When Condo Associations Fight

flying-cat-fight.jpgThe fights usually took place over e-mail because we were never in the same place at the same time. It was over whether or not dogs could pee on the common lawn. It was over repairs that nobody wanted to organize or pay for. It was over snow that didn’t get shoveled. It was over a roof that leaked that no amount of random patching could address. But usually, it was about time. Most of us would write the checks when we were asked. But nobody wanted to spend the time to manage the building.

During the four years I rented out my studio condo, four out of the other five owners were either also renting them out, or were out of the state or country for their jobs more than half of the year. There was only one guy left and he didn’t have the time or energy to manage the place. But because he was the only one who lived there full time a lot of the responsibility fell to him.

In a five unit building, it’s not cost effective to hire a management company. They cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per month, plus you pay an hourly fee whenever they send somebody to actually do something like cut the grass or shovel snow. When each owner pays less than $200 per month in condo fees, that’s a steep increase. Since most of the owners weren’t there when it snowed, nothing got shoveled. The hallways went years without being vacuumed and when agreed we needed a new roof, nobody even wanted to make the calls to make it happen. So, when an absentee owner sent a desperate e-mail that said, “My ceiling is falling in. I’m off to Australia for a month. Help!” I took pity on him and made the calls. It takes many hours to get a roofing contractor lined up. You have to call about ten of them, five will return your calls, three will bid the job and you usually have to go to the site with each of them to discuss the job. Even after I did all that, nobody else wanted to take the time to check references. So, we just went with the guy with the middle bid.

We groused at each other over e-mail and said things that we probably wouldn’t have said if we had ever managed to have a real condo meeting. The association became dysfunctional.

I learned that when associations don’t agree, any legal remedy is very expensive and almost impossible. It never came to that, but I actually had to start calling lawyers when I was ready to sell and the guy who was doing the bills refused to provide me with a budget, or any of the documents my buyer’s bank required. I eventually went through a years worth of e-mails and kludged it together. I may have said some things over e-mail about his dog that I regretted when I had to slink to him to get him to sign my 6D certificate. A 6D certificate is a document stating that the person selling does not owe any money to the condo association and the person who signs it must get it notarized.

If you find yourself in this situation, keep your cool. In retrospect, it didn’t matter whether or not I was right. It mattered that we needed to stay civil to solve problems constructively. No matter what you say, you still have to live with these people and if you decide you want to sell, you are almost completely dependent on them to get the proper paperwork that a buyer’s bank will require.

  • http://www.redfin.com mike.martin

    I have to admit, I’m really wary of condos and condo association for just this reason. I saw it from the other side when I was doing some work for a landscape company; the owner actually resolved to never return a call from a condo association again. This kind of sniping wasted his time once too often; by the time everyone agrees, no one’s happy. I wonder how many other tradespeople feel the same way.

    Of course, the alternative is renting from a landlord who may or may not fix or improve the property — and having no real say about anything.

  • http://www.redfin.com Margaret Sanford

    I will write in a subsequent post about the functional association I lived in later. Everybody gardened and did all kinds of maintenence without much prodding. The tiny yard was swirling with color from April to October. It was really wonderful.

    And only having to pay 25% of some major costs has it’s benefits as well!