If you are involved in the administration of a condominium, a director, officer, property manager, attorney, or committee member, chances are very good that you have encountered unhappy co-owners on more than one occasion. Your success and reputation will often depend on how well you handle these individuals.
These situations can become very stressful and while most do not result in legal proceedings, some do, usually to the detriment of all concerned. Our legal system is not well designed to deal with such situations and, therefore, it is very important to develop a successful strategy for dealing with unhappy co-owners. Because many of the problems are avoidable, it is wise to develop a strategy before they arise and spiral out of control.
Obviously, co-owners become dissatisfied for many reasons, both legitimate and otherwise. These owners will express their concerns in a variety of ways, including making complaints at annual meetings and/or board meetings, sending complaint letters, threatening lawsuits, and circulating recall petitions, to name just a few approaches. Less obvious are the instances where the emotions are vented by the withholding or late payment of assessments and by rules violations.
Causes of Dissatisfaction
It is helpful to consider why these situations arise in devising your strategies to deal with them. First of all, it is always important to remember that many co-owners are having their first condominium experience and they are discovering that condominium living may not be for everybody. Many freedoms enjoyed during a lifetime of traditional single family home ownership are curtailed in a condominium setting. Those coming from an apartment rental situation find that they are no longer as anonymous and some have difficulty accepting the fact that the association is not a surrogate landlord who will be responsible for every problem that arises. On top of this, there exists the myth of condominiums as a carefree lifestyle, as advertised by so many developers. As we are all aware, condominiums do not run themselves and if all co-owners expect a carefree existence, there is bound to be trouble.
The specific battlefields usually involve repairs, snow removal, lawn care, rules enforcement and/or the finances of the association. The vast majority of these situations are avoidable if there is good communication between the board of directors and the membership. The members need to be constantly reminded that the directors themselves are co-owners who share the same interests and concerns. Further, everyone needs to bear in mind that decisions made by the board may not be readily understood by the co-owners, since the co-owners did not invest the time the directors did in formal and informal directors' meetings, study sessions, and discussions with property managers, accountants and/or attorneys.
Dealing with the Information Gap
This information gap can be dealt with in several ways. First of all, intelligible and complete minutes of all meetings should be available to the membership. Secondly, it is wise to have a monthly newsletter that contains enough information to enable co-owners to educate themselves, if they take the opportunity to do so. If the association is very small, a quarterly newsletter can suffice. Making part or all of the directors' meetings open for attendance and/or a limited question and answer session with the co-owners is very useful. Truly confidential discussions can be reserved for executive sessions. Limiting co-owner comments to a particular portion of the meeting will also prevent unnecessarily long meetings.
You can head off many questions by taking the time to prepare well organized and reasonably detailed management and officers' reports for presentation at membership meetings. If there is a special problem confronting your association, such as a developer dispute, special assessment, or document amendment proposal, consider calling a special informational meeting. Although the Condominium Act of most states only re-quires the single annual financial statement (the contents of which are up to the board of directors to determine), consider more frequent statements and evaluate their content from the point of view of the co-owner who has not participated in the budgetary process directly.
A less obvious communication solution involves co-owner dissatisfaction with maintenance or repairs. Have an organized work order system using written requests and an established follow up procedure. Include the co-owner requesting the service in the determination of whether the work order has been satisfactorily completed. You might consider publishing the number of work orders received and processed within a given time frame to show the co-owners the magnitude of the task and your methods of organizing it.
Issues with Enforcing the Rules
Rules enforcement issues, if the subject of a book could fill a library. Suffice to say, it is critical that the rules be under-stood by the co-owners, which means that the board of directors or manager should make copies readily available - - including the master deed and the bylaws. Any problem areas can be highlighted in newsletters to minimize the citing of violations. Every association should develop a welcome package for new residents for the same purpose. If a violation is reported, urge the complaining party to discuss the matter with the alleged violator before the association becomes involved. Bear in mind that the property manager and directors are not police officers and that violations of the law should be reported to the proper authorities. Condominium restriction violators should receive a polite initial notice identifying the problem and requesting compliance. These first contacts should not come from the association's attorney and all concerned need to keep an open mind so as not to prejudge the situation. If you have a fine procedure, remember that the threat of a fine is usually far more effective than getting embroiled in levying and trying to collect such fines. After all, the object is bylaw compliance, not revenue collection.
Lastly, be aware that co-owners have made a large real estate investment in their community and are entitled to voice their opinions, critical or otherwise. Organizing a forum for the expression of these opinions can help you carry out your duties and minimize emotions. A proper response to most complaints would be to thank the party for expressing themselves, explain the association's relevant policy and, if appropriate, indicate how the board intends to follow up on the complaint. Not all complaints require follow up and some people can never be made happy. In those instances, simply thank the person for expressing their view and go on to another matter. Having a good plan and following it will help you minimize unhappy co-owner confrontations and help avoid destructive and expensive court battles down the road.