Taking Care When You’re Not There

Whether you call it caretaking or property management, it’s big business on the Vineyard, where many houses are used seasonally, part-time, or as rental investments. A host of companies have cropped up offering a wide array of options, including simple opening and closing of summer houses, home improvements, and concierge services such as cleaning, shopping, and auto maintenance.

Who they are. Today, in addition to traditional one-person caretaking companies, many builders and real estate companies offer complete property management services as well. John Early, a Vineyard Haven–based builder since 1975, created Pyramid Property Management four years ago in response to client demand. Senior Manager Russ Hartenstine explains: “We handle everything from routine caretaking and maintenance to large renovations – and we’re devoted to understanding all the systems of today’s complex homes. We do everything our clients need, including grocery shopping, house cleaning, and arranging fishing charters.”

Keeping clients informed. Caretakers rely on technology to keep houses secure and owners in touch, using devices such as wireless temperature-sensor freeze alarms, personalized client website portals, and Smartphone apps. Jason Napior, owner of Radius Inc. of West Tisbury, a construction and property management firm, says: “We give our clients access to very detailed weekly inspection reports posted securely on our website, including the temperatures on all thermostats and fuel levels on propane tanks.” Gerard Murphy, owner of Vineyard Caretakers in Vineyard Haven, uses his iPhone to e-mail or text photos and video of any problems that might arise.

Making the right choice. Jon Hartzband, owner/broker at Hartzband Real Estate & Property Management in Oak Bluffs, recommends that homeowners look for a property manager they can trust. “It’s a personal relationship. You want to like the individual you’ll be dealing with. Honesty and trustworthiness are key.” Ask for references and make sure the company carries liability insurance, he adds.

How they charge. Most property management firms charge a monthly fee based on a pre-arranged number of visits. Fees are also based on location, complexity and size of the property, and services required. Projects that go beyond routine inspections are billed additionally on an hourly basis.

Technology as caretaker

Today’s property managers rely on a wide range of tools to keep unoccupied houses secure. Here’s a quick list of products that can help protect your house:
Integrated security systems. Sophisticated whole-house systems alert you to fire, smoke, freezing pipes, unscheduled entry, flood conditions, and other hazards. Ralph Aiello, owner of Electronic Security Systems (ESS) in Vineyard Haven, reports that most of his customers today are seeking simple burglar and fire alarm systems, but “many do temperature and flood alarms as well, especially in response to insurance company requests,” he says.

Individual alarm products. These are inexpensive alternatives to whole-house systems. You can purchase independent products including automatic water shut-off valve systems, low-temperature alarms, sump-pump monitoring alarms, and power-failure alerts that trigger a warning to land or cell-phone lines.
Computer and Smartphone applications. You can stay in touch with your house wherever you go via computer or through a wide range of downloadable cell-phone applications. Using your Smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer, you can arm or disarm your security system, set thermostats and lights, watch live video, and receive e-mail or text alerts about temperature changes, water leaks, and much more.

Real estate Q&A

Q: What’s the most important precaution I can take if I plan to leave my house unoccupied for the off-season?

A: Island property managers report that the most common calamity they hear about from new clients is burst pipes and subsequent water damage. To avoid problems of all types, here’s some sage advice:

Russ Hartenstine of Pyramid Property Management recommends that homeowners stay vigilant about general upkeep. “People often neglect the small areas of damage that can turn into large problems during our brutal winters.” He mentions that owners often ignore chipping and peeling paint, an early red flag. “Putting off repainting means that caulking around windows is forgotten as well,” he says. “Moisture seeps in behind the trim and that leads to a lot more work and expense.”

Jon Hartzband of Hartzband Real Estate & Property Management believes that having someone on call on-Island is critical. “You want to be able to call someone you can count on, to say, ‘I’m nervous about the storm.’ It’s important to have reassurance that someone is here to turn the house off, turn it on, or keep it going.”

Finally, Jason Napior of Radius Inc. urges thoroughness: “We have a standard close-down procedure – a complete outdoor clean-up, draining of outdoor water sources, removal of anything that suffers in high winds. We lock up, latch down, bolt closed every door and window to all buildings.”