As nearly completed $45 million apartment building in the Ashmont section of Dorchester was being gutted by a six-alarm blaze on a summer afternoon last year, the heavy smoke billowed into a neighboring building, setting off smoke alarms straight through the night.
Tenants called the building’s management company to report the problem, but the company told them there was little they could do. Shutting off the smoke alarm system would have violated safety codes and endangered the building.
“We had to tell them we couldn’t disable them,” said Nadine Fallon, partner and broker at Dorchester-based Great Spaces ERA. “We told them to close their windows.”
While it wasn’t what the tenants wanted to hear, it was a prompt response to a difficult situation — something that not every property management company provides. And in those instances, life can quickly get frustrating for residents.
A quick search on review sites like Yelp yields scathing reviews of some property management companies, accused of everything from not making repairs to ignoring mice infestations to refusing to return security deposits.
Property managers are meant to be a convenient go-between for property owners (signing leases, fielding maintenance calls) and for residents (doing repairs and handling emergencies). The industry has grown steadily over the past decade, but it does not require a state real estate license.
There are, however, state and local guidelines to protect residents from poor living conditions and lease violations. So how do you know whether the company managing your building is bad, and if it is, what can you do about it? The first thing to determine is whether the management company is responsive.
“Residents should always get a response like, ‘Hey, we know you have this issue,’ ” Fallon said. “Stuff like cracked tiles and common areas that need cleaning, that should be done within the same business week [of the complaint]. Carpet replacement or painting, that will take longer. It kind of depends on what it is. But what you should always have is open communication.”
At the same time, it’s important for tenants to recognize that management companies are attending to many issues daily. Tenants need to be patient on non-urgent matters.
“Give them a week [to respond]. You should always hear from the management company on what the timeline is and when you should anticipate getting it fixed,” Fallon said. “Everybody wants to be acknowledged and know that it’s being worked on.”
And there should always be a way to reach someone to address emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said. Urgent repairs must be done right away.
“An answering machine on the weekends will be of no help to you when you have no hot water or heat at 2 o’clock in the morning,” said William “Buddy” Christopher Jr., commissioner of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department. “The lobby needs to have a 24-hour number posted.”
His department has seen every level of violation, from bikes blocking exits to disabled tenants given buckets as toilets as they waited for bathroom repairs. In Boston, emergency numbers that are not staffed by a person around the clock constitute a housing violation and warrant a fine, Christopher said.
Residents should reach out to inspectional services any time property management does not respond to an emergency, such as broken windows or loss of power, or to report unaddressed health and safety violations, such as pest infestations or broken stairs, he said.
“We take the position that the landlord is responsible — they have no problem taking rents — all we want from them is to provide a clean, safe environment for tenants to live in,” Christopher said. “We don’t get in the middle of the relationship between management and tenant. Our motive is about the sanitary code and whether that’s being met.”
Some communities, including Boston, offer the 311 service number and apps that residents can use 24/7 to report a number of issues.
Boston also provides a checklist for tenants to reference (www.boston.gov/departments/inspectional-services/rental-inspection-checklist) of the most common apartment violations — from broken toilets to windows that won’t open without excessive force.
Inspectional services does not get involved with lease disputes, which belong in housing court. Tenants and property owners should be on top of any “financial weirdness” coming from property managers, said Fallon, of Great Spaces ERA.
“You should be able to call your property management company and get the status of your financial account at any time,” Fallon said “If you’re a condo association, you should be able to call and find out what’s in your reserve account and your operating account.”
In one headline-grabbing case out of Revere, the property management company in charge of a beachfront apartment building was accused of unresponsiveness and not returning security deposits, in violation of state law. In those instances, residents have the law on their side, as long as the tenants didn’t violate the conditions of their lease, including by damaging the property.
The state and Boston provide guides outlining tenants’ rights when it comes to payments and fees.
Property management companies “should not be messing with security deposits,” said Benjamin C. Virga, owner of Bridgestone Properties in Dorchester, which manages about 400 apartment and condo units in several Boston neighborhoods. “We pretend like we’re surgeons with that,” careful not to make mistakes. If a management company is taken to court over a security deposit violation, it could mean triple damages, he said. “That’s a huge red flag if they’re messing with that. If you take a landlord to court over a security deposit, you usually win.”
Tenants should carefully go over a lease before signing it, he said. And when dealing with property management on non-emergency issues, Virga recommends that tenants use e-mail or text messages so they can have a written record of how many times they contacted the company about an issue.
Virga said owners or condo associations shopping for a property management company should figure out what they need the company to do (services range from rent collection to repairs to snow plowing), whether they can afford the services they want, and whether the company is a good fit with a good reputation.
But property management is not one-sided — tenants also need to weigh the urgency and the timing of the issue they are calling about, Virga said. If, for instance, a tenant is calling about a ripped window screen while management is dealing with frozen pipe emergencies elsewhere, the renter should expect acknowledgment of the call, but not an immediate response.
On the other hand, there are residents who avoid contacting management until it’s too late, such as with water leaks, which could result in structural damage, he said.
Then there are the calls that just shouldn’t be made at all.
“My favorite call from a tenant ever to our answering service was that it was an urgent matter that her son had stolen her salmon out of her freezer,” Virga said. “We didn’t know what to do with that.”