Moving Into a New Community Without Ever Leaving Your Unit

An interesting article in today’s New York Times outlined the rising popularity of social networking sites designed for residential buildings — and the article makes a good case for building-exclusive online communities.

Since March, more than 335 buildings have signed up for the Brooklyn-based LifeAt.com service for the $6,000 start fee, according to the Times. Since, as of now, LifeAt doesn’t charge an annual fee, that isn’t a bad investment for a building to make, considering the potential payoff with owners.

Who could benefit from a social networking site? A number of residential buildings:

  • Small Buildings. Condos with just a few units — for example, my hometown, Chicago, is ripe with two- and three-flats that have anywhere from two to six units — often bypass hiring a management company. The residents instead form a condo board, setting up point persons for collecting fees, handling repairs and more.

The only problem? When your building has six residents, things may feel a little too close for comfort.

A couple I know lives in a small building and had to twice deal with personally confronting residents about unpaid assessments (awkward) and deal with a faulty accusation that funds had been mismanaged (even more awkward).

Imagine how easily both situations could have been avoided if the building had set up a community Web site, listing expenditures and sending out e-mail notifications about late payments from an official association address?

  • Buildings looking to protect the board’s time and streamline processes. Some condos won’t give out their board members’ phone numbers or e-mails — and with good reason. Owners have a number of reasons to contact board members: to submit complaints (isn’t it easier to call a neighbor who you know is on the board than to look up the formal submission method?); to check on the status of the board approving or not approving requested renovations; even for something as simple as asking for building-related forms. 

However, getting residents to sign up to be on the board can be a difficult task if it means being hounded by owners. Most of the time, the matters in question will likely be things that need to be voted on by the entire board or part of the board anyway — subverting the proper channels is just a waste of everybody’s time.

An online community would allow residents to offer suggestions for the building, submit official complaints, ask questions and more — contacting each other and the board via a simple, organized format.

It also would provide an easy way for the board to track such input and would remove any personal responsibility busy board members may feel to respond to requests.

  • Buildings looking to provide full disclosure. Hand a new resident a four-inch thick packet of condo bylaws, rules and regulations and you’re almost guaranteed to be in for some confusion later. Yes, you’ve done your due diligence by providing the rules; but wouldn’t every condo association board and apartment management company like to see fewer rules broken?

Posting guidelines in an easily accessed, public place like a community Web site not only offers unit owners and renters the chance to frequently check them but also gives residents a forum to ask questions about the rules to clear up any misunderstandings or misinterpretations before they happen.

Residential social networking sites aren’t the perfect solution for every building — as the article noted, it would seem to make more sense in large cities, and selling ads to local vendors, which often don’t advertise online, could be tricky.

However, it would seem that some advertisers — like contractors, cleaning services and real estate agents — could greatly benefit from reaching a condo or apartment building’s small, localized audience. A building-owned Web site provides a targeted advertising opportunity a local paper couldn’t.

Will condo sites be the next MySpace? It’s to hard to say — but it could make everything from borrowing a cup of sugar to finding a plumber a lot easier for residents.