Once Upon a Time...
"All your condominium documents are in a box -- somewhere. Someone passes the box to another person. The box ends up somewhere else.
"Everything gets taken care of. Everybody lives happily ever after."
Funny you should ask. Too many condominium owners and board members believe that story of what happens to the business of condominiums; that the association managers fix/ repair/ adjust/ moderate/ mediate/ pay/ collect and so forth, and pay themselves out of your assessments. All based on the contents of a box of documents.
Start With The Board
Finding or changing a condominium association manager takes several steps and the board takes the first step.
A board must decide exactly what requires managing. This means that in line with its legal duties to maintain, preserve and protect the real estate assets owned in common, the board must lead, plan, and execute its tasks according to the work that needs to be done.
Board members are most valuable to the association when they are knowledgeable, involved and know how to take action. Business expertise is especially valuable, since that experience offers patterns that boards can follow when establishing process, procedures and policies. Condominium board experience is also valuable, because service on a board helps members understand how to balance the business issues with the community issues. This balance, often, is our greatest challenge.
The age of the association is also a consideration. A twenty-five year old association where the same six or seven people serve as board members faces a different set of requirements for an association manager from an association still within or fresh out of the declarant control period. Most associations exist with ages in between.
No two condominium associations are exactly the same. Every association is unique in its locale, construction, amenities, community make-up, and governing documents.
It can be a challenge to 'get the right people on the bus' and 'get the right people off the bus'. Volunteer boards are made up of owners, some with agendas, some with no experience, agenda or investment in the work.
Before choosing a condominium association manager, it is imperative that a board understand its unique set of skills, tasks and budget. Once these resources are identified, the board can begin a search for a condominium association manager.
Seek Candidates with Condominium Expertise, Experience and Competency
In Whatcom County, a board can find many property managers with experience managing real estate. This means they know how to order services -- municipal and aesthetic -- and pay bills. They might understand that the source of condominium funds is owners who pay 'dues', 'fees', and occasionally, they use the proper term: 'assessments'. They can send you a monthly balance sheet showing how they spent your assessments against your budget. They can add a line item that includes reserves and reserves contributions. In my experience, none understand condominium finances. Or preventative maintenance. Or construction defects. Or community affairs. Or condominium law. Or governing documents. Or especially the business of managing an association which is a corporation.
Real estate property managers make money managing apartments, homes, and commercial properties. Unless these managers have educated themselves about condominiums and condominium association management, they cannot effectively partner with you as a condominium board.
My thirteen-year condominium experience lessons -- nine in Washington State -- include the mandate that a condominium association manager must be affiliated, certified and educated by the nation's industry-standard organization, Community Association Institute (CAI), with headquarters in Virginia and a chapter in Washington State.
CAI establishes best practices which effectively set the bar in several function-specific areas. For example, you can find (free) best practice reports on community harmony and spirit, community security, energy efficiency, financial operations, governance, green communities, reserve studies/management, strategic planning and transition on their Web site.
When a board reads best practice reports in order to educate themselves, then finds condominium association managers who can support these practices, the board has a high chance of success in their volunteer efforts, because you're both working on the same page.
From Better Business Bureau listings to other condominium boards with experience dealing with candidates, complete this step and share the results with the whole board. Be exhaustive.
Request a Proposal
Craft your informal RFP in such a way so that you cover your board's weaknesses and support your strengths. Give candidates a thumbnail sketch of the association, including such details as age and phase and number of units -- retail and residential, and type of corporation. At least categorize your requirements and cover business, governance, community and online services that you require.
When you choose a candidate, review the proposed contract. In fact, read it carefully, and compare your list of tasks to the terms of the agreement. This exercise affords you two benefits. You can:
Set expectations, so you can avoid surprises during the contract term.
Use the comparison as a basis for the interview you conduct with the candidate.
Tip: If you want to cherry-pick services, find a candidate that offers cherry-picking options. There is a wide chasm between full service and limited service.
Starting Out With a (New) Condominium Association Manager
A board's initial step here is to sit down with the departing management agent who knows the most about its association, and conduct an exit interview. During this session the board must understand:
- Any incomplete or pending projects and their status
- All footnote-level explanations of extraordinary entries in the financial statements
- Any outstanding community issues or pending resolutions
- All issues involving reserve studies, maintenance situations, insurance issues and so forth
Armed with this level of detail, then the board is ready to open a dialog with a new condominium association manager.
Sit Down with a (New) Condominium Association Manager
The first order of business is to agree on whatever process is necessary for both the board and the condominium association manager to set expectations for each other's participation and performance in this new partnership.
Caveat to the board: Throughout this process, listen to the ideas and suggestions of a new condominium association manager, because there could be tips, tricks and processes that can support, eliminate or reduce board work.
Based on the services you agree will be performed by the new association manager, you'll want to discuss at least these issues with them. Make a list and pass the list along to them, so there is no question about what you require.
