HOAs & the Value of a Web Presence Coming Online

HOAs & the Value of a Web Presence

It’s sometimes hard to grasp how fast technology has evolved in such a short time. Whether it’s finding cheap plane tickets or finding a date for Saturday night, the Internet can do it all. Technology has transformed the way we communicate with e-mail, message boards, and social networking websites, and it comes as no surprise that community associations are using the web to communicate in-house, as well as to market themselves to potential residents.

For many community associations in New Jersey, the web has become an indispensable tool. Many HOAs have developed their own community websites to disseminate important information about the community, allow residents to request documents and work orders, and in some cases communicate socially and network with their neighbors.

Thanks to these websites, boards and residents can maintain an ongoing dialog on matters relating to the day-to-day operations of their association with just a click of their mouse. Residents who work all day may not have time to call the management office to have their questions answered or request a work order. It’s very simple to log onto a website and send a quick e-mail or scroll through the commonly asked questions portion and find an answer there.

Multiple Benefits

As more and more buildings and associations go online, more and more homeowners are expecting their own associations to do the same.

“I think people are taking it for granted—it’s more the norm in 2008,” says Carole Post Pavelchak, regional community manager with Taylor Management in Cedar Knolls. “If you have questions about your association, you just jump on the web the way you would look up a phone number or check for a restaurant.”

Even the most rudimentary web page software packages include such useful features as e-mail notification to any e-mail address, and technology like spreadsheets and documents, secured resident profile information, newsletters, record keeping, special sections for board of directors information and more.

“It makes the most sense to outsource information and it cuts down on phone calls to us as a management company,” says Ted Tucker, vice president of management and operations, also for Taylor Management. “There are so many general questions that can be answered by going to the website.”

Residents can request maintenance tasks and other information via their association’s site and log back on at a later time to confirm that the item has been received. Doormen can take deliveries for working residents and inform them about the package. Residents can log on to communicate with the doorman to check on package deliveries or guests.

“We just started a new website at one of my 100-unit community association sites [in July] and we have information such as rules and regulations, the governing documents, minutes form board meetings, information about snow removal, pool rules, question arises from mortgage companies,” Tucker says. “It’s information that you get tired of answering over the phone, and it’s all right there now. People can get the information at the touch of a button.”

Pavelchak says that a communication tool like this is important because a busy board and managing agent (who may themselves be in charge of multiple large communities) can fall victim to crossed wires and mixed communication.

“Often it’s like the old telephone game where someone hears something at a board meeting and it gets passed down the line and repeated throughout the whole neighborhood and it’s been changed entirely,” she says. “When information is put up on a website, people who haven’t had the opportunity to go [to] the board meeting can get the information in it’s purest form the first time around.”

Price of Byte

About a decade ago, the idea of spending money on a website for a building or association would have triggered a spirited debate at the board meeting, since creating and maintaining a website cost thousands of dollars—money that could probably be better spent on the community’s bricks-and-mortar expenses.

Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. Now, affordable software programs and websites that are pre-formatted allow associations the luxury of signing up, logging in and getting started very cheaply.

“We have a set-up fee of $50 and a monthly fee based on the number of homes in the association, and they tell us what features they want and don’t want and we customize their site for them in a week,” says Susan Sanders, marketing director for AtHomeNet, which provides community associations their own interactive websites. “We offer them the ability to maintain, but 90 percent of our clients maintain their own sites. But it would average about $50 a month. It’s very reasonable.”

AtHomeNet currently has around 280 customers in the New York and New Jersey area. Other popular providers are BuildingLink and Association Voice, which have fees in the same range.

“BuildingLink empowers management to run their buildings easily and transparently, enables staff to handle their myriad day-to-day tasks seamlessly and accurately, helps foster a sense of community among your residents, and enhances your building’s or company’s unique brand identity,” says BuildingLink president Jerry Kestenbaum. “The top-to-bottom system is also helping buildings’ boards of directors and occupants enjoy a more interactive level of communications with and support from their management.”

For those not wanting to spend any money, having someone on the board or a resident willing to volunteer their time and expertise can set an HOA up with a basic website at Google or any number of the free web domains. Some of these websites even offer advertising opportunities as well to offset some of the expense.

“We have some local vendors advertise on one of my sites, looking for individual resident customers,” says Pavelchak. “It’s very inexpensive and it offsets some of the price of maintaining the site.”

Inter-not!

Of course, the biggest drawback to having a web presence in your building is that not everyone is Internet-savvy these days, especially older residents. A senior couple may not even own a computer.

“It is a concern for those people who aren’t computer-savvy,” Tucker says. “It’s not like you are going to get all that info out [online], so we still have to send out paper versions of all that. You have to, or they won’t gain it any other way. You still have a paper trail.”

Sanders has an idea to help that she recommends her buildings follow through on.

“Everyone’s biggest concern is what if someone doesn’t have access to the net,” says Sanders. “There is a solution. You need to assign everyone a ‘computer buddy’ so if something important comes up, you can still get them the information.”

The Social Aspect

Although many choose not to go this route, a building’s website can also be used as a social environment with forums, chats and blogs included so residents can talk to each other and post messages.

According to Sanders, HOAs not using these applications are missing out.

“Our clients like to build their community online,” she says. “There is a public area where you can brag about why it’s a great place to live but there’s a place for the residents to interact and discuss pertinent things.”

They can also offer services such as babysitting or post garage sale information.

“It’s your own personal Craigslist within your neighborhood,” she says.

Committees can also meet this way and it prevents meetings from being cancelled as a result of scheduling conflicts.

Pavelchak doesn’t use any of these types of community forums for her associations.

“I think the appropriate venue for forums is at the board meetings where the board is there and can respond directly to you,” she says. “It’s a tremendous communication tool. I use it for outgoing information, not a chat or dialogue tool between residents, but a means for a board and management to disseminate information to the clientele.”

Final Thoughts

The Internet is just as much a part of our society today as the cell phone, and creating a website for your building is an important way for residents to stay connected and people to learn about your building.

“It’s a fast world and people want their information now, so for that, this is great,” says Tucker. “This cuts down on so many phone calls because people can find what they need on the site.”

Pavelchak says that the number of things that residents can do is growing all the time. “The website allows residents to request work orders or service items. They can look up the status of pending work orders... They can schedule the clubhouse for rentals. It’s a great tool that more people are taking advantage of now.”

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe New Jersey Cooperator.

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