Housing Counsel: How Intrusive Can a Condo Board Be?

Written by Posted On Sunday, 01 January 2006 16:00

Question: Can a condominium board of directors force an owner to make modifications to a condominium unit's electrical outlets. Our board of directors has requested that all apartments be updated with 3-prong plugs (chassis ground connector) and fault interrupters in the kitchens and bathrooms. We are all required to have a licensed electrician certify the work.

The board has admitted that their requirement has no relation to the operation of the common electrical system. However, they justify their decision by stating that when a two prong, or non-grounded, outlet is misused, it can result in a fire or overheating of the electrical lines within the unit. According to the board's property manager, such misuse can cause a claim on the Master Insurance Policy as well as risks to the safety of other owners.

Many of the owners object to this clear intrusion into the privacy of our own homes. We support the board's concern about our safety, but believe that each owner should have the right to make their own decision as to whether to make the changes to the outlets in their own apartment?

Answer: I don't always support condominium board decisions, but in this case, I have to side with the board. If you lived in a single family home, I suspect that if you became aware of a potential fire safety problem, you would immediately take steps to correct the situation.

Your board of directors has the responsibility -- indeed the duty -- to properly manage the common elements. If there is any possibility of a fire -- or other safety hazards within the building, the board must take all appropriate action.

And in my opinion, the board has made the right decision.

A condominium is composed of three separate entities

  • the unit: This is your apartment. You own every thing inside the walls, from the floor to the ceiling.

  • the common elements: These are those items which are common to the building in which you live, and include such items as the roof, the elevators, and the front lobby. They also include, in most cases, electrical, plumbing and heating elements which come into your unit.

  • limited common elements: These are portions of the building which -- while outside of your unit - are restricted to use by less than all of the owners. Balconies and patios fall into this category.

The board of directors obviously has to walk a careful line when making decisions. On the one hand, they must take all reasonable steps to make sure that the building is safe, secure and habitable. But on the other hand, they have to respect the privacy of the individual unit owners.

Many times, this creates difficult choices for a board. Clearly, if a unit owner wants to paint his/her apartment in a garish color, this should not be the concern of the board. But if an owner is making loud noises, and causing other owners to be disturbed, the board has the responsibility to step in and try to stop the problem.

In your building, your board has determined that there may be safety problems if someone misuses the two-prong electrical outlets. In recent weeks, we have read stories about serious fires which have started in residential buildings. This becomes especially important during the cold holiday season, when people use a lot more electricity for such things as Christmas trees, electric Hanukkah menorahs, and heating units.

Let's turn the question around. What would you do if there was a serious fire in your building, and you subsequently learned that the board was aware of the safety issues but took no action. I suspect you would be extremely angry, and even want to file suit against your board for negligence and for breach of fiduciary duty.

Your board is taking a preventive measure, which in my opinion is completely appropriate and reasonable.

However, here's a suggestion. Instead of requiring each owner to hire their own licensed electrician, the board should arrange for an electrical company to go through each unit in the building and make the necessary repairs. In most cases, in accordance with your legal documents and state law, this would be a common expense. I am sure that the board would be able to obtain a bulk rate for this service, which will be less expensive for everyone than if each unit owner has to make separate arrangements.

Additionally, this would ensure that the entire building is protected, and the board would not have to make independent inspections of each unit to assure compliance with their new regulation.

It has often been said that a person's home is his/her castle. Right or wrong, when you buy into a condominium regime, you give up a little of your privacy, your independence, and a little bit of your castle.

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Benny L Kass

Author of the weekly Housing Counsel column with The Washington Post for nearly 30 years, Benny Kass is the senior partner with the Washington, DC law firm of KASS LEGAL GROUP, PLLC and a specialist in such real estate legal areas as commercial and residential financing, closings, foreclosures and workouts.

Mr. Kass is a Charter Member of the College of Community Association Attorneys, and has written extensively about community association issues. In addition, he is a life member of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. In this capacity, he has been involved in the development of almost all of the Commission’s real estate laws, including the Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act which has been adopted in many states.

kasslegalgroup.com

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