Instant Access Managing HOAs with Online Support

Instant Access

If this article had been written several decades ago, Jane Herbert's job as regional director of Wentworth Property Management would look something like this: Type up monthly newsletter or management report; Go to copy center: Copy and deliver fliers to the residents of more than 485 units; Log maintenance requests by hand; Return maintenance calls or questions from residents; File updated resident documentation in appropriate folders; And should an emergency strike, run from one property to another gathering necessary information and make sure emergency contingency plans are being properly carried out.

Today, it's a different world: when Herbert has an urgent message for the residents of all the units she manages, she simply picks up the phone and makes a single call. Instantly, her message is transmitted to every resident's answering machine, cell phone, pagers or PDA. When residents have to contact Herbert for a maintenance request, an update in family situation or a change in emergency phone numbers, they simply log on to their association's website, at any time, download any necessary forms or change their account profile on the spot. In the event of an emergency, Herbert can search information on any resident from her current location, access files and post news and updates.

Using the Web as a management tool has kept Herbert's job, as Mary Poppins would say, 'practically perfect in every way.' Gone are the hours of copying, typing and logging in, running from property to property and filing heaps of paperwork.

The Web Within Reach

Having an association website has also simplified the lives of the residents too.

"Because residents have different working hours, it's a lot simpler for them to log onto the Web and send a quick e-mail instead of calling the office," says Herbert. "It also makes things quicker. Three hundred of residents' most commonly asked questions are already set up on our website, so you can just search your item and find your answers."

In the past, just the mere mention of creating a website was enough to make an association's treasurer cringe, anticipating a severe blow to the budget's bottom line—and rightfully so. Hiring a website design firm to create a website for even a medium-sized association or development could cost upwards of $10,000, and often cost even more. And that's not even taking into account system administration, hosting, maintenance, and updates.

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.

"The cost [of creating a website this way] compared to paper-based newsletters and flyers is literally pennies on the dollar," says Drew Regitz, director of operations and co-founder of Association Voice (, a company that creates smart technology for associations and community association management. "With a few clicks of a button, your item is posted on a central part of the Web and in the email boxes of your residents."

Association Voice is just one example of a pre-formatted website that has archiving, newsletters, discussion rooms and other functions already available for its customers. BuildingLink is another example, among others. Wentworth Property Management obtained their website program from a company called Simplikate based in Hollywood, Florida.

By working with these companies and others like them, instead of creating a website from scratch, associations 'rent' pre-formatted programs for a monthly fee. For example, a small association could spend as little as $50 per month for such a program, adding extras and more sophisticated features as their budget allows. The price also varies depending on the size of the association. "For our program, a 1,000-unit association would only run about $175 per month," says Regitz.

To offset the fees, associations usually add the resident's portion of the monthly website fee into their monthly management fees.

What Your Money Gets You

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

Residents can request maintenance tasks and other information via their association's site and log back on at a later time to see if 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.

There are also discussion forum features where managers, boards, committees and members can "talk" to each other (like other Internet message boards) and post questions and get answers 24/7. And, if something goes wrong with the website (hey, it's technology) the package includes customer support. The only hardware requirement for the association is an Internet browser system.

Staying Secure

In addition to everyday things like maintenance requests and package deliveries, some programs also provide resident and gate security—and some developments have security features that feel one step closer to "Mission Impossible." Some developments store digital photographs and signatures on the Internet and simply call up residents' pictures and signatures to verify their identity upon entering the property.

While websites and online security systems have simplified the responsibilities of the property manager and communication between management and residents however, there are still some items that need to be worked out.

"Our system is encrypted with a secure system for credit card payments or payments with an online check," said Regitz. "However, most associations can't afford to have homeowners pay dues by credit card."

According to Regitz, credit card companies charge the association fees in order to use the credit card. "That can be two or three percent of the monthly charges—and that will add up for the association." Regitz suggests that homeowners can pay for miscellaneous smaller charges via credit card on their association's website (such as pool key replacement charges, clubhouse rental fees, and so forth) but suggests that homeowners pay monthly charges via no-fee check payments.

Identity theft, including Internet "phishing" scams where identity thieves use logos and con consumers out of credit card numbers and other financial data, is also a concern for residents and something associations want to prevent.

"On our site, each resident has a password and each resident can get into the system, but they can't see all the things an administrator can see," says Herbert. "They can see association documents, agendas for all the board meetings, work orders, and whatnot, but they can't get into anyone else's personal files. I can access them as property manager, but they are not accessible by other residents."

Making it Available

Of course, not all residents have e-mail access or a computer with Internet capabilities, and not all associations have a website—some still rely on paper fliers and phone trees—but the online concept has gained great interest in recent years and may soon be a requirement for new associations, especially larger ones. Wentworth Property Management only began using WentworthConnect in 2003, but today it's the central management software for approximately 85 properties.

"Right now, when a community wants one, it's an option, but with new clients we may soon start including it in the contract," says Janice Gueren, director of specialty services with Wentworth in Long Branch, New York. "I'm the one who is responsible for training the managers on how to use product and collecting requests on the product."

Building managers and associations who are interested in using Web programs can set up the opportunity to see a test demo. At that time, buildings should know what features they want for their association and discuss any features that are needed but not included.

In the long run, it's human interaction and neighborliness that hold an association together and make residents feel that they're a part of a community. It doesn't hurt to get a personal call from a concerned managing agent or helpful board member from time to time; but it certainly helps to have an easily accessible resource online to fill in the gaps, speed up certain processes, and improve quality of life. Thanks to new technology and the spread of quick, easy Internet access, having a website is now an affordable communications tool for all property managers, board members and residents.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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