There are plenty of people who think their jobs are difficult: politicians or professional football players, for example. Then there are those who know for certain their jobs are difficult. They’re called professional property managers.
While others may have to deal with angry voters or a 250-pound offensive lineman charging toward them, property managers are tasked with creating the perfect living environment and keeping dozens if not hundreds of people happy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“There’s a general sentiment among some managers that people don’t realize how hard working the managing agent is,” says Enid Hamelin, director of marketing for Bernstein Real Estate in Manhattan, and a former member of the board at her own building. “If they are a good agent and their work is seamless, they are taken for granted. The job is 24/7 and managers have to be available for anything that might come up. It’s important that people realize that this job requires dedication, and it’s a special person who can do it. They put their families on the back burner.”
Few people actively seek to burden the professional life of a property manager. There are certain issues that arise, though, that can throw wrenches in the smooth-running management machinery. Fortunately, these issues can be curbed with the proper awareness and willingness to change.
However, do not for a moment think that property managers are looking for sympathy. “Property managers exist to assist association boards in processing the business of the association,” says William Cannon, a property manager and sales agent at the property management firm Schermerhorn & Co., based in Evanston, Illinois. “You are working with people on very personal issues. These are their homes, and the responsibilities are huge. I don’t look at how people can make things easier for me, I look at how I can make things easier for people. That is my role in these relationships.”
Georgia Lombardo-Barton, president of the New York-based firm Barton Management LLC, agrees. “A property manager’s job is not ‘tough’—but it is complex,” she says. By reducing some of the issues that crop up on a regular basis for property managers, everyone wins because it allows them to focus on keeping the homes and buildings for which they are responsible at their best.
Identifying the Wrenches
One way to help reduce the stress and complexity of a manager’s job is to ensure that tasks are falling under the purview and responsibility of the right people. “Streamlining certain processes and hiring the right professional can facilitate a manager’s task list and satisfy a board’s expectations,” says Lombardo-Barton. “With matters that may require legal intervention, it would be best to hire an attorney. Questions about the building’s infrastructure should be handled by the building’s engineer. Additional oversight on an intricate renovation should be managed by the building’s architect.”
Part of getting the process right involves ensuring that expectations are fully explained and agreed upon when the manager/board relationship first begins. Then, too, it becomes important for everyone to remember, recognize and respect everyone’s individual roles. Good communication between the board members, the manager, residents and shareholders plays a large part in ensuring clear expectations and healthy working relationships from the day one.
Working With the Board
For the most part, the relationship between board members and management is a strong one, made deeper by the tribulations these two groups often must survive together. Sometimes, though, board members may inadvertently contribute to an elevated stress level for their management team, something that more often than not, stems from lack of experience or a misunderstanding of responsibilities.
“Board members are volunteers who, at first, may have little experience,” says Cannon. “They were elected and their responsibilities are very important so a property manager must educate along the way. Eventually, newer board members will gain enough experience so that the process becomes smoother. They will begin to recognize what is routine and what needs further examination.”
Disengaged boards also can unintentionally churn the waters, says another NYC manager. It is the manager’s job, then, to step in and help right the ship. “As property managers, we are there not only to help run the organization but also to make suggestions on policies and procedures,” he says. “If we have a board that’s maybe not on the money, it can make life harder.”
Part of remedying that situation is to strengthen and refine those lines of communication. The pros agree that a good manager will gain the trust of the board - which helps prevent the board from having to continually micromanage because they feel that they’re doing the manager’s job. “If that is the perception, the likelihood of resentment and other roadblocks to healthy communication can grow,” he adds.
When it comes to sharing information, too many voices can lead to confusion and trouble later. A common refrain among management pros is lack of cohesive communication from board to management. “If you have a seven-member board and seven people calling you with different information on the same issue, that can cause problems,” says one industry veteran.
To remedy that, many managers encourage their client boards to appoint one board member to be the management liaison—often the board treasurer, since that person is involved with finances and has handy access to other important paperwork and documents.
To smooth the path even further, it may be necessary for managers to remind board members that they are all working toward the same goal and that they have resources available to achieve those goals. “There are very high expectations for managers,” says Lombardo-Barton. “However, even within a manager’s internal office, there is a support system that a board member can turn to when having questions on matters concerning financials, purchase/lease packages, compliance items and administrative inquiries.”
Being there for each other can help ensure positive, strong relationships between boards and management. “Any number of issues can cause stress on board members who are just trying to donate some of their time and energy to contribute to the smooth operation of their property,” says Cannon. “It is a property manager’s role to recognize this and help process routine issues and unusual issues. Sometime this requires a property manager to talk someone in off the ledge or to spend time educating a person.”
