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Home Forum Extra

Seattle Times business reporter Elizabeth Rhodes posts the answers to your real estate questions as they pop up during the week. Join this ongoing discussion, which also features reader reaction to real-estate articles appearing throughout The Times.

Home Forum, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 1845, Seattle, WA 98111

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October 10, 2008 7:00 AM

Understanding new condo reserve study requirements

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our condominium association is struggling to understand the new law requiring us to have a professional reserve study. With the exception of financial hardship, is it mandatory we have this study? Are there other exceptions, perhaps related to the number of units or age of the building?

Can we forgo a study if we have our accountant certify our reserves are sufficient to meet expenses? And if we don't have a reserve study done, does this open our association to liability if an owner decides to claim it impairs the marketability of his unit?

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September 29, 2008 3:57 PM

Collecting delinquent condo dues

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: When homeowners in our large condominium association fall behind on their dues, our recourse has been to lien the property. Realistically, are there other avenues of recovery we could pursue? Perhaps take them to small-claims court? Or turn them over to a collection agency?

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September 24, 2008 1:23 PM

Just what do condo owners get to vote on?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: What questions can a condo unit owner vote on other than electing officials? Can we require the right to have a vote or say on issues?

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September 10, 2008 8:00 AM

Dead rats create repair bill headache

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: For almost two years several owners in my condo complex complained about a rat problem in one area of our common space. The association tried to solve it, but I feel there was some stalling on their part. So the problem ballooned into a $7,000 repair bill.

Our bylaws say "the units that benefit from repair or replacement must bear the expense." Shouldn't the entire association -- rather than just those owners most directly affected -- be responsible because the problem wasn't solved in a timely fashion?

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August 28, 2008 7:30 AM

Pondering the availability of condo repair loans

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I've heard that many older condo complexes need multimillion-dollar maintenance and repairs. In the past, the owners' rapidly increasing equity fueled their ability to get construction loans. Now that the real-estate market has turned, what's the availability like for these loans?

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August 25, 2008 2:35 PM

Meager reserve account savings worries condo owner

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: What recourse do condo owners have to require their board to follow the requirements of the declaration?

Ours states that the board is responsible for calculating "contributions to the reserve fund so that there are sufficient funds in the reserve fund to replace each Common Area covered by the fund at the end of the estimated useful life..."

However our board has cut reserve fund contributions by more than 75 percent in the last five years, preferring instead that we pay for things with special assessments. We have one now in the works for $300,000.

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August 25, 2008 11:04 AM

Barbeque smoke as an issue

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I recently received a fine "warning" from my condo management company. It was because a neighbor complained about the smoke coming from a charcoal barbecue on my patio. However in the HOA House Rules, is states "Barbecues on balconies and patios are allowed under these conditions: Charcoal barbecues must have an enclosed ash catcher. Gas barbecues must have a shelf underneath to catch drippings or the homeowner is required to use a metal drip pan to protect deck surface from any damage." Since I do have an ash catcher, I am not breaking any rules. Do they really have any right to fine or send me a warning letter since I am not violating the House Rules?

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August 7, 2008 8:00 AM

Disabled homeowner loses handicapped parking spot

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I'm a disabled senior and have a handicapped-parking permit for my car, which I parked in the handicapped spot next to my Kent condominium. Recently the homeowners board voted to turn our three handicapped spots into visitor parking instead. I've complained, but haven't gotten anywhere. Isn't this discriminatory?

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August 6, 2008 7:30 AM

HOA committee nixes changing door style

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our house, in a Kitsap County neighborhood, is governed by a homeowners association (HOA), which requires owners to get its architectural committee's approval for any construction affecting a home's exterior. This committee has denied our request to replace our front door with one containing a window -- even though there's no conformity of door styles in our neighborhood. Are we stuck with this ruling?

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July 28, 2008 3:40 PM

Upset condo owner searches for a higher power

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Is there a public ethics agency where a condominium homeowner may file a complaint concerning an autocratic homeowner board president and a property manager where they conspired to recall two homeowner board members who did not agree with the property manager's proposed annual budget?
A civil suit cannot be considered since homeowners' funds would be used to defend the case. (The Washington Real Estate Commission was contacted without success.)

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July 23, 2008 7:30 AM

When former condo board members won't let go

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our condo's former board of directors made questionable decisions regarding very serious financial matters. The new board is trying to recover from this matter, but some now-former board members won't let go. Their demands are constant. How can we get this situation under control?

