L & Tea Time with Michelle: Episode 14

Topic: Making Robust Stipulations of Settlement in Housing Court
Guest: Stephanie Watkins: Managers as Chameleons

MMI: Welcome to L&Tea Time, the show where we give you real information about real estate from the owners and managers in the driver’s seat. Today we are very happy to have with us Stephanie Watkins from WPM Services. Stephanie, let me make sure I get this straight: 200 units you’re managing, about?

SW: Yes.

MMI: 65% of them are rent stabilized?

SW: Yes.

MMI: Mostly Brooklyn, some Bronx.

SW: Correct.

MMI: Ok. Stephanie is here today so we can learn more about the manager as chameleon. Are you ready for that great topic, Stephanie?

SW: I’m ready, let’s go.

MMI: Alright. I’m Michelle Maratto Itkowitz, and I’ll be serving the tea.

MMI: Stephanie, thank you for being here.

SW: Thank you for having me.

MMI: Today’s topic is “the Manager as Chameleon,” which is kind of an enigmatic topic, so I want to let the viewers know what we mean by using that broker story you told me before we got started. When you were a real estate broker back in the day, you bought two cars, a Range Rover and a Subaru Legacy. Why?

SW: When I started off as an agent, I was told that you have to present yourself a certain way, be professional, so I decided, “Hey, let me invest in my appearance. Let me invest in the vehicle,” so I went out and got a Range Rover, bought expensive suits. I’ve always liked expensive shoes – that was just an excuse to shop. When I would present myself to sellers, they were ok – they didn’t have a problem with it. I would give them the speech, how I’m going to market their property – they were good with it. Buyers, however, when I told them I would give them representation and try to get them the best price, they were a little uneasy because now they focused more on my appearance. They focused more on the expensive shoes, the expensive car.

MMI: You picked this up by things people said?

SW: First, initially, I picked up the vibe if you will, and then after getting a few people turning me down to represent them as a buyer, I actually spoke to one potential client, and I said, “Why won’t you give me some feedback? Tell me why you wouldn’t choose me.” She just straight out said, “You’re gonna rob me.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Look at the car you drive. Look at how you dress. You’re going to do something with the seller. You guys are going to make the price go up. I don’t know how you guys pull it off, but you’re going to take too much money from me.”

MMI: So, you bought a Subaru?

SW: Yes, I took that advice.

MMI: Do you still have that car now?

SW: Yes, I drive that car more than the other one.

MMI: That made a difference in your brokerage?

SW: Absolutely, it made a difference for the buyers. They saw me as conservative. They saw me as someone who would fight for them. They saw me as someone with the mindset of a savings, if you will.

MMI: Now, that story, those experiences, you carried them over into management?

SW: Absolutely.

MMI: I want to give away one secret. Your company is WPM Services, and the W is Watkins, which you’re Watkins, it’s your company.

SW: Correct.

MMI: In general, do tenants know that?

SW: No.

MMI: So people think you’re a worker in your company, and you own your company that manages 200 units.

SW: Correct.

MMI: That’s funny. Tell me how you do interact with tenants. What’s your recommendation there?

SW: My recommendation is to be the employee, but more so, just learn your audience, learn your tenants. I would say to any property manager, if you’re getting started or if you’re in the game right now, have a level of interaction with your tenants, but don’t come off so aggressive or bossy because that automatically creates tension.

MMI: It’s better to not be the owner of the building or a principal in the managing agent or the managing company?

SW: It’s better to be perceived that way. What happens is when tenants believe you are the owner or you have some sort of stake in the building, they tend to be more aggressive.

MMI: You’re more like an enemy.

SW: Yes. Automatically, you become an enemy, automatically in their mind because they think you’re just looking at someone that’s just a tenant, that has to pay their rent, and do as they’re told. They don’t think you’re going to listen to them. They don’t think their problems you’re concerned about. They just see you, like you said, as the enemy.

MMI: So, as the employee of the managing agent, you can have a little more freedom to talk with people and connect.

SW: Absolutely.

MMI: And that helps.

