Electric vehicles in condominiums: Case Studies (Part 1)

Ratification: failed. I remember the board meeting, sometime mid-2019—before COVID—I was seated at the front table, where the meeting was about to begin, watching a group distribute mixed English- and Cantonese-language flyers opposing electric vehicles in our building. Something about danger—funny not just because the alternative is tanks of explosive gasoline under each car, but worse, the garage exhaust fan hadn’t worked for years, and the guy who’d allowed that to happen was handing out flyers. But those electric vehicles? Watch out.

We have three elevators in my building and our community is so stingy, they lived with two for years, and when that broke, one—nevermind the five-minute wait for an elevator, or packing cheek-to-jowl with 8 people every time the car came. Before the replacement, the community argued for months over who’d pay, the lower floors arguing vigorously for a reduced share of the cost, on the theory that “we only go up one floor, so shouldn’t have to pay the same as the top-floor people”. When we replace the hallway carpeting, I’ll be sure to bring my ruler, because I know the odds of getting payment are approximately zero unless it’s itemized in inches.

The real reason for flyers at the meeting? My board colleague Ryan was “stealing electricity”, plugging his Tesla into a common electrical circuit in the garage. With this crowd, that was not OK.

Ryan’s Tesla

I’d actually seen this coming. By Spring 2019, I’d seen a dozen or so EVs in our 400-space garage, and it was clear it was going to be a thing unless sensible policy was enacted. I gave it my best shot, writing up a policy, and soliciting feedback in two community meetings. We’d started with a dead-simple flat $25/month to charge, but after a community member pointed out that plug-in hybrids, also popular, would probably use less electricity, we added another tier at $15/month. Perfect? No, but with the controlling text written in English, implementation by a two-member Cantonese office staff already overworked managing 20 employees, 400 monthly invoices and another 100 bills, and a population of 800 whose first languages included Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, even Spanish, that was as close as we were going to get.

Citizens of Pawnee - YouTube
Parks and Rec, a show I gained newfound appreciation of, after 3 years of board service.

Not everyone saw it this way; the folks in the back wanted billing by the kilowatt-hour, and barring that, a complete ban on charging. Best-case, their demands were totally impractical—thousands of dollars installing proprietary chargers and Internet access in an underground garage, in addition to recurring fees for payment processing and management software, and yet another tool nobody knows how to use, all for the sake of properly billing $400/month. And the ban? Illegal under state law. Predictably, it’s been two years and the problem remains unsolved, Ryan still charging his Tesla, happily paying $25/month because that’s what he thought was fair, looking at his use.

Overview

This two-part series will explore how common-interest communities (the legal term for homeowner’s associations, or HOAs), especially condominiums, are facilitating the transition to electric vehicles. The first part documents how several associations handled the issue; the second is more analytical, going into detail on the questions a good policy should answer.

Researching this article, I surveyed representatives from 20 HOAs across six US states (CA, DC, NJ, IN, IL, WA). A key finding: it’s still really early. Though I sampled only 20 associations, I didn’t find a single charger installed in Illinois, New Jersey, or Indiana (9/2021). The only community I’d characterize as “having their act together” EV-wise was Bowdoin Place Condominiums (Seattle, WA), a 26-unit building whose size and layout made a straightforward “direct tap” possible.

Some things to keep in mind reading the case studies:

  1. Compliance. Is it legal? In California, where I live, state law prohibits EV bans and obligates boards to develop policy for charging.
  2. Billing. Direct utility billing is most convenient, but may not be possible in large buildings.
  3. Capital costs and ownership. Who owns and pays for the equipment? Let owners install their own chargers; associations should fund and retain ownership of electrical systems, especially considering major electrical upgrades may be required to accommodate charging.

Note: This is a practitioner’s account, reporting what worked for us as community members and elected policymakers. We are not attorneys and this is not legal advice.

Direct tap: Bowdoin Place Condominiums, Seattle, WA

Bowdoin Place is a two-building, 26-unit condominium development in the Fremont neighborhood (near the Troll) in Seattle, Washington. The building sits atop a small hill, with a concrete-walled ground-floor garage.

The electrical meters were in the garage, so when six unit owners wanted EV chargers, they ran six conduit lines across the garage, and split the costs.

https://i0.wp.com/dbabs16qyv5rp.cloudfront.net/1744523/1744523_24.jpg?w=750&ssl=1
Bowdoin Place Condominiums, Seattle

It doesn’t get much simpler than running a wire. “Each EV charger is installed in the owners units assigned parking space”, explained John Yu, an owner at Bowdoin Place. “The electricity is directly connected to that units meter. The installation was to 6 units based on the owners request for the installation.”

5 owners opted for the JuiceBox by enel-x; one preferred a charger from Tesla.

A brief aside on electrical billing

Never miss a chance to keep the association out of it.

Reddit, /r/hoa

I read that a couple years ago, it’s stuck with me. Using a “direct tap” from the utility meter keeps the association out of metering and billing. You really want to stay out of metering and billing.

My condo was built in 1976 with a single meter for each of gas, electricity, and water. At some point, the decision was made to install individual electrical meters for each unit (I believe this may have been due to regulation, but I couldn’t substantiate this), forcing my association to be a “submeter operator” (we re-meter and bill for electricity).