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July 2, 2008 1:00 PM

What happens when a condo has no board of directors?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our condo complex is having difficulty getting volunteers. What happens if no one takes on board responsibilities? Do we have a property management company take over, and if so what are the ramifications?

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June 18, 2008 11:30 AM

Does new reserve-study law cover town homes, co-ops?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: A new law requires condo associations to have reserve studies. Does it also apply to zero-lot-line town home communities and co-ops? Also, who does reserve studies and where can I find them?

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June 17, 2008 5:00 PM

Improvement plans worry cat-owning condo dweller

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My condo association hired a construction company to remove our doors and windows, install weather seals then replace everything. The company says it will attempt to contact us twice before construction and if they can't, construction will start anyway. I told the company it couldn't proceed unless I'm home because I'm concerned about my cats. They wouldn't agree. Are my civil rights being trampled? Do I need to get a restraining order?

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June 10, 2008 4:30 PM

Foreclosures lead to overgrown grass and HOA concerns

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Two homes in our neighborhood are in foreclosure and the owners have stopped maintaining their yards. This violates our homeowners association (HOA) covenants. Can our association require the banks that are foreclosing to maintain these yards until the homes are sold? If not, what can we do to bring the yards into compliance?

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April 30, 2008 9:00 AM

Condo owners consider banning rentals

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our 19-unit condominium homeowners association has authorized the board to explore the possibility of becoming an entirely owner-occupied building. Our existing bylaws allow a maximum of four rental units. What's the usual procedure, beyond engaging an attorney, and what specifics should we be prepared to address in the initial consultation?

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April 15, 2008 3:00 AM

Condo owner wonders about limiting rentals

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I own a condo in a complex that has 100-plus units. The current CC&Rs have no rules limiting the number of rented units. Is it within the association's right and within the law to amend the CC&Rs to restrict the number of rentals?

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April 11, 2008 8:00 AM

Homeowner questions association's reach

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My homeowners association has established a new rule that prohibits parking a recreational vehicle or boat for more than 12 hours on the city streets in front of our homes. After a certain number of offenses, the vehicle can get towed. Is it legal for an HOA to establish their own rules for parking on these streets? Since the HOA doesn't own our taxpayer-funded streets, this seems contradictory to me.

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March 19, 2008 11:00 AM

Condo board considers hiring members to manage association

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My small condo complex is reluctant to hire professional management because of the cost, yet our complex is just big enough that being on the board is quite time consuming. There's not a lot of community involvement, which adds to the burden on board members. The board is now proposing that a couple of its members be paid for their services. This wouldn't violate our governing documents. What are the pros and cons of doing this?

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March 10, 2008 3:25 PM

More on potential homeowners association law

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Several readers have e-mailed requesting more information about the change in homeowner association law mentioned in the Home Forum Extra item "Action by homeowners association board upsets tenant." It can be found by scrolling down in this column.

Actually there are two bills before the state legislature.

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March 5, 2008 10:00 AM

Action by homeowners association board upsets resident

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I live in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners association. Among other things, the board held an election without giving proper notice and is establishing rules and fines regarding private property that are not provided for in our governing documents. Is there any precedent for claiming a board to be invalid or for disregarding a board's decisions?

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January 22, 2008 9:15 AM

Long-distance condo landlords cause concern

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My small condominium association allows rentals. However we're having trouble with long-distance owners who rent their units, then are unavailable when problems arise, leaving the board to try to help tenants out. Can the board enact a rule requiring long-distance owners to have a property manager available to oversee their unit? Also, our declaration allows pets. Can the board enact a rule that allows owners, but not tenants, to keep pets?

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January 10, 2008 9:00 AM

When an unfinished condo project goes under

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: What happens when you've bought a unit in a condo complex and the thing goes bankrupt before many of the units are sold? As an owner can you be liable for costs associated with the bankruptcy?

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December 21, 2007 5:13 AM

Dealing with apathetic condo owners

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: My condo building is small and doesn't have professional management. It seems most owners not on the board expect the board to take care of all building-related matters.

Some have never served on the board, nor have they contributed to the maintenance of the building, even when requests for help are posted.

I realize that their lack of contribution cannot be attributed solely to laziness; some people may simply be ignorant of the fact that being a condo owner is not the same as living in an apartment building while also receiving the tax breaks of a homeowner.

Can you provide a short list of the basic responsibilities of condo ownership? Owners in my building, as well as potential condo buyers, would benefit tremendously from seeing this in black and white.

