Sometimes, living in one of those enormous, labyrinthine co-op or condo buildings can make a resident feel like one among the many, indistinguishable from any other. While many people prefer the anonymity of a large building, others seek smaller, cozier living arrangements. And that’s where ultra-small co-op and condo communities—buildings with fewer than 10 units—come into play, providing an environment where everyone knows everybody else and where nearly everyone has a say in how the building community is run.
When it comes to managing and living in these buildings, their operations are similar but also different from their larger counterparts. For the most part, the closeness can be a good thing for all involved, and the best of these buildings benefit from a prevailing “all hands on deck” philosophy, says Jeff Friedman of the Manhattan-based management firm Vintage Real Estate. “The biggest challenge is to make sure everyone is involved,” says Friedman. “Things go a lot smoother when everyone takes part. When you have some [residents] that don’t want to be involved, yet raise their hand and want to discuss it after a decision has been made, that’s when things can get difficult.”
Often that involvement manifests itself in board positions. Anita Sapirman of Saparn Realty in Manhattan has managed small buildings where five of the seven owners were board members—and that level of involvement proved a good recipe for harmonious co-existence. “The more involved, the better,” Sapirman says. “The more they have control and know what’s going on, the better.”
On the other hand, smaller buildings also can suffer from a lack of participation where residents lack the time or the inclination—or both—to take part in the operations and management of their homestead.
Buildings under 20 units, “[are] always hard pressed to get a board,” says Anton Cirulli, the managing director at Lawrence Properties in Manhattan. “Usually, it’s only one person who’s interested” and who ends up doing the majority of the work.
With the right manager, however, small buildings can overcome this form of apathy and also flourish in an environment flush with eager participants. It’s all a matter of working with what’s there.
Managing Situations, Big & Small
For most small buildings, the question of self-management vs. professional management will arise at one point or another. Does a small building dependent on volunteers decide to handle the daily intricacies of management on their own, or is it better to turn to seasoned professionals? In many cases, says Cirulli, the answer is both. Many small communities choose to handle things, like board meetings for example, themselves, while turning to larger firms to handle their back office work—the collection of maintenance charges, bill paying, proper filings for compliance, and so forth. “They can split up the service and have someone do it for them for a few thousand dollars a year,” Cirulli says.
For other buildings, though, especially if perhaps there are lower levels of participation and board members are hard-pressed to do much more than attend their monthly meetings, the idea of a professional management firm is an appealing one.
Often, they’ll turn to the smaller “mom-and-pop” management companies that make their living specializing in pint-sized residential properties. “They generally have two or three people working there and have virtually no overhead,” Cirulli says. This allows them to handle the smaller buildings and still make a profit.
Sometimes, though, residents will turn to the larger firms, although minimum fee structures at the bigger companies can often pose a challenge. Many firms, too, are reluctant to take on smaller properties for simple reasons of time management. Looking after 15 small buildings and attending 15 board meetings a month and being on call to take care of 15 boiler leaks can take a lot of time—more time than serving the needs of four larger buildings. In many cases, a larger firm will represent mini-properties only if they already have an established relationship with them, or if the property is located adjacent to other properties the firm already manages.
It’s important, Sapirman says, to establish a good relationship early on and to understand each other’s needs. “You can only put a limited amount of time into a building,” she says. “You have to set up boundaries from the very beginning.” And a little creative problem solving can help as well, such as holding the annual board meeting in the management office rather than at the building, or limiting the number of meetings each year. By being creative and flexible, relationships between management companies and smaller co-ops and condos can definitely work and flourish.
Once a building is added to the portfolio, however, it’s business as usual. The building is handled by regular managing agents—there usually are no agents in a large firm who specialize in small buildings or parts of the company that cater only to petite properties. These buildings are simply added to the existing portfolios of managers who are already working in those neighborhoods. And often the relationship between manager and building is more hands-off—fewer people sometimes means fewer problems. “We don’t go there as much as we would a 50-unit building,” Friedman says. “The need is just not as great as in a larger building.”
Fewer residents may mean that more communication and business can be conducted via technology as well. “The more communication that takes place with e-mail, the less everyone needs to meet,” Sapirman says. These days, meeting agendas and minutes, even financials, can be put online for board members and management to access and discuss. “As long as you have really good communication between board and manager, you’re okay.”
When it comes to the daily physical needs of a building, having a capable and available superintendent is a must. But, small buildings don’t generally have a full-time staff. In many cases, says Cirulli, small buildings can call upon a janitor or maintenance person from a bigger building nearby. “They’ll be on call and can get over there to flip a switch or take care of the little things, like doing the mopping or checking the boiler.”
Or the management firm might use a service company to help care for a smaller building, one that can serve in place of a super. When unexpected emergencies arise, though—a boiler goes out or there’s a plumbing issue—building residents usually will turn to hired hands, bringing in their own plumbers and electricians to make repairs that a super cannot handle or is not available to handle. It helps, too, when retired or work-at-home residents volunteer to open doors and let work crews in during the day so repairs can be made and problems fixed.
Communication Makes All the Difference
When individuals and families are living in such close quarters and in such small numbers, the natural question to ask is: how does everyone get along? For the most part, Sapirman says, “they usually get along really well.”
Friedman agrees. “When you’re in a small community, you do have to face each other,” he says. “The majority rules, which is what cooperative living is all about. You almost can’t let disagreements continue, because these are people you see every day—not one of 100 families you might see.”
And looking at things strictly by the numbers, “There’s more chance for bickering board members in a large building,” Friedman says. “You have a larger audience in a large building, where people can try to win over the population. You can’t do that when all seven owners are on the board. Unless you just have two people who are going to be at odds, you’re okay.”
It helps that with small buildings, most everyone is involved in interviewing potential buyers so folks interested in the building can get a feel for the personalities involved and vice versa. And for most buyers, moving into a small building is a conscious choice, indicating a desire to be part of a community.
“When you buy into a small building, it’s because you want to have a hand and be involved vs. being one of 150 people,” Friedman says. “You’re almost volunteering to be on the board and participate.”
But sometimes things still can go wrong. As with any building, disagreements may arise, especially with things like noise. “In older buildings, noise management can be an issue,” Sapirman says. Extra carpeting and padding can do the trick—even adding an extra yoga mat to the floor if someone with a downstairs neighbor is working out—and ensure that everyone is mindful of the impact they are making on those around them.
From time to time, though, things get too far to salvage. But in most smaller buildings, if things do go irretrievably south, people tend to solve their own problems through one very simple solution. “I’ve found that they sell,” says Sapirman. “People don’t want to be there if they’re not going to get along with their neighbors.”
As with any community, small buildings will face their fair share of trouble from time to time. But with the right friends and neighbors working together to build a home and a community, it’s almost always worth the effort.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer, teacher and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.