By Bob Gourley
Maintain – Protect – Enhance. This is the prime directive for Boards of Directors of Homeowner Associations across the country. By maintaining, protecting, and enhancing the assets of the association, the Board ensures that property values are maximized and owners’ interests are served. The majority of your association’s common fund will be spent on maintaining common elements of your association. The many details of this story are seldom told to homeowners yet they need to hear it.
Take a look at your association’s budget for the current fiscal year. Where is your money being spent? I am willing to bet you have several line items for large ticket items that involve maintaining your association’s assets. Landscaping, snow removal, Pool and Tennis Court maintenance, sidewalk and concrete, blacktop, roofing materials, gutters, etc. and on and on it goes. How many homeowners take for granted that the common elements of your association will be maintained, protected, and enhanced for them? All owners have a chance to look at the maintenance items in the annual budget at your annual meeting. Have you ever considered presenting them the story in a way that is both informative and timely throughout the year?
Do residents know the process for how vendors are selected to maintain, protect, and enhance your association’s common assets? In most instances, line items in budgets are the results of careful vendor selection via a process of bid and review. The Board is charged with making the best selection from the submitted bids of qualified vendors. Sharing this information with your residents can help them understand that their common fees are being spent in a judicious and effective manner. It also helps them understand the need to raise common fees when prices rise on line items in the budget. (Please note it will not help them LIKE that their common fees are being raised, but it will help them understand the process.)
The story of maintaining, protecting, and enhancing the community assets may not be the most glamorous story you’ll ever tell your members. However, if you tell your story well, your association members will be fully informed as to how and why their money was spent the way it was and why it is necessary to save today for tomorrow’s maintenance projects. A community that has the financial resources in place to keep its association’s common assets looking great and working properly makes for a happy and successful community association. That’s a story that you’ll want to tell again and again!
By Bob Gourley
Why does FHA matter to your community? How will you tell the story?
Have you ever tried telling a very technical story to someone who isn’t very tech savvy? You know from the glossy-eyed look of your listener that they just aren’t following you. Maybe you’re giving them too much information. If they had a remote control in their hands, they would probably have clicked you away by changing the channel. Such is the challenge of explaining how new changes in mortgage funding are going to impact your community.
Most of us remember the federal government’s decision to start getting our nation’s financial institutions in order. Banks were being failed. Industries were being bailed out. There was a lot of money being moved around to shore up shaky financial institutions. As taxpayers, you and I footed this bill, whether we wanted to or not. The end result may not be known for years but there are some measures that are about to have a meaningful impact on your community.
Without getting too technical on how the mortgage business works, there are a few names you’ll need to know for this story to make sense. The first two have been commonplace in the American lexicon for years. Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association or FNMA) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation or FHLMC) were created years ago by the federal government to provide insurance and funding to the lenders that routinely provided mortgages to homeowners. As of September, 2008 both of these agencies are considered to be in a conservatorship of the federal government, which allows them to service their existing obligations but does not allow them to take on new obligations. In other words, primary mortgage lenders can no longer insure or sell their mortgages to either and now need to look for other sources to provide the funds that pay for mortgages. That’s where FHA (Federal Housing Administration) comes in.
The FHA is not new. In fact, it predates both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As you might expect, FHA exhibits tighter guidelines on how it insures and loans money and that is where the new challenges arise. Condominium properties, in particular, need to be mindful of the FHA lending compliance rules if they wish to have any mortgages within its community financed through FHA-backed lenders. Considerations such as amount of the loan, number of units within a community that are already FHA-backed, per centage of units mortgaged, pending lawsuits against the association and more will have an effect on a unit owner’s or potential unit owner’s ability to secure a mortgage. Can you imagine the impact on your community if a lender deems your condominium association non-FHA compliant? Current owners may be unable to sell unless they can procure a cash buyer. Refinancing could be effected as well.
This change in how mortgages are procured is very likely to impact your community. The best way to stay ahead of this curve is to take action now. Talk to local lenders about their mortgage programs for condominiums. Use your newsletter to talk to your residents about the coming change so that those unit owners who are thinking of selling are aware of the potential problem before they sell their unit. Attend seminars on FHA compliance so that you can take necessary steps in securing the mortgage ability of units within your community. FHA ignorance is not bliss. Education is your best strategy for preparedness.
