How to Fast Track Your Apartment Maintenance Requests

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Anyone who has watched sitcoms from the 80's and earlier will recognize the stereotypical character of the apartment "super." It used to be very common for every apartment building to have an on-site superintendent who lived in the building and handled the day to day management in exchange for a rent discount. But modern landlords have moved away from this sort of structure as buildings have gotten larger and the knowledge required to maintain them has become more advanced.

These days most mid-sized landlords will keep a team of workers based out of their offices who are dispatched out to perform fixes, while specialized account managers handle the processing of rent payments and specialized leasing agents handle the vacancies. The largest landlords will keep a small on-site office in each community that functions largely as a small independent franchise of the larger corporation, but these offices typically operate along the same lines as the mid-sized guys.

There is a general rule of thumb among property managers that 1 maintenance technician should be hired for every 100 apartments. This is a very unofficial guideline though. Hiring practices vary this depending on the age of the building, the demographics of the tenants and available funds, sometimes by pretty extreme amounts. Some landlords with small portfolios of less than 100 apartments will handle repairs themselves, or have 1 tech on hand for all of their units.

When I was working in property management my boss kept one maintenance tech on staff to handle approximately 850 units. We certainly had additional maintenance staff but they mostly focused on renovating vacant units and were only moved over to daily maintenance if we got really overloaded.

I'm not saying this was a good structure. Even a 1:500 ratio will result in raised eyebrows from experienced property managers. But understaffed maintenance departments are very, very common, especially in the large portfolio landlord-manager setups that are common among Chicago vintage properties. This means that renters with maintenance requests may have to shout really loud to get serious problems fixed quickly or risk waiting for months. So based on my own experience, here are a few things that worked for those tenants and a few things that didn't.

Do These Things:

Be nice. The worker bees who handle day to day operations at the office might see so many people that they all blend together after a while. By my second year on the job I had filled 200 apartments and could only remember the names and faces of maybe 40 of those tenants. By my fifth year I had filled about 1500 apartments and couldn't remember anybody. But every now and then I'd do a lease signing while one of my supervisors was in the office and they would certainly listen in on the conversation even if they were in another room.

If the tenant made a good impression on my supervisor, she would often ask me afterwards about who they were and say "well, they seem like a nice person." Often times they would check in with me over the course of the next year to see how that particular tenant was faring, so I'd pretty much have to keep tabs on them.

Go in person on payday. Following on the item above, you can often escalate your maintenance request by just happening to be in the office at the same time as a company decision-maker. It is very common for that person to be in the office on payday, but given the busy nature of a property management office that person may not be in the office at any other point in the week.

If you see a maintenance tech at your building, chat them up and find out when the paychecks go out. If you have maintenance requests, try to go to the office in person on payday in hopes that you'll catch someone with a little more clout than the rest of the management team.

Choose your battles. If you talk with your neighbors and learn that there is often a long wait for fixes, you need to give some thought as to which of your own needed repairs are the most important. Maintenance dispatch is an ongoing triage process. Here's a rough sample of the priority order we used:

  • Problems with legally mandated deadlines, such as heat, trash, lockouts.
  • Problems that affected multiple tenants, such as water leaks and problems in the common areas.
  • Problems that could rapidly escalate to affect multiple tenants, such as pest infestations.
  • Lease renewal contingencies.
  • Everything else in the order it arrived.

Understand where your repair request is likely to fall within your landlord's priorities. Decide which repairs will seem most urgent to the landlord and submit those first. If you have a laundry list of small annoyances, save it to include as contingency of your lease renewal.

Bring a gift. There are plenty of employees in property management who don't make decisions solely with their brains. It may sound superficial, but the tenants who brought us cookies always got moved to the front of the list, even if the cookies weren't all that good. Of course if you're not a good baker you can choose other options. A little bribery in the form of gifts will help you stick in the minds of the office staff.

