Most of us wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if we didn't have a smartphone or tablet to help us communicate, navigate, and otherwise organize our lives. Property managers throughout the country, whether they handle urban high-rises, suburban HOAs, or some combination of the two, are no different. They have a great many responsibilities and tasks to juggle, and having smart technology to support them in the form of mobile apps has become pretty much mandatory for the modern residential property professional.
But not all 'smart' technology is as bright as it purports to be. Some apps are essential—and others are worthless, and may actually suck up time and money instead of saving it. So before management companies dive into smart technology, they need to know more about which aspects of it will be more effective for their purposes.
Some Technology Required
Chris Lincoln, property manager with At Home Real Estate Group, Inc., in Boston sums up managers' relationship with technology this way: “If we didn’t have technology, it would be rather difficult to function,” he says.
Since management teams have so much data that needs to be managed, it’s gotten to the point where they can’t compete—or function, even—without some sort of a technical data plan, agrees John More of Asterix Software Inc., based in Hollywood, Florida. His company designs software database systems for both management companies, as well as condo and homeowners associations. “It’s the same reason why accountants got rid of green sheets,” More says.
Property management software allows management companies to do everything from tracking fee payments, to using GPS to find their buildings quickly, to assessing prospective sub-tenants. CAFM, CAD, financial and energy management systems have also all contributed to helping management companies automate their services, thereby saving on labor and operational costs. Technology gives management companies the ability to transfer data instantaneously between offices and banks and to scan, email and digitally sign all the documents needed for contracts and for work orders.
Before the age of computers, smartphones and the Internet, property managers had to communicate via phone, paper and in person, says Lisa Newton, vice president of multifamily operations at Hines, a real estate investment, development and management company based in Houston. “Notifications to—and requests from—employers, board members and residents were handled in person or through written communications,” she says. “Responses and resolutions were much slower than is expected today.”
When technology first appeared, it was slow, too. “Even electronic communication was a slow process where one would have to initiate a computer to receive a call from the home office in order to transfer data; for those who remember the series of dings and beeps that confirmed the connection was made, this could mean minutes or hours without a landline available,” Newton says.
But now that technology is everywhere and anywhere, property management companies have embraced it as much—if not more—than other industries, Newton says. “Email blasts have replaced paper notifications taped to doors; call centers can automate emergency communications via text or call; and residents can be notified as soon as they have a package delivered that it is waiting to be picked up.”
Lincoln is an example of a property manager who loves his tech gear. He takes his smartphone with him to every appointment, and double-checks where he’s going on his phone before he ever knocks on a door. He’s got management apps running on his phone, which sync with his work computer so that everything is neat and tidy.
Smart technology streamlines things for boards and residents as well, because since most documentation can be made available on a computer, it can be accessible to the entire building, which opens everything up and makes it more transparent.
Jessica Johnson, marketing manager for San Francisco-based Happy Inspector, says that transparency is one of the main reasons why many managers across the country have downloaded the free Happy Inspector app. It allows property managers to generate a customized inspection sheet unique to each property with just a few taps. They can easily edit or delete inspection layouts, record conditions and notes for the property, and can see the property’s address, location, resident and board members' names, and all the relevant contact details at a glance.
But the most important and vital part is that they can tap to quickly record, take photos and add notes on construction project progress, work orders, repairs, and other conditions. With another tap of a button, they can email a copy of the report to the board or home office so they can see everything the on-site manager observed. Then, says Johnson, they can add their signature on the photo or document with the app and a swipe of their finger. It then gets hosted in an online Dropbox so if anyone needs to see it again, they can pull it up quickly. “It just makes the process incredibly effortless instead of carrying around a clipboard,” she continues. “This makes it go faster and smoother.”
BuildingLink is a platform offering a number of functionalities for managers, boards, and residents, both in condo/HOA communities as well as rental properties. The options and apps range from alternate-language versions of basic documents and reports to modules for publishing information and updates across multiple social media sites simultaneously. The service also can include energy-saving and environmental monitoring functions, as well as secure document and information storage for both boards an managers. BuildingLink’s web-based platform is currently used in over 2,600 properties in the U.S. and worldwide. The company helps to collect, store, and distribute information for buildings, and serves more than 450 buildings in New York, New Jersey, and eight other states.
BuildingLink helps buildings with recurring tasks, like sending the correct paperwork for work orders to all of the parties responsible, such as the building manager or an exterminator. The firm also gives residents access to community-related information, including work order forms and meeting schedules. The service offers solutions from package tracking to key tracking to tasks like maintenance and work orders to communications technology and employee management.
“We provide easy to use work order technology, and solutions for recurring tasks, such as preventative maintenance,” says Fran Besdin, senior vice president of BuildingLink.com. “If you’re a maintenance person, and something goes wrong in the middle of the night, you can enter the info into the system.”
ActiveBuilding is another popular piece of technology that makes property managers' lives easier and improves performance, Johnson says. It is a tool which allows management companies to send mass messages, texts, phone calls and emails to an entire building, to specific groups within a building, or just to staff members in a building or HOA.
In addition to internal management communications, residents can use the app to sign up for utility service using their resident portal even before they move into the community. Once they move in, they can make service requests online and give maintenance teams permission to enter their unit. ActiveBuilding also allows them to make amenity reservations, authorize guests such as dog walkers or other service providers make and track online fee payments, and receive package notifications.
Finally, ActiveBuilding allows residents to communicate and socialize with each other.
“People organize different events like a Superbowl party, and it eliminates paper,” Johnson says. “They have immediate communication and a constant flow.”
Lincoln says that are tons of apps and programs to choose from, but his company doesn’t go a day without Buildium. In fact, he says that he’s been using Buildium since his company launched in 2004.
Buildium's primary focus is rental properties—it manages a total of 750,000 units in 46 countries via 10,000 clients. It allows management companies to do credit and background checks, create custom rental application forms and syndicate their rental listings. But even if a management company works with condos, co-ops or HOAs, Buildium offers them accounting and administrative tool for tracking payments, generating on-demand reports for boards, and taking e-payments via the website for monthly fees or other payments. Management companies can also streamline maintenance requests on the site by accepting, responding to them and generating work orders.
“I check it at least once a day,” Lincoln says. “Whenever we go to a property, we make sure we have the correct information so that when we meet the tenants, we make sure we have the correct email address and we have everything up to date. Then it syncs with the desktop version.” Before he used his phone, tablet and computer to track his buildings, Lincoln says, “Things sometimes got lost. Now, it’s straightforward and everything is right there.”
New technology can sometimes be intimidating—and not everything that's new is necessarily 'new and improved', so it's important to take a critical look at what's available and assess whether it meets your needs as a manager or board. In addition to paying attention to publications like The New Jersey Cooperator, industry pros recommend that managers and management companies who want to keep abreast of the new technology available to them check out tech-related seminars, conferences and trade shows, including The New Jersey Cooperator's annual Condo, HOA & Co-op Expo. The New Jersey expo will take place Saturday, May 9, 2015 at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Go to www.nj-expo.com for more information.
With some preliminary research, your board/management team can make smartphone and tablet technology work for you, and the betterment of your client communities.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.