Notes from a border town: a property manager’s story

As a property manager living and working in Albury–Wodonga for almost eight years, Samara McMahon has seen extraordinary changes around town in 2020. First COVID-19 turned everyone’s routines upside down. Then border closures and changes in state restrictions really upped the ante for property managers, tenants and owners. Samara, who’s been in the thick of it all, takes a 30-minute breather to reflect on this intense time and share her story with the Kolmeo team and community.

What have been the biggest challenges of COVID-19?

Our workload has gone through the roof. We’re not the only industry having to adapt and step up, but our homes have become so much more important to us during COVID. And that has a big impact on what we deal with as property managers. With lots of tenants working from home, they start to notice more maintenance issues. They want to live in a property with more space or where they can have pets. Some are choosing which state they want to be in and moving as a result, so we’ve seen a lot of turnover in our rent roll.

On top of that, we’ve also had many property owners reaching out for reassurance on their rental income. They’re calling to ask if their tenants are financially stable, will they qualify for Centrelink so they can cover their rent? As their agent, it’s our job to tell them exactly what’s going on and keep them calm in the process and that means lots of research as well as the time it takes for quality communication.

How has the NSW–Vic border situation made a difference?

We’ve always lived as one big community. You might live in Victoria and work in NSW, so the border closure has been huge for all of us. We’ve had to get used to sitting in traffic for two hours just to travel a few kilometres. And of course, we’ve really had to be on top of our game as property managers, making sure we know which state restrictions apply for every property and what that means for inspections and open houses.

Even before the border closed, there was a lot of complexity in managing properties across the two states. There are completely different moratoriums on each side. For evictions and changes in rent, Victoria is generally a lot firmer in what we can and can’t do and we can’t give notice to vacate. In NSW you can give notice but the time frame has been extended because of COVID.

There’s been a lot to get our heads around in staying on top of the legislation and the time frames because things get introduced for a certain period and sometimes they’re extended. This has meant a lot more communication with tenants and clients, and we really need to be well briefed for every conversation to make sure we give the right answers.

What have you learnt most about during this time of change?

I’ve had a lot of things to learn on the job. We’re being challenged to really draw on our emotional intelligence, as we’re talking to people who have lost everything because of COVID. They might come across as angry but they’re just frustrated with their situation and it’s important to remember that.

Having these conversations has really highlighted the value of strong relationships in property management. With everyone turning to us as the experts, it’s been a time for really getting to know what’s going on. It’s our job to protect everyone and give them the right information and it puts everyone at risk if we don’t. I’ve been reading blogs and articles to keep up with everything but we’ve also been having weekly training sessions with our team.

This is just one example of how fantastic our leaders have been. So I’ve also learnt how important it is to have strong and supportive leaders in a time of crisis. They’ve made sure we check in multiple times each day on our goals and problems. These sessions have been a great way to keep us accountable for providing a quality service, but it’s also about making sure we’re doing OK. A lot of people on our team are extroverts who are now home by themselves. They’re missing each other and having that regular contact with customers.

On a personal level, what’s been the best and worst in all this change?

One of the best things has been the social media campaigns getting behind local business owners. People who used to go to the gym have been organising one-on-one personal training sessions to support their staff. Businesses are offering care packages you can send to a friend or neighbour who’s struggling.

We all want the services we value to come out the other side of this still in business. And it’s going to be especially tough for the many businesses in Wodonga that have had to close for so long. But from what I’ve seen, I think customers who’ve switched to Albury based businesses will make an effort to return to their regular yoga classes, beauty therapists or cafés. Seeing them go under would be such a loss to our community and nobody wants that.

It’s been really hard for me not having regular visits with my family in Queensland. There’s been no Granny to come down and enjoy school holidays with my kids this year. We almost had a window when the Queensland border opened, but then the Victoria border closed soon after. But we have been using FaceTime and Houseparty to have monthly catch-ups with the whole family and that’s been great.

But the most amazing part has been taking more time to be with my kids and just getting to appreciate what we have. As a working Mum, being able to slow down and just go for a walk together when I come home in the afternoon has been so important. I’ve always been grateful for my family and what I have, but this time together has shown me what really matters in life.