Submetering is awful. Every two months, by law:

  1. Our staff goes door-to-door, gathering 328 meter readings, along the way dealing with inconsistently-placed meters, multiple meter types (3/4/5 dials, different dial -> kWh factors), vacant units, and vision-impaired senior citizens who report incorrect readings
  2. Ensure recent calibration of meters, required by the California Public Utility Commission (PUC)
  3. Apply the right utility rate, which requires tracking enrollment in CARE and other programs, ensuring rate discounts are applied (e.g. to senior and low-income citizens) as applicable
  4. Ensure rebates such as the California Climate Credit, are credited to individual submeter customers in a compliant way (1/328? Based on use percentage?)
  5. Determine which taxes apply (e.g. Oakland Utility Users Tax), implement the correct calculation formulas and rates
  6. Journal all of it into the accounting system, ensuring taxing authorities are paid timely, often by check
  7. Issue resident invoices, and get ready for the inevitable complaints and billing disputes: “This is way too high” (it’s for two months), “I used only 18 kWh of electricity in three months” (no you didn’t), “I’m not paying this” (great)

With net metering (feeding energy back into the grid), time-of-use (different rates based on time of day), and even more taxes and assistance programs, it’s borderline impossible to stay compliant. You owe it to your association to steer clear of this.

Shared stations: Pacific Renaissance Plaza, Oakland, CA

Photo of Pacific Renaissance Plaza - Oakland, CA, United States
Pacific Renaissance Plaza, by Yelp user Chris I. January 20th, 2019

Pacific Renaissance Plaza is a mixed-use development in Oakland, California; residential towers and a street-accessible commercial area (mall), with three floors of underground parking.

The garage is divided into a deeded [1] portion used by residential owners, and a public pay-to-park garage available to the public, intended for owners, employees, and customers of commercial units. Four shared chargers are available in the commercial section on a first-come, first-served basis, though charging requires both paying the normal parking fees, as well as separate payment to ChargePoint. They don’t seem too popular; two of the four were inoperable when I visited, and according to management, residents who want to charge “would need to pull a token when they use the EV chargers in public parking, and pay for parking when charging is done”.

Pacific Renaissance garage, showing a ChargePoint CT4000. Taken by the author on September 15, 2021

Pacific Renaissance uses equipment from ChargePoint. The firm’s model is outright sale of chargers to businesses and real estate operators, who operate them using Chargepoint’s subscription software for billing and station management (an additional expense). This has the advantage of letting operators “choose their own adventure”: free charging (as a customer/employee perk), cost recovery, or a large, profitable operation with many chargers—it’s up to the operator.

Overall? Not impressed. One of my priorities at City Center (my community) was avoiding electrical mark-ups. It’s bad enough making people pay inflated rates for charging; forcing them to pay for charging, and then for the privilege of parking—in my own home, no less—is borderline insulting.

And then there’s the issue of regulation. Today, submetering rules (detailed above) don’t apply to EV charging, but given the California PUC‘s regulatory zeal, anything could happen, especially in homes (condos or apartments). I have a hard time imagining it being 2030 without wonderful new “regulatory innovations” such as rate caps, time-of-use requirements, or other measures. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors already mandated 10% of spaces have chargers in commercial lots over 100 spaces, due by January 1, 2023.

Those electric vehicles—watch out. I guess the people in my building didn’t see the signs on many garages here, noting that exhaust “contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm” 😊

Not yet solved: City Center Plaza, Oakland, CA

I live here, 15 stories of residential space atop a 400-space, three-level underground garage. Unfortunately, direct taps aren’t an option as the vehicles are hundreds of feet from the meters.

Due to financial constraints (need to focus on structural and water issues), we’re tabling the project until probably 2023. Our early thoughts (many inspired by my experience in software and tech ops) are as follows:

  • Invest in what won’t change: I learned this from software. I don’t know what the future holds for load allocation, billing, rooftop solar, or numerous other fast-changing areas of technology. What I do know is that whatever form it takes, we’ll still need conduit, transformers, service panels, and other base infrastructure, so we can invest there without too much risk.
  • Phases. We’ll probably work in waves every year or two, electrifying 20-30 spaces spread out across the garage in each wave. This lets us test, learn, and refine the approach as we go, an incremental approach the Strong Towns folks would like.
  • Keep bills low. We don’t want residents to pay a markup on electricity, even if it means spending more upfront.
  • Keep it simple. There’s almost certainly some kind of communication system needed, but ideally it would be extremely simple; wired Ethernet, LoRA, etc. No patches, no software updates, no viruses, no Windows machines in the closet.

If you know of a good system for this, please leave a comment.

Other approaches

I came across two residential garages (one in San Francisco, another in Richmond) with a handful of shared chargers for residents. At the one in Richmond, residents can use the charger but are expected to move their car when charging is finished; at the San Francisco one (slightly higher-end), a valet moves cars to and from the charging station, managing sharing and returning cars to owner spaces when charging completes.

My friend Jared lived in an apartment without charging, relying on a nearby Supercharger (Tesla) for power. He mentioned it taking only an hour, but sometimes needed to charge multiple times in a week. He lives in a townhouse in Texas now, and is delighted to charge at home.

