By Chris Davies
“Chris, there’s a report of a bad smell coming from one of the units at XYZ,” my dad said.
No big deal. There are always bad smells coming from apartment units.
But when I arrived, I realized this wasn’t any old “sandwich behind the baseboard heater” bad smell. This was more of a rotting corpse bad smell. Sorry for the spoiler but it really was a rotting corpse.
When that stench hit me I knew I needed to take extra special measures. The last thing you want to do as a property manager is to disturb a crime scene. I knocked on the door, knowing in the pit of my stomach that nobody was going to answer this door. Rather than drop a key in the door and check it for myself, I decided to call back to Davies Management HQ and figure out the right strategy about how to approach this.
After talking to mom and dad at headquarters and consulting the manual, we decided it was best to call the cops and have them meet me at the property. With the police beside me, we knocked on the door again. Still nothing. The officer asked me to open the door.
Together we tiptoed through the suite. The officer coached me on how to ensure I didn’t upset anything. At this point we didn’t know what happened. It could have been a murder, a suicide, anything.
As the property manager, I just wanted to make sure we got it right. It was a small building with no onsite manager. But what if there was one? Would he or she have known what to do? How would they have handled such a stressful situation?
Onsite managers are not often given the respect they deserve. In many ways they are on the front line and will be your greatest asset for long-term multi-family success. If your onsite manager isn’t capable, he or she can make a big mess before you ever have a chance to bring in the cavalry. A world-class onsite manager can literally make a million dollar difference over the life of a building.
Rock solid management is one of the absolute core strategies for building a multi-family portfolio that lasts. Just look through the pages of this magazine; the incredible real estate investors and top minds that you read here all have one thing in common - they build their businesses with the long game in mind. Selecting and keeping world-class onsite managers might be the single most important thing you do for your multi-family buildings difference in your business.
Based on my own experience and the experience of the top investors I interviewed, here are the 6 top tips for finding and retaining a world-class onsite manager.
#1) Provide a System That Can’t Fail
The surest way to losing a great onsite manager is to set them up for failure. In fact, an experienced onsite manager will spot your amateur approach from a distance when they realize you don’t have a workable system.
Every imaginable situation requires a standard operating procedure. The last thing you want is an onsite manager who has to reinvent the wheel every time something happens.
If you’re just starting with multi-family investing, start building your standard operating procedures manual now. Focus on the most common situations first: vacancies, cleaning, repairs, midnight moves, etc. From there you will come up with a procedure or a set of principles for any imaginable situation (like the story I started this article with for example).
In such rare and extraordinary circumstances, always rely on your network of experienced real estate investors. Ask for the best way to handle each situation and build a standard operating procedure out of what you learn. If it can happen once it will happen again. Being prepared will allow you to hire more quality onsite managers in the future.
#2) Pay Them What They’re Worth
One of the most successful multi-family investors I’ve ever met pays his onsite managers double the market rate.
He owns buildings with 50 or more suites and he employs a simple line of reasoning that leads him to do this: The onsite manager will make him several multiples more than it would ever cost him each year. So why not pay to keep them? You always get what you pay for.
Do you have any aggressive goals as an investor? Goals like zero days of rent lost per unit/per turnover?
It’s an audacious goal and requires a lot of coordination. Pulling off such a feat over and over again will literally make you thousands of dollars per year per building. What about having a vacancy rate well below the market average? This also can make you a lot of money over the years.
However, these kinds of goals are only realistic with an onsite manager who is truly bought in. Paying them what they’re worth is one of the best tools for attracting, retaining, and having them buy in.
Note: Every one of the world class multi-family investors I spoke to for this article noted the importance of goal-driven incentives (see below). Paying a base salary above market should always be based on performance. Let your managers prove they can deliver above average results year over year before raising their pay.
#3) Communicate Clearly
An onsite manager that doesn’t know your goals and targets will never be able to live up to your expectations. As the owner, therefore, you must lead. If providing a world-class system for your onsite means, “Managing the manager,” then clear communication means, “Leading the manager.”
Without clarity of your goals, any onsite manager (especially one in training) will likely default to their own worldview. This could be detrimental when it comes to some of the most vital tasks. A lack of clearly defined expectations and goals will just equal disappointment all around.
As Edmonton multi-family star Michael Ponte puts it, “The real secret to maintaining a great resident manager is communication. Ensure they have clear understanding of your objective with the building, the type of tenant profile you want to bring in and most importantly what your expectations are of them.”
#4) Incentivize Success
This isn’t a government job. For the health of your portfolio you must have well-functioning buildings.
Every REIN member knows that “market vacancy rates” are not for sophisticated real estate investors. We’ve been learning in REIN for many years exactly how to beat the market averages. The best bulwark against “average” that you will have as a multi-family investor is your onsite manager. Both Ponte and another multi-family superstar, Jeff Gunther, stressed the importance of effective incentives.
Vacancy rates, keeping expenses below budget, and lack of rent loss to turnover are all solid metrics to incentivize towards. In addition, have a clear policy stating when and how much a base salary raise will be if targets are met.
#5) Look for Soft Skills: Respectfulness, Authority, and Communication
One of the best onsite managers I’ve ever worked with was an ex-customs officer who was masterful with people. He was never dictatorial but managed to get tenants on board with the building’s program.
The key to his success was in the way he felt about people. He genuinely liked them. He had no problem speaking to them for as long as necessary. He exemplified the top skills of world-class onsite managers: respectfulness, authority, and communication.
Tactfulness is vital in communication and a sense of service-mindedness goes a long way. The ex-customs officer took great pride in his job. He considered it a way to improve the lives of the building residents.
The best way to select for these traits is to be very attentive during interviews. See if your potential onsite managers give you their full attention. Will they meet your eyes? Is there a hint of defensiveness? Do they seem engaged and solution-oriented?
As always, the soft skills are the trickiest traits to select for. Hone your own ability to select for these traits. It will get easier over time as you develop your onsite manager selection intuition.
#6) Interview Them in Their Home At Least Once
“How you do anything is how you do everything.” -- Unknown
Talk is incredibly cheap. The surest sign that this person won’t take good care of your property is if they don’t take care of their own home.
This is a trick my dad taught me. He’s interviewed and worked with hundreds of onsite managers in his day. Their own personal habits are the number one indicator of how they will care for your property.
Untold numbers of small (and sometimes large) catastrophes are just waiting to happen in multi-family buildings across Canada. As a sophisticated real estate investor you need to develop a bulwark between yourself and these issues. This frees up your time to do what’s most important, namely buying more excellent buildings.
What would your onsite managers do when faced with an unknown stench coming from a suite? Would they know how to avoid making the problem worse? Stop everything and call you at any hour? Or, would they have the knowledge to do the right thing without needing you?
The body I found turned out not to be a murder. Still, I was lucky in that even as an early 20s property manager, I knew what procedure to follow.
It wasn’t always that way. I’ve heard plenty of stories from my parents and grandfather about the early days of property management. That’s why it’s important to fast track your own business and get serious about finding a world-class onsite manager.
Chris Davies comes from a 3rd generation Edmonton investor and property management family. Today he’s an investor and realtor specializing in multi-family purchases and sales. Keep an eye out for his upcoming book “Apartments That Outperform,” and download his free onsite manager’s manual. (at www.ChrisSellsEdmonton.com)