SW: Big time, 100%. I don’t get a lot of recourse back from tenants because the first thing they say to me is, “Hey, I know you’re not the owner, but this is problem that I’ve having…I know you don’t have any say-so, but…”

MMI: You have a lot of say-so.

SW: Exactly, and I smile at the other end. Now, what happens is you get a transparency, now the tenant has trust in you. That’s not used to be manipulative. I’m thankful that they give this trust.

MMI: The way you keep it is obviously you don’t violate it, so to get there, you just can’t be the head person.

SW: Exactly. You can’t walk in with an iron first, and say, “I am woman, hear me roar.”

MMI: When you go to the owners that you work for, or to get a new client, then you’re a different personality.

SW: Yeah, I’m the suit. I’m the owner now. I come in corporate, numbers, spreadsheet, predictions – this is what we do, so now you’re very rigid, you’re very firm with an “I can do this” attitude.

MMI: ok, vendors – vendors for your company.

SW: I’m the owner. I’m the haggler.

MMI: I just think it’s so ironic because in a world where, still to this day, women are – you’re fighting always to have people perceive you as, “I’m important. I’m the boss. I’m the owner,” you’re willing to put on whatever hat you have to put on to get the job on, which actually, probably makes you more powerful.

SW: Absolutely. Absolutely. When people see you are willing to work on their level – when you can work on someone’s level, you have to understand the audience. That’s so key. You have to understand who you’re working with, and then work on that level – doors will open up.

MMI: You’re the same Stephanie.

SW: Oh, to the core.

MMI: It’s the same level of excellence you’re bringing, but you just meet people where they are. It seems like you’re a listener.

SW: Yes. You have to listen twice as much as you talk. My mom always said this is the reason why we have two ears and one mouth. She would always say that. You listen, you allow a person to talk because as they speak to you, they’re going to reveal certain things, and when you’re listening, you pick up on these key points in the back of your head, and you say to yourself, “Ok, this is how I need to maneuver.” Look where we live. We live in Manhattan – there’s a million and one ways to get to 42nd Street. It may be more advantageous today for me to take a cab, but maybe tomorrow it’s the train, maybe tomorrow it’s walking. You’re still going to the same destination, but you’re using different means to get there.

MMI: It’s whatever works. If the Pope’s in town, you’re not gonna take a cab.

SW: Right, exactly. That’s how you need to interact with your tenants, your vendors, your owners, and whoever else.

MMI: Stephanie, I can’t thank you enough. This is really going to be one of my best shows ever.

SW: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Teaching Segment

MMI: In today’s legal segment, we are going to be continuing our exploration of how to make a healthy Stipulation of Settlement in Housing Court. The first concept I want to explore is it’s important if the tenant is going to be promising to stick to a payment plan in this stipulation, that you put a line in that stipulation that says that any payment that the tenant makes will be applied first to current as it comes due. This prevents the tenant from falling further behind as you go forward and it isolates that payment plan as to what that tenant really needs to concentrate on applying extra funds for. Also, repairs – let’s take the situation where no repairs are needed. I still want you to put something about repairs in the stip. You should say the tenant agrees at this time that no repairs are needed. If repairs are needed, here is what I really love to see. I love to see an actual date and time for access agreed to in court, and not “Tenant to provide access; Landlord to do repairs as necessary.” It’s better if you nail down the access because access is what is always the sticky point in repairs. The tenant is always saying, “he didn’t come,” and the landlord is always saying, “I couldn’t get access,” so nail that down in the stip. Security deposits – sometimes the security deposit gets chipped at and lived down. That’s really not a good policy in general, it shouldn’t happen that way. Security is security, but if it does, a stip is an opportunity. I look at a stip as an opportunity. This is an opportunity to clarify this, and say, “This is how much of the security deposit is left,” so at the end of the tenancy, that’s not up in the air. Finally, I want to put this idea out there if there is a payment plan. Sometimes, as the landlord, you’re on the fence as to whether to give the tenant another chance, and sometimes there’s a little trick you can use. If there’s a parent out there, you can get a guarantor to the stipulation. Maybe you can’t get a guarantor to the lease, but you can get a guarantor to the payments under the stipulation. Sometimes that’s the thing that helps to get the deal done. Remember guys, legal knowledge is real estate power.

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