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Do-It-Yourself Headaches

It was a routine question. The answer was what floored me. The managing agent of our 22-unit building was responding to a question from a board member, who had asked why a repair had not been made as directed. “Well,” the manager said, with some exasperation, “I didn’t get to it. If you were so concerned, you could have called the contractor yourself.”

I was flabbergasted. “If you want us to do that,” I asked, “then what are we paying you for?”

What indeed? This incident flashed through my mind as I stood at the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC) housing conference, listening to a frustrated board member tell me about the troubles she had seen. She lived in a 16-unit, two-building condominium association and the board was having a whale of a time getting the manager to return phone calls and complete what seemed to her the simplest of tasks.

“You’re probably too small for him and get lost between the cracks,” I said. “You live in a small building. Why don’t you manage it yourself?”

She laughed, as though I had suggested she perform brain surgery on herself. “Not with these people,” she sighed, referring to her board.

I knew how she felt. Back in 1988, my board had been frustrated with its first managing agent – a holdover from the sponsor – but didn’t know where to turn: other managers were too expensive, and everyone felt self-management was daunting. Who had the time to run down to the courthouse and contest the sanitation violation? Or keep track of the payroll taxes for our small staff? Or do the myriad of other mysterious things a manager does?

Finally, we got a volunteer. We had been so fed up with our agent – and she with us – that we had increasingly turned to an aggressive board member to complete tasks left unfinished by the manager. His job allowed him to work out of his home, so, eventually, we fired her and hired him. He resigned from the board, and we put him on a salary much less than what we had been paying the former agent. We were set.

Things went swimmingly for a number of years. But as time went by, Our Neighbor the Manager (ONM) became increasingly more erratic: he would attend to the things that interested him and leave the rest to fall between the cracks. You’ve heard the expression, “Absolute power corrupting absolutely”? Well, our situation was something like that, if a tad less grandiose (more like, “Too much power going to his head”). We tried to give him instruction, but he became increasingly more arrogant, lecturing us as though we were errant schoolchildren who needed scolding. Our treasurer, a mousy but knowledgeable man, got into frequent fights with ONM, who tended to bully and bluster when his authority was questioned. After one circuitous conversation about some innocuous matter, which took twice as long as it had to, I sighed, remarking, “That’s 15 minutes of my life I’ll never have again.”

The problem, we found, with having our neighbor as manager was that we couldn’t properly discipline him – it was awkward, since he lived next door to me – and he was a peer but also an employee. And he knew it. He was pretty much doing what he wanted, the board be damned.

We eventually got up the nerve to fire him – with a generous, guilt-induced severance package included – and, thankfully, turned to an outside manager for two years. When that didn’t work out, we decided to try it ourselves. “How hard can it be?” asked our secretary, a detail-oriented fellow who was so organized he’d write memos about his memos. We were bolstered in our plans by a visit the secretary and I had taken to a CNYC seminar, entitled something like, “Self-Management? Is It for You?” We told the seminar leader that we were considering self-management.

“How large is your co-op?” he asked.

“Twenty-two units.”

“A piece of cake,” he said. “There’s no reason why you should be paying someone. It’s a question of organization. You get it organized properly, and after a few months, it’ll run itself.”

He was right, too. At first, it seemed overwhelming, but our anal retentive secretary (who later became treasurer/secretary) was so wonderfully organized – and the rest of the board so committed (the members attended weekly 7 A.M. board meetings!) – that, within six months, deficits had turned to surpluses and the place was humming along.

It got to the point, where one of the directors, proud of our accomplishment, said, “Hey, why don’t we offer ourselves as managers to another building?”

I think he was joking. At least, I hope so.

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