By Bob Gourley
Common interest communities spend a sizeable amount of money year after year on common elements that fall under the classification of Beautification. Everything from grass cutting to flower selection to addition or removal of trees needs to be planned for. Some communities have entire committees dedicated to keeping the grounds of the common area beautiful. Benefits of beautification efforts include enhanced everyday enjoyment and increased curb appeal to potential buyers. There is little doubt that a community that invests in beautification reaps rewards in many ways.
How do you tell your residents about your community’s beautification efforts? How can you get them involved in being a part of the ongoing job of keeping the community looking its best? I suggest that you use your condominium newsletter, HOA newsletter, bulletin board, and/or website to tell the story of the importance of beautification. It is a wonderful opportunity to encourage involvement and build civic pride.
In my community, we hold a Spring Planting Day and also host a small community vegetable garden. Here is a quote I use in the informational flyer every year to help promote involvement:
“Gardens, scholars say, are the first sign of commitment to a community…
And by their connection to the land, they are connected to one another.”
- Anne Raver, NY Times Gardening columnist
Not all communities allow residents to get involved in planting. Even in communities that encourage involvement, there will be residents who cannot or will not participate in the beautification efforts. I have found that even those that haven’t directly participated have been affected by seeing their neighbors exhibit a certain level of civic pride and involvement in their living space. Maybe they will pick up the stray piece of litter on the property or maybe they will turn the hose on a flower bed that needs a little extra water. The bottom line is that they have become connected to their neighbors by being connected to the land. And as the scholars say, they are showing signs of being committed to their community. Beautification certainly has tangible benefits. As community leaders, we would be foolish to overlook this simple opportunity to make our communities more cohesive. We aren’t just planting gardens; we’re growing communities and cultivating good neighbors.
By Bob Gourley
“That government is best which governs least” – Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and dubbed “Father of the American Revolution” by historians. He was born in 1737 and lived a remarkable life that spanned the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and life in France under Napoleon’s rule. His communication skills were legendary and he largely influenced many Americans to take up the cause that became the American Revolution. So important were his writings, we still talk about him today.
Community Association Volunteer Leaders (CAVLs as they are designated by CAI) would do well to heed the words of Thomas Paine. In too many community associations, the cry for revolution can be heard. Has your community ever faced a massive turnover or group resignation from its Board of Directors? Does your Board of Directors govern too little or too much?
Community Association Volunteer Leaders are the lifeblood of community association governance. They serve on the Board, they serve on the Committees, and they participate in their communities. But as volunteers, they are not necessarily skilled in politics or communications which can lead to big problems in communities.
Thomas Paine went on to say: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
In his day, Paine had the power of the printing press on his side. None of today’s communication marvels were available to him. Can you imagine how many friends he would have on his Facebook page or how many Twitter fans would be following him? Facetiousness aside, it is fair to say that most Community Association Volunteer Leaders can communicate far better with their community members today than Thomas Paine could back in his day. Is your association using its communication tools to govern best? Have you created a government that is a necessary evil or have you created an intolerable one? In other words, is your community a better place for your leadership?
I have long held that a community that sheds as much light as possible on its governance is a community that is far more likely to thrive than one that operates in secrecy. Lack of transparency in how their association is being run is the chief complaint I hear from disgruntled residents of associations from around the country. Communities that fail to communicate fail to create harmonious, prosperous living conditions for their residents. The lack of effective communications has made the very people that elected them to see their leaders as an intolerable evil. The irony is that in most cases, those who are governing the association are doing their level best to serve their members.
I hope you will take the words of Thomas Paine to heart when you consider how you will govern your community. The promise of America was little more than a dream when he was a young man. He understood that the challenges facing the fledgling country around him would be met by men and women of great conviction and virtue. He was a master at rallying support for his ideas and building a consensus upon which to proceed. He wrote “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph” in describing what lie ahead for the Colonies as they prepared to declare their independence from England. While governing our associations may not be as great a challenge, we can certainly draw inspiration from his heroic words. Combine your communication skills with well-intentioned community governance and create a successful community.
