There’s a scene in the classic film Dirty Harry in which the eponymous detective, played iconically by Clint Eastwood, is called off the main case in order to stop a would-be suicide from jumping from a tall building. After this successful digression, we learn how he earned his nickname—he does the department’s dirty work.
Managing a condo building or HOA can be an adventure, no matter how small the community or how civil and well-mannered the unit owners may be. Problems inevitably arise, and when they do, the managing agent generally winds up serving the function of Dirty Harry. Like Dirty Harry, they solve the problem, often in innovative ways. And while said adventures usually involve disputes about noise and heating temperatures and odd cooking smells and not chasing serial killers across co-op rooftops…one never knows. As one manager remarked when told of this piece’s focus, “There’s just so much crap that goes on.”
We asked some of the Garden State's veteran property managers to share their most memorable adventures. The stories, ahem, made our day.
A condo building managed by North Bergen-based Cervelli Management leased space to a doctor’s office, leading to this odd tale:
A patient at said doctor’s office—call him Rupert—managed somehow to not only drop his dentures into a toilet, but also to flush them down. (Think about the confluence of bizarre circumstances that led to this happening; many toilets overflow with too much tissue in the bowl, yet this magical commode flushed away false teeth with no problem at all).
Rather than feeling embarrassment, Rupert complained to the doctor, whose many years of medical training had not prepared him for this strange turn of events. The doctor called company owner James Cervelli, who calmly explained that there’s not much that that could be done at that point.
Rupert was not pleased, and announced that he was “not leaving unless I can put my teeth in my mouth when I walk out the door!” As if this declaration would make the false teeth spring back up the pipes.
Cervelli says he expressed his sympathies for the lost teeth, but informed Rupert that it was simply not feasible for the building to spend upward of $30,000 excavating the pipes to retrieve them. Rupert was steadfast however, and repeated his oath not to leave without his teeth.
At this point, Cervelli asked, “What do you intend to do with the dentures if we retrieve them?” To which Rupert replied, “What do you mean?! I'm going to put them in my mouth and leave!”
“The guy was dead serious,” Cervelli recalls.
No word on whether the doctor was a psychiatrist.
Help Me, Rhonda
As the president of Access Property Management in Flemington, Wayde Scheffer has gotten his share of odd noise complaints. But one was particularly memorable.
One summer, Scheffer got an eight-page letter from a single woman living in one of the properties he manages, complaining about her downstairs neighbors “sharing their love and affection” – or at least the sounds of it—with their immediate neighbors in the building. The letter, Scheffer recalls, was wrought with the “painful detail you’d find in Penthouse Forum.” One thing that stood out was that the name of the female half of the loud couple was Rhonda—which the woman knew because it was uttered repeatedly at high volume during the couple's nighttime escapades.
Scheffer responded to the resident's complaint, explaining that while he sympathized with her plight, there was not much he could do. Loud dogs, a property manager could handle; loud sex, not so much.
The disgruntled resident sent Scheffer a few more angry missives about the situation, but eventually—and for other reasons—sold her unit and moved out. Another woman moved in, and almost immediately, Scheffer started getting letters grousing about the liaisons again—but with an ironic wrinkle.
“She was complaining that she could hear her estranged husband 'with Rhonda' downstairs,” he recalls. In other words, loud Rhonda had left her man, moved in to the apartment above him, and been replaced—by yet another loud Rhonda.
Someone was taking the Beach Boys' song a bit too seriously.
Like Cats & Dogs
Cervelli has another story from when his company took over operations of a homeowners association in a tony suburban area of North Jersey. In the days that followed the changeover, residents came in to meet the new managers and voice their concerns. One woman, Cervelli recalls, had a singularly unusual complaint: “She claimed her neighbor was cooking dogs and cats in her apartment for food.”
The woman explained that she always heard the sounds of dogs barking and cats meowing coming from the apartment in the late afternoon, followed by silence and an unpleasant odor emanating from the place.
While this was a macabre claim, Cervelli said he would look into it. Pets were not allowed in the building, he reasoned, so the allegation that there were animals in the apartment at all gave him the grounds to investigate.
On a walk-through of the building, Cervelli went to the apartment in question. An elderly woman opened the door and asked him in. He asked if she had dogs and cats, reminding her that the bylaws prohibited pets in the building.
As it turned out, the woman was hard of hearing, and was in the habit of watching her favorite television program at four in the afternoon. The show was about pets, and often featured dogs barking and cats meowing. Because of her partial deafness, she kept the volume high. So what sounded like real animals was just a TV show.
As for the smell, Cervelli says he found nothing untoward. He relayed his findings to the neighbor who had made the allegation—but she continued to insist that the elderly woman was making schnauzer-and-tabby stew.
A maintenance worker at a building managed by Access was caught red-handed stealing supplies. When confronted with his crimes, he reacted strangely. Not only did he deny the charges, Scheffer recalls, he offered proof of his innocence, in the form of an odd document.
“I don’t need to steal,” the worker explained, handing Scheffer a bank statement that looked more doctored than anything Leonardo DiCaprio handled in Catch Me If You Can. “I have $16 million in the bank.”
Never mind the fact that the size of one’s bank account does not indicate that one won’t steal—Bernie Madoff probably had a similar bank statement, not even forged. What Scheffer found the most ridiculous was the amount. “He didn't say he had $100,000—it was $16 million!” Scheffer says with a chuckle.
A guy with that much dough in his checking account probably doesn’t need to work maintenance at a building, either—which is a good thing, because he was relieved of his job.
Donna Vitiello, CEO of Dovan Management Group in Bloomfield, tells one of the creepier tales in her years of experience.
One of the residents in an apartment building stopped paying his rent. Letters demanding payment went unanswered. When the HOA finally took the resident to court, they were awarded a default when he didn’t show. When the constable came to unlock the door to seize the unit, the man wasn’t inside.
Piled about the apartment were expensive clothes in plastic bags—“silk ties, colognes, expensive shoes,” Vitiello recalls, as well as colorful African-style garments.
And, strangest of all, on a folding table by a chair, a newspaper was open. The paper was faded and yellow, and dated July.
“It was as if he was sitting there reading the paper,” Vitiello says. “By the time we locked him out, it was October or November. And there was no sign of him anywhere.”
The management company moved the man's possessions out of the apartment and waited for him to come back—but he never returned.
By Hooker, By Crook
How can you tell you have a brothel operating in one of the apartments in your building? Well for starters, the windows are blacked out. There is a parade of men coming in and out of the apartment at all hours of the day and night, and they tend not to make eye contact when you pass them in the hallway. And they don’t make much noise (well, unless Rhonda is around).
Experts say that prostitutes are more difficult to catch than, say, drug dealers because of the burden of proof—there's usually no concrete physical evidence of wrongdoing. Escort services are legal but you still probably wouldn’t want one doing business in your building. So how does one make the unwanted activity cease without launching a disruptive, embarrassing investigation or incurring legal costs?
Gregory Cohen, president of Impact Management in Flushing, N.Y., found a brilliant way of solving the problem when he realized there was a brothel operating in one of the co-ops he manages. “We put a security guard outside the door at $9 an hour,” he says. “They were gone in two days.”
This is, of course, a small sampling of what goes on every day in the life of a tri-state property manager, many of whom did not want to be interviewed for this piece, but all of whom have stories to tell. In fact, if you think you can pull the wool over the eyes of a good property manager, there’s only one question to ask yourself: Do you feel lucky?
Greg Olear is a freelance writer, novelist, and a frequent contributor toThe New Jersey Cooperator.