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December 6, 2007 8:00 AM

Pet rule has new condo owners in quandary

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: After we purchased our condo, the board of directors said we couldn't have our two little dogs in residence so we haven't moved in. However the bylaws don't actually prohibit pets. They say "no dogs or cats or any other four legged pets will be allowed on the premises except with prior permission of the Board of Directors." Also, "The keeping of pets and animals of all kinds may be prohibited or restricted in any manner the Board may from time to time determine." We know a large dog (belonging to a board member) and at least two cats are in residence. How can we resolve this and keep our pets?


A: Condominium associations have several layers of governance. There's the declaration. Under it are bylaws. Generally the bylaws allow the board of directors to adopt reasonable rules and regulations. They're the last layer of governance.

What's not clear from your question is whether your board has taken that last step and actually written specific rules regarding pets. If it hasn't, and it's trying to keep your dogs out based on general language in the bylaws, then it's on soft ground says attorney Tony Rafel of the Rafel Law Group in Seattle.

But let's say there is a pets rule. The board could still be in trouble if it's enforcing it selectively or unreasonably. That other animals are in residence would suggest that might be the case.

What should you do now? If you're not sure about the status of your association's pet policy, take all of your documents to a condominium attorney for a review.

However if you're sure that your declaration doesn't prohibit pets (some do), and the board hasn't adopted rules and regulations prohibiting them, then you should move in, Rafel suggests.

"You've bought, you have the right to possess," he says. "The board could take action against you, but on what basis?"

If there isn't a rule in writing, applicable to all, then you and your pets have no problem.

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December 5, 2007 3:01 PM

A correction on condo audits.

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

A recent Home Forum Extra item stated incorrectly that condominium associations in this state aren't required to undertake a financial audit.

Under state law, associations with 50 or more units must have their books audited annually by a certified public accountant.

Smaller associations may waive the annual audit if at least 60 percent of the ownership votes to approve the board's decision to do so.

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November 27, 2007 4:00 PM

Double dues have owner fuming

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Several years ago I set up automatic condominium dues payments through my bank's bill payer service. Now I've discovered that by mistake I've made double payments totaling at least $5,400. I feel pretty stupid for letting this happen, but I'm also surprised that the large management firm that collects my condo dues didn't catch this and notify me. When I brought it to their attention, they quickly repaid me, but said it's not uncommon for homeowners to pay extra. I think that's lame. Should I instigate an investigation of them for bad business practices and potentially to get additional remuneration?

A: Seattle attorney Michael Brandt, of the Brandt Law Group, says you can't ding the management company for extra bucks because Washington courts, unlike those in California and many other states, generally don't allow the awarding of punitive damages. The law prohibits it, except in a few narrowly defined situations, and this isn't one of them.

But he does think you should pursue an inquiry into your management firm and how well it's doing the work your homeowners association is paying it to do.

"What would be good would be to write to the board and tell them of your longstanding problem that was not caught," Brandt says. "It could well be happening to other association members."

You should also suggest that the board have a financial audit done (if it's not doing so already). Associations are not legally required in this state to undertake an audit, but many do annually anyway.

An audit will reveal situations like yours as well as demonstrate how the association's funds are being spent.

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November 1, 2007 8:14 AM

Is condo board overstepping its bounds?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our condo, in a recreational area, is used only by our family. It's not a timeshare and not in a rental pool. The homeowners' board of directors recently authorized management to inspect each unit for "safety items." We received a letter stating that we had a "loose bathroom fan" and the tub needed caulking. It also stated that there'd be a $100 inspection fee if we did the repairs ourselves. I resent this intrusion. Does the board have the legal authority to do this? Does it have a right to have a key to our unit? We had previously put a new lock on the unit but they replaced it with their own.


A: Attorney Josh Rosenstein, of Hanson Baker Ludlow Drumheller in Bellevue, says it's possible your condo board has overstepped its bounds. But whether it has or not likely depends on language in the association's governing documents.

Under state condominium law, the board has the authority to enter a unit to maintain common elements, Rosenstein says, but it doesn't have a general right to enter to inspect or to maintain elements individually owned.

State law also doesn't give a board the legal right to have keys to all the units. In fact that's not addressed in the law.

Your documents, however, may grant both those rights to the association. If so, Rosenstein says, you'll most likely find permission written into your declaration, rather than the bylaws or rules and regulations.

