By A.J. Sidransky
Like so many other sectors of the economy, residential real estate management has changed and evolved since the turn of the millennium—and like those other sectors, much of that evolution is directly linked to the development and adoption of technology. Yet the essence of the manager’s mission remains the same: one of close interpersonal interaction. Technological advances may have sped up response times and analytics in many situations, but good, old-fashioned personal contact still remains the keystone to effective management.
The Game Changer, for Better or Worse
What seems to have changed the most in the last couple of decades is the manager’s work hours. Daniel Wollman, the CEO of Gumley Haft, a management firm based in New York City, explains that years ago, his job—while not a traditional 9-to-5 position—was more or less limited to regular business hours. Particularly during the summer months, the pace of work would slow as many people in the industry went away for long periods of time, often as much as a month or even the whole season. With the advent and adoption of email as the primary means of communication between managers and their client communities, that’s definitely changed.
“Email changed everything,” Wollman says.
“Thirty years ago, there wasn’t an internet. Now I get north of 300 emails daily. This isn’t a criticism, but we now communicate 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Email has substantially changed my life. Where we were virtually dead during the summer, now people fire off emails while sitting at the pool sipping a pina colada. People can contact you all the time from wherever they are.”
Scott Wolf, a managing partner with Brigs, LLC, a New England-based real estate management firm, concurs. “I’d like to get rid of email,” he says. “Everyone’s expectation is an instant answer—but there’s something to be said for actually picking up a phone and speaking with people. With direct contact it may be easier to resolve an issue a little faster and more easily.”
“The internet has changed the focus of how we communicate with people,” says Wollman. “Fewer people use the phone or talk face-to-face. Where I used to get 10 calls, I now get 30 emails.
“The thing is that in our business, there are many times when a problem is better handled in a more personal way than email provides for.”
On the Other Hand…
While advances in communication technologies have changed the way managers work and allot their time, they do see benefits in it as well. “With the advent of the internet and online communications, one can accomplish things more quickly, even though more people are contacting you,” says Wollman. “It’s also less stressful. You don’t have people angry at you all the time,” he adds, with a chuckle. “It’s also easier to deliver bad news!” While email does offer some remove from direct confrontation, it can also make some feel entitled to be much harsher than they might be face-to-face—and it can often flatten out nuance and tone, which makes misunderstandings and accidental offense not uncommon.
Wolf says, “Ultimately, electronic communication provides you with more time to do other things, which means that you do get more done, but you also work more, because of the actual time involved in answering email. There’s always more email.”
In the end, electronic communication may be a mixed bag for managers, but one they will continue to use even if it means more hours in front of the computer screen or on their smartphones. And speaking of smartphones…the next logical step in electronic communications may not sit so well with management. Many pros feel that text messaging, while perhaps more immediate and in-real-time than even email, is simply too much of a distraction from the other functions a manager has to perform, and can be too intrusive. Rare is the property manager (or any professional, for that matter) who’d want literally hundreds of clients or customers to have their private smartphone number—even if they have a separate one just for work.
Younger owners—particularly millennials—show a strong preference for text over pretty much any other type of communication. Wolf mentions that in light of this trend, his company has purchased technology that masks private phone numbers and enables managers to respond by text from desktop computers and land lines.
According to Wolf, “Other apps for direct management are great, and have really improved our ability to complete our tasks more efficiently and quickly.” He includes such things as apps that notify owners of rules or building violations, facilitate online bill approval and payment, and give remote access to desktop computers via smartphone, which provides managers with much more flexibility. Wolf says that the one trade-off he sees is that these new apps do sometimes—and in his view, incorrectly—take the place of direct conversation and visual inspections, which in some cases are absolutely necessary.
A Matter of Age
Discrimination on the basis of age is one of the last frontiers of socially acceptable exclusion—and it’s very hard to prove. But as millions of American professionals over 50 will tell you, finding a new job at their age is nearly impossible.
Interestingly, that bleak fact does not seem to hold true in real estate management. Both Wolf and Wollman indicate that as owner populations become younger, with millennials entering the ranks of homeowners, experience is valued over just about anything else when it comes to managing multifamily buildings. And many long-serving managers are embracing changes in technology and incorporating them into how they help run their client properties.
While they do consider the population profile when assigning a manager to a specific property, most management firms are not specifically considering age. According to the pros, they’re looking for more of a ‘fit’ that incorporates many variables—and though the age of the manager relative to the population of a given client community may sometimes come into play, the manager’s maturity and ability to work with any population is more a deciding factor than anything else.
Wollman notes that most people come to the real estate business—particularly management—by a less-than-direct route. Up until a few years ago, there were very few college- or university-level academic programs that would prepare a person to enter a career in real estate. That is beginning to change, but hasn’t shifted dramatically…yet.
“No one expects post-graduate education in our business,” he says. “People who come into management often have past work experience or education in architecture, finance, and so forth, and they can modify their experience to become good managers. Most importantly, they need to be good people-persons—and that hasn’t changed. Truthfully, though, 20 years ago people did get in with less experience and a more limited skill set. I learned by doing, and we still do. I believe ours may be the last industry like this.”
Wolf points out that although Massachusetts is a non-license state—in that property managers are not legally required to hold any particular licensure in order to work in the field—his company requires managers to pursue continuing education throughout their tenure with the firm. “We send our people for courses through the Community Associations Institute (CAI),” he says. “We expect them to get involved with a committee at CAI—any committee they like that interests them.” Wolf believes the policy his company holds is typical throughout the industry in New England.
Pretty much anyone would agree that multifamily property management isn’t the easiest job in the world. So…do managers stick with it? Do they adapt to changing variables to advance their careers? Both Wollman and Wolf say yes.
“If you stay in five years or longer, chances are, you’ll stay in permanently,” says Wolf. Many factors affect that decision, and that’s something that’s been consistent over time. Management involves long hours—managers are pretty much on call 24/7—and little appreciation, along with heavy workloads. Wolf points out that “While the number of unit owners that tend to take advantage of a manager is overall a very small percentage of the whole, they can be very disturbing for the manager—so the ‘thank yous’ the manager gets from the other 97 or so percent make all the difference.”
“Some managers who leave the business go on to do project work,” adds Wollman, “but the truth is there aren’t a lot of alternatives. And we do everything we can to keep good people.”
In the final analysis, real estate management has certainly changed, but at the same time what makes the profession special has stayed the same. Despite email, text, apps, and other innovations, it’s still a people business and is likely to stay that way.
A J Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter with The Cooperator, and a published novelist.