I manage a six-unit apartment, and when we install electric vehicle chargers (still a few years off), I’m going to run conduit directly to the chargers. If you can get away with it—the stations aren’t too far from the individual units’ breakers or panels—I would highly recommend this approach.

What’s next

In Part II, we’ll survey the elements of a good policy: (1) compliance, (2) billing, and (3) capital cost allocation.

What strategies have you seen for common-interest charging, especially in multi-hundred-space residential garages? Leave us a comment.


We’re Dials, the system of record for maintenance. We help owners and managers of condos, apartments, and other large buildings see the whole picture—inventory, maintenance records, activity, and anticipated expenses. Learn more


[1] “Deeded”: all common-interest ownerships (titles) have a separate interest, and a common interest. Separate is yours alone, common is owned along with other association neighbors. Your CC&Rs define whether your parking is part of your separate interest (“deeded”) or the common interest (“assigned”). Assigned parking can be moved; deeded is yours alone.

Electrification: a big shock

When a Midwestern Man swaps his lawn tools—take notice.

The joke is that Chicago has only two seasons—“winter and construction”—but in my native land, the suburbs, “winter and lawn care” is more like it. From the time they can stand, Midwestern children receive training in lawn tools, beginning with the humble rake, advancing progressively through leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, weed whackers, and finally, lawn mowers, the most promising taught to use chainsaws, and mulchers.

And it all ran on gas. I remember thinking what a strange choice it was when our neighbor a few doors down opted for an electric mower sometime in the mid-’90s: sure, it never needed gas, but you were forever on the lookout for the cord. But the bigger problem: it was wimpy. One stick, one dangling root, it was game over, the high-pitched sound coming to a stop.

But that choice—going electric—is a choice many of us will make soon. A confluence of factors—chiefly high-performance lithium-ion batteries—means today’s electric tools get all the upsides of electric (simplicity, reliability, safety) with none of yesterday’s performance downsides. But it won’t stop there. A cleaner grid, distributed electricity generation (rooftop- and community-scale solar, wind, and geothermal), and tougher environmental regulation have raised the odds your next water heater, car, or stove will be all-electric. A growing “electrify everything” movement advocates electric vehicles and “cutting the pipe”, preferring electrical versions of cooking, heating, drying—everything.

Despite its benefits, the road to electrification isn’t all smooth. First: heat pumps are great, but lose efficiency in cold climates, requiring high-power resistive heating that can drive bills to $400-600/month even in small apartments with inexpensive electricity. Second, we’re going to need a lot more capacity—in our homes, and in the grid. And finally, the workforce isn’t skilled for it—it’s going to take a lot more electricians than we have now to build all this, presenting one fo the biggest workforce opportunities in decades.

The benefits

For some, going green is enough—but at what cost? Illinois has a long history of clean nuclear power, but that didn’t stop my childhood neighbors from avoiding electric lawn tools. The nice thing is that, today, you don’t have to choose: you get all the benefits of electric, with equivalent performance as gas.

Start with safety: who doesn’t want to get explosive, carcinogenic chemicals out of their house? As the son of a career manufacturing/factory guy, I grew tired of seeing “Caution” signs all over the house, but my dad had a point: 30 years in a factory around spot-welders and cold-rolled metal had taught him what’s actually dangerous, vs. what only appears so. Gasoline is the former—it’s dangerous. Gasoline spills onto floors, gets into rags and clothing, and evaporates into fumes that collect near the floor, waiting for the tiniest bit of static electricity to spark, incinerating your house or garage in the process. Natural gas is better, but given the chance, wouldn’t you choose to eliminate pilot lights, one more source of failure and fire? And how about a world where carbon monoxide poisoning, exhaust fumes, broken flue pipes, and leaky gas lines were a thing of the past?

And then there’s reliability. Gasoline engines are remarkable pieces of engineering—hundreds of moving parts smashing into each other to create and harness mechanical work from thousands of tiny chemical explosions. Doing this well requires oil, sparks, cam shafts, timing rods, fuel injectors, and hundreds of other small, but critical things. All the complexity of an electric vehicle is in the design and control of its power system—the battery—the motor is little more than magnets, and a conductive wire. Heating is better, but pilot lights go out and electric ignition systems fail—electric heating elements rarely do either.

And finally, the environment—electrification offers the potential to reduce direct carbon emissions from engines and appliances, sure, but what about the rest: pipelines, drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and periodic disasters (Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez), all in consequence of the search for oil and gas? The good news is, at least in the United States, things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly—a dozen coal bankruptcies in the past five years, rapid growth in utility- and rooftop-PV (solar cell) deployment, wind farms dotting the Midwest, and growing sales of electric vehicles. Over the last few years, a lot of Ford guys have ended up taking my dad’s community college class on basic electrical principles, re-skilling to be EV mechanics and assembly guys. This isn’t the future—all of this is here, now, today.

“Fix my bill!”

The benefits are real, but getting there will be bumpy. That realization hit me one Saturday morning, when I got an angry call from Dorothy, a tenant who’d just moved in to an apartment building I own, near my parents place in Illinois. The building has been all-electric since I got it in 2019, somewhat unusual for the Chicago area, but giving me a glimpse into what’s coming.