As for charging you $100 to check self-made repairs, Rosenstein says state law grants associations the right to charge a fee if it's related to some cost incurred by the association.

"I don't know how these people are going to show that," he says. "Unless you can show there's some pattern that people doing these repairs do them wrong, and there's a danger to others, the $100 fee is too speculative."

An attorney can help you resolve these situations with your board.

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October 25, 2007 10:00 AM

Town-home owner ponders fence repair

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We live in an association of zero-lot-line town homes in Snohomish County. A fence separates our property from the town home next door. Is there specific law determining responsibility of fence repair or replacement; shared or otherwise? Are there enforceable statutes to ensure the neighbor pays their share? Our covenants do not make any mention on this topic.

A: First a little bit about town homes. A type of housing where two or more homes are attached to each other to form a row, they can be either a zero-lot-line development or a condominium.

The difference isn't in their appearance. It's how they're created legally, which in turn gives owners different forms of ownership.

With condominium town houses, the interior of each unit is individually owned, but the land is held in common by all the owners.

In that case, the condominium association generally would be responsible for maintaining and replacing fences (unless the governing documents say otherwise).

In a zero-lot-line town-house development, the owners own their town houses and the land under them. The property lines run through the common sidewalls of the units.

Seattle attorney Samuel Jacobs, of Mosler Schermer Walstrom Jacobs & Sieler, says "very frequently the covenants for zero-lot-line town houses will address maintenance and repair issues that inherently require the participation of all the owners." Putting on a new roof is one example.

However not all zero-lot-line covenants address these issues, and it appears yours are silent, at least as far as fences are concerned.

Because zero-lot-line housing is a fairly recent development, Jacobs says a few jurisdictions responded by enacting requirements for them. So it's worthwhile to check with yours to see if there's a rule that applies to fence maintenance.

Otherwise, Jacobs says that because you own your own land, the fence situation is no different than it would be in any single-family home neighborhood. You and your neighbor get to work out any accommodation you choose regarding the fence. Laws generally don't address fence maintenance or replacement or the costs involved.

If you do decide to replace your fence, "make sure that at a minimum you have the neighbor's consent to go on their property," Jacobs counsels. "You want to avoid an argument that there is destruction of property (the fence, which the neighbor might have an interest in) or trespass."

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October 18, 2007 9:30 AM

Association vexed by speeding drivers

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our recreation community has a private road that's two miles long. The more we improve it the faster drivers go. The sheriff can't enforce a speed limit because it's private property, but we're wondering if we can. Would hiring an off-duty sheriff's deputy to clock speeders have any weight in court? Could we rent a radar gun and patrol ourselves? Our bylaws allow us to set reasonable rules and penalties for infractions. Finally, what happens if a speeder causes an accident? Could the association be sued? Could the association sue the speeder?

A: Court isn't your remedy. Enacting a homeowners association no-speeding rule is. Then the association, or an agent it hires, can patrol the road and write up speeding as a rules infraction, says Seattle attorney John Coe, of The Coe Law Group. Speeders could then be fined in accordance with your rules on infractions.

However the mechanics of making this plan work may make you think twice, Coe says.

First, you'll have to amend your governing documents to require owners to submit to the board their names and the names of anyone who rents their property, plus addresses and vehicle identification.

Then you must give every speeder who's caught a notice to show up at a hearing if they want to contest the fine.

And you must apply the law evenly, which means you can't just stop speeders on some days or at certain times. You'd have to be prepared to catch them all the time. So if you decide to hire a deputy, be prepared to staff 24/7.

A better solution, Coe says, would be to make it harder for people to speed. Brightly colored speed humps -- a larger version of speed bumps -- are one solution. Other neighborhoods have tackled this problem by diverting the roadway slightly with center plantings or traffic islands so it no longer offers drivers a straight shot. Finally, your association should prominently post its own speed limit signs.

As for whether your association could be sued by a speeder, that depends on the situation, Coe says, and whether there was negligence.

If the accident was partially caused by negligent road design or maintenance, the speeder might have a case. Likewise the association might have cause to sue a speeder if that person drove negligently and damaged commonly held property.

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October 10, 2007 3:30 PM

Dealing with a combative owner

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: How can condo boards protect themselves from an association member who harasses and insults board members on a continuous basis? In our case, the individual has a long track record of circulating hateful letters about the board to other owners, attacking individual board members' actions and character. This person also calls board members at home to shout at them and insult them. Since this person's behavior is getting worse, we want to protect not only ourselves, but future board members.

