Category Archives: Legal

NYC Condo Board Forcing Rule Changes on Unit Owners

M.T. from New York City writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

We live in NYC in a 22-unit condominium building. We recently received an e-mail from our management company (on direction by our board) that certain “rules” would be changed, including language that limits what the building insurance would cover and how many pets are allowed per unit. We don’t really care about the change in pet policy though it does strike us as funny that one of the condo board members has more than the two dogs currently allowed. The change to the insurance language however does seem odd since it’s contrary to our by-laws. In the same message that contained the new “rules,” we were also informed that we needed to sign the attached document within 2 weeks and return it to them. Failure to sign would result in escalating monthly fines. I don’t see anything in our by-laws that specifically authorizes this – except that the condo board of course can enforce rules and fine for non-compliance. Do I have to sign? Or in other words, can they fine me for not signing this? The rules at this point look more like an amendment of the by-laws and it’s our understanding that we need to vote on that in order to make a change.

Mister Condo replies:

M.T, I can see where you would find it odd that these rules are being changed almost arbitrarily, especially by a Board of such a small condo. If there are 5 Board members and only 22 units, almost 25% of the units are represented by Board members. You are correct to challenge the process of changing rules or by-laws and you should look at both your governing documents and any local laws that may offer you protection from a Board that oversteps their authority to make changes that require a full vote of unit owners. As for signing a document provided by the Board that states they have informed you of the rule changes, I don’t see where that is a foul. Fining you for not acknowledging these rule changes seems a bit extreme. Typically, the Board only needs to notify unit owners in writing of rule changes for the rules to be considered in place and due process to have been followed. Forcing unit owners to sign this acknowledgement and then fining them for not doing so sounds like an unnecessary step to me but your governing documents may call for such a measure. You might want to attend the next Board meeting and observe what is going on. If they offer an opportunity for unit owners to voice concern, you could ask what these changes are about. It could be that the insurer has given the Board reason to make these changes. One instance I can think of is creating maintenance standards for things such as water supply lines inside of units. If left unmanaged, broken water supply lines can cause a fortune in damage. Many insurance companies now require that these lines, even if working properly, be replaced at regularly scheduled intervals. All the best!

Condo Developer Transition Litigation Nightmare

N.P. from outside of Connecticut writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

I am in a large condo association that was in litigation with the developer when I purchased many years ago. We were never told of the litigation, and strangely enough had no problem getting our mortgage, which was not the case with many potential buyers from what I have been told. Over the years, the board, which is a veiled one, never fully disclosed the extent of the deficiencies until 6 years after the litigation ended. Now every member has been told we will be assessed potentially over $60,000! (They have not done bids yet for the work.) The board will not allow us to see a cost breakdown as to how the engineering company got to this amount. The property manager has also said that in times of litigation open meetings are not required even to ratify any binding action. The minutes of open meetings cannot be accessed because this management company has said anything before their time (3 management companies in 7 years) is missing. To top it off, there was a recent election in which the property manager was bad mouthing certain people running as write-ins to people just turning in their proxies. Faced with this huge looming bill, I am feel like this community is in huge trouble. I fear numerous foreclosures and the association going belly up! What can we do?!

Mister Condo replies:

N.P., I am truly sorry for your situation. The developer transition period is a unique time in an association’s history and it is a time that requires all unit owners to be wide-eyed, leery, and as well-represented as possible. I have written numerous columns on the subject which you can read by following this link: http://askmistercondo.com/?s=developer+transition

I would love to say that your situation is unique but that is hardly the case. The dollar amount in question is unusually high but I have heard of worse, especially when the transparency is lacking between the developer and unit owners. It is not too late to take corrective actions but the underlying financial damage is likely to remain and perhaps intensify if the association needs to take legal action against the developer. Here is what I would recommend you and your fellow unit owners do to protect yourselves.

