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Guidelines for Contacting Your Manager When You Gonna Call?

It's not always easy for an HOA resident to know if a troubling situation calls for contacting the association's management company, especially during non-business hours. But you'd think it would be pretty clear that a Christmas Day call over tennis court access crosses the line.

Nevertheless, James Magid, regional vice president of Wentworth Property Management in Lawrenceville, dealt with that very scenario a few years ago.

"I had a call on Christmas Day afternoon asking me what the tennis court combination was because someone wanted to play," Magid says. "They insisted with the answering service operator that I be paged because they had some friends over and it was a nice day and they wanted to play tennis."

Richard Anderson, president of Ideal Management in Farmingdale, dealt with a similar, though less pressing problem during a different season in the form of calls to emergency lines over swimming pool issues that weren't quite urgent.

"Maybe someone left a mess at a pool or the lifeguard on duty left early, something that isn't really a risk to human safety," he says. "It's an issue that a particularly sensitive unit owner might call on."

Being available to respond to complaints and inquiries from residents comes with the territory of being a property manager. But that doesn't mean a manager has to be at every resident's beck and call 24 hours a day. Off-hour calls over issues that can wait are counterproductive and, let's face it, annoying. Establishing guidelines as to what circumstances require contact and the appropriate time to do so is an important step toward keeping your association building or development running smoothly, as well as a manager's sanity.

Establishing Protocol

Typically, management companies are available during normal business hours, starting sometime at around 8:30 a.m. up until around 5:30 p.m.

"I think the business needs to be as professional as possible, so you're hoping that you develop a professional relationship with your board members and that you try to conduct business as much as possible during the business day," Anderson says. During the timeframe established as business hours, residents are essentially welcome to call about any issue regarding common areas. But owners should also understand that their manager isn't playing solitaire all day, waiting for the phone to ring .He or she is handling HOA business such as paying bills and negotiating with contractors.

"The responsibility for management, or for the board of trustees is to establish the common areas of the association, and that's typically what the association is then dealing with and responsible for," Magid says. "Therefore, if a homeowner or a resident has a problem with a common area, that's when they should call the manager."

So if a light bulb is out in a common area, or if the landscaper forgot to mow a section of the lawn, or someone receives a late notice even though they've paid their maintenance fees, contact should be made during regular business hours. If a resident first gets the late notice when arriving home at 8 p.m., the call can wait until the next day.

Beyond that, there has to a system in place for emergency situations. Some buildings might have on-staff people available during off-hours (more on that later), but it's more likely going to be the manager who is contacted. As such, an answering service or an emergency hotline will be set up for residents to call during off-hour emergencies. All residents should be provided with operating hours and the number to call during the day as well as the emergency number and some kind of explanation as to when that number should be called. So what constitutes an emergency?

"I would say anything that involves health and safety to unit owners and residents at a given complex," Anderson says. "Not a minor threat to health and safety, but something that is a clear threat."

Examples cited by Anderson and Magid include pipe bursts, a broken entrance door indicating there might have been a break-in, or damage caused by a windstorm that could endanger residents.

Recently, a windstorm at one of Anderson's buildings brought a tree down, resulting in a call from a homeowner.

"That tree needed to be chopped up and moved out of the way," he says. "That happened during the business week, but that would have been a reasonable call in the middle of the night."

Magid adds that while common areas clearly fall under the purview of the management company, some managers may be open to (and even prefer) being contacted for developments affecting individual homes. Especially if a contractor has to be called in because it's beneficial to the entire community if the manager recommends someone with a good reputation and knows that someone is entering a home.

"We certainly want to help association members and guide them even if it may not be an association responsibility—if there's a plumbing leak over the weekend or their furnace is having a problem over the weekend—rather than having them just diving into the Yellow Pages," Magid says. "I believe we should want to help them, at least to help them find a vendor that's reputable and can assist them."

Common Sense and Timing

Contacting a manager to get the tennis court's combination or to complain about pool conditions are reasonable steps. And situations will arise that require a call beyond working hours, maybe even on a weekend or holiday. But a messy pool area or slacking lifeguard are things that can wait a day or two.

"That lifeguard should have stayed until his shift was over," Anderson says. "He should not have walked away to make a phone call because that [violates] a rule that states a lifeguard is on the premises at certain hours. It's certainly an issue, something we needed to manage and make sure the pool company was doing a better job with, but it's not an emergency."

The problem is, there's no chart residents can refer to informing them exactly what circumstances require which actions and when. (Broken light bulb, wait until business hours. Burst pipe, call anytime.)

Simply put, running an HOA depends on proper responses to homeowners' concerns as well as trusting that residents know what does and doesn't require an emergency call. And it's one Anderson says works pretty well.

"I think well-run management companies and respectful boards treat the process as a professional relationship, and the most appropriate time to call is during the normal work week," Anderson says. "But there are exceptions to that. It is a business where there are emergencies. So if it's handled professionally and everybody understands and uses good judgment, then contact outside of business hours is appropriate for emergency situations."

Even in the best-run systems, though, there can be one or two people who abuse the emergency hotline. About a year and a half ago, Ideal Management decided to inform callers that if their complaint doesn't meet management's and the board's definition of an emergency, then the caller will be charged for the call.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

No two HOAs are exactly alike and one of the biggest differences is between properties with off-site managers and (usually larger) ones with on-site managers.

"The ways the responses occur differ," says Anderson, whose properties all hire Ideal on an off-site basis. "That's primarily because of the size of the complex or the management fee that's being paid for the kinds of response and kinds of on-site management that's being sought. Similarly, if there's an on-site porter or handyman, that kind of person is expected to respond on a different schedule."

Maureen Elwell, assistant property manger at Winston Towers in Cliffside Park, has experience with on-site management. She says the management office is open Monday 9 a.m.-8 p.m. and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.

"We have an administrative shutdown from 1:30 to 3:30 during which they'll leave messages or contact the front or back door," she says, adding that the building is staffed with doormen and security 24/7. The staff also includes a live-in superintendent and assistant superintendent. "There's no specific time they cannot call. We're here and we're here to serve them and that's part of our job."

With 31 stories and 614 apartments in Winston Towers, Elwell has days when calls from residents come in fast and furious, and all calls are taken seriously.

"To all residents, everything is important," she says. "We may feel that it's not, but any of their concerns are important. They can call or stop down, say hello, and tell us their concerns and we write it up and take care of it."

Responding in Time

Obviously, an emergency situation requires an immediate response. And again while nothing is set in stone, non-emergency calls made during business hours should be returned within 24 hours (or, if the call is made on a Friday, by the following Monday). Anderson notes that there can be times when an office is dealing with a lot of issues, or an emergency, resulting in lower-priority concerns not getting responded to as quickly as he'd normally like to.

"A lot of it is prioritization, but in general we do try to respond to all inquirers and contacts within 24 hours," he says. Magid adds that after 24 hours, a follow-up call is a reasonable step to take.

No matter what line of business you're in, you probably find yourself relying on e-mail as a way to communicate with people. The property management business is no different. E-mail allows residents to forward their concern at any time of day or night. Using e-mail can result in fast, clear responses. Though obviously, emergencies demand a phone call.

"It's a great tool because that e-mail message from a resident can then be forwarded to chair people of committees or board members for consideration," Magid says.

Ultimately it's a simple system: Most issues a homeowner has can wait until normal business hours, fires and falling trees are rare occurrences. And by establishing lines of communication and responding to complaints efficiently, property managers can almost always keep their residents happy.

Anthony Stoeckert is a freelance writer living in Bordentown, New Jersey.

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