It's a common enough story: the condominium was relatively new, but from the start its board of directors was stingy with maintenance and repair dollars. Then the recession struck, and the percentage of unpaid maintenance fees spiked.
After several years of neglected physical facilities, half the condo's elevators weren’t working. Unpainted interior hallways and uncleaned carpeting and tile encouraged mold and mildew growth. Utility bills went unpaid for so long that the electric company threatened to cut off the power, and garbage collection was sporadic. Due to mismanaged collections and finances, the community was on the verge of bankruptcy.
“Unfortunately, we’ve stepped into roles like that. We had a building in the Chicago suburbs that was not tended to,” says Adam Stolberg, CMCA, AMS, and president of Advantage Management in Chicago. “Instead of a special assessment and asking owners to put in thousands of dollars each, we had an engineer come in and advise us, then we made a list of everything that had to be done. We bid it out, and some of the things were able to be done by the same vendors so we got substantial discounts. We cleaned up the delinquencies and financials. The people who didn’t pay were sent to the association's attorney, and we got them to pay. In some unfortunate cases in Illinois it allows the condo association to take possession of a unit in arrears and rent it out. So we did that. Then we went to the bank and said, ‘We need to borrow some money.’ The interest rates were very low. We borrowed the money and got all the projects done at once. We created a budget for the next three years that included the debt service to the bank. So instead of the owners having a huge increase in assessment—they got to pay it off over time and they got to enjoy all of the repairs being done at once. It took about 10 months.”
Industry experts believe that at the top of everyone’s maintenance list should be life-safety items for which code violations could prompt steep fines from a government inspector, or even closure of a building. This category includes elevators, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and painting of curb corners to meet fire-marshal requirements.
“The major maintenance project that must be addressed and never delayed depends on the type of community and the exact responsibilities of the association,” says James Tomlin, CMCA, and director of building services for ACM Community Management in Downers Grove. “In general, any common element that provides for the safety of the homeowners should be regularly inspected and maintained. In addition to elevators, security doors, lighting and fire detection or suppression systems all emergency backup systems should be maintained. Smoke detectors should have their batteries changed twice a year and emergency lights and exit signs should be checked and repaired at the same time.”