Ask Mark Weisman, the president of Brownstone Real Estate in Boston, what makes a good managing agent, and his answer is simple: "You should be able to solve small problems before they become big problems—that's basically it."
This describes, in the proverbial nutshell, what every manager strives to accomplish. But how they go about solving the small problems varies from manager to manager—and, often, from client to client. Every management company and individual agent has their own management style. Some are very hands-on, very involved, while others prefer to act promptly when called upon, but otherwise let the boards of the buildings and associations in their portfolio handle the day-to-day work unencumbered.
How do good managers communicate? How do they stay organized? What challenges do they face in their day-to-day jobs? Let's take a look.
The managing agent is, among other things, a liaison between the board and residents, the board and vendors, residents and vendors, residents and residents, and even, occasionally, board members and other board members. The same skills that serve an ambassador in an embassy overseas apply to the managing agent's job.
The first and most important of those skills is the ability to communicate—not just with certain specific people, but to a whole range of different people.
"Communication is the key to life," says Ed Lyon, owner of Preservation Properties in Newton. For him, communication is so vital that everything else takes a back seat. "If you're not a good communicator, I don't care what strategies you use; you can't be a good manager. You can say anything—as long as they understand your point of view, if you communicate it effectively, you can avoid headaches."
Greg Skaff of Historic Bostonian Properties in Boston concurs. "You have to have great communication between the tenants and management," he says.
Property managers don't need a license to ply their trade in Massachusetts, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few universal job requirements for anyone wishing to excel in the field. The ability to communicate—to listen as well as to articulate—is the key component to a manager's professional toolkit, as it were.
"You don't really need [an official license]," says Weisman. "You can be a little guy with one shingle, one listing, and a phone—you can do just as well as the other guys."
One characteristic of a good communicator is the ability to hone the message—or, rather, the delivery of the message—to your audience. Every board is different, every building is different, every problem is unique—and each requires a customized approach.
"Some boards like to be told every little thing," says Weisman. "Some don't. Sometimes a board will say, 'Don't call us unless the bill is over $300.'"
Good managers recognize that different people process information differently, and react accordingly.
"I don't have one set management strategy," Lyon says. "I manage by personality and common sense above other skills."
Following closely behind communication in the pantheon of vital management skills is organization. A good manager must possess superlative organizational abilities. With so many properties to manage, so many residents in the properties, and so many vendors to coordinate, it takes talent to keep the machine humming.
"You have to be organized to be effective," says Weisman, adding that this is more true today than ever before. "More associations don't want to do anything themselves," Weisman says, when asked how the business has changed in the last decade. "Some don't even want to take their trash out. They want us to do everything—pay all the bills, keep the place clean—and just send them a bill every month."
Fortunately, technology has improved with the added workload, making organization somewhat less cumbersome—although an elephantine memory always helps.
"There's a lot of automation now," says Lyon, "a lot of good software."
Preservation Properties uses a program called Rent Manager to help organize the work, but there are a number of quality applications on the market depending on your needs.
The World Wide Web, too, has helped make managing agents more efficient. "The Internet has turned the business upside down," says Skaff. "The speed with which people can get a hold of us—e-mails, text messages. We don't have to be in the office all the time."
E-mail, too, has aided immensely. First, e-mail creates a record of every communication, easily sortable by date and topic. This helps tremendously with keeping on track.
E-mail also provides a less urgent means of communication. Before the advent of the web, every communication was either a phone call or a letter—too fast or too slow, in many cases.
"If it's not serious, send an e-mail," says Skaff. "If it is serious, you can get a hold of management via cell phone, if necessary."
Organization is also about follow-up. Managing agents need know that there is a problem, so they can call in the right person to fix it. They also need to know that the help they enlisted didn't flake out.
"You need to follow up," says Weisman. "Did the guys come and shovel? You don't know, because you don't live there."
Managing agents face numerous challenges in the day-to-day struggle to run their buildings effectively.
One of them is simply not living in the buildings they tend to. While they may visit their properties quite regularly, managers must rely on other people—vendors, residents, boards—to apprise them of the situation. Sometimes, this process breaks down, and there is an information problem.
"One time," Weisman recalls, "we got a call at quarter-to-five on the Friday before Christmas weekend. There was no heat in the building. The heat hadn't been working all day, but no one bothered to call until quarter-to-five. So we had to pay somebody time-and-a-half to go fix it —and there was only one resident in the building that weekend."
While incidents like that will happen from time to time, even to the best managers, knowing the playing field helps minimize the frequency. Good managers keep on top of everything.
"I get an e-mail list going," Weisman says, "so I can get in touch with everybody all at once. I know who the owners are, the tenants, the mortgagees. I like to see a lease before people move in, so I know if I'm going to be dealing with a headache." Lyon agrees.
"You need to be on top of everything—all the persons involved," he says. "You need to set the pace for the agenda. You need to be one to two steps ahead of the trustees, the tenants, the boards."
Managing agents, then, are the driving force behind the efficient operation of a property. Choosing the right one is one of the most important decisions a board has to make.
"Boards are sometimes made up of people who don't care," Weisman notes. "They do the job because somebody has to do it. They interview different companies, they talk, but afterwards they usually go with the guy with the best price."
This, he cautions, could wind up costing them in the long run. "I know some guys who charge a lower price," he says, "but every time they go over there, it's $50 to change a light bulb. Whenever a vendor arrives, he gets a cut." This winds up costing the building more than someone who charges a flat rate.
"What I get per month, I get per month," Weisman says.
When interviewing new managing agents, then, consider references, consider your level of comfort, and above all, read the fine print. If you keep those things in mind, and choose the managing agent whom you feel has the strongest communication and organizational skills, you'll save yourself headaches and dollars in the long run.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a contributor to The Boston Cooperator.