At the heart of every shared interest community is the person who makes it run. That person is known by many names: superintendent (or just ‘super’), building engineer, resident manager, community manager. Their duties and responsibilities may vary somewhat from region to region and building type to building type, but essentially they are the daily glue that keeps the property running. “Call the super!” is a well-used refrain from many and any apartment dweller.
What is a Super?
The super can be thought of as something like the building’s traffic cop. He or she is there to coordinate the maintenance and smooth operation of the physical plant and address minor repairs and other issues within individual units. Typically, unlike the manager, the super lives on the premises. The building is their home, and therefore they have a vested interest in the boiler working. In smaller properties there may not be a full-time super, but nevertheless, he or she will be located near enough to the building to attend to emergencies on short notice, usually within walking distance.
“The role of a super or resident manager can differ depending on the staffing level and unique requirements of a building,” says Drew Posner, a senior vice president with Maxwell-Kates, an Associa company, based in New York City. “In many cases they are the first point of contact for general maintenance issues and upkeep of the building. They are also responsible for ensuring that the entire staff is properly trained and scheduled. The super or resident manager is also the person who interfaces with residents to attend to their needs and make sure that all issues are addressed. In addition, they are the liaison between management and all contractors who enter the building, to ensure that all rules are followed and their work is being properly conducted.”
“The term ‘resident manager’ and ‘super’ are interchangeable,” says Michael Wolfe, a New York-based property manager who chairs the Real Estate Board of New York’s (REBNY’s) residential management council. “The term ‘residential manager’ in buildings of six or more employees is a union designation.”
Duties & Responsibilities
The duties and skill sets of a successful superintendent often vary based on the needs of the building. “In a perfect world, both high-rise and townhouse communities need someone with solid technical skills and experience,” says David Abel, general manager with The Dartmouth Group, located in Bedford, Massachusetts. “They also require strong interpersonal skills in order to effectively manage staff and vendors, while communicating with residents. The person needs to be a leader who works well as part of a team to support management and the community board. It’s a rare individual who has all these qualities. When you’re fortunate enough to have someone like this, strive to keep them!”
As the nerve center of the building, “a super has to have very good communication skills, both written and verbal,” says Dan Wollman, CEO of Gumley Haft, a management firm based in New York City. “A good super needs supervisory skills, and technical skills as well. Those are the three key ingredients for a good super.”
“Required skill sets are different depending on building type,” explains Wolfe. “For instance, in a pre-war elevator building, there aren’t a lot of sophisticated systems, but you need someone who is proactive and understands curb appeal. The interior, basement, and exterior must be in pristine condition at all times. The other thing you want is someone who can write well, because they have to communicate with the staff. You also want someone kind and thoughtful for the residents—no short fuses. We are in the ‘complaint business,’ and the super will be called regularly—so this person must have a good demeanor.”
As an example, Wolfe says, “we had a building on Fifth Avenue. We found a ‘green’ super with two years’ experience at a building in Queens with no staff [who otherwise had promising qualities]. By contrast, this building had a full staff. It was a big position. Management and the board thought, ‘Let’s hire someone who might be a bit green, but maybe doesn’t have the bad habits of a more experienced guy. With proper management and oversight, all supers can grow.”
Although qualifications can be very building-specific, “generally speaking,” says Abel, “there’s no requirement for a super or building manager to hold a specific license, such as plumbing or electrical. High-rise buildings can benefit from a person with trade-specific experience like plumbing, electrical, or HVAC, since in these buildings, systems are integral and significant components. By contrast, townhouse communities tend to require more carpentry, roofing, and landscaping skills and experience.”
Chain of Command
In any building or HOA—but particularly larger ones—the chain of command matters. “The board is tasked with setting and creating policy and procedure,” says Wollman. “They may hire a manager who carries out that policy and procedure. We carry out that policy and procedure through our efforts in the office, and through the building staff. We [the management] supervise the super, and he in turn supervises the staff. The board doesn’t supervise him. When the staff tries to go to a board member or vice versa, breaking the chain of command, the wheels fall off the bus. That’s not good for anyone.”
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Wolfe confirms, “but in the best run buildings, you have the staff reporting to the super, the super reporting to the manager, and the manager to the board. It’s staff, super, management, board. Time and again, that chain of command is tried and proven.”
Abel concurs. “Typically,” he says, “the superintendent reports directly to the manager. Depending on the manager’s experience and skill sets, the superintendent may contribute more—or less—when it comes to directing projects and initiatives. The ideal relationship is one where a team of professionals with unique individual strengths complement those around them. The best supers have a very wide range of skills and experience which takes years to acquire and master. A technically complex high-rise property will generally require a more sophisticated and skilled individual. Their functions—HVAC, hot water, mechanical systems, elevators, garages, etc.—more directly impact the daily lives of board members and residents. Suburban and townhouse communities typically have fewer central systems, and thus, don’t require the same breadth of experience as their urban counterparts.”
It’s not uncommon for residents to ask a super or resident handyman to do a private job within their unit. As most owners and shareholders come to co-op and condo communities from rental units, asking the super to fix a faucet or hang a ceiling fan is the normal course of events. But, should the super, an employee of the corporation or association, perform this work for individual owners? In particular during working hours?
“No,” says Wollman. “The ethical part is that his or her salary is paid by the corporation or association at large, and [in doing a separate job for an individual resident], he or she is working for a resident on building time and getting paid for it. It’s double dipping. I’m not an advocate of this, but of course in the real world it happens. Also, doing extra, off-the-book work presents liability issues. What if the super falls off a ladder? There’s no insurance. Or what if the super fixes a sink, and it leaks into someone else’s apartment? There are just too many insurance issues. Our staff guys are not always trained for the specific work needed, and if they do things outside their skill set, that can become a problem.”
According to Abel, “Unit maintenance can be offered, if it’s properly managed via a work order system by providing a basic menu of approved maintenance tasks available to residents for a fixed fee or hourly rate. This type of service is a tangible benefit to the community as many ‘repeat’ projects are often similar in nature for a particular building. It is made clear to both staff and residents that ‘private’ work is not allowed, and is a basis for termination. It’s advantageous to use in-house staff for these projects as they can provide service more efficiently with less cost and disruption to the community. Outside vendors may not be familiar with the building, require vetting of insurance, interrupt normal operations of maintenance and management staff, and are more costly.”
As the industry continues to mature and larger and more complex communities evolve, Abel says, “there will be an increasing demand for various types of certifications such as Certified Facility Manager (CFM), Facility Management Professional (FMP), and Sustainability Facility Professional (SFP), among others.”
“Many national firms do training in house,” explains Wolfe. “In New York City, 32BJ, the building employees union, offers courses. And they are terrific. Some buildings do require the super to take courses. If someone is struggling regardless of whether it’s English [language] or plumbing, they should go take training, and they should want to go for their own sake.”
“Continuing education is important and is an imperative because the industry is changing,” says Wollman. “We are using electronic systems to operate buildings now. [Supers and resident managers] need knowledge of that today and must be willing to continue to learn. We are modernizing every day. Supers must be up to date on the latest technology.”
In the final analysis, the super or building engineer is the keystone of good building operations. He or she needs to be well trained and well suited to the job, and the expectations—and limitations—of the role should be made clear and consistent.
A J Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter for CooperatorNews, and a published novelist. He may be reached at email@example.com.