Navigating the complex community association waters

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Imagine being manager of a homeowner association (HOA), a neighborhood association or an office complex. One day your biggest issue is a homeowner who paints his home an unapproved color. The next, it is a business partner who allows a friend to park his car (with a large “For Sale” sign in the window) in the office parking lot – or a condo owner who refuses to pay increased association dues. Some associations require help in negotiating landscaping or heating and plumbing bids; others need help in budgeting for deferred maintenance on aging properties or require interpretation of new landlord/tenant legislation.

Fortunately, Beth Jones, president and CEO of Management Advantage, the manager of 36 separate residential and commercial associations in the Pikes Peak region, thrives on such challenges. After more than twenty years in the business, she has compiled an impressive client portfolio, has earned her PCAM (Professional Community Association Manager) certification and has developed a knack for steering nervous community boards through the choppy waters of fiscal responsibility.

The former Indiana resident and real estate broker moved to the Pikes Peak region in 1982. Prior to relocating, Jones sold condominiums and town homes – and served as volunteer president for her own condo association board. She immediately joined the Community Association Institute (CAI), a national organization that assists association managers and elected board members in staying abreast of industry trends and providing management training.

“It was the only place you could go as a board member or HOA president to learn about your job,” she recalls. Today Jones also sends her entire staff to national training workshops sponsored by CAI and encourages them to pursue professional certification. “There are only three PCAMs, including myself, in Colorado Springs,” she says, noting that the program may take five to seven years to complete. Each Management Advantage employee is expected to volunteer on at least one local CAI chapter committee and attend chapter functions. Jones not only helped found the southern Colorado chapter, but serves on the national faculty of CAI, traveling several times a year to teach a certification course entitled “Communications for Association Managers.”

Originally hired by Denver’s First West Group in 1982, Jones managed a portfolio of thirteen associations. For the next three years, she put in an average of 60 hours per week. “I realized just as I was taking on my fourteenth group that I was burned out,” she said, adding that she took several weeks off to regenerate. “Shortly thereafter, I got a call from a company out of Denver looking for a Colorado Springs manager to handle property management for the Schuck Corporation.” The deal was never finalized, but as Jones added, in 1991, “I was eventually able to buy my job from the owner.” As a result, she opened Management Advantage, starting out with seven association clients.

Since that time, Beth Jones and her husband, Bert, have played an active role in the local community association field. Bert manages two office parks and the company’s rental division (encompassing more than 60 properties), in addition to supervision of two small associations. As CEO, Beth manages a staff of six association managers, responsible for 32 residential communities, as well as four administrative employees.

The company’s single largest client is Sierra Pointe, a 282-unit condominium complex on the city’s north side; its smallest is a 32-unit complex. Today, Management Advantage ranks as the second-largest residential property management firm in the city, according to the Colorado Springs Business Journal 2002 Book of Lists, with more than 2,700 units on the books.

Noting that it is difficult to find good association managers, still Jones is determined not to overwork her employees. “I’ve been through burnout myself and know how tough it is,” she says. “This is a very demanding field.” With that knowledge behind her, the veteran manager says that finding a good manager is no easy task. “Colorado pays such low wages for association managers,” she notes. “I recently talked with a candidate from the Midwest who makes double what we can offer for managing fewer units. Hiring is one of my biggest challenges. Associations are usually very sensitive to any increase in monthly dues – and we’d have to raise dues in order to afford employees from other areas,” Jones said.

In addition to keeping association budgets in line, Jones believes that her primary job is to educate homeowner association boards and community members on the realities of community living. “So many town home or condo customers want a low-maintenance lifestyle,” she says. “Very few real estate clients are thinking past the attractive floor plan and curb appeal of the home when they buy. It’s a shock to discover that the responsibility for managing that property falls ultimately on the owner.”

Jones also points out that most communities have been built since the early 1970s. “For the past twenty or thirty years, residents have enjoyed fairly low maintenance costs, but as properties age, the cost of maintaining the swimming pool, clubhouse, landscaping, and other amenities will only go up.” She adds, “That means that each association must plan for the costs associated with an aging community – and most volunteer board members try to keep from raising dues to cover those expenses.”

Former homeowner association vice president, Julie Boswell, has lived in her town home for more than ten years. Asked why her association elected to work with Management Advantage, Boswell is clear. “Working with a professional management association puts controls in place that have continuity,” she said. “So many litigious issues can arise that affect your quality of live and your property values – and those can pit neighbor against neighbor. A professional management company de-personalizes the process. They also organize the financial and collection functions.”

Another key element in hiring a good management company, says Boswell, lies in the firm’s responsiveness to homeowner needs and complaints. “It’s a lot cheaper to act quickly and fix a leaking basement pipe before the problem escalates into a $5,000 job,” she adds.

While marketing is an important element of small business, Beth and Bert Jones rely more on word-of-mouth referrals than on advertising for new clients. “There just isn’t time to get out and network,” says Beth. Management Advantage does utilize its website as a place to list rentals, post questionnaires for vendor bids, receive homeowner maintenance requests, and make available association dues balances.

As far as future goals, both owners would like to add more office and commercial complexes to their book of business. In the meantime, however, Management Advantage continues to provide guidance to thousands of local residential community members as they navigate the straits of association life.