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When a Little Means a Lot

Like shooting stars, the cigarettes were falling from the Madison Avenue co-op. The problem was that they were not landing on the street but on the building's canopy. Little pockmarks and burn holes began forming. Lynn Whiting, the property's manager, began wondering if the building would need to get a new canopy.

The first order of business, though, was to stop the firefight. "I sent out a letter building-wide trying to determine who was responsible for this so we could get it to stop," Whiting, director of management at The Argo Corporation, recalls. "That was ineffective, so I asked the building staff, who are usually aware of these kinds of things. [They knew] who in the building smokes. There were only around four smokers so I called them all and told them the story. Eventually, one of them says, 'Oh, that's me. I'm sorry. I was just being lazy.'" The butts stopped falling out the window then. Case closed.

Would that all small matters could be handled so easily. Ask any manager and he or she will probably tell you that he or she would rather deal with refinancing or something large as opposed to the tiny, irksome events at a co-op. "It's the small stuff that grows into big stuff if it's not handled," says one agent. Without a doubt, noise appears to be the most common of complaints, but there are other ones, equally devilish, that slip and slide around refusing to be caught. There are the pet problems, the rollerblader or bicyclist in the lobby elevator, the recycling or garbage dumper, and a host of other house rule infractions that often cause more problems than imaginable. What can a board do or have its manager or attorney do, short of terminating a lease?

Step 1: Tea Time. Before the manager or the board gets directly involved, the first step is to try and solve the problem amicably. "We had one instance where an owner came and complained to the board about noise and the board recommended that the owner invite the other person over for a cup of coffee," remembers Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services. "By the end of it, they had become the best of friends. When this works, it can work really well."

Boards may often forgo this first step, moving right to Step 2, but frequently the problem can be tackled at the very beginning if the two sides can come together without too much inconvenience or pressure. Just understanding what effect the behavior is having on a neighbor or on the building can bring some enlightenment and, perhaps, change.

Step 2: A Formal Declaration. If the private meeting between owners doesn't go as planned, the board can act as a third party for complaints that occur between owners. Importantly, the complaint should be in writing and corroborated as well by another owner or neighbor. This prevents an "egg-on-your-face" moment when the complainant suddenly decides he/she doesn't want to come forward.

What it won't prevent is backlash. When the board sends out its first letter asking for the problem to be remedied, the receiver can often quickly puzzle out the identity of the offended person. "That's when it can get hairy," says Wasserman. He recalls a co-op where complaints came in about the subtenant and the apartment owner refused to renew his lease. The subtenant turned on the owner and demanded to know who had complained. When the owner wasn't forthcoming, the subtenant became menacing. "I have ways of making you talk," he said. The owner thought this was far from humorous and called the police.

"Bad feelings get created immediately when the person receives a letter," notes Wasserman. "Unfortunately, there is no way to legislate being a good neighbor."

If the board is directly involved in the complaint or either of these attempts is unsuccessful, using the manager as the point man can help the board from becoming too mired in the little things. Depending on the board's and manager's philosophy, this could be the step before direct board involvement. Some boards prefer to go second, so to speak, while some managers recommend that boards only get involved as a last resort.

Step 3: Fee Fi Fo Fine. The general consensus among managers is that fines are, for the most, part ineffective in solving little issues. For one, fines are often capped at unthreateningly low figures, ranging from $25 to $100 (the rare one may get up to $200 or even one month's maintenance). For another, owners may decide that they just won't pay the fine and what board wants to go after someone for $25. Still other boards find it difficult to fine their neighbors and are lax in sticking to their guns. "I've never seen someone actually pay the fine and then say that they won't do it again," notes Whiting.

There are two ways to put some teeth on your fines so they have enough bite to leave a mark:

LET THEM BUILD UP. One technique is to allow the fines to accumulate to the point where they equal one month's maintenance and then when the next check comes in, put that toward the fines and tell the owner they are delinquent on their maintenance. Another option here is not to wait as long and deduct fines directly from each month's collection.

SEND THE CHECKS BACK. Peter J. Burgess, president of Peter J. Burgess Realty Corporation, says there is no wake-up call quite like a check being returned. "We used to send a nasty note back to the owner with the check, which just ended up inflaming the situation. Everyone wanted to sue. A few years ago we switched to a syrupy sweet note: 'Thanks for sending your check in; however, you seem to have forgotten to pay for the fines.' This really diffused the problem and we had a great response. Sending the check back is one of the most powerful things you can do." Burgess reports that the fines have proven 70 percent effective in buildings he manages.

Step 4: The Big Hammer. Violators are usually repeat violators and no amount of fines or polite conversations may dissuade them. The final threat, the last straw, is to tell the person that they are in violation of the house rules and thus in violation of the proprietary lease.

"Use the hammer if you have to, but don't make it an idle threat," advises Steve Nardoni, president of Nardoni Realty. "If you're at the point where nothing else has worked, use the threat of terminating the lease. Tell them: 'Look, if we have to do this, then we'll slap you with the legal fees and you won't be able to sell your apartment until we get them.' We're doing this right now over a noise complaint and the lawyers decided to try and work out a compromise."

Whatever the situation may be, the worst thing to do is ignore it, the experts note. Try and understand all the sides and create the same understanding in the parties. Above all, though, remember the ad jingle, "Little things mean a lot."

"Pay attention to the small details," concludes Burgess, "because otherwise they end up biting you in the behind."

 

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