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Boards' and Managers' Role in Maintenance A Team Effort

According to legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, "The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual." The coach's wisdom can actually be applied to almost any life situation—sports, volunteers, and even businesses—particularly the business of property management.

In property management, it's not just one person who is responsible for keeping the building's lights on and the foundation sound. There's no such thing as an MVP—instead, there is an entire team of players responsible for maintaining a building and keeping its various components and parts functioning.

These teammates include a property manager, board members, maintenance staff, and outside contractors when necessary. In most cases, the team captain is the property manager who works with the property on a day-to-day basis, resolving problems or tagging the necessary teammate required to fix them.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with four Boston-area property managers and get a close-up of their daily routines and responsibilities with their team. They are: Rebecca Marston, a property manager and owner of Boston-based Marston and Voss Realty; Barbara Kansky, CMCA, PCAM, a senior property manager with Mediate Management Company, also in Boston; Jonathan Ziner, regional property manager and vice president of EP Management in Beverly; and Richard Williams, president of Paradigm Partners in Boston.

How much day-to-day involvement with building maintenance does the typical managing agent have when there is a problem in a building?

"I figure out who is responsible for fixing the problem, how to pay for it and whether board members get involved," says Marston. "If it's routine—such as a broken doorbell or light fixture—I'll take care of it. On the other hand, if a roof is leaking or a boiler goes out, then I'll have to call the board members in and talk to them about fixing the problem. Depending on the contract we have with the building, we are required to discuss with the board if the repair will cost more than what the contract says."

"[Our agents] will respond to calls about no heat or hot water, problems with the elevator, elevator entrapments, a fire or trouble alarm, leaks, jammed windows, cleaning issues in stairwells or lobbies, snow accumulation outside the building, apartment doors that need paint and so forth," says Kansky. "The managers in turn need to call in a professional immediately if someone's trapped in an elevator, or if there is no heat or hot water and the superintendent can't figure out what is wrong. Same goes for a severe leak that the super cannot determine the source of, or a problem shutting water off to a section of the building that needs to be shut down immediately. Fire alarms obviously require immediate responses as well."

What baseline level of knowledge should a manager have about a building's physical plant and equipment?

"If a building has a central boiler or chiller system or elevators, as most do in Boston proper," says Kansky, "the manager has to understand how those systems work and what signs might signal trouble, although the manager is not supposed to attempt any hands-on repairs.That would put the manager into a totally different classification for workers comp and liability. We rely on technical experts for service such as HVAC, heating/cooling consultants and service techs, elevator consultants and repair techs, professional engineers, et cetera."

"You want to know as much as possible," adds Ziner, "but you end up managing six to 12 properties, and you can't get to know them all. You should have enough knowledge to get the maintenance person or contractor, ask questions and make sure the problem is solved."

"We like to consider ourselves as generalists," says Williams, "not as experts on any one thing. You break a problem down in the simplest of terms. We'll make a call to XYZ vendor and tell them we've done four things to see if the problem can be fixed, but it can't so please come out."

Are property managers required to be licensed? Are there educational /training resources available? If property managers in Boston aren't required to be licensed, how does the industry regulate itself and the people working in it?

According to Marston, "There is no checkpoint. You know by a given manager's reputation, and I think that word-of-mouth spreads really quickly here. People respond to good service. You wouldn't last long [as a management company] if you didn't take care of buildings the way they wanted to be taken care of."

"It's a fact of life that in most states—other than Florida, California, New York, Virginia and a few others—that there's no training or licensing requirement for property managers," says Kansky."The industry tries to regulate itself through the Community Associations Institute (CAI), a national organization dedicated to fostering vibrant, competent and harmonious community associations."

"There are a variety of property management courses through the Institute for Real Estate Management (IREM) and CAI," says Ziner. "The courses are not required; it's only to see what's new out there in, say, boilers or lighting. Most are one-day courses."

