It has been nearly half a year that most routine maintenance at multifamily properties have been on hold. While it is understandable that companies focused on doing as little non-emergency maintenance as possible in order to minimize potential exposure to Covid-19, I believe It’s now time to move beyond the emergency-only maintenance paradigm, while still keeping everyone safe.

Before this pandemic hit, could you have ever imagined doing no maintenance on your property for six months?  Let’s look at a few current issues that are creating this recipe for a potential disaster:

  • Your buildings are being used more.
    Even though most Shelter in Place orders have been lifted, authorities have strongly encouraged people to stay home.  And companies are encouraging their staff to keep working from home when possible.  The firm my daughter works for has told her she does not have to return to the office until July, 2021!  This means more wear and tear on your units and infrastructure.
  • You have stopped doing non-emergency maintenance.
    Doors get stuck, faucets start dripping, closet doors fall off the track.  In some cases, this has gone on for over 5 months.  You don’t want your residents to leave because every day they come home to some little annoyance that you are either unaware of (because you told them to report emergencies only), or because you have a policy of deferring all non-emergency items.
  • Your residents have stopped reporting problems.
    You told your residents to only report emergencies and that you were no longer doing routine maintenance in their apartments.  Now, you don’t even know what’s going on at your building.  Potential habitability problems are happening – and you’re not even aware of it.  You are still responsible for the warranty of habitability.

And to make matters worse, your maintenance staff are probably happy to avoid going into people’s homes (after viewing enough scary material on the news).

Do you see a potential problem in the making?  How to you deal with this?

It’s time to move back to a more pro-active maintenance plan.  Let’s discuss how.

Strengthen Your Communication and Use Mobile Tools:

You need to strengthen your communication both between staff and residents – and between your office and maintenance teams.  You want to know what problems exist in advance, in order to make a plan to take care of your resident requests while spending as little time in the unit as possible.

Now, it doesn’t matter if your maintenance requisitions come in via an online portal, in writing via an email, or whether it is over the phone.  In all cases, the first task is to determine the scope of the problem prior to visiting the unit.  In the past, we’d just send a maintenance person to evaluate.  Now, you should request photos, or do a video walkthrough of the problem with the resident.  The goal is to know as much about the issue as possible so the maintenance tech has the right tools and equipment to fix it and get the task completed in one visit.

Make sure you communicate your policies re:  non-emergency maintenance.  Since you’ve likely adjusted policies from what they were before (‘we’re now batching all non-emergency items’, etc.), let your residents know your plan.  It is better to over-communicate with your residents these days.

Lay out your plan to address non-emergency repairs.  This might include the priority of repairs for various categories.  When prioritizing, keep the bigger picture in mind.  For example, a leak, although small, could create expensive damage.

You might order the priorities as follows:

  • Important non-emergency items (leaking faucets, minor electrical issues, appliance repairs, etc.)
  • Non-emergency items that annoy residents (squeaky or sticking doors, closet doors off the track, etc.)
  • Cosmetic items (paint touch up, etc.)

Send out a notice to residents explaining your goal to keep their homes properly maintained, and the dangers of not doing it.  Remember, your goal is to prevent potential move-outs by eliminating annoyances that your residents have been experiencing, perhaps for several months at this point in time.

Communicate multiple times – through emails, via signage, and individually.  Overcommunicating is critical at this time.

Have a ‘Social Distancing’ plan for repairs

Equip your staff with proper gear, including gloves, a mask, face shield or protective eyewear, booties to cover shoes, anti-bacterial wipes, etc.  And make sure you’ve trained your staff on the proper protocols.  You want both your maintenance technicians and your residents to feel safe.

Prior to entering:

  • Have residents confirm no one is sick, etc.
  • Ask your residents if you can open windows, etc. for air
  • Ask your residents if they can take a walk or not be in the apartment during work. If they insist on being there, ask them to go to another room while the technician works on repairing the problem.

Remember:  your goal is to best provide services to your residents while keeping them and your workers safe.

For those residents that still do not want someone coming into their home, you can utilize technology to participate in the process.  You can have the resident show you the problem by photographing it or videoing it on their phone.  You might be able to either walk them through the repair and/or provide parts to their unit.

Some companies have either filmed their own videos or found ones on YouTube that show residents how to do the repairs themselves step-by-step.  You can also have your technician walk residents through how to do the repair via a phone call or zoom call.

Perform a Touch of Theater

Understand that many individuals are still in panic mode.  People are wary of what they touch and of having outsiders in their home.  Let your residents know your procedures, which include washing hands before entering, etc.

This is the time to communicate.

  • That it’s safe
  • How we prioritize

But understand that perception is reality.  How your maintenance team dresses is important.   Just as doctors wearing lab coats get more respect and higher compliance, your residents will feel better if your maintenance team dresses the part and throws a little theater into their actions.

I’ve even heard of some people using a ‘bleach smelling’ product when they do their final cleaning, just so residents feel better.

Incent Your Maintenance Team

Look, if people can avoid going back into residents units, most will.  I’m sure your maintenance team is more than happy to do exterior painting and landscape maintenance.

However, just as some workers in supermarkets and other essential services received the equivalent of ‘combat pay’ (extra hourly pay on top of their standard salary or a bonus), your maintenance staff deserve this too.

Give them the training, and the facts.  Teach them best practices.  And reward them for keeping your building up to a higher standard, and helping you maintain your occupancy levels.

Moving Beyond Emergency Services

While most multifamily maintenance teams have scaled back service to handle only emergencies, after nearly half a year, deferred maintenance is starting to show up.  In order to keep your residents happy, maintain high occupancy and preserve your community standards, it is now necessary to start working on issues before they become big problems.

Let your residents know that you are wanting to meet their needs and over-communicate to them why this is for their benefit.  But also let them know that a lot of deferred maintenance items have built up over the months and that will require both patience and cooperation to get everything done.

Establish lines of communication with your residents.  Let them know that you may need to ask more detailed questions than usual, at this point, so that you can minimize the amount of time needed for the maintenance tech to be in their apartment.  Communicate your social distancing expectations and reinforce the high standards you have for their protection.

Keep expectations reasonable by letting them know we are still working under Covid-19 restrictions but are doing everything possible to enhance the quality of their apartments and the community overall. You don’t want to lose people because they decide it is easier to move to the new apartment with no issues than to keep looking at their broken, non-emergency items, every day.  And, perhaps, you’ll be the recipient of fresh applicants from other buildings whose owners are not at pro-active as you.