Long before the housing crash, Traci Lehman struck a deal with a homeowners association in Brooklyn Park to let it use a Web-based management system that she'd been using as the fee manager of the property.

For Lehman, president of Cities Management, giving the association the tools meant eliminating her role as property manager -- and the fees that went with it. But the system led to big savings for the small, 144-member association, which proved helpful in the housing downturn.

The software includes templates, contracts and a record management system that eliminates paper records. It was developed several years ago by a Cities sister company called SenEarthCo, and is used across the country by property managers. It can also be accessed by members of homeowners associations to organize and access paperwork.

Five years after first handing over the software, Cities has offered it to all the associations it manages as part of a new product called DIY Management.

It worked at Stratford Crossing in Brooklyn Park, so why not elsewhere?

For many associations, the DIY approach replaces an inconvenient assortment of documents that get passed from person to person, said Daniel Greenstein, an attorney with Bernick Lifson. And at $150 a month, it's a bargain for most associations.

Lehman said that launching the DIY version of the software didn't require additional investment because the software already exists, including all the necessary templates and reports.

A big untapped market

While offering DIY to associations will result in the cancellation of some contracts, Lehman said the upside is huge. She said that with 64 million people across the country living in community associations, there's a huge untapped market. She said she is not worried about losing the bigger accounts because managing a large association can be time-consuming and complex.

The software, Lehman said, will be most useful to the thousands of small community associations and members who have gone through foreclosure or experienced major financial hardship. While the housing market free fall appears to have stopped, its effects on associations remain prevalent.

Greenstein said smaller associations have been hit particularly hard because they tend to have fewer resources than larger ones.

"It's been very difficult with the economic downturn," he said. "A lot of associations are suffering financially right now."

Homeowners associations, typically representing condominium and townhouse buildings, rely on monthly dues and sporadic assessments from homeowners to fund the maintenance and financial affairs of the buildings and common property.

He said there are still many small self-managed associations that are limping along using archaic and inefficient practices.

"It falls back to their own degree of organization and sophistication," he said.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376