By Bob Gourley
Have you ever had to foreclose on a neighbor? The word “foreclosure” strikes a note of fear and panic in most people. Typically, foreclosure is only considered when all other possibilities have been considered and no other solution can be found. It is the final remedy an association has to fix a problem that could otherwise financially cripple a financially sound community.
If you’ve ever seen the classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, then you can easily picture the antagonist, Mr. Henry Potter (portrayed as the perfect villain by Lionel Barrymore). Mr. Potter was an evil banker, ready to foreclose with joy on any home owner who has fallen behind in his monthly payments. While most of us will find no enjoyment when the time comes to foreclose on a fellow unit owner, we would be well served to remove our compassion from the equation and appreciate the importance of this legal and business transaction for the necessity it has become.
The financial and legal obligations of the association are clear. Almost every association has rules and by-laws in place that describe a default by a unit owner to pay common fees and the actions that will be taken to collect any delinquent monies. The challenge for Board members, especially in smaller community associations, is that the foreclosure action isn’t against an unknown business entity. It involves the Board, representing the association, making a decision that will ultimately evict a neighbor. It is a human conflict of the highest order, the kind that can keep you awake at night if you allow it to.
In my experience, making policy is relatively simple compared to implementing policy. It is far easier to agree to foreclose on any unit owner who falls more than two months behind in their common fees than it is to watch a neighbor lose a job and struggle to make ends meet. It is not uncommon for people to live paycheck to paycheck. The topsy-turvy economy has created huge amounts of unemployment and underemployment in our region. All of us know someone who has lost their job. It is simply human to show empathy for our fellow human beings. It is even more so when it is someone close to us, like a neighbor.
My advice is to take a good look at your association’s collection policies. Delinquent collection of common fees is crippling many communities in our state. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a great time to consider alternative payment methods. For instance, my association began taking credit cards this past year, which helped a few owners get current. You may also need to review your collection procedures and make sure you are giving your association members every opportunity to keep current with their common fees.
When all else fails, foreclosure may be your final option. If you have been diligent in offering solutions along the way, you need not feel like Mr. Henry Potter when the time comes to foreclose. It is simply the final action the association needed to take so that all of the other residents who are paying their fees on time can enjoy their own “Wonderful Life”.
By Bob Gourley
I fielded a question recently about the effectiveness of community newsletters. It came from a property manager who claimed he spent many hours every month preparing a newsletter for his community that “no one ever reads”. After reviewing the newsletter, which was little more than a collection of rants about trash, dog waste, and parking violations, I agreed with his summation of the newsletter’s effectiveness. I certainly wouldn’t read this newsletter or look forward to the next issue. He asked what he could do to improve his ability to communicate with association members in future issues. Here is a checklist we developed to help steer him toward producing an effective newsletter.
The Refrigerator Magnet Test
I use a phrase to describe the appeal a community newsletter should carry. When a child brings home a great grade on a spelling or math test, it usually gets stuck on the refrigerator door with a kitchen magnet. A great community newsletter should have the same appeal. It should look good enough to be worthy of the honor and the content should be relevant enough that a community member should want to keep it close at hand.
The Golden Rule
First, and foremost, remember the Golden Rule of Community Communications – “Speak Unto Others as You Would Like to be Spoken to Yourself”. If you are going to use your newsletter to simply admonish and threaten those who violate the rules, you can expect a highly ineffective result. Every community has rules broken from time to time. The rule breakers usually represent a very small portion of the community. Why not celebrate the actions of those that follow the rules and thank them for being such good citizens? A pat on the back feels better and is more enjoyable to read about.
Positive versus Negative
Think about some of the great communicators of our time. They know that a positive message is better received than a negative message. Use positive energy throughout your publication and you will end up with a newsletter that is both highly read and enjoyed by the community. Use negative energy and you will end up with a largely unread newsletter that does little more than waste resources both in its production and its effectiveness.