First and foremost, speak with a qualified community association attorney (NOT the Developer’s Attorney!). You need legal guidance here and each state has its own version of condominium and incorporation acts that will likely come into play. Construction defect lawsuits are not uncommon, can be very expensive, and tricky to pursue. However, money invested in a construction defect lawsuit that may yield millions for the association is money well spent, in my opinion.

You need to understand which phase of developer transition your community is in. Has the developer relinquished governance of the association to the Board or is the Board only functioning as outlined in the development stage, meaning the developer still has large control of the Board? If the developer is no longer in control, different rules apply. This is another discussion to have with your community association attorney. If the Board is in full charge of governing the community, it is also likely time for a new management company as the one originally in place had the best interests of the developer in mind and not necessarily the unit owners. From what you have described, this management company is working for the developer, not the association. 3 management companies in 7 years is not a good thing. Be sure to thoroughly interview thoroughly to make sure the next management company is a better fit for the association.

Finally, consider selling before it gets any worse. This is going to be an expensive and drawn out process. If you don’t have the constitution for it, get out while you can and consider moving into another condo without these problems. Even if you talk a loss to sell your unit, you may be coming out ahead of a $60K special assessment and who knows what else if a legal battle ensues. When money is needed from a community association there is only one source: the unit owners. You might just do better to cut your losses and move on. Good luck!

When Do Monthly Condo Common Fees Begin?

G. from outside of Connecticut writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

Good Day, Mister Condo! Do I need to pay monthly dues even if I sign the certificate of acceptance but have complained (fixture of toilet bowl is not working)? I don’t have a key yet but I have signed an agreement. What will I do?

Mister Condo replies:

G., I am sorry for your situation. Quite honestly, your best bet would have been to not sign any contract until the unit was in good working order and to your liking. Once you have signed the agreement to purchase the unit, you are on the hook for the common fees that accrue from that day forward. So, even if the toilet bowl isn’t working properly, you still have to pay your common fees. If you don’t, the association will be forced to take collection actions against you which can be quite costly. You don’t want that to happen. Pay your fees and work with the association to get your toilet fixed. Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy your new unit once that repair is made. All the best!

Hoarder Refusing Unit Access Adds to Hurricane Irma Damage

E.E. from Florida writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

We just suffered flooding due to Hurricane Irma in 3 of our 6 townhome buildings. The building where we are having an issue has 6 units adjoined by a 2-hour firewall. We have 1 unit owner is a hoarder – very bad, almost no walkpath. The unit flooded and we need her to move everything on the 1st floor for the repairs that the Association’s insurance is willing to do so that she doesn’t have a black mold issue. The drywall, the cabinets and flooring all have to be removed. She is saying she has no plan to move anything out or make repairs. The concern is not only for her but the adjoining unit owners. Can we make her comply for repairs?

Mister Condo replies:

E.E., I am sorry that your community suffered Irma’s wrath. Like so many other condominiums in your region, damage was significant and clean-up efforts will be ongoing for quite some time. You now face a serious challenge with a hoarder blocking access to her unit for clean-up. While most folks would welcome the cavalry arrival to get things back to normal, the hoarder’s brain works in a different manner. All is not lost, although I think you will find this a difficult battle. It’s all about where the line is drawn between unit owner’s rights and the rights of the HOA. My first call would be to the association attorney who can help guide you through what may become a lengthy legal process of actually having access granted. Of course, your first step is to work with the unit owner and/or any known family members who may be able to step in and let the restoration company get in and do its work. However, if the unit owner refuses to voluntarily provide access (typical hoarder behavior from my experience), the association needs to take more aggressive action. While the unit owner’s health is most certainly at stake, so are the neighboring units and even the entire building. Mold isn’t just unsightly; it can be deadly. This is an unfortunate complication to an already bad situation but, trust me, you will get through this. I wish you all the best in your recovery efforts.

