Q&A: Absentee Owners Not Pulling Weight

Q We are in a small condo building of 3 units, hence we do not have (quite frankly, can’t afford) a management company, with the intention that the 3 owners share in building upkeep and responsibilities. One owner has since moved out and away and that unit is now rented. Hence the two on-site owners do it all—all the time. The absentee owner’s tenants don’t participate—I wouldn’t either in their shoes.

Is there a legally established way to charge an absentee owner an additional fee for the “building management work” they don’t help with? We made a list this year of all the extras we take on, ranging from finances and bills to changing light bulbs in common areas to managing projects like drain clearing and roofing to managing routine gardening and snow removal contracts. I have friends in other small associations who struggle with similar frustrations. What can we do?

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A “Your question focuses on a problem often encountered in small condominiums or cooperatives,” says John Van Der Tuin, Esq., of the Manhattan-based law firm of Balber Pickard Maldonado & Van Der Tuin, P.C.

“Although the size of the condominium may preclude hiring a full-service management company, the unit owners may find it feasible to identify specific, limited services—such as bookkeeping and bill payment—for which an outside service can be engaged and paid as a common expense. Other services, such as day-to-day cleaning or occasional hiring and supervision of a repairman, [can] continue to be handled by the unit owners. Although the absentee unit owner would not be able to share in these remaining responsibilities, you may be able to persuade the absentee owner to require his tenant to perform some of these as part of his lease.

“If, however, the owners would rather perform all the required tasks of management, a more complicated solution would be to impose a management fee on all unit owners. This fee could have to be based on a survey or bids from management companies for similar services. Then, the fee could either be paid in cash by the absentee owner, or in services by the owners who live on the premises. Depending on the existing provisions of the condominium’s bylaws, this approach may entail an amendment to the bylaws and declaration, and will require a careful determination of the division of services among the on-site unit owners.”

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