Maintenance, Capital Improvements, Useful Life: Is Your HOA Prepared?
“Should we fix this component…or replace it entirely?”
“Is this maintenance job becoming a capital improvement?”
“How can we extend a component’s useful life?”
Do these questions sound familiar? The truth is everyone in your homeowners association (HOA) wants your property’s components to continue to function smoothly and look good. That requires undertaking necessary routine maintenance and repairs as well as capital improvement projects. Properly funding these two types of activities depends primarily on your knowledge of how they differ and how they work together and a deeper understanding of useful life and reserve studies.
If you’re like many residents (and even board members) who live in HOAs across California, you may not understand every single thing about maintenance, capital improvements and useful life. Not to worry! We’re here to explain the relationship between maintenance and capital improvement projects and how you should partner with your California HOA management company to budget for them. And to make sure your management company is on the same page with you in terms of maintenance and budgeting projects, read our article, “React, Outsource, or Prevent? Find Your Association’s Maintenance Style.”
What’s Considered Maintenance?
As a refresher for you, day-to-day and preventative maintenance are activities that are meant to restore components to their original condition and prevent them from deteriorating any further. These activities should be funded in your budget as expenses under the “Repairs & Maintenance” (R&M) line item.
With proper maintenance, components have a better chance of reaching their expected useful life. For example, activities such as making repairs to your irrigation systems, landscaping, touching up the paint in your hallways, regular cleaning of your pool, changing lightbulbs and other tasks that your HOA property management company attends to frequently or on an ongoing basis are classified as maintenance jobs.
What’s Considered a Capital Improvement?
A major replacement or repair that will increase a component’s market value beyond its original or current state should be categorized as a capital improvement. Generally, you will undertake this type of project to reduce future operational costs (such as utility or maintenance costs) or to enhance your residents’ quality of service. For example, if you replace your building’s roof, upgrade to a more energy-efficient ventilation system or install LED lighting throughout your community, you are undertaking a capital improvement project.
Capital improvement projects should be funded from your reserves rather than from your operational budget. Since these projects are costly, your HOA management company needs to plan for them and collect money over time to pay for them. That’s where a reserve study comes in. Having a qualified reserve study specialist conduct a study helps you determine which components will need to be replaced, how much more useful life they are likely to have, the estimated cost for the project and the annual amount of money your association needs to put into your reserve fund to pay for it.
How Do You Determine “Useful Life”?
The amount of time that a component will serve its original purpose is referred to as its “useful life.” “Every component has a useful life given to it by the manufacturer,” said Rodney Riepenhoff, reserve study specialist and corporate engineer for FirstService Residential.
Manufacturers estimate useful life based on certain assumptions about a component. However, factors like additional wear and tear, regulatory changes, environmental conditions or unexpected obsolescence can affect its actual useful life.
How Do You Make Sure Maintenance and Capital Improvements Work Together?
How closely your management company adheres to the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule will significantly impact a component’s actual useful life. Riepenhoff points out, “Many communities do not do all the required maintenance, often because of the cost.”
In the long run, however, this can wind up costing the HOA more because it reduces the component’s useful life. The need to replace a component sooner than expected not only means reducing the return on investment (ROI) of that component, but it also means having an unexpected expense for the new component. More than likely, your HOA will not yet have enough in your reserve if the amount you’ve been putting aside was based on a later replacement date.
The lack of an updated reserve study is often to blame when an HOA is unaware that its preventative maintenance has been inadequate. “Or the HOA hires a third-party vendor that is not doing the necessary work, and they have no checks and balances in place,” said Riepenhoff.
How Do You Extend “Useful Life”?
Diligent maintenance can actually extend a component’s useful life. For instance, if replacing certain parts on a component allows it to function more efficiently or if your materials are of a higher quality, the component is likely to last longer than expected.
One Los Angeles high-rise association learned about the relationship between maintenance and capital expenditures the hard way. Inadequate guidance and support from its community management company resulted in years of neglected preventative maintenance at the 228-unit high-rise. This included unresolved water drainage issues from the pool and surrounding area, which caused numerous leaks into the parking lot below. Riepenhoff evaluated the issue when FirstService Residential took over the HOA management services. While resolving the drainage problem did require a $120,000-capital improvement project, this was $280,000 less than a previously recommended improvement. Additionally, the association now has a maintenance plan to help prevent costly damage to the community in the future.
Riepenhoff does warn that it’s possible to overdo maintenance. Some communities continue to maintain a component when it would be more cost effective to replace it. How do you know when it’s time to replace rather than maintain? Riepenhoff said, “When the yearly cost outweighs the replacement cost, it’s time to replace it.”
Can a Maintenance Job Become a Capital Expenditure?
There are definitely times when your HOA receives the unexpected news that a maintenance job is not enough to resolve an issue. A deeper look into the problem might uncover surprises that turn the job into a capital improvement project. For example, you may have had a leak in your roof that you assumed required a simple patching. However, when your roofers examined the problem, they found more widespread damage that requires a roof replacement. Originally, the maintenance job would have been funded out of your operational budget. Now, your HOA will need to pay for the project out of your reserve fund. (Hopefully, you have the necessary money in your reserves.)
Which Criteria Differentiates Maintenance From Capital Improvements?
When to categorize an expenditure as a “maintenance job” versus a “capital improvement project” is a case-by-case determination. Some factors you should consider include:
The component’s value
Your goal in performing the work
The scope of the work
The actual result
How the work will affect the component’s value, equity return and depreciation
Now that you have a better understanding of the purpose of maintenance and capital improvement work at your community, you can budget for your projects more effectively. Matching your maintenance plan to your capital improvements will help improve your community’s property value and enhance the comfort, safety and enjoyment of every resident.