Rolling Out the Welcome Wagon Welcoming New Owners

Active, involved and concerned residents are essential to creating a strong community in any homeowners association. Even if you already have an enthusiastically involved resident population, don't overlook the importance of properly welcoming new residents and shareholders into your building or community.

Getting and keeping everyone involved is, or course, an ongoing process. Rolling out the welcome wagon not only extends a friendly reception to newcomers, but it also helps encourage them to become involved from the get-go. And at the very least, a thorough welcome packet will help new residents become familiar with the ins and outs of your community rules and regulations.

The Typical Welcome

For many new residents, becoming acclimated to the rules and regulations of a new community might seem like an afterthought after an already-stressful move. Whether you have a welcome committee, a package that's sent out to new residents or another procedure in place is largely dependent upon the type of community in which you live.

In many cases, associations will—at the very least—send new residents a welcome packet.

"In my view, it's really the management that takes an active role in setting up procedures in welcoming new residents," says Susan Cupo of Crest Management in Clifton. "The board is comprised of volunteers; they don't always have the time to orchestrate events, and are not tied into who is coming in or going out."

Some associations have a designated person who meets with new residents. But even if you don't have an official welcome wagon, a welcome package that includes basic community information is essential.

"It really depends on the community," says Peter Berkley of Residential Properties Management Company in Keyport. "We have only one out of the 18 [associations] we manage that maintains a leasing and sales committee person, and that person usually is the one who sits in with the new residents either before or shortly after they close. They go over all the amenities, rules and regulations, give them a copy of the rule booklet, and give them general advice."

According to the professionals, the key is to make sure vital information—such as association rules and regulations—is in the hands of new residents before they move in. That will give them time to familiarize themselves with how the association is run before they're a part of the community, and give them time to ask any questions they might have.

Co-op vs. Condo

Because co-op communities already have an interview process built in, there's an opportunity for the board or manager to meet with new shareholders and present them with the welcome packet personally.

"With co-ops there's an added advantage because we have the interview process," says Cupo, "which gives us the time to sit down and review things with new residents. We give them the package at that time. We also review what shareholders are responsible for versus what the co-op is responsible for."

By contrast, the purchasing/closing process in a condo association doesn't usually afford the board or management an opportunity to personally meet each new resident. Instead, many associations use communication from a buyer's attorney to determine when to mail out any welcome materials.

"The attorney will contact us about closing documents and send us a notification regarding an upcoming closing because we have to provide a managing letter," says Cupo. "When we return that letter, we send the packet to the attorney to give to their clients prior to closing, so they have it before they move in. In some buildings, you might have more contact with residents. But in smaller condos, you have very little contact with buyers. Sometimes the only opportunity to know when someone is moving in is when you are contacted by their attorney."

Getting Your Message Across

Making sure all new residents have a general understanding of your association's do's and don'ts is also a good way to alleviate any confusion newcomers might have about rules, responsibilities, and who's in charge of maintaining and repairing various elements inside and outside the individual units.

"If there were a way to get people to understand the rules before they move in, I think we would solve so many problems," says Berkley. "A lot of people buy into a development under the assumption that all the maintenance is covered, down to a leaky sink. But every development is different. Telling new residents what services the association provides early on is key. Once they've been there a month and they don't know what's going on and they've had no communication, the damage is done. They might put a satellite dish up then get a violation letter. And they'll have a bad taste in their mouth because their first contact with the association was negative."

"People are already under stress," Berkley continues. "They're making a big investment, and you don't want to add to their stress. Associations should be preemptive before new residents move in. Giving them information right away will give them peace of mind and will stop potential problems from happening."

What to Include

As far as what exactly to put into your association's standard new resident welcome packet—association rules and regulations are obviously a given. But it's also a good idea to give new residents information that will help them become familiar with the world outside their new building or association.

"Basically at Cedarcrest, we send out a welcome letter when a new homeowner takes over," says Michael Freda, a property manager with Cedarcrest Property Management in Caldwell. "It explains the rules and regulations as far as garbage and recycling, pet policy, where they can take animals on the property, and so on. We send them the recycling schedule, when city picks up bulk items, and a heads-up on how the community works. We make up the letter as the management of the association in cooperation with the board. Each community tweaks it their own way."

