Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Self-managed buildings: not so super an idea

Since I lived in a small (six unit) condo building that is quasi-managed at best, I was quite interested to see an article in The Sunday NY Times on self-managed buildings.

Residents of self-managed buildings do everything themselves: They take out the trash. They shovel the snowy sidewalks. They hire the contractor to fix the roof. They balance the books. They file the forms and permits required by the city Department of Buildings and Department of Finance. They enforce the building rules — no exceptions for friends and (obviously) neighbors — on everything from pets to renovations.

Hmmm.  Let’s see.

  • Take out the trash: Check! (Well, most of the recycle, anyway.)

  • Shovel the snowy sidewalks: Check! (Although occasionally someone “official” beats me to it. We just can’t count on him ever showing up.)

  • Hire the contractor to fix the roof:  Quasi check! I have been the one to interview, hire and project manage contractors for masonry, fire escape and wrought iron fence-grill work, trim painting, and vine-removal. My husband has spent a lot of time over the years dealing with the various repair guys who’ve worked in the building.)

  • Our management company does take care of paperwork.  (This company, which we’ve been with for years, seems to have changed its name and location over the summer, without actually changing personnel. Rumor: they’re trying to outrun their piss-poor Internet reputation.)

  • And the building rules? Talk about squishy…

My head hurts just thinking about our building – which is old (1860’s), ideally located, and has very good bones. It’s also, largely, a tenant building: 4 1/2 of the units are rented out. (The 1/2 that’s not is part of a unit that’s subdivided into two small apartments. One is occupied by an exceedingly elderly gentleman who’s lived there for over 50 years. The other is used as a pied a terre by its owner.)

We’re not the only ones who do stuff around the building, but, frankly, I wish none of us did a damned thing. 

Two owners painted the hall area up to the second floor landing.  They did a great job, and, since that’s all their tenants see, that’s all they cared about. Above their line of demarcation, the hall hasn’t been touched in over twenty years. But somehow, although we sorta/kinda vote to complete the job each year at our condo meeting, it never gets done.

Frankly, all the volunteer stuff just engenders pissiness.

One of the duo who did the painting  - let’s call him Umbrage P. Dudgeon – is completely resentful that another owner (who owns one unit, and sees to two others,  under some incredibly complicated family trust) doesn’t pitch in on all the self-management “fun”.  My husband and I don’t come in for the resentment because we – the only owners who actually live in the building – end up doing a lot of stuff.  In addition to the “stuff” I checked above, I plant the tulips, pull the vinca,  and rake the 80 square foot “garden” out front. And over the weekend I swept up after some tenant Halloween partiers who brought in a straw something or other to decorate, leaving detritus all over the back entry. I actually don’t know who had the party, so I don’t know who to complain to next time I see them. If I see them. If I know them when I see them. In real life, this is something of a revolving door building, and I’m don’t think I could pick the occupants of two of the units out of a line up.)

Anyway, when Umbrage complains, I point out to him that if any of us wanted to be homeowners, we’d live in houses where we get to take care of everything on our own, rather than own condos.  And that the guy he’s so pissed off at would rather pay more in fees to get stuff done. (The person that Umbrage is in a perpetual snit about is someone whom I like an awful lot. He’s an exceedingly decent person, very smart and with a great sense of humor.  He also lives 200 miles away and has a life that doesn’t entail coming to Boston for painting parties. His name for the building, by the way, is Fawlty Towers.)

We have a miserably low condo-fee that has barely budged in the 20 years we’ve lived, and we get what we pay for.

Even when we vote to raise the condo fees – which we do every once in a while – somehow, they never seem to go up very much. Someone, generally Umbrage P. Dudgeon pitches a fit. We back down and raise the fees marginally. 

Somehow, we also decided not to have much of a reserve.

So, any time anything needs to get done, we do a special assessment.

But we generally only have the energy to do a special assessment when something is an absolute, the building-will-fall-down- without-it requirement.  We never seem to get around to doing a special assessment for any of the cosmetic niceties, such as painting the hall above the second floor landing.

Meanwhile, the building gets shabbier and shabbier.

Oh, and the entire situation is exacerbated and/or ameliorated (depending on the mood I’m in) by Mr. Pied A. Terre.

Pied is an engineer/putterer/Mr. FixIt who, when he’s around, actually likes to pitch in and do repairs. He’s also the self-appointed Vice-President-in-Charge-of-Dealing-with-the-Management Company and/or a lot of the workers who come in and do the special assessment repairs.

We just never quite know whether Pied is involved or not, what role he has chosen to play with respect to any particular repair, etc. He works in mysterious ways.

I know, I know.

I’m even starting to confuse myself here. (And, trust me, I am leaving out 99% of the details that would make the tale of this building really interesting. If you can imagine a building-related weirdness that I can’t top, I’ll eat my condo fee.)

Meanwhile, the building meshugas is so enervating, that I’m way behind on the things that need to get done within our unit: replacement lighting, the downstairs repainted, the blinds restrung (I did get the cords….), the windows washed. Sigh! The thought of taking on a major project, like updating the 1980’s kitchen and baths, puts me into a complete spin.

So for obvious reasons I found The Times article interesting.

The money saved through pure self-management can be significant, and that of course is the main attraction.

In our case, the money saved through quasi-us-them-mismanagement is penny wise, pound foolish, I’m afraid. Eventually, things will catch up to us, rents will go down, the tenant quality – which, despite the high rents, has managed to attract a number of “iffy” inhabitants over the year – will deteriorate. Not to mention – oy! – the resale value.

One example they gave of self-management was really strange.

“It’s like a second job,” said Joseph Iacono, the president of the board of a newly self-managed condo on 19th Street in the Flatiron district. “Some agency is always sending some notice that someone has to deal with. Guess who gets to deal with that?”

Still, he estimates the 11-unit building will save as much as $18,000 a year on fees to a managing agent.

Mr. Iacono, who already has a time-consuming first job as a hedge fund manager, has been spending about 10 hours a week meeting with contractors about roof repairs.

Let me get this straight: the 11-unit building saves $18K per annum, or a little of $1,600 per unit. And Mr. Iacono is spending about 10 hours a week seeing to roof repairs.


Even if he’s only done this for a couple of weeks, you do the math: 20 hours to save $1.6K would translate into an imputed hourly rate of $80 an hour. I know that things are bad in the financial service biz, but a hedgie whose time is worth $80/hour? Oh my. And that doesn’t even factor in his time as president. Perhaps he’s one of those noble hedge fund managers who’s doing this to save everyone else in the building $1,600.


Maybe he meant they were saving $180,000 a year on fees. Or he, personally, was saving $18K.

If he’s doing all this to save $18k gross, remind me not to invest in his hedge fund.

Meanwhile, I sit in my fabulous living room, blogging away, and sighing about Fawlty Towers.

Self management, indeed.


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