E.M. from Massachusetts writes:
Dear Mister Condo,
I purchased a newly constructed duplex unit in 2002 and the purchase and sale package included condominium association by-laws and documents filed legally within the county court. Between 2002 – 2009, an informal arrangement for maintenance of common areas took the place of a formal condo association. I paid to remove the snow in a circular U-shaped driveway and my neighbor performed all lawn care. When the front door required replacement we obtained three quotes and shared the cost of supplies and labor. The arrangement worked out rather well until he became ill and subsequently passed on. His unit remained vacant for two years until finally selling to a young couple with one child. This was their first home purchase. I am unaware if the realtor disclosed condo documents at the time of purchase. During the first lawn cutting season my son gladly cut the grass to allow the couple time to get settled and learn the ropes of homeownership. He continued cutting the grass weekly for two years until moving to his own apartment earlier this year. At that time, I proposed a landscaping company perform routine lawn care to my neighbors who did not wish to share costs. I assumed the full cost for the convenience and to insure the yard was kept up, eventually they agreed to share costs and it ended up evening out. Now winter has set in – the worst on record here in Massachusetts – they purchased a snow blower three years ago which never operates when needed because it is left outside year round. Meanwhile, I need to get to and from work and cannot shovel a foot or two of snow due to the driveway’s large size. I again retained plow services in November with my neighbor’s consent for plowing after 4 – 6 inches. Within the last 10 days we have received 53 inches of snow and a plow bill of $125 for six passes. The $25 fee per pass is extremely low in this area and the service was a necessity to the scope of the snow fall. The neighbors have complained about the service and do not wish to continue receiving plowing – this leaves me in a bind because plowing half the driveway is really close to impossible and I know their snow blower is not working. We have come to blows about it and I feel it’s time to re-establish the formal condo association, establish dues and prepare an agreed upon budget for property care. Do I need to see an attorney? Can I use the same condo documents first created in 2001? How do I enforce this? They have lived here for three years and our out of pocket costs have been less than $600 – but larger items will become necessary i.e. roof repair, driveway repairs, etc. HELP
Mister Condo replies:
E.M., as your snowy neighbor in nearby Connecticut, I can relate to your battle with the white stuff! Enough already, Mother Nature!
You truly have answered your own question. E.M.. Condominiums are legal entities and, as such, really shouldn’t be left to neighbors working out who does what. Massachusetts is home to some really small associations (2 and 3 units) which make it really easy to overlook traditional condominium governance methods in lieu to of a common sense approach to things like lawn care and snow removal. You really can’t blame the new homeowners for not playing by the rules seeing s the rules weren’t in place when they purchased. However, they were undoubtedly provided with condo documents when they purchased as they should have been part of the paperwork received and reviewed when they purchased.
You can do one of two things here. You can have a face to face meeting with them and explain the situation and set the tone for moving forward or you can go the route of hiring a community association attorney to assist and get the property back on track. Since you have already “come to blows”, the latter may be your only option at this time. It is unfortunate because community association attorneys are not inexpensive and you could end up spending a lot of money on legal fees when all that is really needed is a healthy conversation. You are obviously intelligent enough to understand that they way it was done in the past was wrong, even though it worked just fine without the formality. I would say those days are behind you. Your plan for the future is also critical. Does your association have a Reserve Fund or will Special Assessments be the plan for replacing the roof? If the other unit owner defaults, will you have to bear the entire expense yourself. These are all important questions and I think you will find there are bigger problems afoot here than who pays for the snow removal.
You have an excellent resource in your backyard, E.M., The New England Chapter of the Community Associations Institute is available online at http://www.caine.org/. You can find information on condo governance as well as a list of qualified attorneys should you need one. I would also recommend you attend one of their many educational seminars for some local information and to network with fellow small condo owners. With some perseverance you can work through this difficult period. The end result will be a better community living situation for you and your new neighbors. Good luck!