Dorothy lives here. Two-story building, formerly 8 x 1br, converted into 4x1br upstairs, on top of two 3s downstairs. They kept the meters (8 total), forcing the downstairs folks to have two utility accounts for power. This was stupid, so we hired Nicole to “jumper” the two meters (the horizontal pipe between the two groups of two meters), allowing one to be deactivated, meaning one utility account could get closed.

Overall, Dorothy was great—an intelligent, reasonable woman who’d retired after a career working for the IRS—but she was quite sure her electrical bill, $700 for the month of January, was incorrect. Especially because her apartment was only 1200 square feet (110 square meters), with two interior walls, shared with the other apartments. She was doing OK—a good pension from all those years working for the federal government—but still, a $700 electrical bill would probably get anyone’s back up. Certainly mine.

I looked into it, and while $250 was initial deposit and setup fees, the rest was correct—$450 for a month of heat in her place. She insisted it was mis-wired, but I knew it wasn’t—I’d actually just hired a very competent electrician to replace every breaker and service panel in the building, who happened to be Dorothy’s next-door neighbor. After a week of back-and-forth, she finally understood a basic reality: resistive heating is expensive.

The jury is out on whether heat pumps work well in climate zone 5 (most of Illinois and Indiana).

What about heat pumps? My friend Ed (the guy who asked me about SEO) had been installing these for a few years during his time in South Carolina, but couldn’t get the numbers to work in Illinois (known in HVAC circles as CZ, or “climate zone”, 5). If you don’t know, a heat pump is basically just a fancy refrigerator chiller—a machine with compressors and refrigerant for moving heat one way or the other—capable of moving heat into your house in the winter (outside -> inside), or vice versa in the summer. The issue is that, like a refrigerator, when the temperature difference gets big, two bad things happen: the refrigeration system gets less efficient—it’s harder to get the refrigerant hotter/colder than the outside (to draw heat in or out), even through the compressor is still working at 100%—even as the losses through the insulation get bigger. The result is that, in cold climates, many HVAC pros specify resistive “emergency heating” (“strip heat” is the term) for cold temperatures.

Technology is advancing rapidly; there may be a heat pump manufacturer that’s figured out how to make them efficient in very hold/cold climates. Ask a good HVAC pro, and leave a comment, I’d love to hear!

Super-size me

And did I mention, powering all this stuff—cars, heaters, heat pumps, water heaters, etc—is going to take a ton of power? Talk about a retrofit job; it might be time to take up a career as an electrician, or own an electrical contracting company…or a copper mine?

Interior electrical systems: as late as the ‘90s, new-construction single family homes got by on 100 amps (everything in this section assumes 240V). Today, all but the smallest cottages or tiny houses are wired for 200—and already, it isn’t enough. I’m not sure whether it will come from rooftop solar, nuclear, or a home-scale battery—probably all three based on time of day, weather, and where you are—but single-family houses will need 300-400 amps service; small apartments, 200-300. Just look at the numbers.

Start with electric vehicles: you’ll need 11 kW—that’s 60 amps of panel capacity (upsize actual continuous load by 25% from 48A to size the circuit, per code)—just to charge your Tesla. And you’ll wait an hour to add just 35 miles of range. My wife and I are city people with just one car, but a lot of suburban families in the US have two, and it seems inevitable faster chargers will hit the scene when weekend campers and skiers want to add 350 miles of range between getting home at 9pm and leaving for work the next day at 7. That’s a minimum of 120 amps. Add another 60 amps, which seems a reasonable lower bound for the usual major appliances: dryer, washing machine, dishwasher, and microwave, reaching a total of 180. Air conditioning or heating, and you’ll need another 40-50 amps, at least, especially if it’s the whole house (220-230 total).

Somewhat to my surprise, the big question mark is water heating: 20-40 amps is sufficient for a moderate-sized storage (tanked) heater, but I’m not sure whether that will become “standard”, or the efficiency (and continuous operability) benefits of tankless heaters will prevail. If tankless prevails, get ready—Rheem’s 7.1 gal/min tankless consumes a whipping 36kW—160 amps—at full production. Granted, 7.1 gallons/minute is a lot of hot water, but you’ll need it for two showers and a dishwasher. Add it up, and you’re at 400 amps to be comfortable; 500 if a tankless is in play.

150 amps. This thing is a monster. My dad thought I was crazy until I sent him this graphic, showing the full required 4 x 40A configuration suggested to power it.

Zooming out to a block / city, it’s not just higher utilization, but variance: loads are getting “chunkier”. EV charging, tankless water heaters, and other equipment will cause minute-to-minute swings of 100 amps or more, putting more strain than ever before on the grid, requiring distribution systems (substations, transmission lines) to carry more headroom everywhere—higher averages, but much higher peaks relative to previous patterns of consumption. Looking forward, it seems energy rates will have to increase as only “bad loads” end up on the grid, with utility operators moving closer to a “supplier of last resort” position, forced to cope with hard, transient loads other systems can’t take. Electricity rates have already been pushed into negative territory several times by excess supply—expect to see more of this, as distributed generation and supply become widespread.

