It is very important for Boards of Directors ask the right questions before hiring a management company for their association. All too often important items are overlooked and Boards are left disappointed when they realize that the services they are receiving fail to meet their expectations. This post will examine 5 important and frequently forgotten questions to ask a prospective management company.
1. What is the maximum number of properties a Licensed Community Association Manager (LCAM) at your firm will be responsible for? In general, property management is a low profit margin industry and management companies have to manage many properties in order to earn a decent profit. Given this, management companies (and in particular the LCAMs that work for them) are often stretched too thin. With one LCAM managing up to 10 properties at a time, it is not surprising that they cannot keep up with their workload. In the end, it’s the associations that pay the price. In the property management business, firms often define an LCAM’s workload as the number of doors or units (versus properties) that the LCAM manages. This takes into account the fact that the size of properties, and therefore the number of hours dedicated to the property, varies. Of course, a small 20-unit property could be riddled with problems that require the LCAM’s time just as a 200-unit property could be smooth sailing. In general, however, I think this is a reasonable way to measure LCAM workload. I recommend no more than 650 doors under management by any full-time LCAM. If a management company does not have a unit limit per LCAM, this is a big red flag.
2. Which LCAM specifically will be assigned to our property? Can we meet him/ her? Property management proposals, particularly from the larger management companies, tend to speak generally about an LCAM being assigned to the property. The person(s) that meet with the Board to discuss the management proposal are often the company’s owners or an employee specifically hired to meet with potential clients. It is exceptionally important that Boards meet and interview the actual LCAM that will be assigned to the property. I also recommend that Boards negotiate a clause into the management contract that should the specific LCAM leave the firm, the Board has the right to terminate the contract. This will be the person the Board works with on a routine basis and if the LCAM is incompetent, unmotivated, overworked or simply does not “mesh” with the personalities of Board members, the management partnership will likely be unsuccessful. Management companies tend to highlight their expansive accounting teams, their fancy websites and their new technologies when presenting to Boards. But in the end, it is the quality of the LCAM assigned that will determine how well your property is managed. Don’t be shy about asking for a resume of the LCAM to determine what experience he/ she has. It is also wise to find out how far he/ she lives from your property as it is very helpful to have an LCAM that is nearby in the event of an emergency on property.
3. Where and how are our official records stored? Are email communications maintained? While the specific items considered Official Records are listed in the Florida Statutes (and discussed here for condominium associations), there is no specifically required method of storage. Records may be stored in hard copy at the manager’s office or with a professional document storage firm; they may be stored in electronic format on a computer or an external hard drive; or they may be stored on a web-based application like an association website. The Board will want to make sure that they (and other homeowners) have easy access to the Official Records (accessible within 1 business day) and that the records are stored in such a way that protects them in the event of fire, hurricane, or other casualty. The other item that the Board should inquire about is association emails (i.e., any email sent or received by the property manager regarding the association). These emails do not necessary constitute Official Records but they do provide important information on past events and can be very helpful to new Board members. Some management firms save these emails and some don’t. Make sure that the manager not only saves all association emails but also has a method in place to provide them to the Board upon request.
4. Do you have 24-hour emergency response? How does it work in practice? When are managers required to come on-site during an emergency? Most, if not all, management companies have 24-hour emergency response built into their management agreements. However, not all after-hours emergency response programs are created equal. Smaller management companies may provide the manager’s direct phone number to all residents and simply field calls as they come in. Larger management companies generally contract with an emergency answering service. In this scenario, after hours phone calls from residents are answered by a call center attendant who determines if the call is an emergency. Call center attendants generally know little to nothing about the property. From there, the call center attendant attempts to contact the property’s LCAM. This process can be effective if a quality call center is used. For management companies that use a service like this, I recommend the Board research the call center and also determine if there is a cost per call to the call center that will be charged to the association.
Regardless of the type of emergency response program in place, the Board should understand who serves as backup in the event the community’s LCAM is unavailable. How long will residents have to wait for a response from the LCAM until a backup responder is contacted? How does that process work? How many backups are there?
Another issue to consider is whether or not there are any internal policies regarding LCAMs coming to the property during an emergency. One thing that frustrates many Board members is the sense that emergencies are not responded to as effectively as possible. For example, if there is a leak that causes damage to multiple units, would the Board expect the LCAM to come to the property, assist homeowners, meet with restoration vendors and photograph the damage? Or would the Board be content with the LCAM handling the event over the phone? I recommend the Board create several scenarios and ask the management company to walk you through how they would be handled. This will help the Board understand if the manager’s procedures align with their expectations.
5. Do you offer any non-management services? Certain management companies will offer non-management services (e.g., maintenance, plumbing) at a fixed hourly rate within the management contract. When interviewing a management company that offers bundled services, it is important to find out if it is a requirement that the association use them. The Board should maintain the flexibility to choose their own maintenance man, plumber, etc. It is my belief that bundled services like this are ultimately damaging to associations for the following reasons:
- Bundled services make terminating a management relationship more difficult as associations would lose key vendors as well.
- As bundled services are offered at a fixed rate, management companies are incentivized to contract with the least expensive vendor as opposed to the most qualified vendor in an effort to increase their profits.
- With control of vendor selection shifted from association to manager, competitive bidding is eliminated, leaving associations at risk of paying the management company above market price for these services.
- As these vendors are representatives of the management company, managers are less likely to be upfront with Boards about issues related to the vendor’s work.
That being said, if the Board is considering using these services, it is important to find out more about the experience of the specific vendors as well as the process the management company uses to find these vendors. Further, it is important that the Board compare the hourly rates provided by the management company with those offered by independent vendors to ensure the Board isn’t paying too much for these services. Lastly, the Board should consider an agreement with the management company specifying that Board member review and approval of completed work is a prerequisite of payment for these services.
The next blog post will discuss 5 additional questions to ask a potential management company. As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments.
Emily Shaw is a condominium homeowner in Tampa, Florida and a Director of VERA Property Management, a full-service community association management and consulting firm serving the Tampa Bay Area.