” and the unit owners as “customers,” and notes that educating new board members is another recurring task. Even though management answers directly to the board or trustees, he reports, “We try to provide help to all of them… especially… many residents who are senior citizens. We want to advise our ‘customers’ on appropriate contractors and discourage them from seeking help from the yellow pages.” Miller doesn’t want his clients or customers to fall for “Schneider-ism” and describes the pitfall of hiring a “Schneider”-type handyman (popularized on the 1980s “One Day at a Time” sitcom) “who really doesn’t know much of any one thing but can tinker at anything…. As the management company, we are responsible for contractors having insurance, certifications and references.”
As he points out, the risk is that building and maintenance trades are regulated differently in each state, and some are not regulated at all. While unit owners can have anyone do work inside their home, they’re often advised to hire skilled tradesmen that management uses and can recommend—workers who are already familiar with the property. “We don’t allow vendors to actively solicit for customers while they are working on our properties, but unit owners often approach them [if they need their services] and that’s fine,” Miller contends.
The theme of finding and keeping trusted contractors, and “surrounding yourself with the right vendors,” is voiced by virtually all managers. Olof Nelson, president of Consolidated Management Group in Greenwich, Connecticut, reports, “People seem to think the property manager is the one to come out and remove the tree from the driveway.”
He concurs with other managers about the vast amount of “behind the scenes” time that is involved, especially since managers “respond to the needs of a community on a daily basis… We’re always answering calls… but managers need to be able to do the job.”
For instance, he continues, “You must, as a manager, agree with the board on how to handle pesky unit owners. Remember that they are bugging the board members too. When unit owners start taking up too much time, the board and management have to present a unified front, like parents.
“There is not sufficient respect,” Nelson continues, “for property managers’ time. For instance, a board meeting can go on forever and not be productive. Sometimes you have to speak up and ask people to focus on what the property manager must deal with… and please, talk about the pool party later.”
With today’s technology, he admits that “communication now is better than ever.” For example, when a manager fails and loses a client, he says, it’s not that they don’t know how to be a property manager, “it’s that they’re not communicating enough… not calling back.”
Lack of communication can affect a board of directors too, making it difficult for the management staff to do their job. “Right now,” says Nelson, “I have a board that doesn’t get along… it’s two against two [since] the fifth member resigned because of all the in-fighting.” He stresses that board members or trustees must figure out how many hours from management staff they will need and allocate enough time to get the job done. The needs vary from one property or neighborhood to another, making any standard rate or formula useless. Management firms may have to customize contracts and accommodate unique requests.
For instance, Nelson says, “Even though our managers routinely visit each community, we had a new association with about 200 units and the board there wants us to walk the property twice a week to find problems before they become complaints.” He admits it’s a matter of perception, since “unit owners like to see the manager walking around, even though it doesn’t necessarily reflect a better job.”
The concept of anticipating problems to “nip them in the bud” has been adopted by some residents as well—with amusing results. Nelson recalls, “We had one unit owner who hosted a big, annual party, and she would send in payment of the condo fine [for excess noise] days before the party was held.”
Tim Paoli, director of acquisitions at Greater Boston Properties, agrees about clients’ perception when he states, “A lot of managers don’t know how to deal with people’s expectations. When dealing with those ‘hot button’ items, you have to make sure to use the correct forum [such as a committee, or annual meeting], so you can confront the issue head-on, with the correct information, and at the appropriate time.” When unit owners are taking up too much time with chronic or unreasonable complaints, Paoli concurs with Nelson about the management staff and board members maintaining a unified front. “If you have to just say ‘no’ to a homeowner, it’s wise to share all correspondence [with that owner] as a ‘blind copy’ to the board,” he maintains.
The key to success for any community property manager, Paoli summarizes, is that “You don’t look at it like managing properties—it’s more like managing personalities and people.”
Marie Auger is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.