One of the benefits of transitioning from renter to homeowner is the knowledge that your space is sacred and belongs only to you. But, when it comes to association living, sometimes unit owners have to give building staff or managers access to their homes for repairs or maintenance, with or without the owner being present. While that may be a less-than-ideal scenario for some unit owners, it is often a necessity. With the proper communication and expectations, those occasional visits can be less stressful and better understood.
Knowing the Law
Whether maintenance or repair visits are wanted or not, they are protected by the law in most states. In New York, the state statutes don’t address the issue directly. “The first places you must look are your bylaws if you're a condo, or the proprietary lease if you're a co-op, and any house rules,” remarks Beatrice Lesser, a partner at the law firm of Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, LLP in Manhattan. “For condos and co-ops, you need to be certain that the house rules were enacted with the necessary authority, because some boards seem to redo their house rules once a week. You can ask for the house rules and get four different versions.”
The house rules should allow for general access to owners' units for repairs and maintenance to common elements or for inspections with reasonable written notice. “The first thing a board should do as a housekeeping measure is look at what their documents actually say,” says Lesser. “Do they need some beefing up? A lot of co-ops were converted in the 1980's, and the issues that are covered in their documentation don't even exist anymore, whereas we now have newer and different issues, partly because of experience, having seen what happened over the past thirty years, and partly because the world has changed.”
While the regulations for gaining entry to a unit will be spelled out in the condominium’s governing documents, often those documents are out of date and don’t address modern circumstances. “Oftentimes we represent condos that are already decades old, so we’re not involved in the drafting of the governing documents,” says Attorney Stephanie Wiegand, an associate at the law firm of Griffin Alexander P.C., which has offices in Manhattan. “Whatever was drafted in there is pretty set and done, unless their documents give the board power to make up certain rules and regulations with regard to access to units or caring for common elements. If they do, then we can put together a resolution for our client and the board can sign off on that.”
While the law and governing documents may detail the cut-and-dry questions pertaining to unit access, ensuring an open line of communication with unit owners remains of vital importance. “Boards get sued for trespass and then they have to defend their entry, which is why it's so important to give a written warning of when you'll be entering the unit and for what purpose,” says Lesser.