Next Generation Property Management Passing the Baton

Next Generation Property Management

Remember Stanley Roper from the 1970’s sitcom Three’s Company? To some, he might still be their idea of a property manager—the upstairs landlord or the guy you’d call when your plumbing’s on the fritz. And indeed, when the plumbing in your co-op or condo does spring a leak onto your hardwood floors and oriental carpet, or when it’s a freezing February morning and your heat is not working, the property manager suddenly becomes the most important person in the world. Today however, property managers do much more than fix plumbing.

As David Kuperberg, president of Manhattan’s Cooper Square Realty says, “It’s no longer making sure the floors are swept and the toilets are clean. Now, each building is a multi-million dollar corporation.”

If that’s the case, what do today’s property managers do, and how do they do it? How has the role changed over the past couple of decades?

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First, let’s look at how the position has changed since the days of Mr. Roper. Many experts mention the role of technology first and foremost, but there are other fundamental changes as well. According to Barbara Dershowitz, vice president of corporate development for AKAM Associates in Manhattan, a property manager in 2009 must be well versed in remote communication and computer technology, as well as all systems-based technologies, such as elevators, boilers, and ‘smart’ and ‘green’ buildings, just to name a few.

“Whereas the renting of a building and the collection of monies for a single landlord were once the sole responsibility of a residential property manager,” says Dershowitz, “today, managers must be masters of multiple trades, experts on current aspects of the field, and a superior communicator and people manager.” The field of residential property management, she affirms, now stands as a true white-collar profession, gaining in professional respect and starting to attract a new generation of highly educated practitioners.

Kuperberg agrees. Twenty years ago, he says, a property manager’s job was pretty much focused on day-to-day operations of a property, the physical building systems, and staff management. Nowadays, he says, “property managers are involved extensively in finance, in asset management, in technological systems, [and] certainly in customer service—in New York 20 years ago, no one was talking about customer service—and in legal issues and governance as well.”

Hitting the Books

Mr. Roper probably could not handle all this. So how does one become trained for all this responsibility? Alexander Frame, president and owner of the Brooklyn-based New York Real Estate Education Center, has helped design three 30-hour Residential Facilities Management courses to meet these needs.

“First,” he says, “our course assumes that the student is starting a second career. He or she may have an associate’s degree, or maybe just a high school diploma... These courses are designed to bring the student up to speed on managing real estate.”

Frame says he isn’t aware of any educational center that offers a degree in property management. He points out, however, that New York University offers a degree in facilities management and property management in the continuing education category. Pratt also offers a facilities management degree as a part of their engineering program. In addition, New York City Tech and The Mechanics Institute offer facilities management degrees with an engineering focus.

Dershowitz mentions that AKAM, “In response to the lack of licensing requirements and entry-level training available for residential property managers, created and facilitates a comprehensive in-house training program” for new staff as well as veteran staff members, and as of this year, those not affiliated with AKAM.

Upon completion of a three-month course taught by AKAM executives and “noted industry attorneys, accountants, insurance specialists, and labor relations representatives,” says Dershowitz, as well as a final examination, the proprietary credential of AKAM-RMP (Residential Management Professional) is bestowed upon the student. She goes on to mention that a growing number of colleges and universities are offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in facilities management and real estate, while institutions such as New York University are issuing property management certificates.

“It’s still very difficult to find an accredited higher education program dedicated exclusively to a degree in residential property management,” Dershowitz continues. She add that in New York City, there are no licensing or educational requirements for residential property managers. This makes credentialing entities a particularly valuable resource for the city’s property managers, with institutions such as the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), national organizations such as The Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), the Community Associations Institute (CAI) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) offering their own credentials and educational opportunities.

School of Life, or School?

Do today’s property managers really need a degree—or even certification? How do most of the property managers actually working today get their start?

