Landlord lessons from our property management business

I've been managing the Drumheller subsidized housing complexes for almost two years now, and the following is a list of what I've learned.

  • It makes great sense to keep the maintenance team separate from the accounting/admin team. Admin people like a nice climate-controlled office, with normal 9-5 business hours. Maintenance staff are traditionally independent contractors and handymen who agree to be on-call and work a minimum number of hours per week, but don't follow a set schedule each day.
  • Maintenance and admin must communicate via email, and thus must each have smartphones (Blackberries or iPhones). We have a staff of four admin and four (full- and part-time) maintenance staff, and we deal with 20+ contractors. A year ago, I personally called all the contractors and told them we wanted to communicate with them via email and text messages. We replaced those who refused to convert, but the ones who converted continue to thank me to this day. All eight members of our team are kept in the loop without any staff meetings... ever. It also allows me to include the property owners via CC so they are kept in the loop too.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. I've taught my staff to take photos of the issues we're tackling. For instance, if Unit 23 has a broken window, take a photo of the window with the house number in the corner of the photo.  Email the photo to our glass contractor and type "Please advise when this window can be fixed". If everyone on our team is CC'd, we'll all know that the contractor has been contacted, and when the bill comes in the administrator can match the bill with the email, knowing the bill can be paid.
  • We've learned to email one thought at a time. Because the maintenance staff use the email as a to-do list, we have found it makes sense to email: 1. Shingles missing at 17 Pine Place. Call Steve at 403.555.3208; 2. Bag of topsoil and grass seed needed to repair lawn at 24 Juniper Rd.; 3. Junk and bushes need to be removed from 42 Cedar Cresc. When the maintenance staff complete the task, they can close the loop by replying to all and typing "DONE".
  • We obviously still phone one another, but it is very limited. We have purchased a number of convenience cell phone numbers all ending in 3333 (ie. 403.334.3333) to ease communication. Neither contractors or tenants are great at keeping track of contact phone numbers, so if we have easy numbers, there is little excuse not to call.
  • Admin staff need to focus on systems that minimize wasted time on needless or repetitive tasks and maximize their available time to focus on new 'emergencies' that arise.  We routinely ask each other, "What did you do today, and how could we do it quicker tomorrow?"
  • The maintenance staff set their own hours, to best suit the jobs they are working on, with a minimum of 20 and maximum of 40 hours per week. They appreciate the flexibility, and this is obvious when we have an emergency and they all do their best to respond within minutes.
  • Late night emergencies and things like that. I allow my maintenance staff to apply for double time if they are forced to work to solve late night emergencies, or deal with 'crap'. Yes, this includes feces, sewer backup, toilet fixes, bed bugs, continual heavy lifting, etc.
  • Decision making. I allow all of my maintenance staff to make decisions that will cost our company up to $300 without my prior approval, on the condition that they'll email me a summary and we'll both learn from the experience. They often email me in advance and say, "Tried fixing Mrs. Jones toilet. No luck. Buying new one this afternoon."  This often gives me the chance to respond before they buy the toilet, but the point is they don't have to wait for my approval if I'm tied up.
  • Contractors. Our contractors are asked to take a stake in our properties as well. We want them to know the tenants names, drive by and alert us to any issues and also have their own small spending limit if they see something amiss. Examples of this are: evestrough guy stopping to replace a crushed downspout without prior approval - he just has to send a before and after photo, and an invoice. Another example is our plumber is encouraged to take an extra minute before leaving a property and see if any other taps are dripping, P-traps are leaking, or sinks that are slowly draining etc. They take a photo, fix, and clean up. Often, one of us is close enough to attend before the issue is fixed, and we know our properties well, so it is unlikely that the contractor could take advantage of this system.
  • Master-key and keyless entry systems. We use well thought out master-keyed systems that allow our maintenance staff and contractors to enter our properties without prearranging a set time for us to meet them to let them in. We also use many Schlage keyless entry handsets that allow us to give codes to contractors, RCMP, building owners, meter readers, etc. for our maintenance rooms, rear access doors, landscaping sheds, etc.
  • Green initiatives. In an earlier blog, we mentioned a number of ways we've gone green. It is important to me that we do our part. Every change we make doesn't just affect one household, it affects hundreds. Property managers are in a great position to make a significant impact on the environment.
  • Broken window theory and "long term solutions" govern most of my decisions. In university, I heard about the broken window theory. There are many eyeballs looking at the property you manage every day (tenants, tenant's family, police, neighbours, potential clients, thieves, vandals, etc.). If there is damaged siding, poor landscaping, broken windows, it gives everyone the distinct impression that no one cares. Tenants are often reluctant to fix anything themselves if the property isn't otherwise well cared for.

    The other principle we operate by is to seek "long term solutions" to nagging problems. If a downspout constantly leaks, we replace it with a concrete gutter. If the entry way is subject to constant marks, scrapes, and bangs, we will add a durable wainscoting to address the problem. We think long term solutions so we can focus on other issues.
  • We also leave our watering hoses out all the time, with turn-dial timers to reduce the risk of overwatering; put lawnmowers outside hooked to a bike lock to allow easy access to tenants; allow tenants to take a bag of environmentally-friendly sidewalk salt alternative to apply as needed. Yes, these items might be stolen, but the time saved by allowing the tenant to access them without our maintenance staff on site saves hundreds of dollars a month. (So far, we have only had two garbage cans stolen.)

For more information on some of the upcoming initiatives that we're working on to help things run smoothly at Century 21 Power Realty | Drumheller Housing, please contact Bob Sheddy at 403.324.2222.

 

 

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