The bottom line: as a homeowner, electrification will likely require a lot more current capacity in your home energy system—even if you don’t use all of it at the same time.

Electric vehicles in multi-unit settings

One other point: I live in a condo. We have a 400-space, three-level garage underground, and figuring out how to handle EVs has been, to put it mildly, a circus.
Start with whether we should allow them at all: California’s Civil Code §4745 prohibits blanket bans, but residents already have them, and are using association (shared) power to charge. I’m on my association’s board, and last year, introduced a policy with tiered billing (explained below), only to be shot down by a faction that insisted, contrary to any evidence, that EVs are dangerous fire hazards, owing to their large lithium batteries. Nevermind that the alternative is to have gallons of explosive liquid under each car, emitting carbon monoxide every time someone pulls in and out—with exhaust fans that only began working again last year, after years of disrepair.

400-space garage. It got a bit wet, owing to a spinkler leak.

There’s also the issue of who pays for the electricity. Eventually apartments will need EV chargers, and I suspect that when they arrive, the most straightforward solution will be a direct tap off the unit’s meter, to the charging point. In larger buildings, as in my condominium, distance might make this impractical—I suggested flat-rate billing, with plug-in EVs paying a simple $25/month tariff, but again, couldn’t sell it to the board—the idea that one person might take a nickel more than someone else didn’t seem fair, so a year later, I’m off the board, they want to measure and bill for individual use, and nobody has put forth any practical idea for implementing any of this. Meanwhile, the anti-EV group has realized a blanket ban is illegal, and are now advocating for full outsourcing, causing residents to pay what’s likely to be a 10-20% markup on every kWh of power drawn to charge their vehicles—not ideal.

Third point: at the scale of a 400-unit garage, adding capacity for EV charging gets into transformers, and even grid operations. My building is across from a police station, meaning I haven’t had a single power outage in four years—apparently we’re part of a “network transformer” setup—nice, but also, apparently very difficult to upgrade. Once again, a problem that, if someone could solve, a great business awaits.

Help wanted

The same thought kept popping into my head as I wrote this—we aren’t ready. Business opportunities come from changes in the economic environment, and electrification / decarbonization is a big one. It’s easy to succeed in a growing industry, and this one is going to grow like crazy.

Start with the basics: nuts-and-bolts electrical work. Basic electrical work—service panel upgrades, new breakers, replacing broken ground rods or receptacles—will be required every time someone gets an electric vehicle, converts a gas furnace to a heat pump, or switches from a gas to electric stove. Most of this work will be like dentistry: not unduly complex or high-end, just needing to get done in an affordable, workmanlike manner.
I find appliances particularly interesting. Today, most appliances stores don’t bundle electrical, permitting, and design. Replacing like-for-like (e.g. ordering a new refrigerator) is one thing—but converting a furnace to a heat pump is quite another. Doing that requires a blend of design, permitting, and multi-trade coordination (electrical, plumbing, HVAC) not unlike Best Buy’s “Geek Squad”. I don’t know who’s going to own this space, but someone will arise to fill this need.

And finally, how we charge EVs presents a ton of opportunities. Again, there will be product companies that make the chargers and panels, but what’s really needed is a single vendor that blends design/specification, compliance/permitting, and contracted installation, with specialty practice areas for strip centers, apartments, and even condos. As a building owner, I want to ensure I’m getting a solution that works as a unit, in the exact circumstances of my building (including government regulation and grid connection), which requires design services, permitting, and even working with the local utility to ensure enough capacity is available.

It’s an exciting time. A lot of things will change and I think what results will be a cleaner, safer, and more environmentally sound world.

Discussion questions

I’d particularly like to know:

  • Do you own / manage a condo or multi-unit building? How are you handling EV charging?
  • Do heat pumps work in your area? What exact make/model/brand are you using?
  • What do you see as the greatest challenge to electrification? Greatest opportunity?

We’re Dials, the system of record for maintenance. We help owners and managers of condos, apartments, and other large buildings see the whole picture—inventory, maintenance records, activity, and anticipated expenses. Learn more

The HOA Financial Crisis—and what will solve it

In addition to Dials, I run the project committee at my condo, a 348-unit high-rise called City Center Plaza. As head of the committee, I oversee capital planning, the process of allocating our limited reserve funds toward the highest-impact projects, as well as advising the treasurer on how much funding we need budgeted for future projects.

It’s a big job, and a decade of neglect has left things in rough shape (shocker). Take a look at our reserve study (above): 22 past-due projects costing more than $1.5 million. Naturally, money we don’t have, though with $800k in the bank, we are working it down; it’s a lot better than when I moved in, four years ago, with $400k off the books owed to vendors, and $50k in the bank. But that $800k is peanuts next to $5-10 million in deferred maintenance. And sadly, our condition is the norm: 70% of associations are underfunded, according to Buildium. If you can believe it, the board of the collapsed building in Florida was better than most—they had a plan, outlined in a letter urging homeowners to approve a $15 million plan of remediation. But with nothing saved, and a shortfall of $80-300k per unit, the die was cast. Accumulating that kind of funding is the project of a decade–maybe two–not a year.

