By Erik Robinson, CMCA, AMS©2020 Community Associations Institute
YOU ONLY GET one chance to make a first impression. The old adage applies in personal and professional relationships and in community associations. We only have one opportunity to start out a relationship with a new owner on a positive note.
Imagine you're planning to move from a neighborhood without a community association to a new neighborhood that is governed by one.
Moving is already a stressful and expensive endeavor that can drag on for months and, when the right home is found, the process is loaded with escrow, real estate disclosures, and title documents. In addition, you also are provided the covenants, conditions, and restrictions as well as bylaws for your new association— documents that typically total more than 50 pages of very dry legalese that is difficult to interpret and understand.
After moving in, unpacking, and entering the nesting phase, things have finally started to settle down. Then you receive a compliance violation letter in the mail for parking in the street. Unknown to you, this is a violation of the CC&Rs, and you are one step away from being fined.
You call the number on the letter and talk to a board member or community association manager, who informs you about the rule as well as many others you didn't know about. The manager asks if you've read the CC&Rs and bylaws and, though you had every intention of doing so, had not been able to find the time with all the other issues that come with moving.
While this interaction was not necessarily negative (though it can easily end up that way), the manager and association missed an opportunity to provide a much more informative and welcoming experience, which may have led to a new owner feeling embraced, informed, and impressed.
Let's be honest: Becoming a member of a community association, especially if you've never lived in one before, can be daunting. There are many rules, regulations, architectural guidelines, application processes, fees, amenities, maintenance standards, and more that need to be understood by every member, regardless of the amount of time they have resided in the community.
Enter the welcome packet.
It's a vital tool to knock that first impression out of the park, cultivate positive feelings toward the community, and potentially get someone involved as a volunteer down the road. Variations of the welcome packet exist across the industry, and its contents really depend on the community, its features, and what the most important things a new owner should understand right off the bat.
Here are a few relatively standard items that should be included in your packet.
Welcome letter. This should act as a general greeting from an association representative. It typically contains vital information on contact information, assessment amounts, frequency and payment remittance instructions, and directs owners to any website.
Community rules and regulations. This document should bullet point the rules and regulations for the community for quick reading and digestion. It should not provide all the details, nuances, and potential consequences of violation. Instead, it should be a brief and broad overview, with an invitation to seek more details in the association's governing documents or to talk to an association representative about them. This section should include a note that if CC&Rs and bylaws were not provided during the real estate transaction, then the owner should request copies from the board or manager.
Board and committee makeup. A brief document illustrating the makeup of the board, its directors, as well as existing committees and their members can go a long way in making a new owner feel like the governing bodies of the community are transparent and open. Part of this document also should include who to contact in the event an owner is interested in getting involved.
Amenity information. Does your community have a club-house? Pool? Tennis courts? Gym? A document outlining the operational hours, reservation system(s), rules, and other pertinent info needs to be included. This helps new owners immediately understand what a large portion of their assessment funds and how to utilize those amenities.
Owner contact sheet. This document is vital for collecting contact information so the association can communicate with new owners. The association should urge owners to fill it out and return it promptly. Many associations now have electronic communication policies, and compiling reliable email addresses from contact sheets for your association members makes getting information out much easier.
Hopefully, the elements in the list make a good first impression, but there's more a community can do to go from good to great.
Crosswater Owners' Association in Sunriver, Ore., established a hospitality committee after one member moved in and didn't find the community or management to be very friendly.
“When we bought and built our home, we didn't feel like Crosswater was a very welcoming community. It was all about collecting money and following rules. It was a bad experience," says Gene Krueger, an owner. “Once we got to know people in the community, our feelings did an about-face, and we realized that the people were welcoming, friendly, and hospitable."
Crosswater didn't want any other new owner to feel the same way upon moving in, so the board appointed Gene as chair of a new hospitality committee. The association provided a budget and general goals, and the committee has since welcomed many new owners with a personalized letter, bottle of wine, local foods, and gift cards to local small businesses—in addition to the welcome packet sent by management.
The committee also schedules quarterly mingle events for new and existing members at the clubhouse and helps plan the annual owners' barbecue.
“The feedback from the new owners regarding the welcoming packets, as well as written and verbal interaction, has been no less than phenomenal," says Krueger. “Expressions of thanks for the welcoming baskets and the discounts and goodies included have been met with great acceptance and appreciation. One of our new owners even gave a testimony at the annual meeting stating their appreciation for the positive and welcoming outreach they received after purchasing their lot in Crosswater."
Taking these simple steps will ensure new owners feel like they've made the right choice and are part of a friendly community.
So, now you've developed a comprehensive welcome packet for new owners and possibly recruited some volunteers to form a committee to further the neighborly spirit. What else can be done to ensure a new owner understands everything happening in the community? How can you provide more useful information without bogging down owners in lengthy email correspondence or a spirited game of phone tag?
A series of FAQs can assist here and likely isn't difficult to produce for an association board or manager. Your FAQs should fill in the information gaps and offer a few more details. Some examples include:
■ When and where are board meetings held?
■ How are the documents enforced?
■ Does the community have security?
■ Who are the utility providers?
■ When is garbage and recycling pickup?
■ What do my association assessments pay for?
■ What is a reserve study?
■ What are my maintenance responsibilities as an owner?
■ What are my insurance responsibilities as an owner?
■ What are the criteria for snow removal/landscaping/irrigation?
■ What are the rental policies?
Think about the kind of information a new owner needs to be informed, engaged, and responsible.
If your community isn't taking these steps or others like them, it's time.
Documents for the welcome packet likely already exist. Volunteering on a hospitality or welcoming committee would be a lot more fun than serving on something like an architectural review committee, so it shouldn't be too hard to garner interest. And, if you have experienced volunteers or a manager who has been working in a community for even just a short length of time, developing FAQs also should come easily.
Taking these simple steps will ensure new owners feel less stressed about having to read recorded governing documents. They'll also feel like they've made the right choice and are part of a friendly community, not a rigid, rules- and assessments-focused machine.
Erik Robinson is a senior community manager with Aperion Management Group, AAMC, in central Oregon. firstname.lastname@example.org
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