Adventures in Management Dealing with Crisis and Living to Tell the Tale

Adventures in Management

The incident started out ordinarily enough—a property manager had to tow an improperly parked vehicle from his association's grounds. The tow truck driver pulled up to the car and began to chain it up, but before he could complete the job, the vehicle owner came running out of his condo stark naked, and flung himself down on top of the car in protest. He wouldn't get off the hood until the police were summoned to restore order.

This story, recalled by Jim Farese, president of Cambridge Property Management Services in Totowa, which manages more than 50 associations, is just one of many strange-and-unusual situations faced by the property managers and other professionals who deal with condos and HOAs on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, most condo, co-op and HOA managers' time is taken up with day-to-day activities—handling maintenance complaints, processing staff payroll, sending out notices of meetings, collecting maintenance fees, overseeing renovation projects, and so forth.

Still, out-of-the-ordinary situations can happen to any management company. Some of them, such as a broken pipe flooding a unit or a fire on the grounds, are situations that experienced managers are prepared for. But others—well, they can be something else.

For example, consider this from Phil Alampi of Condominium Management of New Jersey, a firm managing developments on either side of the Garden State Parkway from Northern New Jersey to Toms River. "We manage one co-op where the apartments are one-over-the-other and side-by-side, and the soundproofing isn't as good as it should be," he says. At this particular co-op, Alampi says the on-site manger got a call from a resident complaining that she was woken up every night by a rhythmic tapping on her wall from the next-door apartment. After she awoke, the tapping subsided. "Maybe it's a headboard," the apartment owner thought.

The manager contacted the woman's next-door neighbor. "Oh, that's me," the neighbor told the manager matter-of-factly. "I tap on the wall at night because my neighbor snores and wakes me up. When I tap, she rolls over and goes back to sleep."

David Byrne, an attorney with Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, who specializes in community and condominium association law, recounted some stories that his clients have told him.

"I have a client association that terminated their managing agent," he says. "That managing agent turned over the HOA's records to the new company—but converted its funds and kept them."

Byrne says he also had an HOA client who found a dead body at the bottom of their freshly-drained retention basin, one with a mentally ill resident who used to spray-paint the HOA's buildings with profanities and racial slurs, and an owner who used to send monthly letters to more than 475 other owners regarding what he claimed to be "conspiracies" by the board.

Other out-of-the-ordinary situations fall into the category of minor disaster, major annoyance. Fortunately, experienced managers can handle them.

For example, Chip Hoever of Somerset Management Group, which manages 22 properties says, "One Friday night, an individual unit owner lost his power because a contractor was replacing the deck and drove [a nail] through their power cable."

In this case, the manager called a contractor, who advised him what to do. By using extension cords, the manager was able to provide temporary power to most of the owner's unit. "The next day, on Saturday," says Hoever, "an electrician came over—and everybody's happy."

Other minor catastrophes may seem almost funny in retrospect, but they do waste the manager's time and resources.

For example, Hoever recalls that in one of the developments his group manages, a very bad rainstorm hit the area one night. "We had a call from a lady around eight or nine o'clock in the evening. She said she would have to leave her house and go to a hotel—because her bedroom was about to cave in."

Again, the management called a contractor. As it turned out however, all the resident had seen was a small spot on the ceiling "about the size of a quarter," according to Hoever—and that spot wasn't even wet. So much for the bedroom caving in.

More Typical Situations

Of course, most of the problems that managers are called to solve aren't as exciting—or even especially dramatic. They fall into several broad categories, such as financial issues, maintenance problems, and neighbor-to-neighbor conflict, and they're just part of a managing agent's day-to-day job.

It's the manager's job to help shepherd a board and its financial advisors through the tangled underbrush of a financial crisis—and there are several options for associations that find themselves strapped for cash due to unforeseen circumstances, says Farese. They can call for a special assessment, or look into a bank loan. "Bank loans are very popular today—condos can spread them out over a longer period of time," he says. Another option is a small monthly increase to pay debt service.

But in the long term, all agree, there is no substitute for good financial planning. Having a competent financial planner and doing a reserve study that adequately assesses the association's future funding needs is the best way to avoid problems both large and small down the road.

Neighbor-to-neighbor disputes are another common occurrence in any HOA. In many cases, says Farese, sorting out the facts in these types of disputes is difficult—they're often a matter of "he said, she said."

"Unless you can verify the complaints through witnesses or police reports or some concrete evidence, it's tough to side with one or the other," he says, especially when the disagreement has arisen over something very subjective, like noise or cooking odors. Like many management companies that have established internal alternative dispute resolution (ADR) committees, Farese says his company often asks warring parties to appear at a board meeting so the group can mediate the disagreement and try to come to a mutually agreeable solution.

In general, says Hoever, association management should try to be polite, and start off with such techniques as writing a letter. "We don't try to be the condo cops," he says, "If you're heavy-handed, you don't get results."

Scott Dalley, senior vice president of Access Property Management in Flemington, believes that "part of the property manager's function is to try to work with community as much as possible. Barring some sort of legal problem that's beyond the scope of what the manager should do, the manager should act as a peacemaker or intermediary to get the problem resolved."

Maintenance problems can be among the most immediate crises for managers, because physical property is at risk. According to the pros polled for this article however, good management companies make a practice of having 24-hour service, with several contractors on call in case something goes wrong with any building structures or systems.

Jack McGrath, president of Community Associations Institute of New Jersey (CAI-NJ), recalls a crisis in one condo development. "During one particularly bad Nor'easter, the gutter had come off one of the buildings, and some of the shingles were ripped off. The owner-resident on the second floor had water pouring into [his apartment] like a waterfall. He contacted the management company, and they were able to get maintenance people out within two hours to temporarily solve the problem."

When physical problems develop, the contractors usually do a "quick fix" as soon as possible. Later, if needed, the contractors or an engineer can do a more thorough check-up to see what needs to be done to keep the situation from happening again.

Board Problems

These generic categories don't, of course, include all the problems that managers are asked to help solve. Sometimes the issue isn't a dramatic problem with an unstable resident or building system—some of the stickiest dilemmas originate with association boards themselves.

For example, Alampi has seen cases where a board hires a new management company because it wasn't happy with the prior manager. That transition alone can be difficult to navigate—but often, the same board will change accountants and lawyers as well. Because of the lack of continuity and loss of institutional memory, problems can and do come up.

"What you find," says Alampi, "is that there's one board member who's steering the board—and maybe doing so improperly."

Another type of problem caused by board members happens when the board accepts a contractor's word on a building job without having a professional engineer go over it first.

"The biggest part of my day is spent educating," says Alampi, who says he often must send an attorney to educate the board on its duties and responsibilities.

They're All Professionals

No matter what tasks managers find themselves doing, says McGrath, "The managers I'm familiar with are all professionals. All have designations above and beyond the call of duty to satisfy their communities' requests."

Yes, managers have to be prepared for unusual situations, both tragic and semi-comic, that occur in their communities. One concrete example can be seen in the way many condo and HOA managers deal with fires, a fairly frequent occurrence.

"Besides getting the insurance companies involved," says Dalley, "we set up funds for families that are displaced, and do a whole lot of other things that aren't necessarily called for in our contract."

A good management company can handle the day-to-day situations—as well as ones worth writing home about.

Ranaan Geberer is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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