Delinquency Usually Leads to Collection Action by the Condo Association

R.A. from Fairfield County writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

I was previously 3 months delinquent on my common charges with no assessments and the condo association attorneys told me that I had to pay a total of $2000 dollars in order not to go into foreclosure. It seems to me that I am being extorted for money and I am on disability. The reason the attorney said I had to pay the $2000 dollars was for title search, legal letters and other fees that I do not understand. My delinquent fees are only $690 and they are trying to tact $2000 on top of that fee. My HOA dues are $230 a month. I was also told by the management Company that I could not talk to the Board because the matter was out of their hands and I had to deal with them or their attorneys. Being an owner in a condo I know I have rights other than to do nothing. I have been paying my common charges with an extra $100 dollars to put toward the delinquent balance. I know I’m being taken advantage of, can you please help me? Thank you.

Mister Condo replies:

R.A., you most certainly do have rights as a condo owner but not paying your common fees is not one of them. I am sorry you find yourself in this position but what choice does the association have? For the three months that you were delinquent, all of the bills of the association were still paid. Your insurance, your grounds keeping, your maintenance, your unit management, all of this and more were still paid. By not paying your fees on time, you triggered a legal action against yourself. The association turned the matter over to the collections folks (the attorney) and they did what they do which is take steps to insure the association gets paid. In this case, that meant lots of legal fees. While I appreciate that you may face special challenges as a disabled person, I am sure you know there are certain expenses of owning a condo that are recurring monthly – mortgage, common fees, utilities. If you don’t pay your mortgage or utilities, what happens? The bank can take your home or the utilities will turn off your supply. It is the same with common fees. I am sure you will always pay them on time in the future so this may just be an expensive lesson in why. You should speak with the collection folks about your $100 per month repayment schedule to make sure it is acceptable. Ideally, you would just pay off what you owe and be done with it. If you feel your rights as a homeowner were violated, you should most definitely speak with an attorney. I am not a lawyer so I cannot offer you any legal advice on the matter. From what you have told me, you were treated the same as any other delinquent homeowner would be treated. Good luck!

Condo Executive Board Deferring Common Fees as Payment for Service!

B.D. from outside of Connecticut writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

 

Our Executive Board of 5 members has about 80% of their monthly HOA fees deferred as compensation for their time spent working on Association issues. Their contention is that 1099’s need not be issued because the Association is a nonprofit entity as defined by IRS regulations. I believe that is incorrect and that they each should have received a 1099, declared the income, and paid whatever taxes were due to the State and Federal Government. I researched the question and found some information from the National Council of Nonprofits that suggests 1099s should have been issued, but the particular circumstance they cite has to do with charitable nonprofits. I don’t think that makes a difference, but would like clarification before I approach them with the information. Thank you for your time and expertise.

 

Mister Condo replies:

B.D., since I am neither an attorney nor an expert on IRS regulations regarding non-profit organizations, I cannot offer you a legal opinion on this issue. However, I will say it is tremendously unusual for any individual to receive tax-free income from any source and would not likely stand up to the scrutiny of an audit by the IRS. Further, do your governing documents allow for compensation to Board Members? Most condominium association by-laws forbid compensation of any kind to Board Members as it is a voluntary service, meaning the volunteers seek election and then volunteer their time on the Board. If your Board has taken it upon itself to claim compensation for their volunteer efforts, the association may have a legal case to take action against them and have all monies paid to the Board Members returned to the association. Taking funds improperly from the association is theft and punishable with fines and/or jail. It is most definitely time to speak to a qualified attorney from your state to discuss how your Board has decided to conduct business. If laws have been broken, they need to be thrown off the Board and charged accordingly. At the very least, they should return any money they have received in compensation for their voluntary service. Good luck!

Questionable Dialogue Deleted from Condo Association Board Meeting Recording

J.J. from Florida writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

I serve on the Board of Directors as Vice President of a Florida condominium. Recently, the Secretary of the Board relayed via email that she had deliberately removed from tape dialogue between the President and Property Manager during a board meeting. Is this an illegal or actionable matter?

