What Building Systems Are You Responsible For Accountability Confusion

What Building Systems Are You Responsible For

 One of the most important things to understand as a member of a condo or HOA is  how responsibility for maintaining and repairing various building systems is  divided between individual unit owners and the association at large.  

 When it comes to most buildings systems like HVAC or security, the  responsibility for maintenance and repair falls to the association itself. But  for other systems, it’s not so clear-cut. Especially for elements like pipes and radiators that are  part of a community-wide system, but which terminate in private homes. For  these elements, responsibility for repair and maintenance generally depend on  the type of ownership and the community’s governing documents, and can vary significantly from one HOA to another.  

 These variations can be in the language of the documents or in the policies  adopted by boards regarding repairs, says Karim G. Kaspar, an attorney who  represents more than a dozen New Jersey condos as a senior counsel with the  Roseland-based law firm of Lowenstein Sandler. “That’s why it’s vital to clarify who is liable for repairs, upkeep and maintenance for all  building systems before something happens and you’re left footing the bill for the damage,” he says. “When you look at the big picture, generally speaking the common elements are  defined in the master deed and that controls who has responsibility for those  repairs.”  

 Up to the Association

 Looking at the governing documents is the easiest way to know what the  association is responsible for, but the general rule of thumb follows the  inside/outside the wall model.  

 “The big pipes for plumbing, and the main electrical panels that are in the walls  or in a common area that control the power to the building are usually the  association’s responsibility,” Kaspar continues. “If there is a swimming pool or other amenities, those would be the association’s responsibility as well when it came to their wiring and plumbing.”  

 There are a number of high-rise buildings in New Jersey that fire code  regulations require to maintain fire pumps and a certain amount of water  pressure on different floors. These systems are maintained by the association,  as they need to test them periodically.  

 “The typical cooperative is responsible for every portion of the building except  that which is specified to be the obligation of the shareholder,” says Marcie Waterman Murray, a partner with the Manhattan-based law firm of  Deutsch Tane Waterman & Wurtzel, PC. “The typical condo is responsible for those building portions designated as  common elements (roof, building walls, elevators, public hallways) depending on  the language in the declaration.”  

 Another area where the association needs to be in control is when there is a  boiler or furnace in the basement that services the whole building.  

 “Since it deals with the entire building it is naturally the responsibility of  the association,” Kaspar says. “If the furnace breaks or the pipes in the wall burst, it’s covered by the association.”  

 It’s Up to You

 Most unit owners are responsible to repair those portions of building systems  that are exposed and visible within their home. Some examples of this include  exposed gas, steam and water pipes attached to fixtures, appliances and  equipment and the fixtures, appliances and equipment to which they are  attached, such as exposed pipes leading to radiators, convectors, sinks,  toilets, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators and those  fixtures and appliances as well.  

 “Once the pipes branch into a unit for a bathroom or kitchen or once wires come  into the unit, then it becomes the owner’s responsibility,” says Kaspar. “As any connections come into their units they become responsible whether it be  plumbing or electrical.”  

 Owners are also responsible for lighting and electrical fixtures, appliances,  meters, fuse boxes, circuit breakers and electrical wiring and conduits from  the junction box at the riser into and through the home.  

 “In the typical condo, unit owners are responsible for everything inside a unit  except for defined common elements and structural repairs to certain limited  common elements,” says Murray. “They are also responsible for any maintenance, repair or replacement caused by a  unit owner’s negligence, misuse or neglect.”  

 Even though the condo bylaws may put the maintenance and repair obligation on  the owner, many boards of directors prefer to have all repairs (even those  inside the unit) performed by a contractor of their choosing, to assure  uniformity and quality of repairs.  

 “You don’t want unit owners breaking the walls and doing repairs that could affect the  other units,” says Kaspar. “They can repair something little, but not something that could jeopardize  something in a floor above, next to or below them.” This occurs a great deal when there are plumbing problems with hot water  heaters. People have their own plumbers come in and do repairs, but if it’s not done properly, it causes problems for the people connected to them.  

