A Manager's Life
Property ManagersWear Many Hats
When your community, co-op or condominium building is externally managed, the bills get paid, assessments get collected, light bulbs get changed, and lawns get mowed. And believe it or not, it’s not little elves that take care of these things, but often a team of pros that work under the umbrella of your property management company. Those are just several of their many duties. If managers are doing their jobs right, homeowners might not even realize how many different things, both big and minute, that their property management company does. The job description is as varied as a day in the life of a property manager.
Anything But Average
Managing a portfolio of three condominiums, three townhome communities, and eight homeowner associations, David Forthuber, a licensed community association manager at Longwood-based Sentry Management, Inc., says an 'average' day is anything but.
Forthuber rattles off a long list of duties, including taking calls from homeowners about rules and regulations, or what they need to do to sell or lease; calls from realtors about obtaining documents for a community or for procedures on how they can show a property; calls from insurance vendors seeking to quote coverage for a community or from a current provider; and calls to and from other vendors.
Anthony D’Amato, LCAM, assistant director of property management at Seacrest Services Inc. in West Palm Beach, adds to that long list. “One of our jobs, which isn’t the happy part, is inspecting the properties, making sure the property is safe, [and documenting violations] like trucks that are illegally parked, homeowners who are leaving trash out, dogs barking,” he says. If they do find something, they’ll investigate the situation and send a violation with the board’s approval that could result in a fine and a possible hearing. “It’s not just a nasty-gram; there’s a lot that goes with it,” he explains.
Meetings make up some of a property manager’s day as well. Many management executives hold daily meetings with their executive teams to get updates from each of the departments, resolve issues, and plan for short- and long-term needs. In the afternoons, they may meet with unit owners, or attend monthly board meetings that can run as late as 10 p.m.
“You must prepare for these [board] meetings,” Forthuber says. For example, you should compose the prior month’s meeting minutes; review the monthly financial report; prepare a financial summary so directors can see at a glance the fiscal condition of the association; and prepare a monthly management report that details the major activities in which you’ve been engaged in the month prior to the meeting.
D’Amato describes a property manager’s job as 24/7 and agrees that every day is different. “I could be in Broward County one day and as far north as Jupiter the next,” he says. “The main roles I serve are as problem-solver, out in the field and developing relationships with board members, so they’ll have a comfort level when they don’t feel comfortable about a situation.” D’Amato understands that board members are volunteers, so one of the over-reaching jobs as a property manager is to make board members’ jobs easier, he says.
Hurricanes, Bats, and Other Oddites
Another responsibility typical for South Florida property managers is hurricane preparation. “The property manager is first contact for everything really,” D’Amato says.
“We have a full program that we roll out when a storm is approaching,” explains Lisa Littman, regional manager of Lang Management in Boca Raton. “We tell homeowners what they can expect from us; we have meetings with the homeowners; and as soon as the storm clears, we’ll come through and then assess what areas have been hit, and clean up landscape debris and any hazardous conditions.” Littman also sets up a pre-arranged time for all homeowners to meet at the clubhouse if phones are down, so she can share any pertinent information.
Through the typical and not-so-typical, a successful property manager must respond quickly and is expected to handle the unexpected. “Emergencies happen all the time,” says Jaime L. Soderland, AMS, CMCA, senior manager of Management & Associates in the tri-county area of Tampa. “And usually when you least expect them.”
Perhaps the strangest story is from D’Amato and the 250 bats living under the roof tiles of someone’s house. They had heard scratching noises, and they’d found droppings, but couldn’t figure out what was making them. When they discovered it was bats, D’Amato says, “It was like a scene out of a movie.” The bats are a protected species, so D’Amato had the area sealed up while they were out, and they were forced to find another haunt, D’Amato explains.
Littman recalls a “sad, but funny” story. A woman was returning to her gated community after a bike ride. The gate-arm was up, and she thought her bicycle would be heavy enough to keep it up, but it wasn’t. “It came down on her, and she sued the association for a faulty gate,” Littman says. “She didn’t win.” Littman also remembers a funny situation that took place during drought season at one of the properties. “The internal lakes were getting really low, and some homeowners were upset. We were at the property and there was a hose going from someone’s house to one of the lakes. She was trying to do her part to fill the lake.” Needless to say, “You hear it all,” says Littman.
Cooler Heads Prevail
The important lesson in it all? “We need to have cool heads,” D’Amato says. But for better or for worse, association members don’t always realize the challenges that are behind those cool heads.
“I wish they knew how complex our jobs are,” Forthuber says. “It is a challenge to multi-task through every day, fielding scores of phone calls and emails from homeowners, paralegals, lawyers, vendors, insurance agents, realtors and board members, trying to respond in a timely way to each of their urgent concerns.”
“Sometimes residents just want things done, and they want it right away, and they don’t realize there’s a chain of command and a protocol,” D’Amato says, stressing that, while a management company researches the situation and advises or recommends a course of action, the final decisions are made by the board of directors, which can be helpful or a hindrance. “Sometimes you run into boards that want way more information to make a decision than they need and they get bogged down,” he adds.
Littman is seeing this more frequently with a down economy. “They’re all trying to save some money,” she explains, but says that sometimes it just wastes time. “At a recent meeting, we had a $135 proposal to pressure-clean and clean two fire hydrants, and they wanted the breakdown of what it would include. They’re overkilling their due-diligence,” she says.
One way to avoid this kind of nickel-and-diming is to know that if you’ve hired a reputable, established management company, you can trust your property manager. A common refrain among management pros is that they are indeed professionals--educated, trained, and licensed—and that while they appreciate boards' input, sometimes it's more productive for boards to take a step back and let their manager do his or her job.
Some management companies encourage board members to get professional education to aid the relationship in general. Soderland notes that at Management & Associates, which handles properties in and around Tampa, he recommends his boards to go through the courses available to them through the local chapter of CAI. “They have a vested interest in the community that they live in,” Soderland says.
A Full Tool-Box
To juggle all these jobs, a successful property manager needs a wide-ranging skill set—as well as plenty of pertinent personality traits. “You have to have patience, organization, and must be able to multi-task,” Soderland says. “Not a day goes by that I am not using these three skills,” she says.
Beyond that, most in the industry agree that good property managers must be experts in a multitude of disciplines, including finance and accounting, construction and maintenance, risk management, law, labor relations—the list is long and varied. But the one key element that stands out from all others is customer service. Without that, all the technical acumen in the world isn’t worth much. Truly excellent property managers have finely-honed people skills, and are able to apply them to whatever job is at hand.
On that note, Littman thinks “Type A” personalities work best in the job. She also says every property manager needs to learn to not take things personally, and “be positive no matter how ugly the person is to you…Just keep smiling through it,” she says.
Forthuber calls that being “thick-skinned,” an important quality particularly when homeowners call to rage and vent. “You need to be able to calm them down and move the conversation to a helpful dialogue. You need to know when to say, ‘I don’t know and I’ll look into it’,” he says. “You must have, at heart, a helpful attitude toward them. This goes a long way to reducing a mountain to a molehill,” he adds.
Elisa Drake is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.