Content is King
If you want to draw readers in to your newsletter, you must provide something that they want. My experience with communities has taught me that its members want to know what is going on, especially those items that effect their pocketbook. If the Board of Directors is discussing plans for a major capital improvement project, association members want to know how the improvement will benefit them and how much it will cost. Nothing draws readers in like learning about the new swimming pool they will be enjoying in one year’s time or the new parking lot pavement project that will get rid of the potholes they drive through every day. The more interesting your content is, the more your readers will look forward to learning more in the next issue.
Facts and figures aside, community members like to feel as though they are part of something more than a housing system. Don’t be afraid to add some human interest by sharing knowledge that will intrigue your readers. Who is new in the community? Who just celebrated their 50th anniversary? Who has a new baby in their home? These news items may seem a little trivial at first but they can become a very interesting topic to community members who are more social in nature.
Looks are Important
Making your newsletter look its best is critical to making it effective. If it looks like the person preparing the newsletter doesn’t care about how it looks, it is likely to be received in the same manner. Spelling, grammar, and design are all elements that require attention. If your community can afford color printing for its newsletter, it will carry a higher value by your audience.
Creating an effective newsletter requires attention to detail and knowledge of how to create a winning publication. If your publication highlights only negative items about the community and does nothing more than provide a platform to admonish readers about rules violations, don’t be surprised if no one ever reads it. If you take the time and effort to create a positive experience for your reader, you will be rewarded with an effective tool for communicating with your community members and they will actually look forward to each new issue.
By Bob Gourley
Comedian Milton Berle is quoted as saying “Attorneys practice law because it gives them a grand and glorious feeling. You give them a grand and they feel glorious”.
While attorneys may be on the receiving end of many jokes, the contribution they make to your community is no laughing matter. Depending on the size of your association and the challenges you are facing, chances are you have one or more attorneys performing crucial work on behalf of your association. Telling the story of the important work these professionals perform on behalf of your association is crucial to helping your community cope and thrive in the face of legal challenges.
Attorneys that specialize in the legal issues and challenges facing community associations are relatively abundant. The attorney you have chosen to represent your community is an important member of your team and a vital asset to promoting a healthy and harmonious community for your residents to enjoy. If you’ve ever taken the time to read through your community’s covenant, declaration, by-laws, and rule and regulations documentation, you have a first-hand appreciation of how complex those documents can be. In the litigious society in which we live, can you imagine having to stand by your own interpretation of those documents in a court of law?
Since 1993, Community Associations Institute has recognized excellence in the practice of Community Association Law. That is when the College of Community Association Lawyers, more commonly known as CCAL, was founded. Membership in CCAL is quite exclusive. Of the thousands of attorneys that practice community association law, less than 150 have been granted membership.You can learn more about the College of Community Association Lawyers at the CAI website – http://www.caionline.org/career/designations/ccal/Pages/default.aspx
What will your typical homeowner want to know about the attorney you have chosen to do the important legal work of the Board? Ideally, you will want to provide a biography from the attorney that details his or her involvement in the world of community association law. Many of these attorneys will be happy to provide articles of legal interest that can be included in your newsletters or posted on your website. Quite often, it is beneficial to have the attorney appear before the membership at an HOA meeting to address legal concerns held by members of the association.
In describing lawyers, John Quincy Adams said “Whoever tells the best story wins”. I couldn’t agree more. Choose your community association attorney wisely if you want to be the winner when your community’s story is told.
By Bob Gourley
Since I work closely with management professionals, one of the more difficult questions I routinely face from community association leaders is how the community should go about the process of selecting a new community association manager. It causes me great concern when I first hear that a community is thinking of changing managers as most of them I know are conscientious and hard-working individuals who truly give their all for their clients. My first reaction is to ask the board members why they are even considering changing managers. Among the more common answers I hear are:
Too many residents complain of the manager not getting back to them after an issue is reported
Projects aren’t getting done on time
This manager is charging us too much for the service provided
It just isn’t working out.
