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The Paradox of Condominium Living

My first day on the job at a property management office was in the wake of a rape murder. Despite that, I stayed on the job for 10+ years as a property manager, and as a result I have quite a pool of experience that might serve up some education for the rising manager and the homeowner contemplating the paradox of condominium living.

I’ve been through the daily operational stuff, like squabbles between unit owners over cigarette smoke, pool rules, pet relief, and fighting city hall. The most serious stuff though, has been the times that I’ve worked through the aftermath of fire, flood, and blood (injury and death). What I’ve learned mostly is that property managers don’t just manage property; but rather, they manage people. Sure, there is building and grounds maintenance, renovation, and construction, but more importantly are meetings with engineers and architects, coming toe to toe with the local police and fire department, and abutting property owners, the trustees, the management company staff, and of course the condo owners. All in the spirit of community, I’ve always tried to support policy that was fair and beneficial to all.

My experience is mostly in residential property management in the form of landlord over a single family home and a site manager over a 33-acre New England Condominium Complex with a dozen multi-level buildings and amenities. While I do have some commercial property experience, it is limited to small strip malls. The biggest difference between commercial and residential property management is that with residential real estate, people are home twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. With commercial real estate people are at work at their businesses, and typically not on site all hours of the night.

I didn’t become a property manager on purpose. Like a lot of my jobs, it was an accident born from the need for mother’s hours. Flexible hours, and office work seem to go hand in hand. Office work is another facet of being a property manager. Some days I fought with the copy machine or the computer software. I answered phones, filed, and wrote a lot of letters, memos, rules, regulations, incident reports, trustee minutes, and an awareness handbook.

Being a property manager means a lot of listening to complaints and questions, especially complaints from emotionally charged people. My job as a property manager was diffusing anger, identifying problems, and seeking resolutions that would benefit all involved parties. On a daily basis, however, no matter how many complaints there were, there really were and still are only three major worries: fire, flood and blood.

The intent of the information here is to assist residents and owners with common concerns at a condominium complex with multi-level dwellings. While some information will be mere clarification of rules and regulations, much of it will present a collection of routine everyday issues that frequently surfaced and appeared in telephone conversations, memos, and monthly newsletters. Anecdotes of actual events will show that truth can be stranger than fiction. Bringing to life real events and real people on the printed page will embellish the information provided and serve up story problems for consideration.

Condominium Living is a relatively new experiment created in the past 50-60 years. It is a continual learning process for unit owners and management. It is my hope that the anecdotes and explanations in my book about the lifestyle of condominium living will prepare newcomers to the field of property management and perhaps will cultivate residents' understanding of the lifestyle of condominium living and its paradoxical dynamic.

Living in a condominium is unlike any other living experience. It is especially different from living in and owning a single-family home. In condo living, all unit owners are in a sense co-owners and co-investors in a home. Unit Owners are governed by an organization called an association that must be run like a business. Condo associations must adhere to conditions spelled out in trusts documents, by laws, state statutes and municipal ordinances.

As a single-family homeowner, you are the boss of your home and in charge of how it is maintained. As a condominium owner, who must reside in harmony with other owners, your control is limited; you live by common set of rules and regulations. State statutes require that condo associations allocate funds for the adequate replacement of components of the common areas, which are all parts of the condominium development that are not documented as being part of an individual unit. This might include repair or replacement of landscaping, roofs, exterior walls, elevators, garages. The condominium documents will identify what parts of the buildings and land and amenities that the replacement reserve fund covers. As a condo owner, you pay a monthly fee, for which a portion must be allocated to funding the replacement reserve fund so that future trustee boards have a financial cushion available for replacement reserve items such as, but not limited to carpets, roofs, or asphalt.

Many people choose to move to condominiums to eliminate the need for worries about maintenance such as grass cutting, snow plowing, or exterior painting. If all condominium owners took the attitude that it was someone else's job to maintain the common areas, there would never be volunteer trustees to ultimately take on the torch of leading, maintaining, controlling costs, and preserving values. Ultimately some owners must step forward from time to time and take responsibility for the owners who choose not to worry. This is the interesting dynamic and paradox of condo living.

Responsible volunteering is to the benefit of the overall success of a condo community. Volunteerism is the only way owner’s voices can be heard and their opinions and suggestions can become workable solutions to creating a community that benefits as many people as possible. Typically, there are term limits on volunteering, because it is important to have new folks on the board to share their time and effort, which keeps morale and representation fresh and widespread. Becoming members of a committee or running for member of a board of trustees are vital to maintaining the spirit of community. While some residents opt for the easy way to deal with condo living like criticizing the rules, policies, and staff, and the property manager, it takes much more effort and commitment to be a proactive volunteer who is part of constructive solutions to the decisions that affect the lives of all the families of a condominium complex.

Just so we're clear about the paradox -- a condo owner owns their own home by agreeing to share some of it. And the property manager is the moderator between all the homeowners and all their property that is both shared and exclusionary. In essence, my job as a property manager was to be the glue that held everything and all parties together during the best of times and worst of times.

-D.S. Marquis

Coming up next in this property management and condo living blog series:

The Master Deed and the Unit Deed.

D.S. Marquis is the author of the book, Of School and Women.

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