Problems Mounting Up for New Condo Owner

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D.S. from Fairfield County writes:

Dear Mister Condo,

I have purchased a unit in a complex after three years of renting it. I have way too many questions so I’ll try to keep it as clear and understandable as I can. Just a few months after the purchase a special assessment to replace the common deck was agreed upon. It would have been funded by a loan. A friend of mine tried to place a bid on the project but he was turned down with saying that one bid has already been accepted and deposit has been paid. The construction was supposed to take three weeks. Two months in, project is far from being completed. On top of it, we are informed that the loan wasn’t processed because of some legal issues. The contractor is brought to the meeting where he shares his financial hardship due to lack of funds – and supposedly maxing out his personal credit cards to keep the project going. Another vote takes place to hopefully satisfy bank’s requirements to receive the loan.

Growing suspicious of what is going on, I ask for copies of proposals for the job and a signed contract. What I get is simply unexplainable. I wish I could attach a file here because there is no way you can get the whole picture. One, very professional PDF file, maybe a little expensive but I am sure there was room for negotiation. Second, the one ACCEPTED, is a copy and paste from decking manufacturer website, and then some numbers with dubious task descriptions that do not add up to the total cost. Also, it is not a contract so I ask for one once again – I’d like to see a copy of a signed CONTRACT. I am asked why and if I am trying to cause problems, I was already sent the proposal; all that’s missing is a signature. I say numbers don’t add up…oh, so maybe you weren’t sent the final proposal… The third bid cannot be found, supposedly it was astronomically expensive and dismissed right away. But if I really want it, she (the President) can dig through the emails and find it. I ask her to dig.

What she does instead is call a board meeting in regards to the (alleged) constant noise complaints she receives from our neighbors. I am not going into details; it’s an almost year-old issue which I actually might touch upon at a later time. If you want to know, just ask 🙂

Also, we get a notice to immediately stop parking our truck (Nissan Titan) in the parking lot – after three and a half years with no complaint – as it supposedly violates the by-laws: no commercial vehicle over one-half ton panel truck may be parked on the property. I am trying to figure out if my vehicle is “commercial”. It certainly isn’t a panel truck. Any thoughts on this?

What can I do to get to the root of this whole assessment issue? It seems the board is hiding something and isn’t cooperating at all. I am looking forward to your responses and thank you for your time!

Mister Condo replies:

D.S., I feel your frustration and I am betting you were enjoying being a renter far more than you are enjoying being an owner at this condo. That’s too bad because condos like yours certainly need owners like you to keep them honest in their dealings. There’s a lot going on here so let’s try breaking it down to a few more manageable items.

Let’s start with a few concepts that are integral to community association living here in Connecticut. The first is that there are laws to protect all unit owners in condominium and HOAs. I’ll be referring to the Common Interest Ownership Act, also known as CIOA, for a few of these answers. Under CIOA, boards must operate with great transparency. Minutes of Board meetings, bids and contracts are all available for unit owner inspection. If these items are not made available to you or any other unit owner you have the right to sue the Board to produce these documents. Hopefully it won’t come to that but please keep it in mind that you have the right to see these things. Please note there are some records that may have to pay to see (usually a small fee to cover the administrative work of preparing copies) but you still have the right to see these things.

Another key concept to understand is that Board members are fallible human beings. Most are well-intentioned but not all are fully trained or even ready for the full challenge that serving on the Board can be. Overseeing a major project like a full deck replacement can be quite complex and even the best-intentioned Board member can make a misstep or two along the way. Ideally, the Board would have prepared a Request for Proposal (RFP) and solicited bids from several vendors. The Board is under no obligation to accept a bid from any vendor, including your friend, especially if they have already selected a vendor for the job. It sounds like your friend was simply too late to submit a bid as the Board was already further along in the process. From the bids that were accepted, a vendor is chosen. The chosen vendor does not need to be the one with the lowest bid as the Board can take other factors into consideration when awarding the contract. Other factors may include a glowing review from a similar complex or previous satisfaction with other work provided by this vendor. Whatever the reason, once the contract is awarded and signed that agreement becomes a part of association records, along with the bids that were not accepted. As a unit owner, you have a right to see these records as provided under CIOA. It sounds to me as though your Board President is doing her best although her best may not keep her compliant under state law. Please be gentle with her. As I mentioned earlier she is a volunteer who is not paid for her service to you and your fellow unit owners. She is volunteering her time. Be sure to thank her for whatever help she can offer and don’t be afraid to ask to assist her if she needs additional help. I am sure she would appreciate it.

I can only imagine the noise and ruckus from the new decks being built and I can only imagine how annoyed and irritated unit owners feel with the work taking as long as you have stated. One of the joys of new construction is that there are no residents around to be annoyed with the sounds of building. Remodeling and rebuilding takes on a whole new set of problems with noise and construction debris. Not to mention that individual unit owners often interact with the contractor’s staff when they have no business doing so. The contractor works for the association as a whole and not any of the individual unit owners. The only interaction should be between the Board and the contractor during this phase. The Board president was right to call a Board meeting to discuss what can be done to help residents cope with the noise.

Your truck is a whole different topic. If your vehicle is truly a commercial vehicle and forbidden by association rules then you will need to comply with the rules for parking on association grounds. If you have a garage you may need to use the garage. It has nothing to do with how long they did not enforce the rule. If you can prove that your vehicle is not in violation of the rules, then you have no problem. Also, under CIOA, you cannot be singled out for this rule to be enforced. In other words, it can’t just be your oversized truck being cited. All non-complying vehicles need to be cited. Otherwise you would have a claim for discrimination against your Board.

Now that we’ve covered some of the specifics, D.S., let’s talk about what I really think is the underlying problem at your condo… Communication! It seems to me that you have a hard-working Board that is taking its job of protecting, maintaining, and enhancing your community association very seriously. They are to be commended for their volunteer efforts in guiding the community through a tough time both physically (I’ll bet that old deck system looked pretty bad) and financially (there wasn’t enough money to pay for the repair because previous Boards hadn’t budgeted for future repairs). They took the time to research financing options like a loan instead of simply slapping a special assessment (money immediately out of all unit owners’ pockets) on all unit owners. And they did all of this on their time, missing time from family or just relaxing after a long day’s work. Truly, a commendable effort.

What they lack is a medium for letting you and all of the other unit owners at the condo know what they do and how they do it. Do you have a community association newsletter? Is there a community website? When unit owners are not well informed they can quickly think the worse of the association. From your viewpoint it would appear that there are some shady dealings going on – contractors not allowed to bid, missing bids, loans that didn’t materialize, and so on. From their viewpoint, it is a very difficult project with not enough money in the Reserve Fund to pay for it. It has probably been a topic of consideration for years and they finally took action to fix but instead of accolades for their work they are being met with confusion, rumor, and innuendo. Instead of bringing the community together this project seems to be causing great stress and duress for the Board and the unit owners. What should be a “win/win” has become a “lose/lose”.

My advice is to support your Board but not blindly. Ask for a community newsletter. Volunteer to write it or ask they pay an outside firm to write it for them. The newsletter needs to go out regularly (monthly or quarterly) to keep unit owners informed of the Board’s actions. The Board will benefit from increased community involvement and knowledge and the unit owners will benefit from knowing exactly what is going on and what the association is doing to keep the community moving forward. Why not start with a story about the new deck? I am sure that when the project wraps, the community will have something beautiful to celebrate. Hopefully it will be the beginning of a harmonious relationship between the unit owners and the folks who govern the association. Believe it or not, you all want the same thing: a well-run community that is a joy to live in. All the best!

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