Re: Property Managers In Cohousing
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2012 09:18:41 -0800 (PST)
On Dec 11, 2012, at 3:17 PM, Holly McNutt <holly.mcnutt [at]> wrote:

> I AM a property manager by trade, managing a number of single-family homes, 
> condos, and a couple of HOA's.  I am constantly comparing the two very 
> different worlds of regular HOA management and CoHo-style self-management.

I'm so glad we have a property manager in our midst to address this question. 
it's one that comes up here frequently and we DO have a management company. 
We've had 4 in fact. Each time we think the new company will manage finances 
better and each time they eventually show many cracks. Not paying bills on 
time, not reimbursing residents for months and months, and audits not completed 
for two years after a year ends. The current one has been excellent --so far -- 
but we also have a new resident who works for the city in the budget review 
department. He knows what to ask and how to set expectations. 

But still they did not do what other management companies have done when they 
print out a proposed budget -- call the utility companies and the city and as 
about projected rates for the new year. With a new treasurer and a new chair of 
the Facilities Team, no one realized this hadn't been done. Fortunately we 
caught it because it was a several hundred dollar increase.

The only value of a property manager that I can see in 12 years of dealing with 
them is in the information they can share about what similar facilities do -- 
what costs and maintenance schedules are normal. One example I've used before 
was when our trash collection company said we need a pad of concrete in front 
of our dumpsters. Cost:$4,000. Our manager told us, Yes, you do. All the 
developers avoid putting them in. $4,000 is standard. They are all the same 
size. That saved us much discussion and grief.

In terms of facilities, all the companies have been a bust. They do NO 
supervision of the workers they send out, do not tell anyone that workers are 
coming, try to avoid getting bids (though they do have a broad base for 
comparison already), and charge $100 an hour for any time they spend on site. 
They don't do the inspections they promise to do.

The most helpful was a manager who attended one of our facilities team meetings 
month to go over records and answer questions. It was very helpful except she 
talked too much and we were paying $300 a month for that hour of time. And the 
records questions were all covered under the $300 a month for financial 
management. So for $600 a month we didn't think it was worth the time.

What I would recommend based on our experience is to find a property manager 
like Holly or someone who manages a large building who will attend a meeting 
once or twice a month to do just what this manager did for us -- share 
information on new products and services, recommend vendors, tell you what is 
likely to be a serious problem and what you can put off. Pay them $200 just to 
listen and share information for an hour.

People tend to move into cohousing because they want to do things themselves. 
Some love the handy person work and others want the control over quality and 
design. The problem is determining the criterion on which people are involved 
in decisions, ensuring that a "volunteer" knows what they are doing, and 
controlling the drift into weeks and weeks of no action. At a certain point, 
people don't want to remind their neighbors to fix this or that again, NOW. But 
that's what it often takes.

FWIW, a developer friend told me years ago that this is a problem for all small 
condos. He will only develop small rental buildings, not condos. Then the owner 
assumes responsibility and is usually a person who can handle it.
> Being a "get-it-done" kind of gal, it can be frustrating to watch Nyland 
> struggle with small things that a hired mgr (working with a Board of 
> Directors) would just crank through in nothing flat.  We need better lighting 
> in the yoga room?  Great, I run out and buy lights, hire someone to install 
> them, and it's done.

We also tried selecting a "preferred provider." We have a construction company 
that is widely considered to be one of the best by the management companies in 
DC. They have been very good to us, spending a lot of time consulting with us 
and have done excellent work. We have decided _several times_ to just call them 
to do the work -- not get bids or agonize over other ideas. But it never 
sticks. New people on the team think it is not a good idea to trust anyone. If 
they are too familiar they will take advantage of us, and "well this seems 
expensive lets get more bids." On and on.

But without allowing people to make those decisions and do what they can 
themselves, we have no buy in. No participation. That's why traditional condos 
are what they are. Things get done the way the board wants them done because no 
one wants the hassle. And it's hard to know which volunteer's contributions 
will be helpful and whose will set you back 6 months. Or who will bother to 
make the follow up calls when a provider doesn't show up.

> An outside manager might walk around and see trees in need of trimming and 
> sick trees in need of removal, hire someone, pay the bill, and be done.  

We do this very effectively. Again, it's the knowledge and advice we are paying 
for. When we (finally) decide to do something, we can call a tree service to 
just do it. Having the knowledge first is very important -- otherwise a lot of 
time is wasted on uninformed debate and some people will be already attached to 
their opinions.

One of the people who has done our reserve studies has done this for us. Since 
he knows the property, he can answer a question by email. Unfortunately, again, 
new people took one look at his having been involved with the property for 10 
years, even while it was being designed, and cried bias and clouded lenses, 
etc., and insisted on a new company.

The best businesses do not go out for bids all the time. They don't play one 
provider off against another. It is a waste of money and destroys trust. Oddly, 
in our supposedly collaborative communities, we believe competition somehow 
produces better quality.

> In a CoHo community, this might not go over so well.  "Where is the Russian 
> Olive?!"  a residents might exclaim the next day.  "It was my favorite tree 
> here and I remember when we planted it on my son's 10th birthday. I am 
> devastated!"  You get the picture.

We do have a problem with some residents not wanting to go to the community for 
this discussion. They don't want their judgement questioned. One example was a 
tree that the landscaping people wanted to plant that would close out the light 
to two kitchens. The kitchens already faced north so the light was important to 
them. Important to the landscape planner was not having a wall without any 
foliage. We do have a decision-making policy that says any decisions to which 
there are objections have to go to the full community. The rub here is trying 
to sweep decisions through before anyone understands what is being decided. 
Members have to be alert to our tendencies to avoid being overruled and wanting 
to just get it done.

> Then again, property managers are usually pretty well networked with 
> tradespeople and can often save money by knowing who is skilled and the best 
> value. 

People always raise this as an advantage but I've yet to see evidence of it. 
Companies tend to recommend their favorite people, the ones who are easy to 
work with and not too busy. Information on providers is generally available now 
on the Web and from other buildings. 

One person said our audits were much cheaper because we had a management 
company but I question even this. One reason we have an audit at all is because 
we don't trust the management company and if the management fees are added to 
the cost of the audit, what have we saved? Having a CPA look at the books 
annually would be much cheaper.

> In general, I think if you can go on self-managing, that's the best option. 
> But if things aren't getting done and the place is falling into a state of 
> neglect, hiring a PM could really be advantageous, IF you get the right 
> person.

We also hired a 'get things done' person who worked by the hour. She only 
charged $20 an hour but charged for every minute with a $10 minimum. Then some 
people wouldn't accept her recommendations. They didn't want to see those 
hourly rates when they were working by the hour free.

My next plan, should I ever get to it, Is to institute some of the feedback 
systems used in sociocracy to demonstrate to people what is working or not 
working. But showing data to some people also causes a lot of friction.

Managing facilities is just part of the job of living in cohousing where 
everyone wants to do it themselves and complain that others don't. Wasn't doing 
it yourself because you could do it better the promise? (Rhetorical question.)

Sharon Villines, Historic Takoma Park, Washington DC
"Nothing exists without order. Nothing comes into existence without chaos." 
Albert Einstein

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