Mister Condo replies:

J.J., since I am not an attorney, I cannot offer you legal advice in this column. You should speak with a qualified community association attorney in your state (there are many!) for a legal answer. Let me offer some friendly advice instead. Do you know what kind of statements were deleted? For instance, “How about that Marlins game last night?” and the associated banter that accompanies such a statement is hardly scandalous or of interest to the association. Even off the cuff remarks about anything other than association business are hardly of interest to unit owners or other Board Members. If the dialogue was specifically about association business and you suspect foul play is going on, you should certainly speak to an attorney and describe what you know to have happened. Presumably, you were at the Board Meeting and know what was said. Minutes of Board meetings are the official record of what happened. Motions, votes, and so on. If it isn’t in the Minutes, it never happened. If you suspect foul play, take action. If not, let it go, and keep an eye on the situation. If this is an ongoing problem, there may be more to it than meets the eye. All the best!

Condo Board Weighs in on Allowing Double Parking for Motorcycles and Cars in One Space

J.S. from Chicago writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

I was recently elected to my HOA board. Some residents have been inquiring about a rule that we have (in our rules and regulations) regarding parking motorcycles/Vespas in a parking spot WITH a car. So long as they fit within the lines and do not cause an issue for neighboring parking spots. The garage is enclosed and unit owners own their parking spots. The board is willing to change the rule, but does not want to be breaking some type of fire code, city (Chicago), or state (IL) law or ordinance by allowing this type of double parking. Do you know if there would be any issue with us removing this rule to allow people to park a car and motorcycle in one parking spot? Thanks!

Mister Condo replies:

J.S., welcome to the Board! As a rule, parking lots are owned by the association, a private organization, and are free to do with their parking areas as they see fit. City fire codes and ordinances are another matter altogether so before you go changing any association rules, I would encourage you to speak with a local expert (a fire marshal, perhaps) who can give you the lowdown on what, if any, ordinances you may be violating by changing the parking rules. If you read my column on any type of regular basis, you will see that parking issues are always a concern at condominiums and other high-density housing areas. Too many vehicles, too few spaces. Once you have the OK from local officials, think long and hard about making any change to the parking rules. Folks that purchased into your association do so with a certain set of rules in place. While I appreciate the desire of motorcycle and Vespa owners to park their bikes within their spaces, there was never an expectation that they should be able to do so when they purchased. Even well-intentioned residents will occasionally “go over the line” with a wheel or handlebar or make it difficult for a neighboring parking space to be easily accessed. My advice to you is to leave well enough alone and leave the parking rules as is. However, if the number of bike owners is a majority and the rule needs to change, so be it. Either way, I wish you the wisdom of Solomon and Good Luck!

Condo Developer Transition Turmoil

S.C. from Litchfield County writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

Our Board does nothing. No communication, they don’t respond to our questions very well, they are not transparent when they communicate among each other (which is not too often) and my biggest beef, they refuse to fix our crumbling infrastructure (roads, outside siding, fascia boards, etc.). It’s one delay, one excuse after another and this has been going on for almost 3 years. Money is tight, they do not properly fund our community yet they are raising the dues and still operating with a negative balance. No one on the board lives here full-time and the president and one other member work for the developer. Clearly, their priorities are not in sync with the homeowners. Most residents will not say a word for fear of being the bad one or simply a case of extreme apathy. I want to round up the troops and have all the board members (well, 3 out of 4) removed. Having been the president of the association and property manager, I have plenty of experience.  I do not know what kind of reaction I will get but I do know there will be some support. Any response from you would be great and I look forward to it. Thank you.