Verify, if it has not been verified before, that the copies of governing documents the board uses to manage the business of the association are valid, filed, current, and complete. Pass along a copy of this set to the new condominium association manager.
Understand what parts of the (non-profit) corporation law are currently employed by your board, and what aspects are available that might be useful.
Review financial details, including the finance chart of accounts, to insure that categories for your budget fit within the bookkeeping paradigm of the new manager. If you separate water use from sewer rates, and require special accounting attention otherwise, review these details with the new bookkeeping staff.
Establish expectations for the frequency and timing of all financial reporting, the by-when date each month when the previous month's financials will be delivered. Discuss the treasurer's review process and clarify any correction process, so errors can be correctly in a timely manner.
Establish banking venues, so that they mesh with expectations of the association.
Remove ex-managers' signatures from bank accounts and organize obtaining appropriate signature cards for the new association manager's authorized signatures on your operating accounts. (You may even be forced to close accounts and open new ones.)
Establish dates for the association's license renewal with the Secretary of State, the due date for your tax returns, business license renewals, if any, audit, reserve study update, budget planning cycle, and so forth.
Understand what the condominium management's administrative expenses will be that cover document storage, banking fees, copier and scanner fees, envelopes, postage, and so forth. Require detailed invoices for every penny charged to the association under the category of administrative expenses.
Craft letters to the membership announcing the management change, indicating processes required to alter auto-assessment deductions, new mailing addresses for assessment payments, adjustments in handy-man maintenance coverage/ processes/ forms, and other operational adjustments necessary based on the new management arrangement.
Inform the new manager of the strategic plan for the coming year, so as to enroll the manager in supporting the planned efforts of the board.
Share contracts that bind the association including landscape, preventative maintenance and so forth.
Discuss the informal 'RFP' process for gathering bids for services in the next year, and how the process is completed before the draft budget during the fourth quarter.
Review the insurance coverage for the association's assets and the current status of HO-6 policies carried by owners. Establish guidelines for proof of insurance, sharing master policy details and so forth.
Review preventative maintenance schedules, tasks, staff and so forth.
Engage the services of an independent attorney to serve the operational needs of the association, such as drafting or modifying collection resolutions, fine schedules and enforcement procedures. Always use an attorney to file liens, handle owner's bankruptcy issues, craft amendments and so forth.
Gain agreement that the agent assigned to your condominium has read or will read all your governing documents. These include CC&Rs, By-Laws, Resolutions, Amendments, Minutes and for new developments, the developer's Public Offering Statement.
Verify that the agent assigned to your condominium knows how to remain current on changes to Washington State law governing condominiums -- and understands its basics, and if appropriate, state construction defect law, and state non-profit law.
Review any special resolutions and amendments, so the new manager understands and can aid and guide the board in enforcing governing documents.
Review the look, feel and usefulness of the assessment coupon book that will be sent to owners.
Craft the auto-deduction letter to owners, so they can follow instructions and pay assessments automatically, if desired.
Review the due date for assessments, and establish the date upon which late fees are chargeable.
Draft a collection letter to collect unpaid assessments, and follow the governing documents where this process is outlined. Draft subsequent letters that the collection process might require.
Craft a violations letter for notifying owners of violations, and follow the governing documents where this process is outlined.
Establish a hearing process, so owners can petition the board for a hearing based on a violation.
Establish a hearing board, made up of owners and at least one board member.
Document the recusal process where a board member can avoid a conflict of interest in a hearing by appointing a substitute board member when necessary.
Verify that the management company can produce resale certificates, which are required when units change ownership. These certificates must be accurate, complete and include whatever new requirements are imposed by state law in a timely fashion.
Verify that the management company can authenticate current ownership records, so the board and the management company understands the authenticity of every unit owner.
Gain agreement about how to establish and keep current, a list of tenants and residents in the community.
Share the schedule for the annual meeting, the budget process, the budget approval process, note-taking at board meetings, board minutes' publishing schedule, owner notification standards and so forth.
Educate the managing agent about contact parameters for owners, tenants and the developer, if appropriate. A community telephone book or online contact sheet is ideal.
Discuss any community newsletters, online broadcast communications and so forth, in order to maintain the branded tone of board communications.
Review operational procedures including recycle guidelines, sprinkler schedules, landscape standards, window washing, snow removal requirements and so forth.
Share the contents of welcome packets, including additional or separate materials to be made available to either tenants or new owners.
Discuss town hall meetings where occupants -- strong suggestion that you include tenants -- can express their concerns, ideas, thoughts, considerations and so forth. Include the frequency, action methods, agendas, etc.
Review updates and upgrades to community communication that the new association manager may offer.
Understand the online options offered by the new association manager, including items in all three areas above.
At a minimum, look for opportunities to save member assessment dollars, management fees, and everybody's time.