Smoothing the way for condominium associations

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

pma1018After a time working with his brother as a landscaper, in the mid 1990s, Scott Michaud followed his passion and opened Property Management Associates in Shelburne.

Jennifer Larsen, the president of the Dalton Drive Neighborhood Association, has nothing but praise for Scott Michaud and his company, Property Management Associates in Shelburne. “He really supports us in a really great way,” Larsen says, “and helps us be a more effective board. I don’t know how he’s done this job for such a long time and maintained a terrific open mind and open attitude to new stuff that comes every day.”

Conflicts between property managers and condo homeowners and their associations can be brutal. It often takes a balancing act for a property management company to deal with the jobs it must perform without having somebody become angry.

“I think the biggest challenge that we deal with every day is trying to keep the customer somewhat happy — to keep them educated,” says Michaud. “We are the fall guy, kind of the unsung hero. The board tells us what to do. We take our marching orders from them. We tell people, ‘You didn’t pick up after your dog.’ They get upset with us and say, ‘The people three doors down didn’t.’ Or people call and say, ‘My unit has to be painted,’ then get pretty upset when we say that it’s on the schedule, and they’ll be in the rotation in three years.”

With all the conflict, though, Michaud believes he has found his passion.

The Colchester native says he always had “the business thing” in his blood from childhood, although his parents — his mother worked at IBM and his father sold candy for American Chicle Co.— were not entrepreneurs.

In 1988, following graduation from Champlain College with a degree in business and marketing, he went to work as a manager for Hertz Corp. in Burlington, and for a brief time in Austin, Texas, where he had friends and “wanted a change in scenery.”

Back in Vermont, he says, “I decided to try my hand at doing other things.” “Other things” included running a convenience store in St. Albans called Prime Time Deli & Market for two to three years. In the mid 1990s, he joined his brother, Jay, at Witness Tree Landscaping in South Burlington.

“In the landscaping business,” he says, “is a choice to be behind a lawnmower or find something to do in my administration time — to be productive, to be in the office and make sure I had plenty to do. We were landscaping a condo association, so in administrative time, I decided to pick up a condo association here and there. I was kind of managing my own association as president, and I realized that was my passion.” He separated from Witness Tree to begin Property Management Associates in ’97.

Michaud’s workday starts at 6 a.m., ends about 8 p.m., and involves “a lot of email communications.” He and his staff, which includes five property managers, an administrative person, and an accountant, field emails and calls from homeowners on issues or concerns. “We have a maintenance staff we have to vend out — a couple of maintenance companies work only for us — so we dispatch them to get them working on their projects. The office opens at 8 a.m., and at that point, it’s kind of a free-for-all. You never know who you’re going to get on the other end of the phone or what’s going to happen.”

Timely response is one of the things Myke Esposito appreciates about working with Michaud. A resident of Stonehedge in South Burlington, she had four floods in her basement within nine days last November due to various circumstances, she says. “They were right on it. Within hours, they had G.W. Savage come in and start draining water out, and from then on they worked with me and Savage to rectify the nightmare.”

Esposito describes Michaud as “very hands-on, productive, and involved. They follow through on everything, keep up to date when there are issues and problems, and communicate with the board very well. We let them know if we don’t like something, and they fix it or work with us. I’m very, very impressed with Scott and his team.”

Condo ownership demographics have changed in recent years, says Michaud. “Condo residents used to be single people or young couples or older couples. Now the economy is changing, and we see a lot of younger families in them who might have been in single-family homes.”

That shift has led to additional expectations such as requests for more parking and playgrounds, he says. “A lot of longtime residents say it’s noisy now, and it also seems that everyone has a dog, which wasn’t the case before.” Very few associations don’t allow pets, he adds.

“What I can tell you about Scott and his company is they are very quick to respond,” says Kathie Desautels, a Realtor with RE/MAX North Professionals, who has known Michaud for 17 years, since she entered the business. “And they are quick to respond, which is key because that helps us keep or put a transaction together. For example, he would go above and beyond to see if someone could have an extra cat, and the others wouldn’t even begin to do that for you.”

It’s possible, says Michaud, that changes in communication — for example, the advent of emails — has exacerbated the possibility of conflict. “In the beginning, things were conducted pretty much by phone. Now it’s a lot more by email. I think when folks start on email, it becomes more cumbersome. And people can appear more aggressive on email than person-to-person on a phone, because people might not understand context by email.”

Property Management Associates does a lot of email communications, as it prepares budgets, attends board meetings, lines up contractors and bids for work, supervises snow removal and landscaping, and pretty much covers the day-to-day operations of the association. This includes working with insurance claims in the case of fire or floods, for example, and enforcing the rules as prescribed by the board of directors.

Helping to educate homeowners is a big part of the job, Michaud says. Every association has governing documents, and it’s important for the homeowners to know what they’re buying into. “Those are the sacrifices for living in a condo — there’s pros and cons.”

Mowing in summer and plowing in winter are particularly stressful times for both homeowner and property manager, he says. For example, there might be 4 inches of snow, but a lot more is predicted to be on the way, so the driveway might not have been plowed yet. “A lot of times, people will send an email and just let you have it, guns a-blazing, saying you’re this, you’re that.” But, according to condo rules, he continues, “In the wintertime, they’ve got about a five-hour opportunity to plow the driveway; in the summertime they’ve got a five-day opportunity to mow the lawn. It takes time,” says Michaud.

Finding people to do those jobs has become a real challenge. Property Management Associates subcontracts landscapers and encourages boards with long-term relationships to stick with the ones they have.

“We’re in a really tough market right now getting laborers,” says Michaud. “Landscapers who have been on the job for 10 years are saying they can’t renew because they can’t get help.” This sends homeowners’ associations scurrying to find somebody to replace landscapers that close.

That means price increases, but even if workers are paid more, it’s no guarantee that they will stay on the job, says Michaud. “A lot of people are trying to find people. They try Craigslist. I was at the farmers’ market in Burlington and saw someone walking around with a sandwich board saying, ‘Bus Drivers $26 an hour.’ It really drives it home — how hard it is — if people are walking around the farmers’ market. And it’s painters, laborers, maintenance workers. If they have 10 people, they bid on work for 10 people, and if they only can get six, they’re very far behind.”

Roofers are particularly hard to find, he says. “I never realized how badly it affects us. We get a lot of concerns — flash complaints — about the timing of the projects. This year is really bad. Here we are in September, and we haven’t got the painting done. Because what can you say to the contractor: ‘You’ve gotta work 26 hours a day’?”

All this attention pays off, says Desautels. “I totally believe you can tell a condominium development managed by him just by driving into the complex. His are pristine, and he manages them well. Everything is done properly. He has contracts with all these contractors and he’s very demanding of them. He wants them to be the best they can be, and that keeps property values up.

As far as having a weekend, Michaud says he uses them to “dial down,” while keeping up on emails. He does like to putter around the house and is a confessed “car fanatic.”

Asked where he’d like to go from here, he says he might eventually try real estate. “Who better than somebody who really knows condos and the financial stability of the associations?” •