What your building needs to know to create a web page and a look at some of the people who have done it.
Just a few years ago, it might have cost you hundreds of dollars to set up a website for your building. In most cases, if you managed to produce a newsletter for your fellow shareholders or unit-owners, you already had a very adequate way of communicating with them, and a website was thought to be a redundant, costly luxury.
But we’re starting to see a huge new change in the way co-ops and condos provide news and information for their residents. There are now literally thousands of companies competing for your business, and the cost of setting up and running websites has plummeted. Now, you can carve out your presence on the web for annual running costs of less than $200. If you just want to get the feel of handling a web presence for your building, you can even experiment with free hosting offers.
And it’s not just the cost of a website that is radically changing the field. Along with the new competitive drive for clients, companies are offering tools that make it unnecessary to have the kind of computer skills that were essential in past years.
However, after some extensive research, it’s clear that, while many new options are available, it’s still only a handful of co-ops or condos that have launched their buildings onto the internet. Talking to people involved in these ventures reveals some of the remarkable benefits and some of the daunting difficulties that creating a website can bring to a building.
A Short Primer
The first step in creating a website is usually very easy: selecting a so-called “domain” name for the site. You don’t have to be too creative here because, in almost every case, the name you want is either the name of the building or its address. The next step is checking to see that someone else isn’t already using the name – it is highly unusual to find that someone else has already appropriated a building’s address.
It’s not totally unknown, however, for a resident to have preceded the board in registering the building’s name – in which case, you may find yourself negotiating to buy it back. To prevent this situation from arising, some experts recommend that all buildings, even if they don’t have current plans to establish a website, should register their names. Every registration site – for example, Registration.com or NetworkSolutions.com – will automatically do a name search for you when you put in your request and then, if it’s available, for around $30 a year or less you can stake your claim.
To create the website itself, you require a few other things. First, you need a site design or, as with any document or publication you create, you need to decide what’s going to go into it. For a very basic site, this comes down to deciding what categories of information you want to have. It could be a document repository, or a contact list, or even a listing page for apartment sales.
The key to the operation, however, is that you must have what’s called a “host.” If the material just sits on your computer, it’s not accessible to other people. It may be a newsletter, but it’s not yet a website. It has to be placed with an internet company. That organization provides a hosting service and makes your pages accessible to anybody on the internet who types your domain name into their browser address box. The cost for the kind of website that would be adequate for a co-op or condo is between $120 and $360 a year. Included are a comprehensive web-creation package and extensive hand-holding (most host sites will guarantee round-the-clock technical assistance).
However, having said how really inexpensive the whole operation is, there is one thing that can bump up the cost: you may need to use a professional service to handle design and set-up. Average costs for this are around $1,000, but can run considerably higher for more complex sites. Whichever route you’ve chosen, it’s important to recognize that co-op and condo websites have unique needs that aren’t generally found elsewhere. The most useful guidelines for avoiding the pitfalls that have been encountered by many buildings is to look at what others have done and try to discern just what a website can and cannot do.
A Tale of One Website
Two Hundred East 16th Street is a 196-unit co-op in the Gramercy Park area of New York City. Their website, www.200east.com, was started in 2003 by Lisa Overton, a graphic designer and now president of the board. The impetus was very clear: the co-op had been struggling through years of sponsor-dominated existence, during which time shareholders had been virtually cut out of the picture. They knew nothing. Overton came onto the board pledging to open things up. She initiated a newsletter and then started a website, which included a chat room.
That last item turned out to be a disaster. There was no way to control it because she didn’t have the technology to password-protect the site. Anonymous posting became an open door for devastating character-assassinations by people who were unhappy with the way things were being run. The chat room was shut down, but Overton knew the website still had potential. She eventually enlisted Rafael Weil, another graphic designer who had recently moved in, and together they created the tremendously streamlined site of today.
