By Mike Egelston
here’s a new trend in self-managed associations — it’s all about professionalizing operations on a budget. The economic downturn has left several associations unable to afford a full-service, professional management company. At the same time, their volunteer boards often lack the expertise to do the job entirely themselves.
One solution to this dilemma that is gaining traction is the use of "do-it-yourself ” online management systems. This article takes a look at Stratford Crossing, a 144-single- family common interest community in Brooklyn Park, Minn., that’s on the cutting edge of this trend. Stratford Crossing decided to conduct its association business online to operate more efficiently, while at the same time improving communication and building a stronger sense of community.
Goodbye Banker’s Boxes
Nearly 10 years ago, Stratford Crossing started taking steps that were way ahead of the time for a self-managed association: Volunteers ditched their piles of paperwork and bankers boxes full of documents that were passed from one board of directors to another for an entirely computer-based, online management system.
"In the past, written documents were passed down from board to board, and some things were only passed down by word of mouth,” explains Greg Wallack, president of the Stratford Crossing association board. "It was tough to find things from past years. Now, we have everything documented in one location, so it’s relatively easy to go back and see past meeting minutes, governing documents — it’s all stored electronically on the computer.”
Fewer Hassles for Board + More Transparency = Happier Homeowners Wallack noted that implementing the online management system has resulted in fewer calls to board members with basic questions. "Most homeowners are very happy with the system,” he noted. "They can see many of the same documents as board members, and if they have questions or need a form, they look it up online.”
Providing all the homeowners with access to the same online system the board uses has also resulted in a stronger sense of commu- nity among Stratford Crossing homeowners. "We use the broadcast e-mail function to communicate to homeowners about social activities and events like our annual 4th of July picnic, National Night Out celebration and yearly holiday light contest,” continued Wallack.
A Relationship Blossoms into a Business Opportunity
Stratford Crossing began using its computer-based, online management system as a result of a long-standing relationship with its professional management company.
"I knew the monthly management fees were not sustainable for Stratford Crossing’s limited budget,” explained the management company’s president. "Rather than leave them to fend for themselves, we started working to make our software accessible for them in a low-cost, online format. Eventu- ally, our trials with Stratford Crossings led to our perfecting the software to the point where we are now able to offer it to other self-managed associations too.”
Keeping Control Over Architectural Control
Nestled against the picturesque Edinburgh Golf Course, Stratford Crossing is a meticu- lously maintained and manicured commu- nity. While they are self-managed in nearly every aspect, they rely on the professionals with management company to help keep the homeowners in compliance with their community’s rules and regulations. "Architectural control — keeping the prop- erty well-maintained as people move in and out — is the biggest issue we face at Strat- ford Crossing,” said Wallack. "Having our community’s rules easily accessible on the website ensures homeowners know what’s expected. Still, it’s still helpful to have a third party remind homeowners about lawn care and other regulations. ”
Their property manager agrees. "Because Stratford Crossing does most of the property management work themselves, I’m able to focus just on the services they need. I go through the association twice a month to check for any violations.”
Ask the Expert – Online Management Tools Make the Difference
Attorneys, accountants, bankers, and other experts who regularly do business with community associations also see value in online management systems.
We spoke with a local attorney who advises more than 300 common interest communities and has more than 20 years of experience in advising association boards, who says he sees the online approach as useful for self-managed associations that can’t afford professional management.
"I see more and more associations in dire financial straits due to the economic down- turn,” he noted. "One of the first things they think to do is to get rid of their man- agement company. Often, the volunteer board just isn’t equipped with the experience necessary to run the association properly. This leads to all sorts of pitfalls — lack of accurate record-keeping, not tracking viola- tions — that ultimately can be more costly for the association in the end.”
The attorney also remarked, "This kind of tool really is the best way to for self-man- aged associations, especially those that are struggling and can’t afford professional man- agement, to proceed. It helps them conduct their affairs in a more efficient, professional manner.”
Trend Alert: A Customized Approach to Self-Management
By using an online management tool, Stratford Crossings has been able to maintain its autonomy while saving money and professionalizing operations. They do most of the property management functions themselves, with professional software guiding their process, and rely on a professional management company only for the services they really need.
It’s a win-win scenario. It’s self-management, but at a highly professional level. It’s the support of a professional management company, with services tailored to the individual association’s unique needs.
This kind of customized, streamlined approach to self-man- agement could just be a "silver bullet” for smaller self-managed associations that are facing increasing pressure from homeowners to reduce costs, increase transparency and provide the ease and convenience of online interactions.