The follow-up comment I usually get is to “please do not tell the manager” that we are looking to replace him. While I understand this sentiment, the secrecy between board and community association manager highlights the much larger problem to me. Quite simply, there has been a failure of communication between all parties involved. Unfortunately, it is often the association manager who becomes the scapegoat for this communication failure and will lose not only a client but also valuable income for years to come. That is why it is in every association manager’s best interest to be proactive in his managed communities’ communication efforts. A well-informed client is a happy client.
Communicating with board members is simple enough. Association managers already attend numerous board meetings, annual meetings and even committee meetings. However, with the exception of those homeowners who attend the annual meeting, most residents are largely unaware of the professional who manages their association. Worse still is that the only communication some residents ever receive from their association manager is a notice of a rules violation or a fine. That is why communication tools such as letters, e-mails, newsletters, community websites and even social media are vital to helping association managers properly communicate with the vast numbers of residents whose communities they manage.
Of course, there are numerous other advantages to establishing and maintaining great communications within the communities you manage. Better informed residents tend to be better behaved residents. You can use your communication efforts to build civic pride and create a better sense of community. Perhaps, most importantly, successful communication efforts create loyal clients. Wouldn’t you rather have the board come to you to discuss management shortcomings such as those listed above instead of going out shopping for a new manager behind your back? Of course, you would!
Taking the time to produce great communications is not always at the top of a busy manager’s “To Do” list. Understandably, there are numerous distractions and emergent matters to deal with. However, if you neglect a community’s communication needs, don’t be surprised to learn your clients have been secretly looking to replace you. You can avoid that disappointment by making communications a top priority. If you need help telling your story, don’t be afraid to seek out an expert. Communicating with your clients is the best way to assure they will stay loyal to you for years to come.
Bob Gourley is founder of MyEZCondo, a communications firm that produces newsletter and website content material for condominiums and homeowner associations throughout the USA. He also serves as board president of his local HOA.
By Bob Gourley
How many times have you tried to get an important message across to your community members only to find yourself frustrated with the feeling that nobody is listening?
I hear many listening-related complaints from condominium management professionals. These are the items that ail them. Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms?
The community website is rarely accessed.
The association newsletters aren’t very well read.
Mailed notices are going unnoticed.
Posted signs are being ignored.
Meetings are poorly attended.
Apathy is a sure sign that your community is not listening.
There are more sources of information bombarding your audience then ever before. TV, radio, billboard, newspapers, internet – our society is filled with a seemingly endless supply of banter aimed at getting the attention of your community members. You are competing with all those distractions when you try to get your message across. To be effective you must be creative.
What can you do?
Take a cue from the world of corporate advertising. Your message needs to stand out. Differentiate yourself from the crowd. Tell your story well and tell it often. Make your messages fun or dramatic. Develop a flare for promotion. Get help if you need it.
Think about some of the more successful communication stories in the world today and learn from them. “The Apprentice” has become a top-rated TV phenomenon. Even if you’ve never watched the show, you probably know who Donald Trump is and have you heard the show’s catchphrase “You’re fired!” way too often. Bad hairdo and oversized ego aside, Mr. Trump is a master of self-promotion. Yet you have something over him when it comes to communicating with your homeowners. You know where they live, how to reach them, and the specific items that they will find interesting. It’s time to put on your game face and show “The Donald” whose really got the right stuff.
I am not suggesting that you invoke the wrath of homeowners in your communities by firing anyone. What I am suggesting is that you learn how to compete with their other interests and speak to them in ways that they will take to heart. If you have not already done so, this would be a great time to take a look at branding your message. Branding is the concept of message consistency in all of your communications. Can you imagine any Donald Trump project without his name all over it? He wouldn’t stand for it because he knows the images invoked by his name help sell his products. Your branding efforts should be just as strong and consistent. Advertising agencies base entire campaigns around this concept and corporations pay millions of dollars for it. You can do it for free! Take that, Donald!