For a one-time fee of $1,200, they hired a professional to handle the translation of their design ideas into computer terms and to handle the set-up process. Annual running costs are now about $150, including an annual fee for registration of the domain name and a monthly fee to the hosting company, www.phpwebhosting.com.
There are six distinct pages or links on the site’s navigation bar: “Home,” “Policies and Procedures,” “Resources,” “Document Library,” “FAQ,” and “Contacts.” (A web page, incidentally, is not the same thing as a printed page; it can be a few lines in length or hundreds of lines.) A principal focus of the site, from the beginning, was to open up a line of communication among the board, management, and the shareholders. So, any forms that shareholders might need – sublet and purchase applications, alteration agreements, maintenance requests – are availlable at any time from the “Document Library” without having to go through a series of phone calls to get the material. This has the effect of empowering both the board and the shareholders. Observes Overton: “When a shareholder asks you what they need to do to sublet an apartment, you can say, go to this page and it tells you everything that you need to know.”
Surprisingly enough, in many cases – and www.200east.com is one of them – a website rarely replaces print newsletters. Largely, that is because there are very few buildings with 100 percent shareholder access to the internet. But the website does eliminate one significant pressure: news can be updated online at any time without having to wait until a whole new edition of the newsletter is prepared.
One issue that hasn’t yet been resolved is that “we’re not very savvy when it comes to making changes on the site,” admits Weil. Overton regularly updates the text of notices and contacts, but adding new pages or changing any aspect of the format requires additional technical skills. Unless they can find a recruit in the building with the ability to do this, they are planning to hire another professional to help reconfigure the site to accommodate these new requirements.
The launching of the new site just over a year ago was publicized by sending residents “www.200east.com” postcards designed by Weil. But after an initial flurry, interest seems to have flagged; it is hard to get most residents to log on if they are not looking for specific documents or forms. As both Overton and Weil recognize, keeping the site up-to-date and flexible is a part of the ongoing challenge of holding shareholders’ interest. If you build it, it’s not an automatic guarantee that they will come.
The 49-unit co-op at 8020 4th Avenue, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, launched its website www.8020coop.com in November 2005 with a building-wide party. Fred Alluso, a board member with a computer science degree, created a site with a distinctive look and some unique features.
Although the site was an immediate hit with all the residents, Alluso is not the kind of person to take anything for granted. One of the features that hosting sites provide is a way of checking the traffic that a site attracts. “From November till the middle of December, we had great traffic,” he says. “But, then, from the middle of December through March of this year, traffic had almost stopped. Almost nobody was visiting.”
This was a puzzle because the web page covered a lot. There was useful data about the building: information about board policies, a page that carried listings of apartments, even a page where service requests could be entered. Curious, Alluso started asking the residents what the problems were.
“Everybody was pretty honest. They said, ‘Look, unless we need to go on there to make a service request or something along those lines, there’s no reason to go to the site.’” This can be the death knell for a web venture. If people stop regular visiting, it inevitably loses a lot of its potential as a communication tool.
Alluso sought professional help from a web design and programming company called GHF Creative. GHF revitalized the site. Information is constantly updated so there is always something new and useful. Aside from the date and time, the current weather is posted and news headlines link you through to a number of news sources. There are links to a map service, a Google search engine, and even an information web page that identifies which local pumps are offering the lowest gas prices. “We wound up making the site so dynamic that now almost every single shareholder uses it as their homepage,” Alluso says.
But what makes this comprehensive home page unusual is the prominent box in the center that carries updated notices about the building. If the elevator is down, for instance, it immediately gets posted, together with an estimate of when service will be restored. That central notice box is, in fact, the only part of the page that has to be maintained by Alluso. The other parts are updated automatically by The New York Times, The Village Voice, the Weather Channel, and “a bunch of other people who are pushing their data into our spot.”
The cost of set-up, including the technical help from GHF Creative, and all the other initial set-up fees, was about $1,000. The annual cost of maintaining the site is about $350, which includes an annual hosting fee (to www.GlobalHost.com) and some ongoing technical help. Alluso acknowledges that they could have spent less on the site “but then we would have had a static site that didn’t change on a regular basis,” and didn’t keep up a flow of current and updated information.