A: "It sounds like business as usual in many associations," says Seattle attorney Jim Strichartz, who has heard numerous complaints akin to yours. He estimates that roughly 3 percent of condo dwellers generate 98 percent of the problems, and most associations of any size have at least one member who specializes in some form of mischief.

But reining this person in is a difficult task that isn't always possible, Strichartz warns. Indeed, the only approach he's seen be truly successful is mediation, where the board and the antagonist sit down with a mediator to try to resolve their conflict in a way that dissolves hard feelings. (For more on mediation and a list of mediation services go online to www.resolutionwa.org.)

Otherwise each board member who's feeling harassed or maligned can turn to the courts. Option one is to get a civil anti-harassment order through the district court in which the condominium is located. A lawyer is not needed.

"What it requires is two or more incidents of harassment that have been aimed at a particular individual," Strichartz says.

Legally speaking, harassment is conduct meant to intimidate or scare or pressure a person. It is not, however, being hard to deal with or being at odds with the board's decisions.

"Certainly owners have a right to criticize actions by the board they don't agree with," says Strichartz.

But don't count on a court order fixing the problem. Strichartz says that perpetrators often fight back by filing a countermotion claiming that they're the one being harassed.

Option two is filing a lawsuit based on provably false and derogatory statements made about a board member or members. That's illegal. If the perpetrator is making such statements about a board member, that person can hire an attorney to sue for damages, Strichartz says.

One last option is to try to move the perpetrator in a more positive direction by getting him or her involved in the association's operations. "Sometimes that works, but sometimes it's not worth it to deal with them on a regular basis," he says.

Finally, there are cases where nothing solves the situation, Strichartz concedes, "and you just hope to outlive the person."


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October 5, 2007 3:19 PM

Enforcing a no-renter rule

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: With much effort on the part of the board, and expense to the association, we were able to pass a rental ceiling requiring all future sales in our Bellevue condominium be to owner occupants. Now we're having difficulty enforcing this. Some owners are putting several names on their deeds and daring us to figure out who's occupying the unit. They have extended family that they want to have living in the unit. We have no way of knowing if they are family members. As a matter of fact, we have no way of knowing if the legitimate owners are actually living in the unit. At present, an owner has asked to have a niece move in even though our declaration says only owners may live in their unit. We're asking our attorney about this. Any ideas for solving this problem other than voluntary compliance?

A: Hopefully your documents provide a framework for forcing compliance. If the new rule is clearly worded that occupants must be owners, then that's the deal. So the niece doesn't make the cut unless she's on the deed. But if she is, then she does have the right to inhabit. Ditto in other cases where there are multiple names on the deed. Officially they're all owners.

If the board has doubts that an occupant is an owner, then it would seem they have the right to ask for proof, such as the deed, that would document it.

Lastly, your association should have a procedure, including a fine schedule, for people who break the rules. Implementing this is your solution.

That said, since you are using an attorney, it would be worth your time to revisit this person to see if he/she has any other suggestions. Perhaps your documents need to be tweaked to get the best results.

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October 4, 2007 10:17 AM

Explaining condo board-members' obligations

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I've been on the board of my professionally managed condominium for three years. As I'm learning more about board members' financial responsibilities, I'm being met with resistance from fellow board members unwilling to make necessary changes to protect ourselves and our assets. Would you explain a board member's obligations? What should the other homeowners expect from the board? Where does the board end and the management company start? Does the management company have an obligation to explain the fundamentals to us rookies?


A: Seattle attorney Dan Zimberoff, with Barker Martin tackles your questions in order.

State condominium law obligates board members to use the "business judgment rule" in running the association's business. This means they must use "ordinary and reasonable care" rather than the higher standard of fiduciary responsibility.

"The basis for this makes sense," Zimberoff says. "They're volunteers, not paid for their role. They come from all walks of life and many of them the first year have no experience."

Therefore, he says, they shouldn't be expected to have the "heightened duty of care" one would expect of an accountant, attorney or other professional who might handle association business. But they do have to be careful and prudent.

Board members have an obligation to serve the association above their own personal interests; in practice this means, for example, that they must recuse themselves from voting on issues where they are personally invested. For instance, if a board member owns a large dog, he or she shouldn't participate in a vote on whether to limit the size of pets.

