Our old flat is part of a block of 16 flats, and I’m a director of the company that collects the service charges. The company is owned by 16 leaseholders, and spends the money on carpets, paintwork, locks, or whatever other maintenance needs doing on the building, about £13000 per year – small, easy stuff. So yes, I do 2-3 full days of work for “free” that means my flat becomes a nicer place to live. What other landlords do is none of my business, but they benefit from the time I put into the building too.
But I got a scary phone call last week – a tenant of a neighbouring flat had found his “furnished” place sporting a broken bed, worn-out mattress and no hot water. The landlord was not resident in this country, and the letting agent was pleading delays frequent delays to getting expenditure approved. In desperation (though they were exceedingly polite and lovely about a borderline illegal situation) they had called the number on the noticeboard to ask whether I could help.
I was horrified, and emailed the landlord, expressing extreme displeasure that a) I was dealing with his tenant on his behalf where his letting agent had clearly failed, and b) that he was running such a shameful letting operation. The young tenants had even expressed their belief that this was par for the course with landlords. I judged this landlord very hard, and got a barrage of criticism by return – I was “unprofessional” and should basically mind my own business. Yes I’ve got the corridors outside his flat repainted, locks and keys changed where they broke, paid builders & cleaners. He’d not visited the block in years, but I was the unprofessional one.
“Suck it up” is my attitude. My day job involves telling customers “no”, with almost-always polite reasons. I think it’s for the good of the whole block that somebody is looking out for the tenants and making sure nobody is living in actual misery. And doing the work on the block is easy stuff. But from reading around others’ experiences of property management, it seems no company is able to do it properly, professionally and profitably – it seems like one of those always slips, and this kind of unhappy tenant is par for the course.
The local firm that was used to run our block went into “retirement” when we decided to take over ourselves about a year ago. I’d had frequent run-ins with them over their competence and ethics, and I learned from another landlord in the block that this firm was even one of the better ones he’d dealt with. But because of the legal complications around leasehold, being appointing managing agent of a block company is an extremely secure financial position. It seems to take several large breaches of trust before shareholders in a block company would even meet up to talk about firing a bad agent. An incompetent company can keep themselves appointed by doing very little, just because nobody knows how to fire them, or even what being a shareholder in a block management company even means.
So in such a cynical climate I’m glad to run our old block for free, but see a business opportunity to redefine property management. Build a company that takes on a block, communicates with both landlords and tenants, collects money, fixes what’s broken – all the stuff you’d hope would be easy.
But a property manager need to educate, and enforce discipline wherever it’s needed, and isn’t afraid to tell its paying customers when they’re failing as human beings. Deference to paying customers and refusing to take on tenants’ concerns is the socially irresponsible status quo. Most landlords with one or two properties just don’t know what they’re getting themselves into and can legally maintain a good deal of apathy towards tenants. A good management company ought to educate landlords as they manage; on the law, the real condition of the block, and the effectiveness of their investment. A good property management company ought reassure landlords that their tenants are being listened to, and that harsh judgements (even contractual penalties) will follow to those that don’t pay their dues, and take reasonable care of their tenants. A good property management company like this would be able to charge securely for their services, and afford to reject slum blocks where landlords don’t want to pay to do things properly. Their presence would be a tangible sign of standards in an industry that is notorious for not having any.
While I’m tied up with the day job, if anyone is interested in starting the Smack-Down Block Management Company, help push out bad landlords and make a lot of money out of it, I’d love to help.