Fifty years ago, residents new to a neighborhood might be greeted by a Welcome Wagon hostess in an A-line skirt and perfect matte lipstick bearing a basket full of goodies from local merchants. She'd give the homeowners the lowdown on who's who, what's what and leave the new neighbors with the warm and fuzzy feeling that their new community, especially the local merchants, really cared.
Now, with the proliferation of the two-income family, no one's home to receive the Welcome Wagon hostess (she has her MBA and a six-figure job at a consulting firm anyway). So who's responsible for the orientation of the new residents in today's busy co-op and condo buildings? The answer varies as much as the buildings and homeowners do.
"Typically, the buildings that we have that go the extra step and welcome new residents into the building has been by way of a board-appointed committee," says Mark Levine of Excel Bradshaw Management Group in Carle Place."Not every building does this but it adds a nice touch and an extra level of service from the building."
"The managing agent and the superintendent are the welcoming committee," says Steven Gold, president of Hudson View Associates in Manhattan. "They are the first people to meet the new shareholders as they are moving in."
A Welcome Wagon?
"Our buildings don't really do a welcome wagon thing. Most of the orientation is done at the initial interview," says Peter Lehr of Kaled Management in Westbury. "If we take on a new account, a new building, we might hold a meet-and-greet. We put out a spread and make our presence known to the residents, answer their questions and concerns. But otherwise we leave orientation to management. We send out a letter identifying who the building manager is."
Lawrence Lambert, board president of a 120-unit cooperative, Vanderbilt Plaza in Brooklyn, says board members spearhead the welcoming process in his building. "Our cooperative does not have a formal 'welcome wagon' procedure, but like most—if not all—cooperatives, potential purchasers must attend an interview with a screening committee made up of board members. Besides reviewing the applicants' financials, we use the interview as a time to get to know each other and to provide basic information about the building and the neighborhood. We also invite the applicants to ask questions about the building, rules or procedures or whatever is on their minds," Lambert says.
James Freeman, co-op board president for the Inwood Tenants Association, says his building relies on their management company. "The management company may provide a buyer with the co-op proprietary lease, which is full of important information. Also, when the board meets the prospective buyer we go over the house rules."
In the old days the information a new resident might require was pretty basic: schools, sanitation, shopping. But information has changed just as much as the housing market. So what does a new resident need to know? And how, in an age when residents spend more time out of their units than in them, is that information delivered?
According to Levine, the necessary information to begin with is the building's house rules and regulations, alteration and decoration agreements and all contact information from the superintendent to the managing agent.
The House Rules
"Most of these items are delivered at the board interview with the prospective purchaser and are initialed that they are received," Levine says."This procedure maintains that once the resident moves into the building, the board would have recourse should this particular resident not abide by the governing rules of the cooperative."
Lehr says his company uses the transfer meeting to give new residents the house rules. At that meeting, residents are also given refrigerator magnets with the police, fire and poison control numbers, as well as the building management numbers.
"We also encourage them to go online to our website and give us their e-mail address. That way we can let them know in advance about any building issues via e-mail," Lehr says.
Gold says his company also relies on meetings to orient new residents. "When a potential purchaser meets the interview committee, they go over the house rules and policies of the building. It's a very good time for the committee to get a feel for the person they are going to approve or disapprove by how they pay attention and ask questions about the building," Gold says.
"New residents need to know two important things," Freeman says. "First they need to know the house rules. They're most important in the short term. How and when to dispose of trash, what you can and can't put in the hallways, when the porter comes through, what he does, what the live-in super can and will do for you, when you need to slip him money for service and when it's fair to assume he'll do things for free. The other—and much more important matter—is the logic or structure of co-ops. People need to know what co-ops are, legally and figuratively, and most don't. I do my best to give them a lesson in co-ops."
Lambert suggests that buyers not depend exclusively on anyone attached to the building for the information they need; they must do some research on their own.
"Buyers would do well to go beyond the obvious and learn about the personality of the building they are considering. They always say that, in a marriage, one cannot change one's partner and those who are incompatible should not marry in the first place. The same goes for condominiums and cooperatives. Each building has its own fundamental personality and one is not going change that. If that personality is at odds with one's expectations then one should think twice about the purchase."
So the residents are moved in, the boxes are disposed of, the china is unpacked, and they've introduced themselves to the neighbors next door. When the ceiling leaks because the five-year-old upstairs wanted to play with his boats inside and outside of the tub, who do residents turn to? Who is responsible for clarifying rules and policy?
"The rules are governed by the board of directors, but enforced by the managing agent. The majority of the time we prefer for the resident to go through the managing agent so that the board feels that they have a go-between and do not have to answer to each resident issue directly," Levine says. "Should we need the board involved, we will let them know right away and they would certainly get directly involved." Gold and Lehr also rely on the super or agent.
Historically Freeman has seen his shareholders using board members to clarify issues. "That's OK, for about a month. Then it's up to them to work with the management agency. It's important for new buyers to understand quickly that the board is not the managing agent; that we hired one and most questions need to go to the agent first," he says.
So what can a board or managing agent do to help orient new residents? Sometimes the smallest gesture can make a big difference. Gold says a little bit of plain old hospitality does the trick.
"The best way for a new shareholder to be welcomed is for the managing agent or super to walk the new people around and introduce them to the staff of the building. When new shareholders pass by, doormen and porters should introduce themselves while shareholders are in the elevator or lobby," Gold says.
"I always informally introduce new neighbors whenever I have a chance, in the elevator and laundry room," Freeman adds. "I tell people who are buying who lives next door, above and below and suggest they knock on their neighbor's door to say hello. That's the type of building we have."
Levine maintains that good communication plays a big role in helping a new resident fit smoothly into the community. If the new resident obtains and understands all of the house rules, most of the issues that arise would be taken care of before they ever happen.
"Many rules change from year to year and communication of these changes is key," Levine says.
Lambert's building has integrated technology into the welcoming process. "Our cooperative has a website that provides a wealth of information; from the rules and regulations to answers to frequently asked questions. The website also includes building updates and contact information for the front desk, superintendent and the board," Lambert adds.
Is there anything else that can be done to orient a new resident besides pointing them to the super or agent? What kind of programs are local co-op/condo communities implementing to introduce newcomers?
Newsletters & Committees
"Some buildings have a monthly newsletter that announces new shareholders. This is an ideal way of giving them and their family a formal welcome," Gold says. "More and more buildings have their own website for updates on what is happening or notices for repairs."
Lambert's building has an annual holiday party and an annual summer pot-luck dinner on the building's roof deck. "These gatherings provide an opportunity for neighbors to gather and—if they are new—meet one another. These functions are also an opportunity for residents to see and speak to board members in an informal and friendly atmosphere," Lambert says.
"With the larger buildings that have health clubs and large community rooms, organizing different nights in these rooms such as exercise programs, movie nights, holiday parties and staff appreciation events can help build a bond between the residents that will not exist if you only see your neighbor in the elevator," Levine says."We feel that these introductions build a community as opposed to only place to live."
Lisa Buscani is a freelance writer, living in Chicago, Illinois.