IREM has been a source for education, resources, information and membership for real estate management professionals for over 70 years. It is an affiliate of the National Association of Realtors, serving the multi-family and commercial real estate sectors.

What's the chain of command when a resident has a maintenance-related problem—who should they call first, and how does the problem get solved from there?

"Each property varies," says Kansky, "but typically, residents will notify the building super or the front-door staff, who will then leave a message for the superintendent or log it into a book.Then the superintendent will investigate and either handle the problem or contact the manager for assistance and/or contact the appropriate vendor."

"If there isn't a manager on site they call here," says Ziner. "We then decide who gets them. Usually the maintenance staff will take care of the problem, rather than say, calling a plumber, because calling a plumber is a higher rate."

"Most residents know if it's a unit problem, they'll take care of it themselves," puts in Marston, "but if it's a building problem, they call me first. The smaller buildings don't have a super."

How do managers go about hiring contractors and other vendor/service providers to work on their buildings? What kind of say does the board have in that process?

"Managers and our clients have a list of preferred vendors," says Kansky, "and we will use the ones who we know provide excellent, timely service, who will respond quickly to an after-hours emergency, or those that have worked successfully in a building before.For most routine items, the boards know we will use their preferred vendors whenever possible.That way the vendors are familiar with the building, and this makes for quicker response and better service.If we think the repair will be costly, then we will get competitive bids and make recommendations to the board. If it's an emergency, we will call the board president or send e-mails to the full board asking for approval for what we propose needs to be done to resolve the problem, especially if it is an emergency situation."

"Budget is really important to get straight on a project," says Marston. "On larger jobs, you have a contract that structures the work, which makes it easier. If a contractor finds that he needs to add on additional items and is going over budget, I communicate with the board and get their approval."

During a maintenance project, what's the building/association manager's involvement with the building staff, or with the contractor and his/her team of workers - does the manager oversee the project, or just check in periodically?

"If we as a management company are charged with overseeing the project," says Williams, "the board pays us a fee to make sure the job gets done correctly. So it's our responsibility to keep the board alert to what's happening. You can't walk away from the project—you have to keep your eyes and ears open."

According to Marston, "It depends on the project. If it's a small one-day project, I'll meet with the head maintenance person or contractor and go over expectations and meet him on the property in the morning. I'll check the work and make sure it's completed the way we talked about. It's hard to be there every day if it's a longer project, such as a roof or window replacement, so you're on-site in the beginning, middle and end. The more familiar I am with contractor, the more I can communicate with him the way things are going as planned and trust his work."

What advice can you offer managing agents about mistakes that can be made and how to avoid those mistakes?

"Know what the problem is before you try and tackle it," advises Ziner. "Ask the residents to get involved—they are the ones experiencing the issue daily. Try to get the best vendors you can, and use them over and over—especially since they will know the building, and the heating system, and how to shut the water off. Stick with them."

"A management company needs to be cost-sensitive," adds Marston. "Some companies need to keep people busy and bill out like crazy. In cost-sensitive buildings, you'll think, 'Do I want to send a maintenance man up to post a notice for $50, or do I want to ask a resident to post something in the lobby for nothing?' You don't want costs spiraling out of control because of poor management. Get a lot of quotes on large projects that are undertaken because the costs can vary so widely."

"Don't play politics," says Williams. "I've yet to see a board where someone doesn't have a friend who has done roofing or landscaping. I think the biggest problem in the industry is you get forced to hire to a friend-of-a-friend. Get competitive bids and stay away from friends. It's the wisest piece of advice I can give."

According to Kansky, "The biggest mistake managers make is to think they can handle everything from small maintenance issues to large ones.We are expected to be experts on everything and we are not.We need to recognize when we need help and not be embarrassed to ask for it, or tell a board that something is not in our contract or beyond our capability and that an expert or consultant needs to be contacted. We know a lot about a lot of things, but we do not know everything about anything."

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a contributor to The Boston Cooperator.

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