Snowbirds in Flight Seasonal Vacancies Require Community Attention

Birds in flight may be beautiful, but their departure sometimes leaves the nest unprotected. And when that nest is in a condominium or cooperative community, property managers and boards must do their best to compensate.

This region is full of snowbirds, individuals who fly away from the frigid and blustery New York winters and return in the spring. The typical snowbird assumes a southern migration happily departing even before the first flakes of snow appear. This flight pattern means prolonged absences from individual units, and this presents associations and managers with a different set of issues, ranging from governance to insurance coverage, to the consequences of unforeseen damage.

Vacancies Prevalent

According to Ellen Bonder Lohr, president of AKAM On-Site based in Boca Raton, Florida and with offices in New York City, “In general approximately 30 percent of our total managed units are vacant for extended periods throughout the year.”

Statistics show that those in the 55+ age group are more likely to travel during the winter, with residents splitting their time between the chilly Northeast and sunny climes. Planning for their absence is critical, she says.

“Typically, we prepare people in advance … to make sure certain things are accomplished,” Lohr says. “We request all personal contact information from each unit owner, updated on an annual basis, usually in May. We also request contact information [in writing] for anyone designated by the unit owner to be responsible for the unit in the owner’s absence.”

Lohr notes that, “It is always helpful when the unit owner advises management in advance of an upcoming prolonged absence. This information enables us to contact the unit owner as well as anyone local whom they designate to be reached in the event of emergency and also to prepare the unit for the owner’s return.”

In the event of an emergency, many associations maintain and constantly update websites for properties. On these websites general association notices are posted.

“When absent owners provide phone numbers, email addresses, and/or alternate mailing addresses, and have advised us of dates of absence, we are also able to make individual contact with owners as necessary,” according to Lohr.

Another issue that confronts seasonally-vacant homes is that of security. How does one insure that your property is safe from theft?

Put it In Writing

Management companies and associations are not responsible for securing individual vacant units, but it is strongly recommended that the absent owners designate someone to check on the unit. Ideally this would be another unit owner in the association, but it could also be an outsider who is registered with the association for this purpose.

In either case, unit owners should advise appropriate building staff and management in writing of the identity of those individuals designated to ensure access to the unit when needed and to avoid anyone getting into the unit who is not authorized to be there, in writing, by the owner.

On the other end of the scale are management issues pertaining to second-home condominiums, where ownership may be shared, and owners have a primary residence elsewhere. These owners spend isolated weeks at their vacation home, but are absent the majority of time.

As is the case with conventional snowbird departures from main residences, preparation is critical when second-home condos are vacated, however temporarily. It is suggested that owners try and leave their windows and doors shut, with the heat turned to a temperature that’s safe, if there is a central unit.

Prior to vacating the unit, owners should inspect every part of the dwelling making sure that if anything is malfunctioning, such as a leaky faucet, it is fixed prior to departure. That leaky faucet could become more severe and cause extensive damage if left to continue dripping. Additionally, managers recommend that all unnecessary appliances and electrical devices be unplugged.

There is a cost for backup, but it’s included in the association fees, and everyone pays for it, whether they leave or not. They may opt out of having their residences checked, but they’ll still pay the fee.

Prevention is one aspect of leaving a vacant unit, insurance protection is another. In fact, for those who might rent their units out (whether they do so or not can depend on their association bylaws), insurance is critical. If something happens—and often enough, it does—insurers are called in to inspect the damage. The association generally pays for the insurance for common areas and liability for board members.

Lohr says. “We recommend that each individual unit owner get a homeowner’s policy to cover personal items and contents for anything from damage to theft.”

Check Your Insurance

Try as they will, managers can’t anticipate everything that will happen. When the insurance adjusters come in, it slows down the process of getting things fixed, and becomes a time-consuming process for property managers.

Chris Snow, a senior account executive with New Hampshire-based Bernier & Snow Insurance tries to inform associations about specific concerns. “We sit down and talk,” he says. “And Community Associations Institute (CAI) offers many courses, and seminars we can put on to educate new boards.”

“My advice is to get a family member or professional company to go in weekly, or whatever schedule you set up, to check the unit out. If there’s a water break, it creates a big, big claim.”

Anything that happens inside the unit is the unit owner’s responsibility, ultimately. If bylaws are not precisely written, however, responsibility could shift, and become an issue for debate between the owner and any renter that might be put in during their absence. “If you let someone use your unit and they start a fire that could fall back on the association, depending on the bylaws, so it’s an issue.”

He recommends that each unit owner gets homeowner’s insurance (known as an HO-6 policy in a condo). The association will have a master policy, part of condo fees, in force. “One of the two will protect it,” he says. By the way, associations should be aware that a loss history on the master policy could leave them in danger of losing their policy. Then, he says, they’d have to find another policy, and perhaps pay more for it. Even an excess number of rentals can affect the risk exposure, he says, since data supports owner-occupied units as having less risk. “Companies have thresholds, and if you exceed the threshold, they’ll cancel you for that.”

Absent or not, management life goes on. Thanks to technology, absent unit owners—even if they’re board members—aren’t left out of the loop on management issues. Newsletters, email and websites have made a big difference in communications. It’s a little different, though, if one is managing a vacation site condominium association. In this setup, owners are absent on an uneven schedule; they reside in vacation mode awhile, but aren’t generally involved in daily operations—unlike those who head south in the typical five- or six-month snowbird flight pattern but do return to more permanent status.

Paul W. Carroccio, president and CEO of TPW Management, which manages a number of seasonal resorts from Vermont to Delaware, says that, “There simply aren’t as many meetings and the boards of directors we work with generally make the same decisions a primary board would make (but) exclusive of the homeowners. They try real hard to get the homeowners to participate, but because they’re absent the board just has to make decisions in the best interest of the community. It’s a tough board role to fill.”

Lohr believes that even though a unit owner might not be there to participate in person, that doesn't mean that the unit owner can't. Depending on the association bylaws, many votes and elections can be held by proxy and for this reason Lohr says, “Being able to participate in elections is a good reason why it is important for absent owners to provide alternate mailing addresses and contact information, and to advise management of the dates of absences.

As with everything else in life, a little planning, preparation and open lines of communication is all it takes to protect your investment and insure that your nest will be ready for you when return.

Ann Connery Frantz is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.

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