These days, there are few people who don’t have a business website, a Facebook account and even a Twitter handle. It’s the same for buildings.
As the rise of online social media invades nearly every aspect of our daily life, co-op, condo, HOA boards and savvy property managers have also embraced the medium as a powerful new tool for connecting and communicating with residents in their communities.
Email listserves, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and—more recently—custom mobile apps, have supplanted the mailroom bulletin board as the primary means of inter-building information exchange.
It didn’t happen overnight, however. Boards and management companies have modernized and broadened their means of communicating with residents through trial and error while exploring the benefits and maximizing the usefulness and impact of these new tools.
There are no current statistics showing what percentage of buildings in the Chicagoland area are using websites to communicate with their residents. But local board members and management companies report that nearly all of the larger buildings have some form of web communication ranging from email blasts (emailing the entire building at once) to full websites.
An Online Resource
“Most of our clients have websites,” says Jim Stoller, MBA, president of The Building Group in Chicago, a management company that manages more than $2 billion in real estate assets including residential, office, retail and industrial properties.
Stoller says his company offers websites to its clients for many reasons. Companies like AtHomeNet, HOASpace.com and NeighborhoodLink.com are but some of the providers that offer websites to community associations and HOAs. Some management companies also provide the service to their communities as part of an overall package.
“They’re so helpful,” he says. “They serve dual purposes—they present a great image of the association to the general public. Someone who is looking to purchase a unit can see it in the best possible light.”
But it’s the password-protected area that serves the most purpose to the residents, he says.
“Transparency is key, and communication is important,” Stoller says.
On most of his residential building websites, he includes financial information about the building, a list of bylaws and meeting minutes.
Residents can also send work orders, track work orders, check for packages, pay assessments and pull up their own personal payment history. There are links to make it easy to find information about the Illinois condo act as well as other useful local and national data.
“One of the major goals has been self-service and convenience,” says Stan Borg, a unit owner and board member at Park Millennium, a full amenity luxury residential building containing 480 units in downtown Chicago.
That’s why, Borg says, everything that is typically requested: the declaration, rules and insurance statements—are available online.
“We’ve tried to put it out there so you can see it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.
On the site is a list of recommended contractor and vendors, electricity options, work order forms, current announcements, the freight elevator and conference room calendar.
There’s also items on the Park Millennium website that make sales easier, including photos, floor plans and a list of amenities. For those new or soon-to-be new residents, there’s an area map, information about parking, and step-by-step instructions for basic information and rules including storage options and pricing and rules for guest or vendors.
All the forms they may need—permission to enter form and maintenance forms—are also online where they can easily be viewed, downloaded, printed or emailed.
So far, Borg says, the most popular website features have been the work order requests and the forms needed for refinancing. The rules and regulations have also been used frequently as residents check to see what they can do or can’t do.
Some buildings have even put message and chat boards onto the sites so that residents can “speak” directly to each other about the building and other matters.
However, Stoller says, those message boards are usually the first thing to be removed from building websites due to residential complaints about them.
Gripes & Snipes
“Some found them to be a vehicle for negativity,” Stoller says. “If there’s a group that doesn’t like the current board, they found that they’re being taken over for negative purposes.”
Buildings are also using their websites to advertise available parking spots and other amenities. Some are allowing current residents to advertise their units as rentals or to sell their furniture or other household items.
Those looking for dog walkers, cat feeders or house sitters may find luck in their own building with a few clicks of the keyboard.
Individual websites have become virtual shopping centers, real estate agencies, city clerk offices and chat boards all in one place. For some lucky residents, there’s absolutely no need to leave your front door anymore.
A few buildings have gone beyond website placement, and are even playing around with Smartphone apps.
Keith Hales, president of Hales Property Management, Inc. in Chicago has a Smartphone application in its system that assists managers in location and logging in building related information.
Eventually, Hales says, it will evolve and will be used for board members and unit owners.
Other systems can also text emergency announcements and make automated calls.
At Park Millennium, they have video monitors in the elevators which broadcast fun and important events that are going on throughout Chicago. With those video monitors, they have the ability to go beyond the basics and even create their own building news channels if they want to go that route.
At Trump Chicago’s website, you can look at photos of units that are for sale, in addition to watching videos and looking at pictures of virtually every area of the massive amenity-filled building. It will save serious buyers their initial trip to see the units—especially after they carefully flip through floor plans and architectural design details and history.
The sky’s the limit for building websites with only a few advised “don’ts.”
The biggest don’t is making the entire website viewable to the general public, says Joseph Baez, CEO of We Are Community Managers in Tinley Park.
“Make the website so it has to be logged in by user names and passwords,” Baez says.
That way, the public won't be able to view private documents for the residents’ safety.
Another “don’t” relates to emailing.
“One big mistake boards often do when sending out communications to other owners, is sending the announcement via email—where everyone’s email address is not hidden,” Hales says. “As a result, a disgruntled owner may ‘reply all’ with his or her concern, and grip about a specific issue in the building. This can sometimes lead toward a snowball effect of responses, which can be deemed by some as harassment.”
Aside from that, there have been few problems within the sites.
Overall, Borg says, they’ve made life for the board members and the management company much easier than it had been prior to the Internet.
“Our reduction of paper requests for budgets and everything that’s distributed has made a significant impact,” he says. “It’s impacted our time, our money and the environment.”
The building saved money by not having to Xerox so many copies of everything, and they don’t has as many requests for documents, which frees up their time.
When your building is ready to go virtual, you could ask your property management company to help implement an online Web system.
If you’re self-managed, there are many companies, such as Google or Buildium that offer a web-based system.
There are also some local online resources available. The website Everyblock.com lists local issues in every neighborhood, and is a valuable link to have on a building site, Hales says. Other great links would be to the Cook County Assessor (CookCountyAssessor.com), Cook County Treasurer (CookCountyTreasurer.com) and the City Clerk (ChiCityClerk.com).
Even if your building gets a snazzy website, you can’t simply rid yourself of all paper documents.
“We still have to slip a paper under the door for some things,” Stoller says.
That’s because Illinois doesn’t acknowledge emails as a valid form of documentation and requires buildings to mail forms for official communications from the board. This includes documentation for annual meetings, changes in rules and regulations and any other official communication from the management company and the board.
And while email and Web sites are appropriate for many various uses, you still must have good backup records and documentation for everything you do,” Stoller says.
In every building, there are always some people who aren’t comfortable with going online for just about anything. Some don’t even own a computer—and there are few buildings that keep a computer room in the basement filled with old public computers anymore.
That means that the buildings still have to be sensitive to those who may not have virtually arrived in this century—and prefer everything to be done via snail mail and actual newsletters.
“But whether we like it or not, paper is becoming obsolete, and associations are learning this,” says Gael Mennecke, executive director of the Association of Condominium, Townhouse and Homeowners Associations (ACTHA).
In a few years, even those who don’t own a computer yet may be forced to visit the local Best Buy or get over to the nearest Apple store.
“Some of the older people aren’t computer literate, but that should change over time,” Stoller says. “The people who are comfortable with technology use it more. Some don’t access it at all, but many people do it frequently.”
The best foundation for a strongly built community, though, is for the place to be well-managed. Communicating what’s happening with the building is the key to building trust. Happy surfing.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.