Published on: Mar 7, 2009
You’ve moved into your new apartment, bought the big TV, hung up the poster of a film you’ve never seen but always claimed to love and you’re ready to enjoy life in your new American-style condo. Then it goes wrong. The carpets aren’t being cleaned, alarms are going off for no reason in the middle of the night, there’s no CCTV like you were promised and those noisy neighbours across the hall have had their fourth 3am party but no-one is doing anything about it. You’re on first name terms with the managing agent’s answering machine and their receptionist is practising her ‘polite but firm’ routine and stonewalling you.
Unfortunately this is the way most people start their life in an apartment, especially one that’s still being built. You paid your service charge before you moved in, nothing was done all year and now they’re back asking for more money, threatening legal action and claiming there’s no money to do anything, not even empty the bins. Where did your money go and why did it suddenly go so horribly wrong. Clearly something needs to be done but you’re getting nowhere. If you try to fight them yourself, you’ll probably end up burned out and wanting to move. The old phrase is still true: there’s strength in numbers and it’s never as true as when you’re battling a developer for control of your apartment. Several owners shouting with one voice are more likely to make themselves heard and see results.
Your first step is to get lots of people together in a room so you can talk about your issues and let a committee emerge. In some cases, this might happen at your company AGM. Just by being there, you know you’re not the only one with a problem. In fact, lots of people probably have the same problems as you. This is an ideal hunting ground for your new recruits. If you can’t wait for an AGM (and there can be mysteriously delays with them…), this being Ireland, the alternative is to organise a night out in a nearby pub. You’ll probably already know some of your neighbours from bumping into them in the hallway or car park. If you’re lucky, someone will have set up a website like neighbours.ie so you can chat online. Either way, pick a date and a venue and drop flyers in through doors. It might be a lot of legwork but it’s the best way to get peoples attention. If you think there’ll be a good crowd, it might be worth asking the bar if they have a separate room they’ll give you for free. They might not appreciate an army of irate apartment owners turning up and taking over their bar uninvited.
Once you have your rent-a-crowd, it’s time to get started. There’ll be lots of complaining, lots of people asking the same questions, not listening to the answers and lots of anger. Your aim for the night should be to identify people who are willing to work and who are actually trying to solve the problems instead of just showing up for a rant. Don’t worry about finding the right people on the first night, some will stay, some won’t have the time, some won’t have the energy and new people will come along. All you need is a few good people to get started. Before the end of the night, get contact details for everyone you can and arrange a second meeting with your new committee.
At your next meeting, you should have a much smaller but much more focused group. Your first priority should be to decide what the problems are and what your goals are. Write down all the problems and give each of them a priority. Sure that piece of un-landscaped grass at the back is unsightly but it’s probably not as important as the gates that are broken or the walls that haven’t been painted. You might find it helpful to assign committee positions to people so they have an individual area of responsibility. This will give people more ownership of their tasks as well as making it easier to track progress.
One of your committee positions should be a single point of contact with your managing agent (Wyse, Fisher, ODPM, etc). Write them a letter telling them you’re on the residents committee and that you represent the following people. Give them a list of all the people who attended the first, rather raucous meeting. Tell them you’ll be the only person dealing with them in future. It might not be true but who are they to argue. Often they’ll feel less abused and less ganged-up on if one, level-headed person talks to them politely. If you’re agent responds well, try to set up regular meetings between your committee and them. Some agents will be happy to come out to meet you, others will insist you go to their office, sometimes even during office hours. If it isn’t practical, try to keep in touch using email or the phone. Even while you’re being polite, keep the pressure on. Don’t let them forget about you.
You will probably also need a single point of contact with the developer if they’re still doing work or snags in the estate. Give them the same letter you gave the managing agent so it shows you have some authority. Once you’ve drawn up your list of problems, send them to the developer and the managing agent. Try to separate them out so only relevant points are sent to each person. For example, don’t bother complaining to the agent that the walls aren’t painted – that’s a job for the developer no matter what excuses they came up with. Try to get both of them to give you an answer, in writing, indicating that they accept the problems are actually problems and when they plan on dealing with them. Keep a record of this so you can beat them with it later. Make sure to circulate any updates to all your committee and all the other owners.
Which leads me nicely to my next point: communication is key! Apartment owners often feel like mushrooms – kept in the dark and have **** poured all over them. Use as many forms of communication as possible to keep people up to date. There are several options. You can set up a website, use a forum like neighbours.ie or build up a mailing list of all the people you’ve met. Even in the 21st century, a newsletter is still the easiest way to contact everyone. Get some volunteers together to post it through everyones letter box, stick a few on the noticeboards or on doors so people know they’re not just junk mail. If you have the time, knock on doors and tell people who you are and what you’ve been doing. The more people you get on board, the more powerful your residents association will be. It will also make it easier to find people with the skills you need to get particular tasks done. You never know when an accountant, lawyer or tradesman will come in useful. In fact, almost everyone you find will have some skill that you’ll need at some stage. Don’t lose them!
By now you’re well on your way. It won’t happen quickly and it won’t all be plain sailing but you’ve taken a big first step towards improving your apartment and your home.
Once you’re up and running, here are some more tips:
* Schedule meetings on regular dates so people know when to expect them (for example, on the first Thursday of each month) but be flexible.
* Leave enough time between meetings so people can actually complete their work but don’t leave so long that they’ve forgotten or procrastinate because they have loads of time.
* Keep a list of all the actions that people volunteer for and bring it to all meetings. Circulate it after the meeting so no-one can claim it wasn’t their responsibility. Don’t just lump this in with the minutes – it’s a vital tool in your goal of getting things done.
* Always be open to new members, you never know who’ll be a great addition unless you let them join.