March 2010 – A reader on the HOAleader.com discussion board asks a question about the online document access future of association governance: Are there property management companies that can allow online access to our association documents?
The short answer is yes. Many property management companies are creating online access to all kinds of association material to make it more available to owners. Here, management companies explain how they’re going paperless.
Management companies are going all out to migrate association documents online. Here are snapshots of what three companies are doing.
- The Continental Group—“Everything,” is Bill Worrall’s response to the question of what his company has put online. The vice president of The Continental Group, which is based in Hollywood, Fla., and manages 1,300 condominium and homeowner associations totaling 310,000 residential units, rattles off just some of the documents his company puts online for its association clients: “The governing documents are the first thing we put up,” says Worrall. “We also upload our management reports, building system documentation, community newsletters, financial statements, delinquency reports, applications for owners to rent their units, work orders, board and committee minutes, insurance documents, association contracts, violations, community inspections, architectural modification request forms, announcements, and news.”Does every owner have access to every one of those things? “We allow the board to make the policy on who has access to which documents, but no owners’ personal information is up there,” Worrall says. “The board can turn on and off access to any material, but most want everyone to have access to governing documents and most of the documents we have online.”Boards can also go online to approve invoices and electronically sign checks, and owners can track packages delivered to them, with that information password protected so that only the owner can access it.
Online access has allowed communities to not only go green, says Worrall, but it’s also saved them money. “With international owners, we were sending a lot of association documents overnight, and we’re saving money on those fees,” he explains. “We’re putting as much as we possibly can on the website, and we’re constantly upgrading to provide more.
“This online access is part of our management package,” adds Worrall. “We don’t charge for it.”
- Association Management Inc.—“Boards can get all their documents and see account balances online,” says David Regenbaum, founder, chairman, and CEO of Association Management Inc. in Houston, which manages 239 communities with about 62,000 units. “Ours is a password-protected site, and it includes everything from meeting minutes, financial statements, forms, architectural review applications, work order requests, and so on.” But Regenbaum wants to be sure online access to documents doesn’t end up pushing work back onto boards and owners.”We have to be careful we’re not making owners feel like it’s their responsibility to go online to get things,” he explains. “So we also created a resource center in our office four months ago. We developed 285 questions the average homeowner will ask, and we have them answered for every association. When homeowners call into our office, the person who answers can give them the answer to all those questions. There’s no voicemail and no call forwarding.”It’s all very well to use technology to assist in customer service,” adds Regenbaum, “but not with the point of view of making the customer do all the work.”
- RealManage—“We don’t provide paper packets to boards anymore,” says Jenny Key, Austin, Texas-based vice president of RealManage, a San Rafael, Calif., association management firm that oversees properties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Texas. “We have a tool called our board portal. It has all the association’s information on it for the board—governing documents, financial and delinquency information, resolutions, minutes, meeting notices, copies of contracts, bids, violation notices, certificates of insurance. “We also summarize deed or use restrictions and put them online. For instance, can I have four dogs? We’ve pulled those pieces of the documents out and put them online, so it’s easier to search than a legal document. We also add any legal opinion that’s been rendered, and we include a log of all our calls and emails that come in from residents.”We also have an online task list that’s a living list of action items that shows when an item is closed out because it’s been done or because the board decided not to do it. If I’m a new board member and want to learn what past boards have done, I can see what the board did five years ago as opposed to thumbing through pages in minutes books. New board member(s) can look at what’s been done over the past few years and say, ‘Oh, the board did bid out the landscape contract, and here are the bids.'”We started this online service in 2005 and 2006, so if we managed your association then, we have that many years online. For new clients, we upload minutes in from the past and sometimes other documents like legal opinions or maps—things we think we’ll need going forward. Anything we think we’re going to use, we put it online.”
RealManage also offers a resident portal, which allows homeowners to see the documents that have been sent to them personally. Both portals are password protected. Only board members have access to the board portal, and others have to get permission to use it. “Auditors can get access,” says Key. “Sometimes attorneys, sometimes a committee. Generally we advise against that for confidentiality reasons.
Both portals are included in the management fees the association pays to RealManage.
“We’ve tried very hard to be as paperless as possible,” says Key, “because it helps with the continuity of association management.”
Remember ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships”?
Though online access to documents can be very helpful for boards and homeowners, make sure whatever system you sign up for protects your association’s confidential information.
“The world’s going online,” says Robert DeNichilo, an attorney at Neuland & Whitney APC in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., who specializes in representing community associations. “It’s not a question of whether you can put documents online but what you’re putting online and to whom it’s available. Be very careful with financial records and minutes of meetings. You don’t want financial account numbers online.
“In addition,” adds DeNichilo, “there’s a privacy right in California, and the civil code requires that owners be identified by parcel number, not by name. If you’re putting minutes online, be careful about identifying a particular owner or holding someone in a false light because you could be exposing yourself to a tort. Also, association records should be available only to the membership, and executive session minutes shouldn’t be available online. They should be acces only to those who have a right to see them, which is the board.
“My thought is that documents online are great,” concludes DeNichilo. “but be careful about what you’re putting out there and who has access to it.”
Matt Humphrey is president of the Alameda, California-based HOAleader.com, from which this article was adapted.