Understanding Maintenance Responsibilities Whose Job Is It?

Understanding Maintenance Responsibilities

 When owners move into an HOA or condo development, most have a basic idea of who’s responsible for repairs and maintenance in their unit, and who’s responsible for the common areas—even if they don’t bother to read the governing documents, which they should.  

 Generally, it’s understood that the unit owners are responsible for items within “the four walls,” such as the floors, walls, etc.; and the association is responsible for common  areas or systems such as the clubhouse, the electrical system, the hallways,  and so forth.  

 But what happens when some areas are in doubt, such as the windows, or a grassy  area right outside the owner’s door? What elements of buildings or developments are usually considered  strictly the responsibility of the administration and staff to maintain and  repair? Since there are several professions involved—managers, lawyers, maintenance firms and others—there are several perspectives.  

 Rules of Thumb

 Donald Onorato, a Hackensack attorney, says it’s important to bear in mind that each development or building’s set of bylaws is different, so there is no hard and fast rule as to which  party is responsible for any specific item or element in a given community.        

 That being said, there are a few items that are almost always purely the  jurisdiction of the HOA. These include any exterior items such as brickwork,  siding and so forth. He also mentions any utility pipes or wires that run  through the common areas or service units.  

 Alfred Ojejinmi, a chartered surveyor, past president of the Institute of Real  Estate Management of New Jersey (IREM-NJ) and a regional director for the  Wentworth Group management company, goes into more detail. “Traditionally, most of the time, for a high-rise, the common areas are all  hallways, lobbies, trash bins, items on the roof such as cooling towers, the  fire alarm system, any generators, the sprinkler system. In garden apartments,  most of the time, the building staff is responsible for general compactors, the  clubhouse, and all the mechanical items, including the pool systems. In a  development with townhomes, the only things that bind them together are roads,  streetlights, grounds, the clubhouse.”  

 Still, he cautions, “It all depends on the governing documents. For example, in some developments,  the association is responsible for only the common lawn, in some, also the  front lawns.”  

 Attorney Paul Leodori of the law firm of Leodori & Whelihan in Medford adds that this responsibility is also dependent on the type  of ownership. In an HOA, the association has little responsibility; in a co-op,  the board and management have responsibility for almost everything; and in  condos the association and staff are responsible for things like the common  walls, common stairwells, siding and common piping, he says.  

 This brings up the next question: What are unit owners responsible for as far as  maintenance and repairs are concerned?  

 James Rademacher, the 2009 president of Community Associations Institute of New  Jersey (CAI-NJ) and the CEO of Rezkom Enterprises, a maintenance and renovation  company in Ocean, says, “Unit owners are generally responsible for everything from the drywall inward. In  other words, they would take care of any repairs on the interior of their unit.”  

 These even include those water, electricity and sewer lines and fixtures that  are only within the particular unit—for example, if the thread on one of your ceiling light fixtures becomes so worn  out that you can’t screw a light bulb into it. If such a line, however, runs through your own and  other units, that can be something else again.  

 Gray Areas

 That brings us to the gray areas—an area about which everyone seems to have something to say. Among them could be  the front sidewalk, exterior siding (especially as far as cleaning the siding  is concerned), concrete decks and wooden decks, says Ojejinmi. Although we’ve mentioned roofs before, they could be a gray area, especially in townhouses.  

 “Most people,” says Leodori, “are surprised the unit owners have responsibilities for windows. If a window is  leaking they call their association, but the associations may have governing  documents that say otherwise.”  

 If a mechanical system, radiator system wire or a pipe serves more than one  unit, this gives rise to questions. Which part of the pipe, wire, radiator  system or mechanical system does the association have the responsibility for,  and which part is the unit owner responsible for? Sometimes that’s a question that only gets answered after an incident has occurred or a problem  has arisen.  

 “Many developers run the utilities through the walls and ceilings of units to get  to other units,” says Rademacher. “This is a common practice, causing the association and its attorneys to  determine responsibility/liability after a leak or fire has occurred.”  

 Yet another problem concerns insurance policies.

 According to Tracy Franklin of MAMCO Management in Mount Laurel, “Many insurance policies are written in direct opposition to the documents. For  example, if an upstairs condo unit has a plumbing leak and damages the  downstairs unit, and the unit owner files a claim against the association’s insurance carrier, and the insurance policy isn’t a bare-walls policy, then they will cover the claim even if the association’s documents clearly state that the owner of the upstairs unit is responsible for  their plumbing system.”  

