As the condominium revolution sweeps across urban America, an increasing number of people are having to take on the responsibility for their own apartment buildings and planned communities.
To help them, a new breed of real estate manager has emerged. It is a profession so young that it has not set up standards, certification means or a trade association.
An estimated 100,000 Washington area residents live under some form of homeowner association umbrella. And as many as half of all Americans may live under such arrangements before the end of the 1980s.
While the majority of Americans still seem to want to live in detached houses, more and more urban residents are moving into condominium apartments and town houses. In addition to the units they live in, buyers share common areas, recreation facilities and the cost of services - from snow removal and grass cutting to trash removal.
In most cases, the owners elect officers and boards of directors to handle association business. But as in many forms of self-government there are problems, including the non-uncommon hassle of trying to get developers to fulfill promises.
In Northern Virginia, for instance, complaints from condo owners about problems in their buildings have become more than the state's real estate commission can handle, a spokesman said.
Increasingly, larger condominium associations have begun to contract with management firms and individuals to administer their business affairs.
Arthur Hiban, director of community management for Shannon & Luchs, compares the community association's elected officers and directors to the traditional town council and the role of the management professional (or firm, in most cases) to that of the paid town manager.
James Dowden, executive of the independent, non-profit Community Associations Institute here, commented: "It's more like managing a small town than managing property. Rental managers are basically concerned with the property and satisfying the landlord who pays the bills."
Dowden said that the association management specialists tned to fall into three groups."A few are old-line rental management firms that try to handle ownership associations in the same way as rental properties," he said. "Others are old-line rental management firms that set up separate divisions for association management. There are also firms created to specialize management. There are also and homeowners association management and consulting."
David B. Wolfe, a pioneer in the latter category, has been a specialist and consultant for eight years. As president of the Reston-based Community Management Corp., he has been working with condominium developers and community associations to help them solve their disparate problems. He is completing a book, "Condominium and Homeowner Associations That Work: On Plan and in Action." It will be published later this summer by the Urban Land Institute.
Wolfe, who estimates that there are at least 350 community associations and 650 homeowner associations operating in this area, said the former provide a broader range of services to owner-members. "They must be concered with central utilities, fire and casualty insurance, sewer backups - everything except the individual unit occupied by the owner," he said.
The homeowner associations are less complex, he said, because each owner of a town house or detached house in a planned unit development owns his or her own house and a small piece of ground around it. The owner also has a membership interest in a nonprofit corporation that owns certain property described as for "easement of use and enjoyment." That often means a community pool or a walking trail.
Monthly fees for homeowner associations start at about $20 or $30 and average $110 to $225 for community associations in luxury high-rises where utility fees are paid on a one-meter basis.
Garden apartment condo owners may pay $90 to $175, depending on whether utility fees are included. Some town house owners pay association fees ranging from $45 to $60. Services determine the level of fees. Management fees range from $6 to $10 per unit in a high-rise with lots of services.
Barbara Bielecki, who rented an apartment for 16 years in the 1,600-unit Parkfairfax complex, which is being remodeled and converted to condominium ownership, is a new member of a unit-owners' association there. She has purchaed a two-bedroom unit in the first section to be completed and heads an ad hor organization committee at Parkfairfax. The committee includes the residents overseeing recreation, safety, social, finances, legal documents, facilities and cultural affairs.
"Fortunately, I have the time to put into the job," she said. "Believe me, it's time-consuming, challenging and worthwhile. I have more of a stake in this place now and meet many more people.
She said that David Wolfe, as the consultant on management to the developer, acts as a link with Parkfairfax Improvement Associates, which is converting the complex.
"We've had problems but we seem to be working them out," she said.
Warren Brown, an investigator for the Virginia Real Estate Commission, said recently that there is a "myriad of things" that have upset purchasers at Parkfairfax, including dust and disruption during the renovation.
But Bette Holland, president of the Parkfairfax Citizens Association and still a rental tenant there, said she plans to buy her unit when it becomes available in the fourth village. She maintians that Wolfe and his management people have provided a means for tenants to have better communication with the developer.