Adopted hamsters. Mysteriously empty pools. Secret bedroom habits of hi-rise neighbors. No, it's not next week's Desperate Housewives episode. It's more like Ripley's Believe It or Not, but all of these are true-life experiences of property managers, and they're just some examples of how managing a condominium community is not all about fixing leaky pipes and pushing papers. It can be an adventure—no matter how small the building or how civil and well mannered the shareholders and owners.
When asked for anecdotes, most property managers quip, "I could write a whole book on the subject!" And the crises never end. "Every community manager knows you just can't expect any day or week to go as planned," says Andrea Villanueva of Wentworth Property Management, who oversees the Winding Ways Homeowners Association in Jackson. "You can only hope that nothing too strange happens, and if it does, that it can be handled before it becomes a catastrophe."
Villanueva knows exactly how to handle a potential catastrophe—especially the strange and mysterious ones. She remembers one time when preparing the property's 230,000-gallon pool for its season opening was jeopardized.
"We spent weeks having the pool power washed and painted, the trim tile replaced, and underwater lights repaired and we had completed our five-year grounding and bonding," Villanueva explains. "The pool was clean and safe and looking great!"
The pool was filled and the chemicals were added, with three days to spare before the big season opening. "We returned to work the next day knowing there was nothing left to do with the pool," says Villanueva. "Wrong! The water—all 230,000 gallons plus chemicals—was gone!"
Villanueva sprang into action and called the pool management company to determine what had happened and have the problem corrected immediately. "Whatever horrible thing had happened had to be fixed now," says Villanueva. "Unbeknownst to any of us, a so-called 'helpful' trustee had played with the pool controls and drained the pool bone dry!"
With less than 48 hours to refill this huge pool, balance the chemicals and be prepared for the first swimmers, Villanueva prayed. "The Patron Saint of Community Managers helped with lots of rain that night to speed the filling along," she jokes. "The chemicals were added and balanced again. At 10 a.m. Saturday morning, on schedule, the pool opened for dozens of happy residents who will never know what a feat that was."
Villanueva can laugh about the incident now, but it was definitely a prime example of how things change overnight.
Messy Memento Mori
Phyllis Coar, general manager of Lake Ridge Homeowners Association in Toms River, also knows how one seemingly simple event can turn into an all-day ordeal. One summer five years ago, the passing of a 60-year-old resident changed her entire workday as she was stuck cleaning up one doozy of a mess.
The resident had died at home in her bed, and her family came to the home to empty it and clean things up after the funeral. "They put the bloodied, soiled mattress from the woman's bed outside for the trash company to take," says Coar, "so we called the private trash company contracted by our association, but they refused to take it because of the blood. The township couldn't help us either because we are a gated community. I called my boss and he didn't know what to do. Neither did the police."
So here, in the middle of a 100-degree summer day, lay a mattress on the driveway for all the residents to see and the flies to enjoy. This was not something that Coar needed to have on her agenda that day.
"I finally called a funeral parlor to see if they knew a company that did these things, and they referred me to a company that cleans up after crime scenes," says Coar.
After a whole day of angst, the company arrived with men dressed in full yellow biohazard pickup gear, equipped with masks and oxygen tanks to remove the mattress. "They looked like big yellow robots," says Coar. "Nobody had ever encountered this before. The mattress was the homeowners' responsibility, but she was dead, and all the family did was put out the mattress and leave."
The association paid for the removal, billed it to the homeowner's account and was repaid when the property was sold.
"I never thought I'd get it out of there; I thought I'd have to do it," says Coar. "What amazed me the most was that no one could advise me—not the property management company, board of directors, trash company, township, police, board of health, nobody. Training doesn't prepare for something like this. It's on-the-job training"
John Wolf of Alexander Wolf & Co in Plainview has been a property manager for 25 years and has had his share of strange and unusual events, but one humorous incident is most memorable.
"We had complaints of noise, such as banging and other abnormal noises, in the evening in a high-rise luxury apartment," explains Wolf. "Now this was an upper-class apartment and upper-class people, so we couldn't figure out what the noise was after going in the apartment several times."
The complaints were still being filed, so Wolf needed to take different action. "We finally went into the apartment and went to the room that the noise appeared to be coming from. We sat on the bed and realized it was attached to the ceiling by chains! What our tenant was hearing was some S&M lovemaking sounds from the floor below. We called the apartment owner and told them they had to put the bed on a platform. They were so embarrassed and did it immediately, but it was funny."
Stan Rothenberg, executive vice president and chief operating officer of C&R Realty in Englewood Cliffs, has been in the business of property management for 35 years, and in that time has often had cause to wonder what some residents are thinking. "They come into communities from all kinds of different backgrounds and neighborhoods," says Rothenberg. "And sometimes I wonder if they're really aware of the type of living they are getting into."
Rothenberg often chuckles at one perplexing incident he was witness to several years ago at a large senior community. A resident came to the property manager's office, located a few miles away from the development carrying a large bag. The elderly woman explained to the receptionist that she needed to have a bush replaced outside her home. The receptionist began to take the necessary information when the woman plunked the bag onto the counter and explained that she had the entire bush in the bag—and wanted it taken care of immediately. Undaunted, the receptionist began to take down the information, when the woman began speaking again.
