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HOA ChallengesOdors, noise, pets, renters and more make condominium and cooperative governance and operations complicated. Are you up for the challenge?

When a renter in a third-floor unit broke a fire-sprinkler head at a Seattle-area high-rise condominium, water flowed down seven floors—from the offending unit to the fourth level of the underground parking garage.

Common areas—from stairwells to hallways and the garage—and the floors, cabinets and personal belongings in five units were damaged. Repair costs approached a quarter of a million dollars, and while the association’s insurance covered much of that, some of the $10,000 deductible fell to the owners of the flooded units, recalls Dan Belisle, CMCA, the building’s manager.

“In a high-rise, if you make a mistake, you’re affecting the lives of many other people,” says Belisle, a manager for the Seattle-based CWD Group. “There were an awful lot of people affected by one person’s mistake, and they were not happy, to say the least.”

Managing or governing condominium and cooperative buildings presents issues that can be significantly different from—and more challenging than—those at single-family home communities. Odors, noises, pets, pest control, renters, residents’ behavior, employee’s conduct, safety and maintenance can be appreciably more complicated to address simply because so many people are living in relatively close quarters and sharing so many common areas. Building operation and management require specific knowledge and expertise.

“Fire protection, garbage disposal, surveillance systems, ingress and egress monitoring, cooling tower operation, cold and hot water generation and circulation, move-in and move-out, stairwell pressurization systems and evacuation measures—all these have specific and important characteristics and functions that need to be learned,” says Stanley Monsef, high-rise division manager for Las Vegas-based Complete Association Management Company.

In addition, several building systems are challenging to access, requiring maintenance crews to work behind walls or at great heights. Additional insurance protection and adhering to occupational safety and health guidelines are critical.

Jarrett M. Tran, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, manager of Fifth and Poplar Condominiums in Charlotte, N.C., has used scaffolding, scissor lifts, boom lifts and rappelling to reach building features.

“Because these methods are so expensive, maintenance and repair costs are significantly increased,” he says.

And maintenance may mean great inconvenience for many.

Belisle was the on-site facility manager for a 233-unit, 14-floor condominium where residents once complained of smelling gas. Workers spent days pulling out stoves in units on eight floors and cutting holes in kitchen walls to find the leak. They turned the gas off to the entire building for about a week, which didn’t affect heating or hot water, but prevented residents from cooking. Eventually, the leak was discovered in faulty piping behind the walls; it was fixed and life returned to normal in the building, but the disruption wasn’t appreciated.

“It was very intrusive and impacted a lot of people,” Belisle says. “It’s just part of life that mechanical malfunctions happen.”

When Lynelle Glysson, CMCA, AMS, manager of the 224-unit Ritz-Carlton Residences in Los Angeles, had to address a maintenance problem that affected several residences, she needed to work closely with her engineering team, the association’s insurance agent, the association board members and residents to remedy the situation quickly.

“Naturally, the residents weren’t happy about the inconvenience,” says Glysson. “But … they were satisfied with the outcome. We were able to build trust with our residents.”

Glysson says it’s important to maintain excellent working relationships with vendors because condominiums often need to reach out to them with emergency service needs at odd times.

Meanwhile, insurance coverage in a condominium is complicated; different units have different exposures and risks.

It’s easy to insure a single-family home, but in a condominium or cooperative, portions of the building are covered by the association’s insurance, even though there’s maintenance that’s the responsibility of the homeowner.

When a downtown Atlanta condominium represented by Mindy C. Waitsman, an attorney with Atlanta-based Moore & Reese, was seriously damaged by water, much of the destruction was covered by the association’s policy “but not to the extent individual owners thought it should be,” she says. “The association insurance covered walls, certain fixtures and the original construction, but improvements weren’t covered. So if you changed your carpeting to hardwood floors, we replaced the damaged floors with carpeting. This caused a lot of concern.”

Waitsman recommends that an attorney review a condominium’s insurance policy and assemble an easy-to-understand list for homeowners that explains what is and isn’t covered.

