How well do homeowners in your condo association understand maintenance responsibilities? Does your board frequently need to explain to residents which repairs are their responsibility and which ones are the condo association’s job to do?
You might think that responsibilities for maintenance, repairs and replacements would be straightforward enough – what’s inside the condo unit is the homeowner’s, and what’s outside is the association’s. However, it’s not always that clear cut in a condo building. Some areas can be confusing to homeowners.
Even board members sometimes misunderstand how responsibilities are divided. They may pay for jobs that aren’t the association’s responsibility or refuse to get work done that is. These errors can lead to unnecessary spending or legal battles for the association.
You can avoid potential issues by taking the proactive measures we describe in this article. These recommendations will help make it easier for residents – as well as current and future board members – to understand who is responsible for which maintenance, repair and replacement jobs in your building.
Become familiar with (and teach residents) condo terminology.
If you want to communicate with someone, the first thing you have to do is to make sure you are speaking a language you both understand. When it comes to condo maintenance, that means that both board members and homeowners need to know the following three terms:
• Units. These are the individually owned portions of the condo that are designated for residential occupancy.
• Common elements. These usually consist of all areas other than the units. Common elements include the areas in and around your building(s) that are designated for use by two or more units. Members of the condo association own these areas together.
• Limited common elements. Sometimes referred to as “exclusive-use elements,” these are elements that are located outside an individual unit but that serve only a single unit. Examples of limited common elements include balconies, shutters, heating and cooling units and awnings.
Know applicable laws and relevant policies in your condo association’s governing documents.
Your condominium association’s governing documents should include definitions of “units,” “common elements” and “limited common elements,” as well as spell out maintenance and repair responsibilities for anything not specifically addressed by Illinois law. These documents should be your go-to source for any questions or disputes. Generally, the unit owner is required to maintain elements that are part of the unit. Under the Condominium Property Act
, the boards of condo associations in Illinois administers the common elements, including maintenance, repair and replacement.
Where you’ll usually run into problems is with limited common elements. In some cases, or even just for certain elements, the condo association may take responsibility. In other cases, it may be up to the unit owner. It depends on your governing documents.
Amend your governing documents if responsibilities aren’t clear.
When you find that neither the law nor your governing documents adequately clarifies maintenance and repair responsibilities, it’s time to amend your documents. If a resident questions the roles, you need to be able to point to something in writing. You don’t want to have to depend on a lawsuit to settle a dispute over who should pay for a repair.
Create a “Responsibility Matrix.”
Even well-written governing documents may not have the necessary level of detail that your residents need to know. As a result, your board may still find that it is answering the same maintenance and repair questions from residents over and over again. That’s where a “Responsibility Matrix” can come in handy. This serves as a kind of quick-reference chart that defines who does what in an easy format. It lists the various elements of your property and identifies whether the condo association or the unit owner is responsible for its maintenance, repair and/or replacement.
Here’s how to create it:
1. Gather all your maintenance-related paperwork. Your governing documents, as well as a recently updated reserve study, should contain most of the information you’ll need. You may also want to reference warranty information for installed equipment and components and for any work that’s been performed by a contractor.
2. Enlist the assistance of your association manager and attorney. It’s important that the information you provide to residents is accurate and doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation. Your association manager will have a good understanding of your documents and the work that goes into maintaining your building.
Your attorney will help protect your association from unintentional legal exposure because of something you did or didn’t specify. A disclaimer that the matrix does not represent a comprehensive list of all elements or responsibilities is something your attorney will probably recommend including up front.
3. Draft a preliminary list of maintenance items. Using everything you have collected, make a list of all the elements that require maintenance or repair work, or that will eventually need to be replaced. Label this list “Items” or “Elements.”
4. Specify responsibilities for each item on your list. Next to your list, create a column labeled “Unit Owner” and another column labeled “Condo Association.” Put a check mark in each column based on who has responsibility for the item. It’s also a good idea to include an additional column for “Comments” or “Notes,” since some of the items or responsibilities may need explanation or have exceptions.
If unit owners and your association each have responsibility for different aspects of an element on your list, break that element out into multiple items. For example, perhaps the association is responsible for general maintenance of air conditioners, but unit owners are responsible for replacing the filters. You would need to have one item called “Air Conditioner Units” and another one called “Air Conditioner Filters.”
5. Put it all together for a final review. From your draft chart, create a final matrix. Design it to be easy to read. For example, you might want to use a table template, separate columns with lines and add bright colors. Have your attorney and association manager look over the matrix one last time. Be sure to incorporate any suggestions they make. Also put a version number and a date on the final copy. You are likely to need to make changes or additions over time, and version numbers and dates can make it easier to keep track.
6. Distribute the final responsibility matrix to all residents. Everyone who owns or rents a unit should have a copy of the responsibility matrix. Use a variety of channels to announce its availability and distribute it: email, community newsletter, community website and board meetings. Have them available in areas of your building that residents frequent, such as the front desk, fitness center and community room.
If you are working with a good association management company, your condo association should have access to property management software that can streamline the digital distribution of the matrix. You can also ask your association manager to help distribute the hard copies around your property.
Clearly defining everyone’s responsibilities within your condominium association may seem a bit tedious at first. However, you’ll be saving your board a lot of time – and headaches – in the long run. Residents will appreciate knowing their responsibilities, too, and many of the disagreements over property maintenance and repairs will become a thing of the past.