Keeping It Legal – The Story of Your Community Association’s Attorney

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.

Are you listening to me?

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?

Maintenance and Construction. Fact or Benefit?

By Bob Gourley

Did your community get a new roof this year? Was your parking lot repaved? Was the pool filtration system overhauled? Were your decks replaced? Chances are pretty good that your community either underwent or will soon undergo a major construction or maintenance project. Don’t miss this opportunity to tell the story of your project or you may just be leaving money on the table!

I am often asked about the difference between a fact and a benefit as it pertains to preparing a community newsletter. As a former sales and marketing guy, you can bet I know the difference between a fact and a benefit. In construction and maintenance issues, the facts often describe the tangible details of the project such as the cost, the materials used, the contractor chosen to perform the work, how long the project will take and things of that nature. While those items are newsworthy, they won’t help you win over critics or skeptics. For that task, you will need benefits.

Benefits, quite simply, will help you tell your maintenance and construction story in such a way as to show your residents what is in it for them. Benefits are far less tangible but far more effective in explaining the need for a project and the reason to spend the association’s money. If you think about the last major purchase you made, you will most likely remember that why you bought the item is more important than what you paid for it or what you even bought. The same mentality applies to maintenance and construction projects. Here are a few examples:

Item – New Roof Installed
Fact – Shingles carry a 30 year warranty
Benefit – Interior of home stays drier

Item – Blacktop Sealing
Fact – Creates a waterproof barrier
Benefit – Underlying pavement lasts longer

Item – New Pool Filtration
Fact – More fuel efficient
Benefit – Saves money

Item – New Decks Installed
Fact – Made of Artificial Material
Benefit – Lasts longer, looks better

In many instances, money spent on today’s maintenance and construction project benefits all members of an association with lower costs in the future. Any time you maintain, protect, or enhance common elements of your association, you should do so for the benefit of your members. People want to “know” the facts but they “buy” the benefits. Use the power of benefits to keep your residents happy and informed about all of your construction and maintenance projects. You won’t just build a better property. You’ll build a better community!

"A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever"

By Bob Gourley

You may recognize the above quote from the English poet, John Keats. Condominiums weren’t around in the early 19th century, so it is fair to say that he wasn’t referring to your community’s newsletter or communication efforts. Nonetheless, I hope you will let his words inspire you as you contemplate transforming your communication message into “a thing of beauty” that will be “a joy forever”.

Take a look at the communications you’ve delivered to your community members and how you chose to get that message out. Were your notices delivered on professional stationary? Did your newsletters have the look of polish and professionalism your community deserves? Was your website maintained, kept current, and made beautiful? Were your communication efforts a thing of beauty? Or would Keats take you to task and challenge you to do better?

Are your communication efforts consistent? Have you committed to telling your story often and telling it well? At the heart of any successful communication strategy is a commitment to excellence and consistency. Image and message are both important. Always use professional stationary for notices. Always use a professional-looking newsletter to deliver your news. For the average community member who does not serve on the Board of Directors, the communications they receive are the only official contact they have with the association. Poorly written or delivered messages don’t carry the same impact as a professional presentation.

Have you developed a budget for your communication needs? A casual attitude towards your community’s communication needs will come back to haunt you. Newsletters, websites, etc. cost real money and should be addressed in your annual budget. If your property management company does not expressly offer communication services, you should develop a plan to handle the communication needs of the community in another way. Don’t leave it to chance.

Finally, avail yourself of the tools that Keats didn’t have in his day. Parchment paper and quill pens have been replaced with keyboards, ink jets, and web pages. Modern software conveniences, like word processors and desktop publishers, make communicating far easier today than it was in Keats’ time.

The poems of John Keats have left us much beauty to enjoy forever. It is hard to believe that he lost his father when he was 8 and his mother when he was 15. He wrote three books of poems before his death at age 25. Almost 200 years later, he is still considered a literary great. You may not have the same fortune as the poet but surely you can draw some inspiration from him the next time you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Once you have mastered the tools, creating beauty is simply a matter of effort. Craft your message well and you will be rewarded with a thing of beauty that will be a joy forever.

Capital Reserves and the Future of Your Community

By Bob Gourley

I went to see a fortune teller recently. She took me into her reading room and asked me to gaze into her crystal ball. She then predicted my future. “I see wear and tear on your buildings. I see a new roof will be needed. I see aging windows that need replacing. I see… a depleted reserve fund!”

Silliness aside, it really doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that common elements in any community are going to age and need replacing. It also doesn’t take any magic to predict that communities with more amenities are likely to incur greater expense when maintaining and preserving their community’s assets. So, why is it that so many communities are so far behind in their goals for achieving a sound reserve fund for tomorrow’s expenses?

There are many reasons that reserve funds are not at their proper levels. First and foremost, in my opinion, is the fact that the “here and now” expenses are far easier to comprehend than tomorrow’s expenses. Has your community undergone an assessment recently? Was it for an emergency or one-time expense or was it for a routine expense that could have been easily predicted 5, 10, or even 15 years ago? The term “deferred maintenance” has become all too familiar in the language of community associations. Simply put, when a community doesn’t have the funds available to handle a routine maintenance item, they defer the maintenance until such time as the funds are available. Provided a plan to raise those funds is executed, that may or may not be a problem. More times than not, the path of deferred maintenance leads to the slippery slope of unfunded capital reserves.

How do you steer your community away from the path of depleted reserves and heavy assessments for routine items? The first step is to develop or review your association’s reserve study. Ideally, this job will be handled by a professional reserve study analyst. If your association does not have or cannot afford a reserve study, the Board of Directors should appoint a committee to take inventory of those items which the community holds in common. These items include common elements like grounds, paved roads, amenities (pools, tennis courts, club houses, etc.) and items routinely handled by the association (i.e. – roofs, building exteriors, windows). These items will vary by community so there is not a “one size fits all” approach to this. Once all of the items are inventories, the committee should evaluate each of those items to determine the element’s useful life. A roof that lasts fifteen years that has been in place for five years, still has ten years left. Roads that were paved 25 years ago may need replacement sooner rather than later. This list will ultimately yield the items that a reserve should be able to fund. For communities that have never done this exercise, the results can be a real eye opener.

The next step is to begin to estimate replacement costs for the common items. Inflation will have taken a toll over original costs so be prepared to factor that in. At the conclusion of this process, a realistic budget for a reserve will begin to emerge. At first glance, many of these numbers may seem too large or unmanageable. My advice is to use a technique called “reduce to the ridiculous” to help make the accounting a little easier to swallow. A reserve study that calls for $20,000 per unit to be raised over the next five years may sound better at $4,000 per unit per year or better yet at $333 per unit per month or $77 per unit per week.

The final step is to sell the concept to your fellow homeowners. None of them want to live in a rundown, outdated community. Poorly funded capital reserves will not only affect the quality of their lives but it will very likely damage their ability to attract buyers should they decide to sell their home. Community members need to be “told and sold” the value of a healthy capital reserve and a long range plan of how those reserves will be used. Tell them about the plans for how the money will be used and sell them on the idea of how it is in their best interests to keep the reserve fund healthy. You will be rewarded with a fiscally vibrant community that is never caught off guard without the funds it will need to flourish.