Co-ops and condos were built solely to be inhabited by shareholders and unit owners, which means if they are not happy, then it is likely that the property manager will not be happy. One way to avoid that communal sorrow is for everyone who lives in the building or community to remember that they are part of a larger entity and that what they want may not necessarily align with what is best for that community as a whole.
“We are always compassionate toward resident issues, but we are also looking out for the good of the association,” says another manager. “People may get an answer they do not want to hear, or they’ll keep coming back to us hoping for a different answer. Sometimes we have to be the bearer of bad news. We’re looking out for you and the association together.”
Board members also have to remember that communal spirit. “Board members must be willing to give and take,” says Cannon. “Not all board members will agree on every issue, but if you follow board majority, then most members will get what they want most of the time. Take your votes and move on. Do not hang on votes where you were part of the minority.”
In addition to recognizing the difficult situations that managers may find themselves in when it comes to not being able to please all of the people all of the time, residents also can help managers by going to them first - and not the board - should an issue or concern arise. All the pros spoken to for this article agreed that when a building engages a manager, it’s vital that both board and residents allow that manager or firm to do the job they were hired to do. “Residents need to get away from going to the board immediately with problems,” says one manager. “It can make our job more difficult when individual board members get involved with issues between residents because then, when we learn about these problems, we’re not hearing about them first-hand.”
Some problems that raise a manager’s blood pressure stem from financial or capital sources. One of the primary issues that cause grief for managers are buildings that run into financial trouble from lack of planning and preparation. A building that does not properly fund its reserves for capital replacements or put aside funding for preventative maintenance will “always find themselves behind the eight ball,” in the words of one manager. And that puts everyone under stress, as assessments are levied and residents find themselves on the hook for large cash outlays that could have been lessened—or even avoided entirely—if the board had acted more prudently or proactively. And that resident anger puts everyone under fire, with board members and managers at the head of the line.
Cannon also cites “lack of follow-through by contractors” as a potential source of strife. He urges the selection of reliable contractors and suggests that board members and managers “do a lot of follow-up” to reduce the odds of disharmony and increase the odds of happy, satisfied residents and shareholders.
There are times, too, when a manager is limited in what he or she can do to solve a particular problem. They want to meet the requests and demands of board members, unit owners or shareholders but are prohibited by bylaws, city ordinances, state laws or other factors that prevent them from taking action right away.
Cannon cites one particular example. If there is a hoarder in a building and a strong odor coming from that unit, then the manager may begin receiving requests to remedy that situation. In Chicago, though, while the documents may state that the association has the right to access the unit with 24-hour notice, it also may say that if the owner does not cooperate, then action must be taken with the court to gain entry. “That could take 90 days and cost thousands of dollars,” Cannon says.
Meanwhile, board members, neighbors and other residents may begin urging management to contact the health department of other various entities to intervene. “They become frustrated because no one can make any headway with the owner because he is refusing help,” says Cannon. “Now it has been two weeks and they are frustrated because the foul odor is still there and a right to access a unit appears to not be so strong of a tool. They keep asking what else can be done to get this resolved immediately and the truth is, without the owner’s cooperation, there is no immediate solution.” Instead, the solutions at hand will take time via a complex process.
Should board members or residents lose their cool during this process, it not only will make the manager’s job more difficult, it also still will not help solve the problem at hand. The goal is to remember that everyone is on the same team.
With other, less visceral long-term issues, keeping everyone updated and informed can go a long way toward making the job easier for managers. “Providing the board with weekly updates on pending matters will ultimately give everyone involved an understanding of how matters are progressing and also assist the manager with realizing when more aggressive follow-up is necessary, if a particular situation is lagging toward a conclusion,” says Lombardo-Barton.
Easing the Burden
All the pros interviewed for this piece took pains to point out that perennial headaches may exist, but that’s the case with any job. Hamelin says that while managers might have pet peeves, the best of them understand that dealing with those hassles is just part of their job. “A manager might say their pet peeve is having to handle two neighbors who are complaining to each other—but that’s [the manager’s] job,” she says. “If they are handling noise complaints, they go to the proper authorities to do so, but again, that’s what their job is. Their biggest pet peeve is when they think that others aren’t realizing what they do, the commitment and how hard they work. They are the front line and urban warriors.”
A good manager will have a realistic view of their job and know that it’s one with great rewards, the most important of which is helping to build a community that people love. If board members and residents want to make their manager’s lives just a little bit easier, it never hurts to show kindness, support and a willingness to listen. After all, that’s the neighborly thing to do.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.