We had tenants who brought us perfume samples from work, hand sanitizer or office supplies. We even had one tenant who chose instead to provide gifts to our maintenance tech directly. Every time he visited her apartment he would find baked goods or a bottle of wine left out for him. In return, every time he saw her address on his daily work list he would make a point to go there first.

Delegate the right roommate. While some people use their brains to make decisions and others use their stomachs, there's no avoiding the fact that some are guided by other bodily organs. In our case we had an all male maintenance department with Central American and Eastern European technicians. Pretty girls who spoke Spanish, Polish or Serbian tended to get fast service. Pay attention to the predominant demographics in your landlord's office and if possible, delegate a roommate who is most likely to appeal to the hearts or parts of the maintenance team.

Send requests using your landlord's preferred methods. With close to 1000 apartments, we received anywhere from 30 to 50 maintenance requests per day. We had a computerized tracking system that could automatically prioritize and sort any requests that came in through our website, but everything else had to be entered into the system manually, often by someone from another department who might not know all the right terminology to use. Phone requests tended to get lost, especially the ones sent in after hours. Text message requests would get buried after a day of inter-company texts.

Other companies will handle their queues differently. When you sign your lease make sure to ask about the best way to report problems and only use that method unless for some reason you cannot access it.

Refer friends to your landlord. It can be worth mentioning your landlord to friends who are looking to move, making sure they mention your name when they call in. You don't have to like your landlord to do this. You can even tell your friend, "hey, these guys aren't so great but they do have vacancies." The point isn't to fill a unit but to boost your own signal. Your referral will help you stick in the mind of the folks at the home office as someone who tried to help them even if they fail to close the deal.

Don't Do These Things:

Don't bundle it with your rent check. We had separate departments handling receivables and maintenance and preferred to get maintenance requests through our website. Even with online rent payments we still got about 500 checks per month.

Some tenants would send in maintenance requests in the same envelope as their rent checks. They were collected by the receivables clerks and submitted to the maintenance department at the end of the day, meaning a delay of at least one business day before dispatch even saw it. But several would also get buried in the pile of envelopes and paperwork that flooded into the office every month, not surfacing again for days. Send written requests in separate envelopes from your rent checks if you must submit them at the same time.

Don't send it between the 1st and the 5th. Of course, timing is important. Between the 1st and the 5th of the month the most important activity in the office was processing rent payments. The most important activity in the field was turning over recently vacated units. Any non-urgent requests sent in during that week had to wait until the following week when we could return to focusing on existing business. The best time to submit a low-priority request was in the second half of the month, giving us time to not only deal with the first week but to also clear out any backlog.

Don't make requests directly from maintenance techs. Our maintenance projects were usually handled by our in-house tech but sometimes we had to job out the work to outside contractors. In our case we used other companies for heavy duty plumbing and electrical, boiler repairs, pest control and tub refinishing. Unless your building's staff all wear uniforms there is no way to tell who is a direct employee of your landlord and who is an outside contractor. Even if you're sure that the technician works directly for your landlord, they may not understand the dispatch process. If you bump into a tech on-site and tell them about your problem it is always best to follow up with a written request to the landlord using their preferred methods.

Don't threaten violence. It can be very frustrating to wait for fixes. Tenants who had issues with our service previously would sometimes become very hostile in their later requests. Some intimidation can be alright. The tenants who knew their rights and the laws and used that knowledge to their benefit usually did get priority. However, the ones who seemed like they were truly enraged or threatened physical harm (and the ones with aggressive pet dogs) would get moved to the bottom of the list. For the safety of our techs we'd have to wait until three were available instead of just our main guy, or make sure we only went in when the angry tenant was not at home. Either one of those options could add a week or more to the wait time.

It's easy to think of your landlord or property manager as a faceless entity, like a utility company or a government office. But it might be more apt to think of them like an emergency room for buildings. While there are certainly enormous property management companies out there, many are small businesses just like any other with a handful of overloaded employees. Understanding of their size and limitations you can make your interactions with them much more pleasant.

Have you found any other techniques that moved you to the front of the list for apartment repairs? Let us know in the comments!

Published by

Kay Cleaves