While most of us make do with just the one home, some are lucky enough to be able to escape less-than-favorable weather for second (or even third) homes in greener pastures. But while these fortunate folks winter in, say, the Florida Keys, their condo or co-op association in the Northeast must still conduct its daily business, with or without them being on-site.
Because association life goes on, it’s crucial for a board to establish a dynamic with seasonal residents that allows the former to maintain a functional community without denying input or withholding information from the latter. It’s also essential to have an emergency plan that accounts for empty units, lest a malfunction in one temporarily unoccupied apartment cause serious problems throughout an entire property.
How an association navigates this depends on its individual needs, and can vary by region and circumstance. But every board should take the potential absence of certain residents for prolonged stretches of time into account when considering things like annual meetings, votes, and emergency evacuation plans.
In order to ensure that their building or association runs smoothly in the absence of some residents, a board can start by gauging who plans to be gone when, for how long, and at where they can be contacted while away.
“It is extremely important to keep tabs on who is coming and going, for many reasons,” advises Keith Hales, President of Hales Property Management in Chicago. “From a practical standpoint, winters can certainly get quite cold, sometimes well below freezing. In Chicago, we’ve found that many southerners who own condos here aren’t accustomed to this type of weather, and might forget to keep their heat on when they’re out of town, because they’re used to shutting everything down whenever they leave. Despite our many reminder announcements to keep thermostats at 55 degrees or above, some residents fail to heed the warning – and that can cause pipes to freeze or burst, often at what seems like the worst possible time.”
Denise Becker, Senior Vice President of Homestead Management Services in Hillsborough, New Jersey, urges boards to have travelers’ forwarding addresses handy. “The association keeps working, even when folks are away,” Becker says. “Many times, important correspondence, such as the annual budget, special assessment notices, Department of Community Affairs inspections, and maintenance projects – power washing or painting, for example – are sent via mail. When a unit owner does not forward their mail or have someone collect it for them, they can fail to make a proper payment, or to give access to the unit in the event of an inspection or a maintenance issue. Coming back to a pile of mail and then requesting that late fees be waived, or wondering why a screen is ripped can be too little too late for the board. And a failure to allow DCA inspectors access to a unit might result in a fine to the owner.”
“We’d like to have advance notice that someone won’t be home for an extended period of time, so that in the case of an emergency, we will know where to reach the resident,” adds Mark B. Levine, Principal of EBMG, a property management firm that has offices in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. “And in accordance with the building’s documents, we should have a copy of each owner’s key on file. That way, in the case of a water leak, for example, if we know that the resident will be away for another month, it will be easier for staff members to gain access and stop the leak immediately.”
As alluded to above, in the event of an emergency, a board or management should not have to spend any time wondering where a resident may be, or fretting over how to get into a unit from where they may be able to stop whatever crisis has reared its head.
“When an emergency pops up, management or the board require any info that can be critical when making quick decisions,” notes Hales. “For example, if there is a fire in the building, the board should be aware of who’s at home versus who’s out of town. In the case of a leak, either board or management should have the requisite intel to identify the source and take action to ultimately resolve it.”
“All unit owners have the duty to ensure that someone is available in the event of an emergency to allow maintenance personnel into a unit,” adds Becker. “In the case of a pipe leak in a downstairs unit for example, [we need to have] the ability to come in and shut off the water without breaking down a door. Catastrophic events such as a fire or a prolonged power outage are also good reasons to have an emergency contact to reach out to in order to make a necessary decision regarding a maintenance issue in a particular unit.”
According to Levine, simply knowing that an apartment is empty can take a significant amount of burden from the board, management, and first responders in event of a fire or any such emergency that may call for an evacuation. “Also, we like to ask residents who are leaving for the whole winter, for instance, to turn off the shut-off valves under their sinks and toilets so we can minimize the threat of an unattended leak into the apartment below. Also, ensuring that the apartment is properly closed off – the windows shut, radiator valves on – will prevent any possible freezing issues that can also affect the water pipes in the building and, by default, the surrounding apartments.”
Business as Usual
While emergency preparedness is clearly the biggest priority to manage when residents leave their unit for extended periods, an association is run democratically, and an owner’s whereabouts are important to know when it comes time for them to participate in decisions that impact the community. Pertinent issues are discussed and voted on with some regularity, so unit owners need to communicate their plans in order to remain involved even in absentia.
“Much can depend on an individual association’s documents, but it’s an owner’s responsibility to provide appropriate contact information – and when you think about it, that burden should fall upon the owner,” says Stephen DiNocco, Principal with Affinity Realty & Property Management in Boston. “The association need only rely on the last information provided. I would not make any more effort than required for any individual owner.”
“Typically, we communicate via email to all shareholders, regardless of their present occupancy status,” notes Levine. “We have the same obligation to share the same information with absentee shareholders or unit owners as we do with in-residence members. There should be no falloff.”
In Chicago, the Illinois Condo Act requires a board to make ‘a reasonable effort’ to notify absentee owners of general association matters. “Typically, notice is sent out via email, so owners have the opportunity to keep apprised of these matters – or at least know when and where they will be discussed,” says Hales. “Oftentimes, the board may offer conference call-in information, so that the owners who are out of town can also participate in meeting updates.”
In addition to meetings or emergencies, a resident’s disappearing act can get in the way of routine maintenance.
“The biggest headache we experience related to [seasonal or absent residents] is when an owner goes out of town without telling the board or management and an issue arises directly related to their absence,” laments Hales. “For example, if there is a snowstorm and we generate a message to the owners to move their vehicles from the parking lot so the snow removal company is able to plow, we usually do not get 100 percent participation. Then we have to cross-reference vehicles with the owners or tenants, only to learn that an owner may be out of town and thus cannot move their vehicle, at which point we have to either tow the car, or try to service the lot without moving it, which requires a great expenditure of additional time and resources.”
Lawn maintenance, too, can be stymied by vanishing owners. “When a unit owner is away for an extended period of time, and are responsible for their lawn maintenance, it can be a real sore spot for their neighbors,” says Becker. And something as trivial as a dying battery in a smoke detector can turn into a maddening nuisance if nobody is home to switch the battery and stop the incessant beeping.
The upshot is that as long-term travel plans are being made, it’s vital for shareholders and owners to keep their board and management – and maybe a trusted neighbor – in the loop about where they’ll be, for how long, and how they can be reached while they’re basking in that Key West sun.
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter for The Cooperator.