Homeowners should expect their board to follow its own governing documents. While this sounds like a no-brainer, Zimberoff says, "One of the biggest pitfalls I see board members make is they shoot from the hip in responding to a homeowner rather than just following their governing documents. A lot of issues that arise are governed."

Homeowners also should expect their board to "manage and lead the association and to work with experts, such as legal counsel, etc." But what this means can vary significantly depending on whether the association employs a professional manager to run day-to-day operations.

As for where the board's duties end and a manager's begins, Zimberoff says each association determines that for themselves. But in general, "The board sets strategic guidance. Then you have a management team that implements and carries out that plan. Daily operations are handled by the manager."

Management companies have no legal obligation to educate board members. However, Zimberoff says, managers realize it's in their best interest to have an educated board, so they're usually willing to pass on knowledge.

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September 28, 2007 6:00 AM

Issues arise when condo owners do building maintenance

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I'm on the board of a small condo association in North King County. We're considering allowing owners to perform some of the common-area property maintenance, like trimming bushes or going up onto the roof to remove fallen branches. Is the association liable if an owner is injured while doing common-area maintenance?


A: It is, says Seattle attorney Heidi Gassman, with the Coe Law Group. And the liability may not stop there. Let's say the mishap injures someone else, or damages property - both possible if someone falls off a roof. The association would be liable there, too.

If your association is serious about involving owners directly in maintenance tasks then "the best and simplest option is to make sure there's great insurance in place," Gassman says.

You can tell if you have it by reading your association's master policy. Look for coverage for injury or damage for persons or properties "and no exception for owners doing the work for the association," she suggests.

If your policy doesn't have such language, your insurance agent may be able to offer it as an add-on endorsement.

Getting owner/workers to sign a release agreeing they will not hold the association liable is another possibility, but not one that Gassman favors.

"When someone out of goodness of their heart volunteers, and is then asked to sign a release, it's a little bit of a slap in the face," she notes. Indeed, when it's the volunteer's neighbors doing the asking, it can appear they they don't care about that owner's welfare.

Beyond the liability issues, Gassman says having owners do the work can be fraught with interpersonal problems.

Will workers be expected to volunteer or be paid? If they're paid, will other owners snipe if the work isn't up to their standards? And who will set the standards anyway?

Or if it's an all-volunteer situation, what about owners who never volunteer? In effect they're getting a discount on maintenance costs because their neighbors are doing all the work for them.

"The potential for hard feelings really is there," Gassman says.

Still, many small condos do keep costs under control by having members do some of the work. To avoid problems, Gassman stresses that all the owners should be informed of how this will work, and have a say in it. That means keeping owners informed of when meetings and votes will be held, and putting the results in the written minutes.

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August 31, 2007 6:00 AM

Condo owner weighs not paying assessment

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: During the nine years I've owned my Redmond condo, homeowners' dues and occasional special assessments have been reasonable. Now a new special assessment will effectively triple my housing expense - a real hardship for me. I feel the homeowners' association is playing catch-up for all the years they chose to not face the mounting cost of deferred maintenance and improvement. What are my options regarding this assessment? If I choose to not pay, can my property be taken from me or can I be evicted?


A: Hitting owners with a special assessment is the uncomfortable solution facing an association that's failed set aside adequate funds to pay for long-term maintenance. The root of that problem is the condo owners who resist setting dues at a level that makes saving possible.

"We're seeing associations with $30,000 to $60,000 per unit in special assessments," says Seattle attorney James Strichartz. And he's hearing more tales of financial hardship for owners.

Associations have a lot of power to ensure owners pay these special assessments; otherwise owners who declined could shift the financial burden to their neighbors, jeopardizing the financial health of the entire association.

That leaves you with two viable options, Strichartz says. "One is to pay the assessment. The other is to sell the unit if you can't afford to pay the assessment."

The untenable third option, refusing to pay, puts you on a road to foreclosure. Your association can trigger this action, using the sale of your home to satisfy the special assessment debt. Your condo documents allow it.

Whether this seems fair or not is for owners to debate. But one possible salve is this: You've lived there for nine years, paying less in dues than necessary to stay out of this situation. So you've saved money all these years. Now you're being required to pay up.

So what's the solution? To do what your association has probably done. It likely got a commercial loan to front the money for repairs and improvements. To pay that loan back, homeowners in your situation often get some form of a home loan.

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August 23, 2007 6:00 AM

Does silence equal permission to upgrade windows?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Several months ago I received permission from my condominium board to change my exterior door to a different style. While ordering its replacement, I decided to change nearby windows so I purchased them, never dreaming that if I replaced the door I couldn't replace the windows.

