A professional management company can be the answer to many condominium problems. If enough owners don't have or won't give the necessary time to keep a building in good condition, it may be the only way to prevent a devaluation of your investment.

Most companies offer a range of services: financial, maintenance, advisory, supervisory. A plan can be designed to fit to the exact needs of your condominium.

A management company is not for every condominium. The service could be too expensive for the owners in a small building, saying one with fewer than 25 units. And the company could have trouble turning a profit. In a building with more than 150 units, a management firm is almost a necessity. But for a complex of 25 to 150 units, it can be a helpful option.

Exercising that option can free unit owners and the condominium association from day-to-day operating problems: condominium fee collection, bill paying, maintenance, etc.

Before looking for a management company, the condominium association should prepare a list of the services it will want the company to provide . Many associations have made the mistake of asking for bids without specifying the desired services. Then there is no basis for comparison of the bids.

Several companies should be asked to make bids. The monthly cost per unit usually ranges from $6 to $40, depending upon the services required. But prices can vary sharply from campany to company so it pays to shop around.

Although the management fee is an added expense, the condominium fee may not have to go up because some other expenses will go down.

Cheapest, however, may not be best. A good recommendation from another association is important. So is having bonded workers. Most companies do - but check and be sure.

The closeness or availability of an agent is also a factor. Where the main office is located is of less importance, however, than the ability to quickly respond to a problem.

A management firm will ask for a contract with the association for one or more years. A long contract - three years for example - can protect owners from yearly price hikes. However, it can also tie them to a company with which they are not entirely satisfied.

The most commonly requested service is general maintenance. If the company doesn't have an agent on the premises, one will visit the complex regularly - usually two or three times a week.

Maintenance services generally include: routine cleaning such as trash pickup and light bulb replacement, checking common areas regularly, keeping a set of keys to all units for emergencies, checking for damage after a storm, and supervision of subcontractors.

Special services can also be added to tailor the plan to the special needs of your association.

If any serious problems develop, the maintenance agent will arrange to have them fixed. He will handle calling plumbers, electricians, the telephone or power company, etc., for problems affecting the complex itself.

Usually the agent will not do other than minor repairs. Nor will he arrange for internal repairs to individual units in most cases.

If the repair or inprovement is a big job, the company will ask for bids. They will examine those bids and advise the board of directors. And when a final bid is chosen, they will supervise that subcontractor's work.

Swimming pools generally fall in this category. A pool maintenance firm is contracted separately, often with the help of the management company which supervises its work.

Some companies have an agent available by phone 24 hours a day for emergencies. Other companies only have an answering service which will try to reach a company agent if a problem arises. So this can be an important point to get clear.

Emergency service doesn't mean that a problem will necessarily be fixed in the middle of the night. But it does mean that the agent will take whatever immediate steps are necessary, and will contact the appropriate repair people and owners.

Some companies will send a representative to all board of directors meetings and general owners meetings. That agent can provide advice, answer questions, or take the minutes.

And some firms will take care of correspondence for the association. They will see that meeting notices are sent out at the proper times, handle mailing of newsletters (written by owners), and issue warnings of violations.

Collection of condominium fees is often a major problem for condominiums. Having a management company handle this doesn't necessarily mean the association will get paid any better, but it can help. One owner may find it hard to dun another owner who is a neighbor and perhaps a friend. A management company doesn't have that disadvantage. And it can even be empowered to automatically place liens against delinquent owners.

The company may also offer other financial services, suck as bookkeeping, receiving bills, and writing (authorized) checks. Some companies even prepare budgets and provide financial guidance to the association.

So there are a great many options which are available through a management company. Be sure your association knows enough about the service offered before a contract is signed.