Special to the Times
Q: What are the board's responsibilities after a hurricane to winter residents who are not here to check on their units?
A: Owners are responsible for dealing with their property or arranging for someone else to do so. After a hurricane, management and board members will be too busy with cleanup and repair of common areas to inspect units and report to absentee owners.
Why we need reserves
Q: If the roof of our condo is damaged by a hurricane, can we withdraw funds from several of our reserve accounts? These would be accounts other than our roof fund, which is badly depleted because we installed a new roof two years ago.
A: Either do a special assessment or call a members' meeting to approve use of the reserves. Many of your owners should have insurance that includes loss-assessment coverage. If the board approves a special assessment, owners can report the loss as a claim and should be able to collect much of the cost of the special assessment.
Loss-assessment policies are typically for $1,000, but I recommend homeowners increase that to $5,000 or $10,000 or even more, because the additional coverage is very inexpensive. Some insurance companies impose a deductible on loss-assessment payments.
Let this be a lesson to study your insurance coverage and your deductibles. I strongly urge that your reserves for next year include an amount to meet your deductibles.
Who gets the refund?
Q: After the damage from hurricanes, our building has a surplus from a special assessment and insurance proceeds that we plan to refund to the members. Some units have been sold since the assessment was levied. Should the refund go to the current owners or to the former owners who paid it?
A: Assessments are charged to the unit, so refunds should be credited back to the unit's account, i.e., to the current owner. Rather than writing a check to each unit owner, I suggest you credit each unit account and reduce future payments to offset the refund. Consult a CPA or accountant on how to manage the surplus and handle the record.
Q: After a hurricane, our board voted to hold a volunteer cleanup weekend to get rid of debris. (Usually the county removes debris and trash.) Unit owners trimmed trees, chipped the branches with a rented industrial chopper, hauled garbage in their own trucks to rented trash trailers, and dispensed mulch in the common areas. We were not insured for this work. If the same thing happens this year, could the association be sued if someone were injured?
A: Yes, the association can be sued, but the post-hurricane period is an extraordinary time, so extraordinary efforts may be called for. I know of one association where so many downed trees blocked the roads that cars couldn't get in and out. Volunteers pulled them out of the way. After the storms of 2004, we saw piles of debris and branches for weeks and months. They can create a health, safety and pest hazard.
Your board is right: Working together can create a stronger, closer-knit community. Better to spend the weekend cleaning up than complaining about why someone else doesn't do the job.
A bad way to save
Q: Our board declined to renew our insurance because of the high cost. If our buildings are damaged by a hurricane, who pays?
A: You and your neighbors will pay. In voting to go without insurance, the board may have violated its fiduciary duty to protect the association's assets. You could sue the board, but that would be at your expense, and you might not recover enough to cover your repair costs.
Dig deep, come up with the money and start the repairs. Then elect a new board that will operate the association properly.
This was a very expensive way to try to save money.
Does driller pay?
Q: My condo unit was flooded during a hurricane. Inspections indicate that the water entered through holes that were drilled for subterranean termite eradication several years ago. Since the association approved drilling those holes, I think it should be responsible for repairs to my unit.
A: The hurricane was an act of God, so the association is not responsible. Associations are rarely held responsible for losses of personal property. File a claim with your insurance company.
Paying for windows
Q: During a hurricane, both the window frames and the glass were broken in some of our condo units. I understand that the frame is considered common property. How about the glass pane? Does the condo pay for the broken windows?
A: Start by reading your documents and conferring with your association lawyer about what yours say on this subject.
Check with your insurance agent also to see if your policy covers the windows. Some insurance companies require specific window and glass coverage.
I've seen varied treatments of this subject in documents. One very clearly said that the windows are the owner's responsibility, but the association was required to provide window and glass breakage insurance coverage. Another association was responsible if the windows broke from the outside and the glass fell into the unit, but the owner was responsible if the glass broke from the inside and the glass fell outside. Most documents do say explicitly who is responsible, the association or the owner.
Regardless of who is responsible, the board needs to track replacement of windows and frames to make sure that the new materials comply with the building's design.
A reason for insurance
Q: A hurricane damaged our car in the parking lot of our condo. The manager says we have to claim the loss on our car insurance. The building was being reroofed at the time; the contractor did not secure his materials, and debris flew everywhere. A unit owner left out patio furniture that became airborne and struck several vehicles. I think the condo should pay for my damage.
A: The association is not responsible for loss of personal property. Hurricanes are considered an act of God. That's why you have insurance: to cover such losses.
Leave generator alone
Q: During a hurricane, our condo used a generator to power emergency lights on each floor, as well as potable water pumps, fire pumps and elevators. The owners of six units unscrewed the emergency lights and, using an adapter, plugged extension cords into the socket and plugged in their refrigerators, lights and other appliances. Someone reported them to the fire department, which required them to remove the extension cords. Another resident tripped over one of the extension cords. If we have another hurricane this year, how should we respond?
A: Don't plug into the generators for personal use. This is a major fire hazard. You could have damaged equipment by overloading the generators. Then there is the liability issue of someone tripping over the cords. In the hands of people who don't know what they're doing, generators can be dangerous, creating fire hazards for others on the same circuit or shock hazards for utility workers trying to repair the lines. Whoever called the fire department did the right thing.
Shutter rules sensible
Q: Our HOA documents prohibit the long-term installation or closing of storm shutters. They are allowed only when a storm warning is issued and must be removed or opened immediately after the danger has passed. Is this reasonable?
The reason is twofold: Boarded-up homes are very unattractive and can invite burglary or other crimes. Some of our seasonal residents are protesting this rule, contending that they should be allowed to shutter their homes when they head north in the spring and keep them shuttered until they return in the fall.
Our year-round residents oppose this change, suggesting that our winter residents contract with someone to have their shutters attended to if necessary. Is our existing rule sound and reasonable?
A: I agree with your policy. In addition to the drawbacks you mention, I'd add that a closed apartment generates more mold and mildew.
Another problem was revealed a few years ago, when a fire developed in a condominium in Cocoa Beach. Firefighters reported that hurricane shutters hampered their efforts to enter the apartment. It took them several minutes to chop through the shutters to enter the unit.
An association's duty
Q: To what extent is the condominium association responsible for repairs after a hurricane? What responsibility does it have for building repairs?
A: The documents, specifically the covenants or declaration, should define the boundaries of the units and the common areas. Private and personal property repairs to the units are the responsibility of the owners. The common areas become the responsibility of the board, acting for the association.
After a major storm or catastrophe, this is often easier said than done. Board members are unit owners too and have sustained losses like every other unit owner, but they are still responsible for restoring the common areas.
After a disaster, vendor services, parts and materials will be in short supply. Some repairs may take months to complete. Repairs can't start until the association has the cash to pay for them. The association should have had adequate insurance and an agent who will see that you get a check promptly.
There are several steps to restoring the association. The first is the immediate safety issue, clearing streets and walks of trees and debris and restoring power. Second: cleaning up the common areas by removing debris and trash. Third: bidding and contracting with vendors to start repairs. That step may take weeks or months.
Richard White is a licensed community associations manager and Community Living columnist for the Homes section of the Times.