Interestingly enough, www.8020coop.com, like its counterpart www.200east.com, still produces a printed newsletter as well as providing it in electronic form on the website. However, for www.8020coop.com, the openness of the site to public access is limited to the newsletter and a few other pages – including an apartment sales listing page. Co-op documents and other building information are restricted to a password-protected section that is accessible only to residents. There is a wide spectrum of opinion on how open a building website should be. The www.8020coop.com site is in the middle.
Plans for the future include adding a page that provides advertising space to service providers and contractors who have received positive reviews from residents or who have worked for the building with good results. At present, this is not seen as a revenue-producing site, although charging fees for listings of this kind could be a way of defraying some costs.
“Before, we communicated mainly by knocking on people’s doors. So it was really a pain in the neck. Notice boards? That really didn’t work for us. People walked right by them.” The board now knows that residents are seeing important updates: a recent survey showed that 75 percent of the shareholders currently log onto the site every day.
It Takes a Village
Three Hundred Fifty Bleecker Street is a 135-unit co-op in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan. The building’s webmaster, Board Secretary Jim Kafadar, is an engineer who restores abandoned and broken-down small airplanes. Seven years ago, when the website was set up www.350bleecker.com, there were fewer programs that guided you through the whole process. Kafadar taught himself how to program and design the co-op’s site and in the process has developed some very formidable guidelines for other co-ops and condos. Annual running costs for this site are about $120, hosted by www.StartLogic.com.
The first thing you’ll discover about www.350bleecker.com is that there is an astonishing amount of information on open access to anyone, including reports of board meetings (though not the actual minutes), monthly updates on operating expenses, and blow-by-blow details of a long, drawn-out legal fight with the sponsor.
An invaluable sales page on the site lists details of every past building sale including sales prices per apartment and per room, as well as a graphic that allows you to see periods when prices were peaking or falling. Real estate brokers and attorneys protested en masse when Kafadar first introduced this, but by now everyone agrees the information is an asset to everyone.
Kafadar explains how they have managed to accumulate so much information: “We created it as we went along. As the board decided that another of the co-op policies should be listed, it was written up if it didn’t already exist. Now, every single policy is there.” It also includes every co-op document (starting with the original offering plan and amendments) and allows someone to access everything on this huge site of over 3,000 pages with a free Google tool. That allows a unique way of accessing the smallest details in every corporation document and policy. Since the search tool also scans through every archived newsletter, this website has become a remarkable repository of information.
What it doesn’t have is also instructive. Kafadar believes that what shareholders want is a direct line to the board and to management. Shareholders can go to the contact page and directly e-mail work requests or comments to directors and management. He doesn’t see the need for any other kind of chat forum or bulletin board.
One other feature is unique and could be invaluable for others. Kafadar keeps a password-protected section where he has been accumulating details of every mechanical, electrical, and plumbing system throughout the building. Service contracts are scanned in, along with circuit diagrams, instruction manuals for every piece of equipment, details of how to set the security computer, how to review the tapes, and how you evaluate thermocouples in the heating system. When the board decided to investigate the status of the building’s elevator, Kafadar pointed a camera into the innards of one of the motors and was able to e-mail a photo of worn down gear-teeth to the board and every bidding contractor. Now, the photo is also archived for future reference with all the other elevator data. Any future board member will be able to put in a search for “gear-teeth” and the record will pop up.
If this all sounds overwhelming, Kafadar insists that it’s not. If things are written up bit by bit, the actual maintenance is minimal – just a few moments every day, he claims. And no one has to spend time monitoring postings or a chat room.
An informal internet survey uncovered only about 18 existing co-op and condo websites. So it’s very clear that if you’re going to set up a web presence for your building, you are still among a few elite buildings. But the benefits in terms of easier communication and an enhanced feeling of community may now be one of the most cost-effective investments that your building can make.