As anyone who’s ever had their heat go out in the dead of winter can tell you, condo buildings don’t maintain themselves. It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes a knowledgeable, experienced team comprised of a qualified property manager, an experienced custodian or janitor and a competent board member to keep the lights on and the mortar sound. But when something needs to be fixed or goes wrong, who ya gonna call? Well, often the answer is, ‘it depends.’
A Matter of Degree
First it depends on whether the problem is an emergency or not. Residents are typically told that all life-threatening emergencies—such as fire, or a gas leak—should be reported to the fire department or local utilities immediately. Once that has been done, the property manager or other person in charge can be notified.
If the issue at hand is not a dire emergency, who gets notified depends on the building and the way that the property management company manages it. For example, Joanna Dziok, owner of Integral Residential LLC, is an independent Chicago property manager specializing in small to mid-size condo buildings, ranging from six to 65 units. Because of their smaller sizes, most of the buildings she manages do not maintain on-site personnel. Instead, she has a janitor who stops by a few times a week to clean the building and do small repairs when necessary.
Even though Dziok isn’t an on-site property manager, the residents know they can reach her by phone or email, no matter what the problem. “Some buildings also have websites where they can put in a service request,” she says. “Either they can alert me to a problem or they can tell a board member who can then tell me.”
Rob Presbrey is a property supervisor with The Habitat Company in Chicago and the buildings he manages range from 200 units up to 900 units. “At each property, we have a full-time property manager and an on-site chief engineer who is in charge of the physical maintenance of the building,” he says. “If a resident awakens to suddenly find a leak under their kitchen sink, they are already aware to notify the management office. We would then dispatch a chief engineer, who would take care of the problem.”
Andrea Solzman Goldberg is an assistant property manager for a mid-sized property management company that runs about 100 buildings, twelve of which are under her direct oversight. When there’s a maintenance problem, the unit owner once again starts by contacting the property manager or the building maintenance person.
“They either handle the problem or advise the unit owner to contact a vendor,” says Solzman Goldberg. “There is a fairly high level of involvement of the property managers with the building maintenance, but it depends on if the issue is an association issue or a unit issue.”
Calling for Backup
If a problem is too big for a handyman or a chief engineer however, a management office will usually contact an outside contractor. “I’ll call a handyman who has subcontractors if it requires more specialized labor,” says Dziok.
Most managers have a Rolodex (usually virtual these days) filled with names of reliable contractors they can call upon when problems arise, but if there’s a need for someone new it’s best to check with the local trade organization or with other managers who can give reliable recommendations. Some of the larger property management firms come with their own maintenance company within their management company. This can include employee maintenance coordinators, licensed contractors and more. This is sometimes a plus, it prevents having to hire outside contractors and may keep costs under control.
But occasionally they still may need to bring in an expert. “For example,” says Presbrey, “if it’s a basic electrical need for a condo, we can handle that ourselves, but if it’s part of the electrical tier for a high rise, we would call a contractor,.”
To help maintain the building, managers typically work within the budget allocated by the board. They can spend up to a designated amount of money for repairs, but if the repair job is priced higher than that, they must go back to the board with the information for approval. “We have identified a threshold, if a project is going to cost more than a certain amount of money, we need their signature to perform that work,” says Presbrey. “That makes the board more comfortable and defines our relationship better. Under that set amount we are reporting to the board what we do in our weekly reports and they know we’re operating within our approved budget.”
Dziok adds that the board has a say what contractor she hires, but it is stipulated in her contract that she can spend a certain dollar amount on a project and then she must get board approval. “For larger things, such as capital improvements, I present the board with quotes or bids from contractors and let them choose,” she says. “Also, I have them review any long-term contracts—for a new cleaning company, for example—and then give my recommendations.”
Once a project is given the go-ahead, Dziok says that it is her responsibility to oversee it so she can report back to the board. “I want to see where our stumbling blocks are,” she says. For example, recently the building had a mysterious plumbing issue that lead to a foul sewer-type smell in one building. Dziok stood by while the mystery was being uncovered. Ultimately, they found the issue that was causing the smell and the board was notified.
It’s also the manager's responsibility to make sure the project stays on budget. “The best way to do that is to hire reputable vendors that they have a relationship with,” says Solzman Goldberg. “Things that are taken care of in the unit are the responsibility of the unit owner, but there is insurance to cover any potential problem or damage.”
What’s the best way to handle maintenance issues so everything runs smoothly? “Hire competent people from the get-go so you don’t have to supervise people every step of the way and you trust them,” says Dziok. “I don’t want to hold their hands; I want to just explain it to them and know it will be done right the first time.”
The biggest challenge that Presbrey sees in making sure maintenance issues are handled smoothly is communicating and planning with the owners. “The most important part of communication is following up,” he says. “If you sent someone to perform a task, follow up with them to make sure the expectation is met.”
Stay in the Know
A successful property manager knows the building systems inside and out, even if they aren’t the ones to actually fix the problem. Most property management and trade organizations —such as the Institute for Real Estate Management (IREM), to name one prominent example—offer basic courses on building systems, so local chapters are an excellent place to start. It’s also vital that the property manager stay on top of new systems and technologies. If your building has a new system installed, the manager and maintenance staff should check to see what the differences are with that equipment and what was used before. Doing homework now will prevent problems later.
It’s all about communication—open lines of communication from the resident to the manager to the staff. By making sure you’re informed of your tenants needs and problems, you can have them fixed in a timely and efficient manner.
Lisa Iannucci is a New York-based freelance writer and author and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.