Then a board member told me verbally that the windows weren't OK. However despite repeated requests for official permission, the board hasn't responded in writing. Can I legally go ahead with the window installation if I told the board in writing that I was going to install them and haven't heard from it two months later?


A: State condominium law doesn't impose a requirement that boards respond in writing to association members within a set time frame. So the law isn't on your side on this one. That throws the situation to your governing documents. If they don't have a stated protocol for this type of situation that supports your position, you're out of luck again.

Should the board respond to you? Yes, certainly. But be cautious in assuming that its silence gives you permission to move forward.

Windows and units' exterior doors usually are considered "limited common elements," meaning that you have exclusive or almost exclusive use of them, but they're actually owned in common by all the condo owners. This is why you cannot replace them at will, and must have the board's permission to do so.

Worst-case scenario: you install your windows, other owners complain and the board orders you to remove them and reinstall the originals. Besides the expense, you have conflict with your neighbors. Not a pleasant situation to be in for sure. So tread carefully.

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August 22, 2007 6:00 AM

Condo access, entry questioned

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I live in a small condominium building that's being reconstructed because of leaks. The construction people tell us they can enter our units at any time without giving us notice because it's a construction situation. Is that true?


A: If you were living in an apartment you'd have the legal right to be given advance notice when non-emergency work required entry to your home. State law requires it.

However the state's two condo laws carry no such stipulation. Here's what they do say:

If your condominium was legally created before July 1990, the "Old Act" condo law governs your situation. It says that the homeowners association and its agents have the right to access each unit during reasonable hours to perform maintenance, repair or replacement on common elements.

If your building was created after July 1990, the "New Act" law prevails. It says each unit owner shall afford the association, its agents and employees access, but doesn't say when.

Neither law requires residents be given advance notice.

Most condominium governing documents, in particular the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs), have language that gives the association the right to enter individual units, says Jim Comin, president of CDC Management Services, a division of the Management Trust. His firm manages 200 homeowner communities.

"Most CC&Rs do have some sort of language that sets forth what the rules are for entry into the units," Comin notes. "You take whatever the covenants say and that's what is used to give permission to the contractor."

Read yours to see what they say about entry. Then talk to your board if you and other owners want more say in the construction schedule.

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August 15, 2007 11:25 AM

Dealing with unruly children

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Our large condo complex has recently had a surge in questionable conduct by kids. They're trampling our landscaping, throwing rocks, peering into ground-floor units, striking various objects with sticks, breaking sprinkler heads, etc. Our property manager is reluctant to take action because he says kids are a protected class, and we could bring the wrath of organizations who'll charge us with discrimination against families. Would enforcing our house rules really be discriminatory?


A: Your manager is correct that families that include children are protected under local, state and federal Fair Housing laws. Also protected are race, gender, age, national origin and religion. Some jurisdictions also add sexual orientation to that list.

Fair Housing laws are designed to eliminate discrimination. In your situation that means, in basic terms, that "you don't treat people badly or different because they have kids," explains Roxanne Vierra, civil rights specialist for the King County Office of Civil Rights.

However being a member of a protected class (and as Vierra points out, everyone is) doesn't give members of that class carte blanche to do anything they want. It also doesn't prohibit employers, condo associations or apartment owners from enacting reasonable policies.

The keys, Vierra says, are in the wording and the enforcement. The rule has to be applied to everyone, and as long as it's applied fairly and evenly "it's not discrimination."

That means, for example, that you cannot have a rule that says kids can't ride their bikes in the community's common areas -- but adults can. However, you can have a rule that says no one can ride bikes there.

Show your property manager this column, and ask him to follow the association's written procedure for dealing with violators. As long as he also takes to task any adults who throw rocks, etc., he'll be on safe legal ground.

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August 9, 2007 6:00 AM

Is enlarging one owner's deck a good idea?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: An owner in my small condominium building wants to extend their deck by claiming some of the common area next to their unit, which currently is just landscaping in the back of the building. This owner will assume all expenses for the installation, maintenance and repair of it. I'm concerned that this will have unintended consequences that could affect the value of my home or my property taxes. What do you think?

A: Whether this neighbor can appropriate common area is the first issue, says Seattle attorney Samuel Jacobs, of Mosler Schermer Walstrom Jacobs & Sieler.