Mister Condo replies:

S.C., I am sorry that your condo Board is not performing to your expectations. However, from what you have told me, the association is still under developer control so the Board truly has limited power during this time period. Once control is handed over to the association, things will change because no one will be beholden to the developer. The association governs itself and many of the items you discuss can be addressed through democratic elections of interested and able volunteers. Now, if the developer has broken covenants with the owners and you think a lawsuit is in order, you might want to discuss your situation with an attorney. However, new owners like you describe may not go along with spending money to sue the developer so you may just need to wait until the developer transition period is complete. If I have misread your letter and the developer transition is already complete, you simply need to elect new leaders for your community. You will need volunteers ready, able, and willing to serve. They will need training and support. You should also consider hiring a community association attorney verse in developer transition, and accountant, and a property manager if needed. The developer’s team was there to support the developer, not the community association. Getting the right folks in place is vitally important to your association’s success. Your local CAI Chapter can help you find the resources you need. Visit http://caict.org to learn more. Good luck!

Complacent Condo Owners Liable for Board’s Poor Performance

F.M. from outside of Connecticut writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

I joined the board a year ago. The other board members are there for decades, not by vote but because we never reached the minimum quorum to carry out an election. After investigation, I found several flubs in the past decisions that led us to severe loss to our condominium. One of them, amounts to almost $300,000 in losses with the cost of irrigation water. The association has been paying the local utility company by the highest water rate when it should be 70% lower if they had applied with the utility company for a lower rate based on the size of our property. The lower rate was available since 2008 and it was very easy to learn about. Another issue is the roofs of our buildings. The wooden shakes were replaced in 2004 after damages caused by a hurricane. However, as I learned, the wooden shakes replacement was not done by Standard Building Code. The association did not hire an architect or engineer to guide them in the reconstruction process. As a consequence, the roofs were replaced by local contractors and are now in very bad shape, will not last much longer and the overall aspect is detrimental to our property values. Another issue is the most recent, and involves the resurfacing of our tennis court that had been in bad shape and useless for years. The association knew that the ground soil was sinking and that the soil needed to be addressed beforehand. Instead, they approved a cheap painting for $7,000. The tennis court is visibly off level. Considering the way decisions are made by the board, I am afraid that our condominium will suffer further downgrades if action is not taken to remove and replace the board members. Because of the last recession, more than 50% of our units are now rental units. It will not be an easy task to obtain signatures of 75% of all property owners to remove the board members. My question is whether a legal action to compel them to leave is a valid option.

Mister Condo replies:

F.M., I am sorry for the situation you find yourself in. I am not an attorney so I cannot offer you legal advice as to whether a legal action to compel the Board to vacate their office is a valid option. However, I will tell you that, in my opinion, it is not a valid option for the following reasons. Your association is a privately held, not for profit, corporation. The corporation was founded to govern the association and unless you can cite an explicitly illegal activity, the Board has done nothing legally incorrect. In fact, for decades, the unit owners of your association have returned them to office at Annual Meetings, where democratic elections have been held. Lack of quorum only shows that unit owners didn’t care enough to participate in the governance of their association. Shame on them for doing so as all unit owners have paid the price over and over again for their lack of attendance. If it were me, I would sell my unit and get out before any further financial damage occurred. That is an option available to you. If you wish to remain and try to effect change, you will need to seek other like-minded unit owners to run for election to the Board and get enough votes to win. If you think you have the votes/signatures to force a recall election prior to the Annual Meeting, you can certainly follow the steps on your governing documents to do so. However, with so many absentee owners, I agree with you that would be unlikely. Annual Meetings are typically your best bet for a changing of the guard. You will need to campaign for new Board Members and be sure they are ready to serve. You should reach out to resident unit owners ahead of time and write to absentee unit owners to encourage them to support these new candidates with a proxy vote. Change to association governance comes from within the association. Simply doing an inadequate job of managing the association resources isn’t enough to have Board members removed. It takes a fresh batch of candidates to unseat incumbent Board Members. And guess what? If your fellow unit owners don’t support that change, it isn’t going to happen. Good Luck!