 This type of thing, she elaborates, will put an association at risk in terms of raising insurance costs or, if too many claims are filed, of the inability to  get coverage at all.  

 Avoiding Conflicts

 All this being the case, how can associations avoid conflicts about building  systems maintenance, repairs and upkeep? Of course, documents spelling out  responsibility are important, but there are several answers.  

 On an elementary level, several of the professionals interviewed for this  article recommend a simple maintenance checklist or chart put together by  management or the building’s attorney. This can list the responsibility for common items like roof repair,  sidewalks, windows, doors and so forth.  

 In the event of accidents, such as a leak, Leodori recommends sending a  professional to see where the damage is coming from. This may seem obvious, but  unfortunately, it’s not always as common a practice as it should be. Once a professional is  involved, though, management can work with that professional to get insurance  for the association or the unit owner, and “it usually makes everyone a little happier,” says Leodori.  

 Even so, Leodori adds that clarifying the governing documents “on too broad a basis” may sometimes be difficult—and expensive, if it becomes necessary to hire an engineer or architect to  clarify aspects of the building’s construction—and the board may balk at approving such a measure.  

 One thing that really helps, says Leodori, is when management possesses the “as-built” plans for the building, with changes that were made as construction was under  way. Many have the original architects’ plans done before construction, but those may have been changed. “If you don’t have an as-built plan, you may not even know what’s under the building,” he says.  

 Making Things Clearer

 Unfortunately, not all condo or HOA developments’ governing documents are equally clear about who’s responsible for what. Experts interviewed for this article agree that newer  developments or buildings’ documents have much clearer language on this subject than those built even a  couple of decades ago.  

 “The oldest HOAs in New Jersey’s documents are very technical in nature—they need a lot of interpretation,” says Ojemni.  

 “In the old days,” says Leodori, “the focus was on ‘let’s get this built.’ They weren’t so much worried about what would happen 20 or 30 years down the road. As  communities became more prevalent in New Jersey, lawyers and buildings began to  recognize some of the problems, and in the mid-1980s, documents got better.”  

 Taking all these problems into account, how can boards and managers help owners  improve the dividing line between their maintenance obligations and those of  the development itself?  

 One way, of course, is to give unit owners a copy of the governing documents.  For those moving in, this could be done as part of the welcome packet. These  subjects could also be discussed at orientation meetings.  

 While giving people copies of their governing documents is a good policy, some  areas of the state do have more catching up to do than others, Leodori adds. “Lawyers in North Jersey almost always used to close sales, but this was not  necessarily true in South Jersey. So in North Jersey, they have some obligation  to explain the governing documents to prospective buyers.”  

 Overall, says Franklin, “Repetition and education. Put articles into newsletters to let residents know. I  often get calls from unit owners, realtors and/or title agents asking what type  of insurance that unit owners should get, and I let them know what they are  responsible for.”  

 She also advocates getting in touch with your local CAI (Community Associations  Institute) chapter and letting them know that this would be a good topic for a  seminar.  

 And, of course, we shouldn’t minimize the importance of a maintenance checklist, as mentioned earlier.  

 These issues, however, will never be totally resolved. There will always be  owners complaining about leaking windows, leaking pipes, moldy roofs, broken  pavements in front of their front doors and so on. But at least, if the board,  management and unit owners are all familiar with the basic documents and  responsibilities, discussions can proceed in a rational, productive way.    

 Raanan Geberer is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City.  

 

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2 Comments

  • Vague, all very vague. Not addressing the hard issues. I understand these types of documents (broad Internet audience) can't be too specific, but this is written to purposely avoid things like light fixtures on the outside; porch lights, carriage lights on the garage, etc. Who maintains those? Courtyards? We have concrete courtyards in our townhome, but not everyone owns one; it's a design element. Is the HOA responsible for an individual unit owner's courtyard? Roof penetrations? If an individual owner's vent stack leaks and causes damage is that the HOA or owner of the unique and individual roof penetration. These are the issues that should be addressed, in my humble opinion. Telling us that items are gray is obvious.
  • What if you live on the top floor and the attic is right above you and you are starting to see water stains in the ceiling . Who's responsible for checking out the leakage in the attic ? Isn't this a common area that the management company needs to investigate and repair?