Dealing With Dysfunctional Massachusetts Condominium Trustees & Homeowner Associations

by Rich Vetstein on May 10, 2011 · 8 comments

in Condominium Law, Massachusetts Real Estate Law

images-12I’ve been getting a fair amount of calls these days regarding what I like to term dysfunctional condominium management. Usually these are smaller, self-managed condominiums, converted multi-family homes, etc. Sometimes, however, the problem of dysfunctional condominium management can plague larger condominiums.

As I often tell clients, condominiums often bring out the worst in people. Professionalism and respect get thrown out the door, and childish behavior rules.

The problems can range from poor to no financial management, unpaid monthly condominium fees, problems with the transition from the original developer to the association of unit owners, power hungry condo trustees, special assessments, and disputes over costly repairs and capital improvements. Here’s some advice for would-be condominium buyers and condo unit owners to prevent and deal with dysfunctional condominium management problems.

Dealing With A Dysfunctional Condominium Board of Trustees or Association

A. Financial Mismanagement

A condominium is supposed to run like a democracy with trustees being elected by the majority of unit owners, and subject to being voted out of office when they do a poor job. The procedures for elections and removal should be set forth in the condominium declaration of trust/by-laws. In the case of financial mismanagement, unit owners often may have difficulty enforcing the internal governance rules. At minimum, disgruntled unit owners should call a special meeting and attempt to removal or vote out trustees who are causing problems. If the internal governance doesn’t work, unit owners may seek legal action for “breach of fiduciary duty” against the trustees in the Superior Court. In egregious cases, the court can grant preliminary injunctions and other remedies to protect the unit owners from financial harm.

B. Unpaid Condominium Fees

With the down economy, unpaid condo fees have become a real problem, especially for smaller condos who rely on the monthly income to pay common area expenses. Fortunately, we have a strong Massachusetts condominium lien law with some teeth, called the “Super Lien Law.” Condominium associations can file a lien for unpaid condo fees against the delinquent owner, and the first 6 months of unpaid fees will have “super-priority” status over and above the mortgage(s) on the unit. The association can then foreclose on the lien and sell the unit at auction. Attorneys’ fees and collection costs can also be pursued. The condominium may even require that a unit owner’s tenant pay the association rent to pay down the unpaid fees. These are a very valuable enforcement mechanisms to ensure that condominiums get their condo fees paid. Often the mortgage lender will pay the condo fees on behalf of the borrower to avoid the super-priority lien.

C. Transition Issues

For new construction condominiums, the developer desires to have control over the condo management during the majority of the sell out process. This, however, can create conflicts with unit owners who have bought units. Typically, the condo documents will give the developer control over the association until 75% of the units are sold out or 3 years after the master deed is recorded, whichever is earlier. But what if the developer isn’t managing the finances properly or isn’t doing much of anything? Often the only viable remedy in this type of situation is a Superior Court lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty against the developer-trustees.

Questions To Ask Before You Buy Into A Dysfunctional Condominium

  1. What are the condominium by-laws, rules & regulations? You or your attorney must read these condominium documents and make it a condition of your offer. Condominium by-laws and rules are supposed to provide a structure for good decision making. Make sure you carefully review the rules and regulations before buying.
  2. What is the monthly condominium fee and what does it pay for? The monthly condominium fee can range quite dramatically from condominium to condominium. The fee is a by-product of the number of units, the annual expenses to maintain the common area, whether the condo is professionally managed or self-managed, the age and condition of the project, and other variables such as litigation. For budgeting and financing you need to know the monthly fee and exactly what you are getting for it.
  3. How much money is in the capital reserve account and how much is funded annually? The capital reserve fund is like an insurance policy for the inevitable capital repairs every building requires. As a general rule, the fund should contain at least 10% of the annual revenue budget, and in the case of older projects, even more. If the capital reserve account is poorly funded, there is a higher risk of a special assessment.  Get a copy of the last 2 years budget, the current reserve account funding level and any capital reserve study.
  4. Are there any contemplated or pending special assessments? Special assessments are one time fees for capital improvements payable by every unit owner. Some special assessments can run in the thousands, others like the Boston Harbor Towers $75 Million renovation project, in the millions. You need to be aware if you are buying a special assessment along with your unit.  It’s a good idea to ask for the last 2 years of condominium meeting minutes to check what’s been going on with the condomininium.
  5. Is there a professional management company or is the association self-managed? Usually, a professional management company, while an added cost, can add great value to a condominium with well run governance and management of common areas. Self-managed condos tend to have a higher incidence of dysfunction.
  6. Is the condominium involved in any pending legal actions? Legal disputes between owners, with developers or with the association can signal trouble and a poorly run organization. Ask whether there are any pending lawsuits.
  7. How many units are owner occupied? A large percentage of renters can create unwanted noise and neighbor issues, and result in a higher incidence of dysfunction. It can also raise re-sale and financing  issues with the new Fannie Mae and FHA condominium regulations which limit owner-occupancy rates.
  8. What is the condominium fee delinquency rate? Again, a signal of financial trouble. Plus lending guidelines want to see the rate at 15% or less.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Condominium Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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