“With a condominium, there’s sometimes a perception that an owner’s responsibility ends at the inner wall, but that’s not always true,” she says. “When something comes in contact with lines that connect with other units or master elements, that’s the association’s responsibility, but pipes that come into only one unit are the owner’s responsibility. We’ll have a water pipe burst, and the association has to go back and say, ‘It was your pipe, and we’re assessing you for the cost of repairing that pipe.’ ”

Social Situations

When hundreds of residents live in the same building, social issues are bound to arise. Common resident complaints include noise from parties, music, TVs, pets or even footsteps on hardwood floors; smells from cooking, pets and smoking; and the real or perceived divide between owners and renters.

“I’ve found that having direct conversations in person or on the phone is the best way to deal with these social issues instead of sending violation letters,” Tran says. “For example, I might say, ‘I think your surround-sound system is transferring bass through the floor and disrupting your neighbor. I’m sure you weren’t aware of it, and your neighbor didn’t want you to be angry for reporting it, so they asked if I had a suggestion on how to deal with it.’ Typically, residents walk away from scenarios like that feeling as if you did them a favor.”

Says Monsef: “Social management requires wisdom, diplomacy and know­ledge of different cultures for conflict resolution.”

Waitsman frequently deals with complaints about loud footsteps on hardwood floors. Recent technology, however, allows contractors to install sound-deadening materials below the hardwood, and many associations now require this material if owners decide to trade out carpeting for wood, she says.

Comfort animals also have become an increasingly sensitive issue in condominiums, Waitsman says.

If a resident can produce a doctor’s note demonstrating that a comfort animal will help with an impairment that interferes with major life activities, the federal Fair Housing Act requires associations to allow the animal as a reasonable accommodation to the occupant’s disability. The impairment can be anything from autism or epilepsy to HIV, drug addiction and alcoholism.

“It can be a dog, a rabbit, a bird, a cat—and under FHA guidance, the association can’t ask for any specific training of the animal,” she says. “With single- family homes, it’s not a big deal. But when you’ve got condos, it’s a much bigger deal. If the animal barks all the time or hurts someone, we can eliminate it, but if it’s a breed—like a pit bull—or a size that’s not normally permitted, there’s very little the association can do. This has become a rude awakening for a lot of associations.”

Meanwhile, renters can make up a sizeable portion of a condominium’s population. More than half of the residents at a property that Tran manages are renters. More than one-third of the 233-units in the building Belisle manages are rented. Some buildings put a cap on the number of units that can be rented.

Owners at Belisle’s community know they are responsible for anything their renters do. “The owners, knowing that, tend to be very selective about who they rent to.”

The Building Life

Assessments for a building’s shared services are levied in a manner that allocates the costs—sometimes based on a unit’s square footage or on its value. This allocation is dictated by the governing documents, and associations need to make owners aware of how the documents parse the allocation and why it’s fair and reasonable.

In general, assessments are higher than a single-family home community because there’s a lot more to maintain.

Assessments at Belisle’s building pay for, among other things, HVAC and boiler systems, two elevators, a party room, two guest rooms, outside landscaping, cleaning and routine painting of hallways and staircases, 24-7 staffing, garage cleaning and maintenance, lighting in common areas, and a rooftop that includes a dog park.

At the same time, Glysson believes building owners tend to be more active in the association than those in a single-family home community.

“There’s a tighter sense of community,” she says. “Our residents spend time together more often than in single-family home communities. They see each other when leaving or arriving from work. They chat at the valet or in the lounge. They spend time together at social events.”

That camaraderie, Waitsman says, also means board members often know a great deal about their communities. They tend to be on top of maintenance issues and know when things are getting out of hand.

Given the complexity and expenses involved in governing and maintaining a condominium or cooperative, the availability and caliber of board members is important. Experienced management also helps. Glysson says high-rise communities in particular need to be proactive and educate board members.

“We have a new board member binder with pertinent information, such as previous meeting minutes, rules of order, budget and owner communications,” she says. “In addition, we have a new board member orientation with the association’s attorney. Communication and transparency are key when building a relationship with a new board member.”

By Dana Wilkie  – Common Ground