October 8, 2023

Is it time to re-evaluate your relationship with maintenance?

I’ve worked a lot of years in property management—first on high-rise condo buildings, and now on a variety of commercial properties we manage. As part of the Construction Management team at NAI Elliott, I manage all significant maintenance or repair projects. In an emergency, I may work like a triage nurse—fix what I can right now, come back to it later for a long-term solution—but the vast majority of my work deals with regular and predictable maintenance.

And I’ll tell you right now: Some property owners have a healthier relationship with maintenance than others.

One of the things I love in my job is seeing a building we manage that still looks new or great, 10 to 20 years down the road. This doesn’t happen by accident. The key is that relationship: Are you thoughtful and proactive with maintenance projects, or are you in avoidance or reaction mode, putting things off as long as possible to (try to) save a buck?

The dichotomy of building owners

I often encounter a dichotomy between best practices and owner wishes. Each owner has a personal philosophy about how to deal with a building. Some take a short-term view: Acquire it, tap into the revenue stream, spend as little as possible, sell it. Others look at a building as a long-term investment. Maybe they’re going to pass it on to the next generation of their family. At any rate, they’re looking at the big picture for the asset, and preventive maintenance is a major consideration.

We can change the minds of some “short-term view” owners, but certainly not all of them.

ULAs: the key factor in maintenance planning

In managing a building, we rely on Useful Life Analyses (ULAs) for all the major components that require maintenance: mechanical/electrical/plumbing, exterior paint and finishes, roofs, parking lots, interior spaces. The documents are pretty straightforward, but they contain all the key information: when a maintenance task was last done, how much it cost and, most importantly, when we expect that element to need more maintenance, repair or replacement.

We monitor a building’s ULAs constantly. When a system or space is nearing the end of its projected useful life, we start thinking about it and planning well before a failure occurs. We talk to the owner about a replacement timeline; sometimes it makes sense to really ramp up short-term maintenance on it right now, because it might extend the useful life.

Sometimes it’s just going to need replacing no matter what, so we need to add that cost to the next budget cycle. Sometimes it’s big enough that we should start putting money away in each annual budget cycle, or replace different components over several years, to avoid a huge outlay all in one year.

Other factors to consider in maintenance planning

A building is a complex thing to manage; there are so many considerations. Even the variety of factors that impact maintenance planning is dizzying. The surrounding environment, the architectural style, the foot and vehicle traffic levels—and the regular maintenance that has or hasn’t been done up to now has a huge impact. These are just the main things.

It’s our job to make sure the owner has critical information, such as current trends and pricing in the market for that maintenance element: Will it cost more next year? Are there options for materials and approach? Should we (and can we) phase this work over several years?

The pandemic and its related impacts had an undeniable effect on our work. We couldn’t depend on getting the materials we needed with any kind of predictable timing, and prices were either skyrocketing or fluctuating wildly. A constant question became, do we gamble by waiting a year for costs to come down? They might actually go up, or materials turnaround might be even longer.

And those impacts continue in the echoes of the pandemic. And, interestingly, considerations like the labor market or materials cost and availability don’t really change by geography or market—small towns and cities, different industries, all over the country, it’s been the same issues, costs and delays.

How to do maintenance right

OK, here comes the big finish: My recommendations on the best way to handle maintenance planning. I’ll break it down into five distinct pieces.

  • Listen to the opinions of experts. We’ve been doing this a long time, for a lot of buildings, and we work with a team of vendors who have deep experience in the specific work they do. Be an active participant in discussions and decisions, but don’t hover or micromanage. You’ve hired professionals to care for your property; if we tell you something needs to be addressed, trust that our information is reliable and well-intentioned.
  • Look at the ULAs with your property manager as part of your annual budget planning. As I mentioned before, you need to be ahead of the needs and costs. Include necessary maintenance in your budget.
  • Include a contingency line item in the budget, too. From the ULAs and your conversations with the property manager, you’ll “know what you know” about maintenance needs—but also plan for what you don’t know yet. If something unexpected comes up during the year and needs to be dealt with immediately, it’s reassuring to have some money in the budget to draw from.
  • Pay attention to the data and trends. This is part of what we present to owners, and it’s a team effort to gather all this information. We don’t just rely on the ULAs; we keep an eye on the building itself. Every time I visit a property I’m constantly assessing: How’s that parking lot surface, is the paint holding up, do any of the mechanical components look questionable? And it’s certainly not just me and the owner contributing. For example, I have more than 200 buildings I oversee, so I can’t physically be at every one of them every year. But our vendors are there regularly, and they’re the key to knowing what’s happening on the ground (or on the roof). You always want to have as many eyes as possible on the building, all reporting if they see something amiss.
  • Overall, find the sweet spot. Be ready to begin the cycle of replacement when you know it’s coming. Spread out the work and costs in a way that makes sense, whether it’s creating a hierarchy by need or price, or looking at the timing options.

I can’t really give you a formula for the cost of procrastination; too many variables. But I can tell you from experience that the decision to ignore or put off maintenance comes back to bite the owner far more often than not. You have a lot of money invested in a physical asset—let us as property managers help you protect it.

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