According to Kuperberg, “It’s very difficult [to enter the profession] because the old way of learning from the school of hard knocks—going to work for a manager, starting to go out to buildings—doesn’t work anymore because of the myriad of talents now required.” Kuperberg says that there is a dearth of college programs for those wishing to enter the field, with less than five colleges or universities in the country that offer bachelor’s degrees in property management.

“The options available,” he says, referring to breaking into the field, are to “start at a lower level at a property management firm, at one of the few firms that will train and educate you. Or, pay a significant amount of money to a private trade organization where you can take property management courses. Ideally, you’ve got to do both.”

He concludes that as opposed to coming out of college and beginning in property management, today’s managers mostly come from other fields, and the fields they come from are quite varied, because the property management profession is one where someone needs to have knowledge of a lot of different fields. Thus, the modern-day property manager can be someone with a background in finance, marketing, operations, or customer service—or a little of each, plus more.

Dershowitz concurs that many property managers have a background or college degree in fields as diverse as “facilities management, real estate, business, and finance.” She also mentions “feeder” professions leading up to residential property manager positions, such as resident manager/ superintendent, and business and finance. “However, since much of residential property management is on-the-job training, that begins with an assistant’s position,” she says. “It is unusual to see older professionals from other occupations coming into the industry at entry level.”

So Many Challenges

As with every profession, there are challenges facing today’s property managers, both the experienced and the up-and-coming. “The greatest challenge a property manager has is to be regarded as a professional,” says Kuperberg. “But I use the analogy of a painter. Everybody thinks they can paint their own apartment, but none of us thinks they can be a plumber, or an electrician. But if you see the paint job of an amateur versus that of a professional, there’s a world of difference. So, everyone thinks they can run a property, until they see a real professional do it—then they see a world of difference.”

Dershowitz says she feels there are fewer challenges perhaps, but that “individuals who wish to enter the field at a higher level (i.e., as a practicing residential property manager) will be challenged by the fact that most management companies will not assign a portfolio or site position to an uneducated, inexperienced manager. Today, in order to break into the field of residential property management, it is most typical to start in an apprentice situation and work one’s way up.”

Dershowitz also states unequivocally that “poorly organized, unproductive, late-night board meetings are among the most challenging aspects [of the job.] This is an occupation that demands superior organizational and people skills.”

Frame points out that “depending on the age of the building, the tenant’s demands can be very trying. [We call this] crisis management.”

Leaving the Desk

The challenges may be there, but the pros surveyed for this article all agree that the upsides of their profession outnumber the downs. “Most managers love their work, if they were paid what they think they are worth,” says Frame. “Because there is no slow time, the day passes quickly. I know two lawyers who are happy managers. [Also] it’s a steady job.”

Dershowitz feels that the biggest positive to being a residential property manager is “the opportunity to participate in the preservation and enhancement of people’s homes and their investments. Taken from that perspective, ...[it] is a truly noble profession.”

“Property management is rewarding in a lot of ways,” says Kuperberg. “I’ve been in the business... for 30 years and I’ve never had a boring day, because you get to do so many things, you get to deal with a lot of people, and you get to affect a lot of people’s lives. You’re dealing with people’s homes and their families and lives; it really is quite rewarding...”

Another benefit is the freedom the job allows. Kuperberg continues, “You’re also not chained to a desk. A property manager gets to go to different buildings and check on their properties—they have to be in their properties about 50 percent of the time to be effective—so it’s an active profession.”

The Disorganized Need Not Apply

It would appear one must be a sort of Renaissance person of the real estate profession to succeed in the modern world of property management. Unlike Mr. Roper, there is much more to it than checking up on the tenants and their wacky living arrangements. And it seems education only covers so much. As Kuperberg says, “None of the educational programs offer anything in building systems and structures. There are programs involving operations, theory, finance, but none of them are going to teach a candidate how a boiler works.”

Property management in the 21st century is evidently not the career for those lacking self-discipline, resourcefulness, and a rock-solid work ethic. Good thing Mr. Roper plied his trade during the more carefree 1970’s rather than today.

Benjamin Watson is a freelance writer living in the Philadelphia area.

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