And so you have it: the HOA Financial Crisis. 45,000 communities in California alone, with deficits of thousands, even tens of thousands, per unit. “American Local Governance in a Nutshell”, as Strong Towns describes it, situated in a broader crisis of disrepair affecting everything from dams, to bridges and space observatories.

No single person has the power to cause a problem of this scale. The HOA Financial Crisis is a product of broken feedback loops, bad incentives, and failed accounting/measurement systems. The good news is, recent advances in sensing and perception have made it inevitable that repair and maintenance will factor into price.

If you what to see how, read on.

Root problem: good capital planning doesn’t affect price

Capital planning is the set of activities ensuring a building stays in good shape long-term: keeping inventory, developing a plan, and carrying out the plan, including accumulating funds, and spending them on the highest-impact projects. Today, the quality of this process—how well a building is kept and the state of its reserves—doesn’t meaningfully influence price.

It should. I was surprised Wells Fargo’s quoted rate included a 0.25% premium on my condo loan, but they might have the right idea. Apart from the borrower’s ability to pay, the #1 thing mortgage lenders care about is not lending too much—on a $500,000 property, a conventional 20% down mortgage leaves $100,000 of buffer (the buyer’s equity) that all but eliminates the bank’s chances of loss. But crazy things happen—like Champlain Towers, where the board’s power to assess might result in a $150,000 lien on the unit, making that $500,000 property unsellable above $350,000 (assuming the seller has to clear the $150k assessment lien). That’s a $50,000 write-down for a lender, which given typical mortgage underwriting margins, is catastrophic.

It’s even worse for insurance: want to be first in line for losses when a caved-in roof causes tens of thousands in equipment damage? No, obviously.

Want to see fireworks? Tell a community their property prices are falling because buyers can’t get loans (banks won’t touch a place), or worse, the board can’t find insurance—all of a sudden, a lot more residents are going to show up, and board meetings will be a lot less dull.

Controversy!

So where’s the data?

It all starts with inventory. What’s in the building? Where’s the master list of pumps, pipes, and elevators, along with dates of installation, service, inspections, and which vendor did all of it?

Without inventory, there’s no way to know whether a project plan is realistic, how much funding should be set aside, or what’s most important to service next. It all starts from inventory. Typically, a couple things go wrong.

First, reserve studies aren’t good enough; reserve analysts are great at estimating component lifetimes and usually have project cost databases, but an analyst’s list assembled in half a day will never be as thorough as something done bit-by-bit over time by a diligent manager (especially onsite). Let the expert (reserve analyst) do the expert’s job (assessing lifetime)—it’s best if the association brings its own list.

Second, the association must own this data, and the system that houses it; vendors come and go, as well as managers, and boards. Inventory, repair, and maintenance data must be handled like accounting records—think Quickbooks—placed in a special system with custom-built permanent storage, with proper access controls and multi-user functionality. Ideally, a field-ready mobile application, that works even in the basement and has your entire complement (potentially dozens) of vendors able to log in and record work.

And third, entering inventory is a hassle. Making data entry as easy as possible, or even eliminating it altogether, is a long-term goal for Dials.

And how do we ensure it’s fresh?

Simple: solve someone’s problem.

Associations need better planning tools, and reminders to keep things updated. Over the next couple of months, we’re going to build the best set of capital planning tools out there, that will be fun to use, and help associations stay on track with their goals.

Using your inventory data, we’ll help you create a project plan, calculate how much you need to fund it, and guide you toward hitting your savings and operations goals.

If we can help even one association budget better, it will be worth it for us. If you want to level up, sign up for updates as we build (below) or try us out at dials.com.

Internet marketing for contractors: an introduction

“Do you know anything about SEO?” my friend Ed asked, a few weeks ago.

Growing up five houses apart, Ed and I did a lot of stuff together as kids. Our parents took us to Wisconsin Dells together for vacation once. And when my dad needed an addition put on our house, Ed’s dad, a general contractor, was the first guy he called. We drifted apart into high school and even college, him heading to the military, me to Silicon Valley, but we both ended up as copies of our fathers–him in the trades, me, an engineer.

So you could imagine how I felt when, out of the blue, an email popped into my inbox with the subject “957-2591”–my childhood landline number–we hadn’t talked in ten years, but Ed knew it would get my attention. After the military, he looked up “the occupational category with the best growth prospects”, and settled on HVAC/R. He was operating as a one-man band, under the name Apex Heating and Cooling.

I guess Ed figured I’d know about SEO because I’d always been a “computer guy”, trashing our first one at 5 (I guess that COMMAND.COM file was important?) But after about five minutes talking to him, I realized he wasn’t curious about SEO so much as the larger question of, How do I market my business online?

And truthfully, I wasn’t the worst person to ask: I’d run a contract development shop, and had some modest success building Internet businesses. I’d also been a pretty substantial buyer of building services, managing 12 rentals (including a 20,000 square foot commercial strip center) and running capital projects at CCP, my 800-person Oakland Chinatown condo.

I got the brain dump on heat pumps and blower door tests, he got the inside scoop on organic traffic acquisition, and pretentious hipster coffeeshops.

Start with the customer

The first step for any craftsperson who wants to succeed in business: make it about the customer.

