This week I’d like to discuss an issue that can be a difficult burden for board members—choosing an appropriate property manager. While small properties of only a few units may be able to be managed by an owner or two, most larger properties will require a manager of some kind, whether that person is part of a management company or an independent manager. While I don’t intend to go into the pros and cons of hiring a management company (an issue we discuss in detail in New Neighborhoods), I would like to discuss qualifications that you should look for in your actual management candidates.
Licensing: First realize that, in many states, managers of associations that are larger than a certain number of units are required to be managed by a person who has obtained a state license. This may be true even if an owner is willing to manage the property herself. For example in Florida, if you are managing a property of greater than 10 units, and you are getting paid, you must have a Community Association Management license. These licensing procedures are intended to protect associations by ensuring that anyone managing your property has at least some minimum knowledge of the laws that govern shared ownership communities (SOCs). There are plenty of arguments that such licensing has no effect—nevertheless, in many states it’s a primary requirement.
Education: Based on years of interviews, I can say that a large number of SOC manager candidates tend to have no more than a high school education or a GED, and for some properties that may be all that’s required. Other candidates may bring with them different types of community college or correspondence degrees, and a few will be college educated, or even have advanced degrees in accounting, engineering or business management. But how much education is really needed, especially for smaller properties? Well, start by imagining the types of duties handled by a typical manager. At the very least, they must communicate with owners, employees and contractors (repair people, service people, etc.). Some of that communication will be in writing. So, in my opinion, a bare minimum for the job of manager is an ability to write clearly and understandably, with a minimum of grammatical errors, and to speak in whatever language is appropriate for your community. The problem is that a college education doesn’t guarantee literacy these days, nor does lack of a degree preclude a person from being able to write quite well. So I’d recommend that, along with a resume, you request a writing sample from every candidate. Such samples can be letters written to owners at other properties, demand letters, contracts, etc. Proper communication absolutely is the number one responsibility of any manager.
In larger properties, especially properties with budgets that reach into the millions, a manager with an advanced degree can be very helpful. Managers with accounting or business training are often better equipped to handle complex budgeting issues and collections problems. A candidate with an engineering background may be appropriate for a property where physical plant issues are common, and upkeep and maintenance are a constant daily battle. Either way, remember that a degree does not guarantee competence. Consider whether the degree is a correspondence or online course, as opposed to a degree from a more established institution, like a university or vocational school.
At some properties, especially those in vacation communities, a hospitality degree may be extremely helpful. Owners and guests at condos in resort areas often expect their buildings to operate like hotels, and a manager with some training in hospitality may be able to smooth the transition between a true hotel and an SOC that is trying to provide hotel-style services.
Experience: Your candidates for manager will often run the gamut from greenhorns just stepping up from an assistant manager position, to managers with 20 years of experience in properties all over the world. The amount of experience you require is going to depend in large measure on the size of your property and it’s specific needs. For example, if you live in a small condominium with only a dozen or so units, it would be quite acceptable to hire a manager who has never had their own property, especially if that person has solid experience as an assistant at other, larger communities. Often you can get a quality, up-and-coming candidate at a lower salary who will do an excellent job. In contrast, if you are looking for a manager at a top resort property with hundreds of units, frequent rentals, hotel-like services and a delinquency problem, hiring an inexperienced manager, even at a reduced cost, can end up being a nightmare for the board of directors. If you are on the board, insist that you hire an appropriately experienced person at a reasonable market price (and realize in advance that many of the owners may be shocked by the salaries and demand for quality association managers).
Also consider the special skills that the candidate brings to the table. Are you having problems with employees? Look for a manager who may have worked in those positions (valet, security, front desk) and worked her way up through the system. She may be better able to relate to your employees. Or, alternatively, is your building plagued by seasonal residents who spend countless hours of office time demanding hospitality services? Look for a manager who has worked at hotels, especially one who is an experienced hotel manager. Are your common areas falling to bits due to neglect or developer negligence? Consider a manager with a broad maintenance/engineering background, especially one who has served as a property’s chief engineer. Managing a large, complex property is not a job that can be done by just anybody—it’s often a daunting task (far more involved than understood by people who have never volunteered or served on the board) and requires a lot of specialty training. You owe it to your community to find a manager that suits your needs, rather than settling for the first licensed resume that passes across your email in-box.
Personality: A manager’s personality is also a large aspect of their ability to do a quality job, and is a good reason that at least one board member should interview every candidate, even if a management company is in charge of the property (if your contract with the management company gives the association zero control over the manager placed at the building, and if the manager is a full time employee, you may want to consider adding the right to oversee the position in your next contract). Neighborhoods that have been running smoothly for years, where disagreements are uncommon, may find that a mild, laid back manager is the perfect fit. But such a person would be quickly overwhelmed at a community where owner disputes are a daily occurrence, the staff is disrespectful and lazy and the engineer is allowing the common elements to dissolve. That type of SOC should be looking for a general, a manager with a strong hand who can whip employees into shape, take charge of staff and deal politely but firmly with difficult residents. There’s a huge spectrum between these two extremes, and the only way to tell how a manager will behave is to ask them questions that are designed to evoke thoughtful and complete answers. Consider questions like “describe one situation where you had to deal with an angry owner,” or “have you ever had to manage an employee who wasn’t doing their job properly.” Questions like these can provide insight into the manager’s style and personality, and can give the board a good indication of how that person will handle disputes at the community (or if the person is even competent to handle disputes). Developing good interview skills will go a long way towards avoiding the revolving door of unqualified or inappropriate managers.
Still, even armed with all this information, finding the right manager is often a difficult task that may take several attempts to get right. Don’t be afraid to insist that your management and staff perform at a high professional level, and if your owners and board are unhappy, insist that a change be made. Even more than the management company you may hire, your on-site manager is the most important aspect of any community, and the quality and competence of that single employee will often make or break the experience of living in your neighborhood. So be prepared, make good choices, and good luck!