"The woman was insisting that we go into the 'stockroom' and get her another bush," laughs Rothenberg. "We finally explained to her that we don't have landscaping products in a stockroom, and needed to make arrangements with a landscaper to rectify the situation, which we did."
John Wolf's brother Richard, who is also a property manager, has accumulated both funny and not-so-funny problems over the course of his career. He is very familiar with board members who have "friends in the business" and how that can lead to trouble.
"It's backfired more than once," says Wolf. "A board member might recommend a friend for a [contracting] job, but when things go wrong, these friends bail because they only do this job on the side. For example, we had a basement renovation, and a board member recommended a granite person who was a friend of his, but that person did a lousy job. Unfortunately, the 'friend' took the $15,000 and left. We ended up having to fix the problem."
Like all of these stories, there are lessons learned. "I learned that I need to thank the board members for their recommendations, but stick with long-term professionals who will be around to do the job," says Wolf.
Incidents like these aren't limited to New Jersey property managers either. Property managers nationwide experience many humorous stories on a regular basis.
Here's a typical story that befell a New York property manager. Michaele McCarthy of Charles H. Greenthal Management Corp. has seen it all. One of the biggest problems she's tackled befell a 97-unit building on the Upper West Side, just one month before Passover. What happened? "Con Ed found a leaking meter," says McCarthy. "Unfortunately, this building was built in the '20s, so it had no [individual] turn-off valves—which meant they had to turn off the whole building. And once you turn off a building, you can't get it turned back on until they've tested everything for leaks. That usually takes months. And in the meantime, people have no heat, no hot water, no stove, no laundry," she explains.
McCarthy stepped up to the plate. She assembled a virtual army of plumbers to work around the clock, and convinced the inspectors at Con Ed to keep pace. "I used all my Southern-girl charm to pull in favors—I've always believed you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I batted my eyes; I made dozens of calls; I wrote letters. I also had to reassure the residents, promising everyone they'd have a working stove in time," she recalls.
With McCarthy at the helm, the team worked seven days a week checking lines and installing shut-off valves as they went to prevent a repeat occurrence. "I had a lot of terrific help, too," McCarthy is quick to add. "We were using NY Plumbing, and they were great…the super, Anthony Tamboni, was also indispensable." In the end, McCarthy was able to get the gas back on in record time—less than a month, and just in time for Passover.
But that may not even be McCarthy's greatest feat. This last tale is a management hall-of-famer, straight from the "only in New York City" file: "I started managing a building on the Upper East Side that had a very nasty super," says McCarthy. "He had been there for 20 years, and he literally had the whole building terrified. They had no idea how to get rid of him. I began negotiating a buyout with him, and by January [of 2003], we had agreed on a number. He was to leave on April 15th—but by March, we discovered that he was stealing [from the building]."
McCarthy and another property manager went in to confront the super. They offered him $5,000 to leave within the week, and asked for his keys and his beeper. That's when things got really ugly. "Suddenly," recounts McCarthy, "he reaches into the closet behind him, pulls out a rifle, and aims it at my head! Well, I had taken some karate, and there was this one move where you push your arm up and over. I just thought 'up and over,' and I did it to the barrel of the rifle. He actually fired a shot into the ceiling. The manager was just standing there in shock, and I said, 'Would you please grab the stock?' Then we called the police and [the super] was arrested for attempted murder. It turned out that he had 10 rifles in that closet, along with about $1,700 in stolen laundry quarters!" In the end, McCarthy put a well-balanced, unarmed super into the building, and now residents are happy - and safe.
In another instance, Mike Mosakowski, an 18-year property management veteran of the Los Arboles Apartments in Del Mar, California, recalls a night not long ago when, at 2 a.m. a resident called him, claiming to have lost his apartment keys and needing to be let into the unit. Ever the dutiful professional, Mosakowski got out of bed, fetched the spare keys from the association office, and met the resident at his door. As Mosakowski was opening the door, however, he suddenly remembered that two people lived in the unit, so he said, "Hey—don't you have a roommate?" to which the owner of the lost keys replied, "Yes—but I didn't want to wake him."
But beyond decaying mattresses, kinky neighbors, and mysterious, self-draining swimming pools, one story stands out as both a tale of prudent rule enforcement and sheer human compassion. According to Mosakowski, he once told a resident that the resident couldn't keep his four hamsters because of the association's no-pets clause in the contract. Not long after that conversation, Mosakowski's wife witnessed the resident attempting to dump the fluffy critters near the cliffs in Del Mar. Ms. Mosakowski did the only thing she felt she could decently do: she rescued them—and they lived with the Mosakowskis for the rest of their little hamster lives.
Between the bouts of leaky pipes, disputes over hedgerows, and procedural humdrum, the work of a property manager can be shot through with stories that are by turns funny, serious or strange. Regardless, it's always different—and who knows? One day, maybe even a best-seller.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.