This is hard.

In the United States, especially among highly skilled people, work is more than a 9 to 5; it’s an identity. It starts when we’re kids, watching our parents work–my friend Matt becoming a sales rep like his mom, my friend Ed following his father into the trades. College majors and apprenticeship further reinforce these identities. And after training, our vendor relationships, guilds (professional societies, unions), even friendships and clothing, signals our occupation.

When someone asks, “What do you do”, the expected response is, “I am an electrician”, not “I trained as an electrician” or “I’m working as an electrician”–our occupations aren’t work, they become who we are.

Here’s why that’s a problem:

You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want. – Zig Ziglar

When you’re so wrapped up in yourself–your tools, your craft, your jargon–it’s hard to empathize with others. Even when those “others” are your customers.

Maybe it’s time to think less about intermediate metal conduit vs. EMT, and more about doing the job to an acceptable level of quality, as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Maybe it’s less important whether you’re using the newest scroll compressor, and more important what it will do for the customer–the benefit–more comfort in their homes, and lower energy bills.

Maybe your union or bar association membership isn’t that important. Don’t do anything illegal or unsafe. Beyond that, give the customer what they’re asking for.

It’s not about what you want. You aren’t the client. Your job is to serve the client as best you can.

Once you get serious about serving the customer, you’ll start to understand how they buy–their purchase journey. “Big” purchases–lots of money, complicated requirements–happen in stages, one after another. Sales and marketing professionals, offline but especially on the Internet, call this step-by-step process a “purchase funnel”, or just “funnel”.

Funnels

Let’s consider the purchase funnel for a home air conditioning system. Even a “straightforward” purchase like this has at least seven steps. In reverse order:

  • Delivery: The system is installed, the customer is invoiced, and payment is made.
  • Acceptance: The contract for the job is accepted (signed).
  • Offer: The customer receives 1 or more offers to do the job.
  • Quote request: The customer asks the vendor for a quote (proposal), which may involve a site visit.
  • Qualification: The customer and vendor “qualify” each other–does the vendor do the kind of work the customer wants? Is the price in the customer’s range? For contractors, this is usually a phone call.
  • Discovery: The customer “looks around” for a vendor–the get a referral (friend, family, other people they trust), look online (Yelp, Angie’s List, Google, etc), or even respond to an offline ad (park bench, bus, postcard, newspaper ad).
  • Awareness: The customer becomes aware of the need for a new system, often via a “compelling event”–jealousy after visiting a neighbor of friend’s very comfortable house, hearing they can save a lot of money with a new system, or what they have breaks. Something leads them to take action.

Generating business is less mysterious when the purchase funnel is mapped. And here’s the thing about the Internet: you can measure everything. In addition to receiving an overall increasing share of time and attention, precise measurement is a big reason so much ad spending has moved online.

Conventionally, marketing’s job is to generate leads, while sales, by hook or crook, converts leads into sales (money). Put differently, marketing creates demand–largely through communication that is specific and targeted–while sales takes the lead and “finishes the job”; the exact split is highly dependent on the business.

The value of a lead

So, where do leads come from? That depends what they’re worth, which depends on your business. But first, a quick aside: conversation rates.

A conversion rate is the number of people at one funnel stage, that proceed to the next. Simple example: if 100 people look at your website and 1 calls you, that’s a 1% conversion rate. Note that doesn’t mean the person will necessarily buy anything–only that they’ve taken one step forward.

In order to determine a lead’s value, you calculate the value of a sale (the net profit), and work backwards through your funnel. Here’s a typical example, working backwards through the seven-stage funnel above:

  • Ed’s typical residential air conditioner installation job is $20,000. After expenses, he earns about $4,000 on this job–his profit. (Note: the number we care about here is profit, not revenue. I’ll revisit this point later.)
  • Ed aims to win about 50% of the proposals he writes — he’s not desperate for business, but also not out to gouge people or waste time bidding work he’ll never get. Ed’s 50% win rate means a submitted, serious proposal is worth about $2,000 (50% x $4,000).
  • Ed always answers the phone, but about half the people who call him live out of his service area, need service right away (he’s booked for the next 2-3 weeks), or want a product he doesn’t sell (50% conversion rate). That means an unqualified lead (call) is worth about $1,000 (50% x $2,000).
  • About 5% of the people who view Ed’s website call him. That makes a visit to his site worth $50 (5% x $1,000). Note: 5% view-to-call conversion means Ed’s site is pretty good.

Let that sink in for a minute — statistically speaking, a single website visitor is worth $50 in profit.

Does that seem like a lot? On one hand, it’s $50 in profit, just for getting someone to view your site–that’s a lot of money! On the other hand, if you’re new to this, you’ll be surprised how much money you can spend while generating absolutely no business. Start slowly and measure everything.

Another thing, the example above assumes you’re doing only one sale with a customer, when more often than not, you’ll end up doing repeat business over a longer relationship. This is especially true in local services — marketers call this stickiness — one satisfied roofing customer might generate dozens of high-quality roofing leads as you become “the guy” for his entire block, church, and extended family. On the other hand, if years pass between sales, the customer might “churn out” and need to be re-acquired (they behave more like a new customer).

