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Self-management at its best

Condo complex residents pitch in with tasks, eliminate a lot of fees

Owners in a downtown strata complex are proving that many hands really do make light work by pitching in to perform duties from landscaping to bookkeeping - and saving more than $40,000 in annual management fees in the process.

The owners live at Bickerton Court, a 50-year-old adult-only building close to downtown. The 96 suites consist of one-and two-bedroom units ranging from 785 to 1,100 square feet.

The building's location and unit size might attract buyers, but the biggest surprise many find after they move in is the spirit of cooperation in the complex.

"It is a culture that has existed for a while," says Andrew Godon, who purchased a unit four years ago. "Although it is always difficult to attract people to council, we don't seem to have any shortage of volunteers."

About 70 people help in one form or another. One person does the books, four or five residents take turns maintaining the landscaping, one manages the inhouse library and another takes care of the laundry room. Age does not seem to be a factor - a couple of 90-year-olds regularly remove coins from the laundry machines, count and roll them.

As in every community, there are residents who are unable to help, and those unwilling to share the burden.

"Nothing is perfect," says Bill Booton, 84, who moved into the building 15 years ago. "You've got 96 people to deal with - people with different opinions. We live in a world of circles and squares. Sometimes, the squares don't fit into the circles. You just have to accept there will always be people who will not change."

He doesn't begrudge picking up the slack for those who aren't able to contribute.

"It's no big deal," says Booton, who travelled for a decade before he bought his one-bedroom condo in the building. "Somebody has to do it. Thankfully, there are more people who give than take."

Owners from other stratas find the participation rate at Bickerton Court hard to imagine.

"Some of my friends find it unbelievable that so many people get along - that there are no people fighting," says Dorothy Booton, Bill's wife. "I tell them our get-togethers, for Christmas or a summer barbecue, sometimes attract up to 80 people."

For last year's royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, for example, residents stayed up to watch the ceremony in the common room, while sipping tea and eating crumpets.

That community spirit prompted Sandy Wagner of the Vancouver Island Strata Owners' Association to single out Bickerton Court as an example of how a strata can be self-managed.

"They certainly stand out," says Wagner, president of the non-profit, volunteer-run organization.

"It's more common to find smaller stratas, say 12 units or [fewer], getting along well. But when you get 70 out of 96 helping out, it's impressive."

While about 10 residents are 50 or younger, most are older, with a few in their 90s. That means some tasks, such as common-area cleaning, pool maintenance and lawn care are contracted out.

Residents pay $250 to $350 in monthly strata fees, but it could be more without the volunteer work. Over the years, property management companies have tried to persuade the building's strata councils to consider hiring them to manage the building. The last one was offering to do the job for $35 per month per suite - or just over $40,000 a year.

While residents are happy to take on most chores, the one they'd like to hand over is enforcing the strata's bylaws.

As with any community, "there are those who make the messes," says Godon, 66. "Nobody wants to be the person who has to enforce the bylaws."

Wagner agrees. "It's difficult to enforce a bylaw on a person with whom you may have had a beer last week."

But on the whole, the residents of Bickerton Court manage to get along better than most.

"It's a comfortable place to live," says Dorothy Booton. "Everybody tries to get along and says 'Hello' when they see each other in the hallway. We look in on each other when sick and we pick up a neighbour's mail if they are away. It's a gracious atmosphere."

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