No one wants to be lectured to. Make sure your communications are upbeat. Take your cue from the political “spin doctors” out there who turn lemons into lemonade for a living. Let’s take that age-old problem topic for community associations everywhere – pet waste. Sure you can lecture until you’re blue in the face about fines and pooper-scoopers but it may not solve your problem. One association I work with recently addressed its pet waste problem with a friendly reminder mailed to home owners. The letter reads, “We love your pets but not their waste. Please clean up after your pet. The best way to have good neighbors is to be a good neighbor.” That’s a much nicer way to ask pet owners to behave responsibly than the stern warning of “Pick it up or pay a fine!”
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what you are saying if nobody is listening. If nobody is listening, you should reconsider your message and your message delivery methods. You can make a difference and your message will be heard. Are you listening to me?
By Bob Gourley
Just as flowers bloom and verdant greens return to the grass and trees, community associations stop worrying about winter’s challenges and get ready for an exciting season of Landscaping, Beautification, and Recreation. Before you plant that first flower, power wash that first deck, or raise the net on the tennis court, I suggest you take a minute to tell the story to your members about why it is so important your community put forth all of the time, effort and money to make it such a beautiful place.
Most communities go through several phases as they mature. The first phase of community is development and construction. New associations benefit from the vision of the original architects of their community. Freshly paved roads and curbs, beautiful landscaping, amenities in tip-top shape are all signs of how desirable a community association will be to live in. That’s curb appeal and that what sells units.
I like to call the second phase “lived in”. This is when a community is still new enough that everything still looks pretty good but maybe not as good as it once did. The developer is no longer part of the community and the Board / Property Management company is responsible for all aspects of how the property looks and functions. Proactive communities will take charge here and keep everything looking as good as it did when the community was first built. More often than not, this is where communities begin to lose their once beautiful curb appeal.
Finally, many communities devolve into a third phase, which I like to call “it is what it is”. Cracks in the pavement, decks that need replacing, overgrown shrubs, and general weathering of the common grounds and/or buildings. Take a good look at your community and ask yourself, “Which phase are you in?”
There is a reason a good-looking community has more value than one that has crept into the “it is what it is” phase. Quite simply, when a potential new buyer visits the property, that buyer is looking at how desirable a community will be to live in or invest in. Poorly landscaped, unattractive properties do not attract buyers. Further, they drive prices down for all existing owners. That’s just bad business.
Part of the mission of the Board of Directors is to maximize property values for all owners. One simple way to do that is to invest in a positive effort at beautification efforts, including landscaping and recreation areas. Keeping external curb appeal high is of tremendous value to existing owners as well as prospective new members to the community.
Use your newsletter to explain this concept to all of your unit owners. They are less likely to gripe about how expensive it is to keep the community looking its best when they understand that it is in their best interest to do so. You’ll be rewarded with a great-looking community and higher property values as a result. Beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder, it’s also good business.
I want a newsletter!
MyEZCondo Twitter Followers
- Happy Labor Day!: All of us here at “Ask Mister Condo” wish all of our readers a very Happy Labor Day! We are... http://t.co/BQH0meiEPN - posted on 09/01/2014
- Want to get even more from Association Life? I can help! http://t.co/Y8QvPqYKce - posted on 08/29/2014
- Association’s Right to Know Who Is Living in the Condo: R.W. from Hartford County writes: Dear Mister Condo,... http://t.co/oKIXfjJk2U - posted on 08/29/2014
- Condo Reserve Fund Accounting Question: J.J. from Hartford County writes: Dear Mister Condo, Why does... http://t.co/xy6uh4iqe5 - posted on 08/28/2014
- Have you seen what Association Life can do for you on Facebook? Look at what it did for my business page! http://t.co/aDvBZpPWhR - posted on 08/27/2014
- Happy Labor Day!
- Association’s Right to Know Who Is Living in the Condo
- Condo Reserve Fund Accounting Question
- Condo Lawn Service Not Performing to Owner’s Expectations
- Condo Maintenance Responsibility Letter
- Whose Responsibility is Condo’s Sagging Floors and More?
- Not Renting the Condo by the Rules
- AirBnB? Not at this Condo!
- No Money to Replace Shot Shingles at this Condo
- Board Mandating Downstairs Unit Flooding Coverage for Upstairs Units
MyEZCondo on Facebook