The bottom line: the math gets a bit fuzzy and it’s best to think in ranges. If your profit per lead is $50, don’t worry about spending $2 vs $3. Worry about spending $50, or $100, or $200–there be dragons–you might recover it over the length of the relationship, but you’ll get in too deep a hole that you’ll run out of money before you make it back. Aim to spend no more than 20% of the yearly profit to acquire a customer.

And finally, keep in mind you don’t have to be perfect, just better than the competition.

How to spend it

So, assuming our $50-of-profit customer above, how do you spend (deploy) money to get good, hungry, well-qualified leads?

Perhaps surprisingly, my overall view on lead generation is that it resembles the rent vs own decision for where to live. Like shelter for people, brand awareness and traffic are a matter of survival for your business. And ultimately–remember I said to focus on your customers–traffic and engagement on the Internet, whether Instagram likes, page views on facebook or the web, whatever–come from an audience. I like the term “audience” as it connotes a group of people who watch, or pay attention, to what you do. This is a good way to think about work in 2020.

Audiences can be either owned or rented. Like housing, there are some general guidelines, but the right choice depends a lot on you.

Renting an audience basically boils down to: pay a major Internet platform to promote your content. The platform might be facebook, Google, Youtube, Pinterest, or something else, but the basic mechanic is: you pay them for eyeballs. You’ll get results more quickly, but promotion is priced by auction, so your cost to acquire a customer generally won’t ever go down. You can also find someone who’s built a community (subscription newsletter, blog, facebook group, etc) and ask them to run your ad.

If, on the other hand, you’re in it for the long haul, you need to own your audience. “Owning your audience” means you have a direct relationship with your customers, that isn’t mediated by Google, facebook, or any other platform. A good rule of thumb: if you have their email address, you’re doing well. By moving the conversation off of the big tech platforms, or at least making it so that people search you out, you can drive your cost per lead down, and the quality and brand trust of the leads you do get, up. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Show your work. Use Dials. One of the best parts about building a new software product is getting to study a problem, and building the exact solution someone needs. Contractors are visual people who love taking and sharing photos of their work. Dials helps you build your brand with zero effort by ensuring jobsite photos are placed onto the right social feeds, maximizing the exposure–attention, mindshare, and leads–you get, without spending money on promotion. We have great features to log and plan your work, and great prices starting at free. What are you waiting for?
  • Join the right referral networks. Contact people in your area who do the same kind of work you do, and let them know you’ll take any work they don’t want. This is especially effective for smaller contractors, who are happy to take on smaller jobs the larger guys don’t want.
  • Explain things on the Internet. My dad can spend hours watching videos about conduit, roofing types, or HVAC blower-door tests. Whether it’s a blog, video series, or subscription email list, people who explain contracting topics well (e.g. galvanized vs. copper pipe) will get a never-ending stream of well-qualified leads, with tons of brand trust from the first call. Do it.
  • Ensure people can find you. Make sure your pages on facebook, Google My Business, and Yelp are up-to-date. Ask for reviews when you do work.

One important axiom of Internet marketing: Good content production is frequent. Aim for a mix of high-authority evergreen articles and videos (will remain relevant for many years), plus smaller, more frequent stuff to ensure you stay top of mind. Again, using Dials can really help – we let you share photos of your work directly to your social profiles, ensuring a constant stream of authentic, original, new stuff. That plays really well on the Internet, and social media.

Conclusion

In the long run, marketing is all about driving a well-qualified stream of leads to your business. In order to do that, a company or brand must use consistent, targeted communication, and get it in front of the right people, to earn trust, mindshare, and ultimately, business.

“Audiences” are a great metaphor for customer groups on the Internet. It’s usually smart to test the waters, gauge interest, and experiment a little with a rented audience. Once you’ve started to find what resonates, invest the time and money into building your own. Building an audience is neither fast nor easy, but it’s the only way to get off the Google/facebook treadmill, and build a long-term competitive advantage in acquiring customers. Otherwise, you’re just bidding against the guy across town for traffic, and lining Google’s pockets in the process.

Charting

To medical professionals, “charting” is like flossing one’s teeth: tedious, and easy to skip. But invariably, something you’ll regret not having done.

As a clinical dietitian, my mom was careful to chart each patient’s progress–how much weight they’d (hopefully) lost or gained, what seemed to be working, where improvement was needed. My dad was home pretty reliably by 5:30 or 6, but not my mom, who’d sometimes see eight patients back-to-back, with barely time for lunch, let alone charting. But she made time for it, somehow, obligated by either professional standards, or human concern for her patients.

Despite charting’s critical importance to long-term care, any medical professional will be happy to tell you how often it’s skipped. Fee-for-service medicine emphasizes appointments and procedures, not record-keeping and follow-up. Through I’m sure she rarely worked less than full-time, my mother spent most of her career as a benefit-free part-time employee, never properly compensated (in my view) for her diligence, or attention to patient needs.

I think of my mom often as I work on dials. The maintenance professionals who use our products are “building doctors”, and we’re giving them the tools to automate “charting” — gathering data — so that they can bill more work, spend less time on unpaid record-keeping, and get home to their families. Preferably, before it gets dark.