If you're thinking of putting together a welcome packet, some of the basic items might include:

• Community rules, resolutions and forms

• Emergency contact information

• Information on garbage pickup

• All township information in an annual calendar

• Census form

• Recycling information

• Contact information for important departments in the town or township such as utilities, so new residents can start services or ask questions

• Parking regulations outlining how many cars are allowed per unit and where visitor parking areas are located

Pet Policy

In addition to welcoming new residents to your community, outlining the rules and including pertinent information can help ease the transition into a new neighborhood. For instance, certain towns might have restrictions on animals, or require specific licensing procedures. This is information that homeowners or shareholders would need to know well before moving in. In addition, a welcome packet should spell out community restrictions on what residents can and cannot do to their units. Are satellite dishes prohibited? Make sure new residents know this prior to installing one.

"We want to make sure everyone knows what's required as homeowners or renters. It makes it easier for the community," says Freda.

Feeling at Home

Even the most thorough welcome packages might not address the concerns of every new resident. New homeowners are more than likely going to have questions at some point, and it's crucial that they know who to ask.

"The manager is more of an expert in terms of clarifying the rules, policies and other issues. Sometimes boards are more actively involved, but generally it's the manager's job, so they would be your best source for clarification on those issues," says Cupo.

"In most cases they should go to the management company because it's part of our job to assist new homeowners with any questions they might have. The property manager's name is listed in welcome package, and we are reachable by phone every day. There are also emergency numbers for things that occur outside business hours," says Freda.

As anyone who has ever moved can attest, the process of setting up a new residence can be hectic and stressful. With that in mind, it might not be the best idea to send over a welcome committee when a new owner is in the midst of unpacking. Instead, make sure that new residents are able to access information they might need, and that they know who to call with all of their questions.

"You can't tell someone who is moving in that you want to sit down and talk, because they're trying to unpack. And when you're doing that when it's not convenient for them, they're going to be worrying about other stuff while they're sitting down talking with a welcome wagon. Having the information accessible is very important. Everything in the welcome packet is also on our website. That includes everything about the association so if the only thing a person remembers is our website, they can get it from there. We do that because it's also saved on phone calls for items residents can easily access 24/7. It saves me a lot of time as a manager," says Berkley.

"Creating an open line of communication is really important. They have to know that you're there and you're available for them. Have them feel comfortable contacting you. New residents may hesitate or are not aware of the person to contact. If you open the lines of communication, more people are willing to contact you. An open line means everyone is informed and knows what's going on. It gives people a sense of comfort and ease in knowing how things function" says Cupo.

For meet-and-greet activities, use your amenities to your advantage. One of the easiest ways to get people together is to hold an informal social gathering in your clubhouse, if you have one.

"If you have a clubhouse, have a cocktail party, or a brunch on a weekend just to get people to know faces. Something that would be so informal that a stranger would be willing to go and not feel like an outsider. As soon as there's a formal aspect, people shy away from it," says Berkley.

But not every association has a clubhouse, swimming pool or other amenities that are conducive to social activities. If that's the case, community or board meetings are another potential opportunity for new residents to get to know their neighbors.

"A good association will try to encourage homeowner to attend board meetings and they can introduce themselves and get a feel for the community, what the board does, and how active they are, as a management company we also attend every meeting," says Freda.

"Unfortunately, today it's not easy to meet your neighbors. Everybody works and everybody's on the run, so it's a little harder to meet people. Other than taking advantage of amenities, the best thing is to come to board meetings and get feel for what community is doing. Most boards are really good because they take an interest in their community, and that's where people bond. Some boards will ask for e-mail addresses so they can keep homeowners up-to-date on what's going on in their communities. Some, like Beacon Hill, put out a newsletter that includes upcoming projects, the date of the next meeting, what happened at previous meeting. It's a good way for a community to stay in touch with residents," says Freda.

"When it's possible, have postings in a central location on the property," says Cupo. "And if one is able to create a website, that's another wonderful thing to do for people who want to look into property and to keep existing residents apprised of what's going on at the property."

Remember to encourage communication and give new residents all the information they'll need as early as possible. A welcome packet, meeting with a welcoming committee or an informal social gathering are all ways to help your new neighbor feel at home. And extending a warm welcome to new residents is the first step in encouraging them to become actively involved in their new community.

Stephanie Mannino is a freelance writer and novelist living in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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