Owning your own home is a huge commitment, but imagine being accountable for your neighbors’ homes as well. It’s a commitment hundreds of individuals throughout New York’s condo and co-op community make each year as members of their building’s board. It takes a great deal to be an efficient and productive board member, but more importantly, it takes a group of individuals who know the duties and responsibilities inside and out.
What It Takes
Serving as a board member can mean hours of work each month, including monthly or quarterly meetings, as well as some additional nights and weekends, particularly in buildings with dozens of units. Duties include everything from deciding how to replace a faulty elevator and refinancing a mortgage to watching every penny of the building’s operating budget. It’s a major commitment for those who are elected.
"You have to want to give your time. It involves a little sacrifice," says Michael Barendino, board member and past president and treasurer of a 95-unit co-op on East 85th Street. "I give at least three nights a month, several hours a week." But he feels the sacrifice is worth it and feels it is important to be involved. "My home is my life investment."
Protecting one’s investment means making sure the entire building is running efficiently and smoothly. "You’re functioning on behalf of and for the good of the whole, not just for your apartment. Your aim has to be what’s good for the corporation and all the shareholders," says John Hopley, president of a 14-unit, 100-year-old brownstone. Hopley has served on the building’s board since it went co-op in 1981. He estimates spending about four or five hours a month conducting his board duties, but attributes it to the fact that his building is relatively small and most of the owners are long-time residents.
Experience PreferredBut Not Necessary
Both Hopley and Barendino came to their positions with considerable business knowledge. Hopley has had years of management experience as a businessman, while Barendino is both an accountant and an attorney who deals frequently with real estate issues. According to Anita Sapirman, owner of Saparn Realty, a management company in Manhattan, one of the keys to board success is matching the skills of owners to positions of responsibility. For example, Barendino’s accounting experience made him a natural to fill the treasurer slot. "We want people on boards who can bring something constructive [to the role]," she says.
Hopley estimates that half the members of his building’s board have professional training or education in finance, while the other half have none at all. "But if you have a board that communicates easily with each other, you can get into a mode of understanding. Probably anybody with the desire could feel reasonably comfortable after watching other members. Common sense solves most of the problems."
Professional experience can definitely help in the financial aspects of condo or co-op operations. As treasurer, Barendino’s responsibilities included serving as signatory on his building’s reserve fund, which provides emergency dollars for things such as leaking roofs or broken elevators; keeping track of operating funds; suggesting ways to maximize investment income on the reserve fund; and keeping track of the managing agent’s expenditures for items such as building employees or upkeep.
"Any co-op is going to have a dynamic budget with at least 20 to 25 lines of operating expenses," says Hopley, who estimates he spends about 60 percent of his time on financial matters. "A board member should be comfortable with finances." But, he adds, that "doesn’t mean they had to have studied economics in college."
Maintaining a building’s infrastructure can also consume a significant chunk of a board’s time, particularly in older buildings. According to Hopley, "You want to make sure as president or a member of a subcommittee that you look at your building’s infrastructure as a living thing and look at it on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting for a leaking roof."
What to Expect
As board president, Hopley believes that creating an open environment in meetings is one of his most important responsibilities. "A good board will help one another and not hold back with selfish positions. They’ll rise to a good professional level," he says. "The environment will create itself if you have good interested people."
Other presidential duties include serving as signatory on all major accounts, working with the managing agent to solve any problems that may arise, and preparing and distributing the agenda for each board meeting. It’s a simple but important step since it gives members a chance to study situations in advance and come to meetings ready to talk.
In larger co-ops or condo buildings, board presidents must be prepared for the responsibility of dealing with owner disagreements or troublesome tenants. Unfortunately, in buildings where hundreds of people live side-by-side, not everybody is going to get along. "Somebody will be hanging pictures at 11 p.m. or there’ll be a party. You have to do a little public relations sometimes," Barendino says.
While it’s a good idea to let your management company deal directly with the individuals involved, ultimately unresolved problems require deciding with the board.
Board members also are responsible for interviewing prospective owners when vacancies open up in their buildings. This means making sure potential residents have the financial ability to afford their new homes and pay their dues each month.
Other officer positions include vice president and secretary. Vice presidents attend all meetings and must be ready to assume any duties of the president in case of an emergency. The secretary is responsible for keeping the minutes of all meetings.
Board members also may be called upon to serve on committees, which are formed as various needs arise. For example, when the mortgage on the building has to be refinanced, a committee is formed to investigate the terms of the mortgage and potential lenders. Or if the lobby needs renovating, a committee will convene to discuss contractor bids.
Different Breeds, Same Species
Although condos and co-ops are very different breeds, their boards–condo managers and co-op directors–display very few differences. "There’s very little variance," Sapirman says. "They both have just as large a responsibility to act on behalf of all owners and to act for owners before they act for themselves."
The next time you share an elevator with one of your building’s board members, it might be nice to give them a nod of thanks for making everything–including the ride up–run smoothly.
Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.