 “Is it the association’s fault for the pipe coming in or the owner’s fault?” asks Kaspar. “When homeowners do repairs and don’t get the proper permits or use licensed plumbers or licensed electricians, I  see a problem. I encourage condo boards to put policies in place to require  permits and licensed professionals for all jobs.”  

 Shades of Grey

 In a condo, the bylaws typically make the repair of common elements the expense  of the unit owner, especially if it is necessitated by negligence, misuse or  neglect of the owner.  

 “The condominium may thus charge back to the unit owner for the repair,” Murray says. “However, if the damage is considered a casualty, condo bylaws also generally  make the repair the obligation of the condominium. The actual governing  documents and the condo’s insurance policy would have to be examined to determine who should pay.”  

 Consider the following example: Let’s say a unit owner overloads their home’s electrical capacity and does damage to the wiring in their section of the  building. Is it always their responsibility?  

 “Without having the specifics—including the governing documents—it’s impossible to say definitively,” says a long-time property manager based in Flemington. “Although on its face, it would appear that the owner would have some, if not all  of the responsibility.”  

 Kaspar says that since each unit owner’s electric should be connected to their own circuit breaker in the electrical  panel, it should only burn out their wiring. If it does create problems with  wiring to others, than there could have been a problem at the panel, which is  an association’s responsibility.  

 Making it Clear

 Owners are sometimes confused by or are unfamiliar with the community’s governing documents, which is why you can’t just assume you aren’t liable if something goes wrong.  

 “Regardless of the type of community—co-op, condo, homeowner association— the board of directors or board of trustees would be wise to have the community’s attorney review the governing documents and come up with an easy to read and  understand chart of responsibilities,” the Flemington manager continues. “Upon completion, the chart of responsibilities should be disseminated to all  community residents, whether they are the owners or the tenants.”  

 The board should communicate with the building’s tenants/shareholders and advise them of their building’s policies regarding repairs, replacements and alterations. This will avoid  claims that tenants/shareholders were not aware of their obligations.  

 “Certainly the best way to avoid conflict and confusion regarding responsibility  is to have the responsible party designated in the proprietary lease or  condominium bylaws,” Murray says. “It helps if the co-op/condo is consistent in its treatments of the situation  each time it arises and it is useful for the applicable responsibility to be  communicated to all shareholders/unit owners in writing.”  

 Final Thoughts

 Fire alarm systems, emergency lighting, elevator maintenance, ventilation  systems, sprinklers and more are all critical to the safety of the homeowners,  your property and your investment, so an association needs to make sure they  are on top of all of these building systems.  

 At the same time, the smaller things in your home that you are responsible for  are just as important. Unit owners need to understand what they are accountable  for and provide regular maintenance checks and repairs.   

 Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe New Jersey Cooperator.


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  • marlene Lundquist on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 9:39 PM
    What about rain gutters that run along the roof edges?
  • What about gas pipes from the outside meter?
  • Gerald Nave Electrical Inspector on Sunday, August 30, 2015 3:55 PM
    We are doing townhouses that may be sold. My question I think that the service feeders from the meter center ( located remote from the building) to the individual units can't pass below the slabs of other units which will be owned per property deed. The international building code states that a townhouse is owned to the foundation which can be part of ( turn down slab construction) or above the slab poured above the foundation. Thank you
  • Is there a code requirement to keep locks on exterior electrical (conduit?) boxes, to which building unit wiring is connected? I live in a townhome style condo complex with power boxes on the outside of each of 4 buildings. I am also the president of the board of directors for this complex, which has been around for 30 years. Recently, a couple residents have expressed concern that the power boxes are not secured with locks, and that should anything happen, the association could be fined. Up until now, there have never been any locks on each box, and no one has ever been concerned about over the years. The residents are concerned someone could pull the circuits, turning off all the power and do harm to the building or residents. Again, my question is whether or not there is a regulation regarding keeping locks on exterior building power boxes?
  • I've never been a member of an HOA before, so it is really interesting to learn about the repsonibilities. I agree that it is important to determine clearly who is responsible for mainitianing the utilities. For instance, I'm not sure if I am responible for the repairs to the pipeline that connect to the meter outside my home. I'll have to call my landlord to find out.
  • This is why everyone should make sure they read their condo HOA documents with a fine tooth comb.