"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.

Outsourcing your Homeowner’s Association Operations, and Why It Makes Sense

Whether your community is large or small, successful management by the homeowner’s association is crucial to a smoothly running residential community and growing property values. And the governing board is often left with a long list of responsibilities for members that already lead busy lives outside of their community. Regardless of the number of board members in your HOA, there’s almost always an endless “to do” list.

From taxes and assessments to repairs and beautification, an HOA member’s job involves many different types of property management duties. A significant aspect of these responsibilities includes the duties that fall under the operating budget. These are the regular tasks that are part of the property’s ongoing maintenance such as landscape management, building exterior repairs, and property taxes.

Seeking Assistance with HOA Operational Duties

A handful of the duties that you may handle as a board member of your HOA could include collecting dues from community residents, arranging for landscaping and repairs, fielding questions and complaints from homeowners, and determining how dues are allocated. Not all your board members may have experience dealing with these issues, and sometimes there can be too many tasks to be managed by the board.

A new trend emerging with HOA boards is the process of seeking assistance with these ongoing, time consuming operational duties. By outsourcing some of the regular tasks that face the board, while still retaining key management duties, the HOA can focus their attention on long term strategy and decisions for the property that require more planning and discussion, or anything that will affect the reserve budget.

What Duties Are HOAs Outsourcing?

As a board member, you may have never thought of outsourcing the operational duties of your HOA, but it’s becoming more common than you think. HOAs are finding that by off-loading some of the more mundane or regular tasks, they can focus more on the relationships with residents and carefully making the long-term decisions for the community. So, what tasks exactly are HOAs outsourcing to third parties?

HOA Dues Portal – Reputable companies that manage HOA duties offer secure portals for homeowners to pay their HOA dues, which can be directly deposited into an association’s account. It can automate a, sometimes archaic, process and offer a bit more convenience for homeowners.

24×7 Maintenance Support – One of the more frustrating responsibilities of an HOA board member includes late night phone calls from homeowners with maintenance emergencies. Some third parties offer call center support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to field those emergencies, to help over phone, and to engage your local contractors or maintenance personnel to make any needed repairs.

Homeowners Portal for Community Discussions – For non-emergencies, homeowners are always looking for a place to voice their concerns, or continue a discussion from a recent board meeting. Some third parties are assisting HOAs in setting up online portals for homeowners to engage in discussion and potentially self-resolve some issues outside of board meetings.

Running a Successful HOA with Outsourcing Support

Property helpers like Hands On Tap can offer the kind of expertise and support that most HOAs never get the opportunity to benefit from. Leaving many of your regular HOA duties to a team of professionals with longstanding careers in property management results in less stress on your board, well cared for homeowners, and more time to focus on the future of your community.

Producing an Effective Community Newsletter

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.

Human Interest
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.

Communications and Community Governance

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.

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.

Manager Licensing and Your Community; A Story Worth Telling

By Bob Gourley

I have had the honor of serving on the Legislative Action Committee for CAI-CT for a few years now. I have watched various bills come and go, insurance regulations debated, the implementation of the Common Interest Ownership Act (CIOA), and much more during my stay on the committee. No bill has had me more optimistic about the future of Connecticut’s community associations than the Manager Licensure bill. It is a major step forward in protecting communities and the professionals that manage them all across the state. Even if your community is self-managed, this important legislation will have an impact on you. It is a story your community association members should hear and they should hear it from you.

In the past, just about anyone could apply for a community association manager license in our state. There were no educational requirements or professional licensure maintenance standards. The license could be revoked by the state but there was little in the form of prequalification to attract qualified applicants to the license. That doesn’t mean previously licensed property managers were unqualified. It simply means they weren’t required to prove their qualifications. All of that has changed with the implementation of the new law. And that’s good news for condominiums and the professionals who manage them.

The National Board of Certification for Community Association Managers (NBC-CAM) was created in 1995 by the Community Association Institute (CAI). CAI created the program in response to a need for stringent professional standards of community association management. Prior to the State of Connecticut requiring certification by NBC-CAM for community association manager licensure, several other states had already recognized NBC-CAM certification as the “gold standard” by which community association managers were judged. In 2012, only 74% of the applicants passed the initial exam, meaning more than 1 in 4 candidates were denied the opportunity to become licensed because they failed to achieve the required score on their examination test. Certification from NBC-CAM is no easy task. It requires coursework and dedication to learning best practices with regards to community association management. I commend our state legislature for taking this giant step forward in elevating the profession and the management standards for our state’s many community associations.

At the local level, this means that, in short order, licensed property managers who have not already done so will need to earn their certification from NBC-CAM. If you are not certain if your property manager is NBC-CAM certified, you should ask at once. If they are not certified, ask them if and when they will be. If they have no intention of becoming certified, you may need a new property manager. While experience counts, certification matters. The investment of time and money required to become certified by NBC-CAM isn’t just the law; it’s a commitment to a property manager’s clients that their manager is fully trained and maintains that training with ongoing continuing education as outlined by NBC-CAM.

NBC-CAM has provided an online search tool to help communities find property managers with certification. Point your web browser to http://www.nbccam.org/hiring/search.cfm and begin your search. Hiring a credentialed property manager has always been a best practice supported by CAI. In Connecticut, it’s now the law. When you hire a NBC-CAM certified property manager, you have employed a best practice for your community. That’s a story worth telling to all of your residents so they know that they are in capable and certified hands when it comes to their community’s management.

(Editor’s Note: NBC-CAM is now known as CAMICB. More information is available at http://www.camicb.org/)