Most condo associations have language about converting common areas in their governing documents, Jacobs says, so read your declaration to see whether this change is possible and what permission is required. If the idea gets the required number of votes from other owners, and local zoning allows the change, there's really nothing you can do to stop it.

However "from a more pragmatic perspective I'd encourage you to think through all the implications, not only of this proposal, but potential other proposals to turn other parts of the common elements into limited common elements," Jacobs advises.

Among the implications to consider:

If this owner's plan is accepted, will it be harder to say no to other owners who want to make changes? Jacobs thinks it will. How will the association handle that?

Does the common area that would be converted provide an amenity to other owners that would be lost?

How will the quality of the new deck's construction and maintenance be assured? Who will assume it if the unit's current owner sells?

It's unlikely that one unit's enlarged deck will affect the assessed value of your unit. But it might affect the market value of other units if buyers perceive them as substandard because they have less deck.

Finally, Jacobs encourages you to talk through this idea with an experienced condominium property manager. A condo association attorney should also be consulted so owners don't inadvertently create an unacceptable situation.

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August 1, 2007 6:00 AM

When a homeowners association can't collect dues

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We live in a 30-year-old homeowners association consisting of single-family homes. Our covenants fail to mention collecting homeowners' dues or fining those who don't pay them. The board just throws up its hands and says it can't do anything about this. There's no money to change the covenants. Does state law say anything about collecting dues?


A: Yes it does, but just having the law address this issue isn't enough to get the job done, says attorney Philip Buri of Buri Funston in Bellingham.

Do an Internet search for the state law governing homeowners associations, RCW 64.38, and you'll find it says "that unless otherwise provided in the governing documents, an association may impose and collect any payments, fees or charges for the use, rental or operation of common areas." It can also collect late payment fines.

But here's the rub: Buri says your "board is on shaky ground if it tries to levy an assessment if it doesn't have that power in its documents," which yours doesn't.

Does that mean the board doesn't have the power because it was purposefully omitted? Buri says that's the question a judge would be asking if your association tried to collect dues, homeowners revolted and the issue wound up in court.

What could make it even stickier: Associations can become defunct if the proper paperwork, plus filing fee, isn't filed routinely with the Secretary of State's Office. As your association apparently has no money, this is a possibility.

So what should you do?

Buri, who describes himself as "a big fan of civic action," says he'd "call a meeting of the members and see if there are some public-spirited members who are willing to voluntarily throw in money to hire a lawyer and amend the covenants."

With a covenant in place to levy dues, a simple rule change voted on by the board could establish a fine schedule for late payers.

However one thing you can just about bet on is this: Unaccustomed to paying dues, some homeowners will balk and want to know what they're getting for their money.

Buri says there are two answers. One is higher property values that result when an association's common areas are well maintained. The other is peace of mind.

"If this homeowners association has any kind of common area, and anyone gets hurt, it becomes the association's responsibility," he says. Absent a functioning association with proper insurance, the injured party can personally sue every homeowner.


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July 26, 2007 10:21 AM

Finding co-op financing

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I live in a small unit in a Seattle co-op and I want to do $30,000 to $40,000 in work, but I can't find a lender. Either the complex is too small or the amount is too small. How do you get financing to make building improvements on a co-op?

A: First a bit of background. Physically, co-operatives and condominiums look alike, but legally they're quite different. A condo buyer owns the interior of his or her own unit plus a share of the common area. A co-op buyer owns shares in the corporation owning building rather than holding title to a particular unit, although he or she is entitled to use a specific unit.

Around here condos are much more common than co-ops, so financing is more readily available for them.

"There are only about 40 co-ops in the city, and that's what makes them a boutique market," says David Baker, vice president of Eagle Home Mortgage.

Without more information it's impossible to say exactly why you're encountering problems, but Baker says co-op owners customarily have a hard time getting a loan to rehabilitate a unit that's already been gutted.

Indeed, Baker says money sources he works with "demand photos of bathrooms and kitchens before they'll OK loans. So the crux of the matter is: what's the status of the property?"

It's much easier, he says, to get money for cosmetic upgrades like adding a bamboo floor or replacing kitchen counters with granite.

Depending on the project and the borrower's financial profile and needs, a cash-back refinance might be available, or a home equity line of credit or a second mortgage.

The Washington Chapter of the Community Associations Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people who belong to homeowners associations.

Its Web site has a list of exhibitors that includes lenders. Those on the exhibitors list might be a place for you to look for financing.

Another possible option is NCB, an East Coast bank that offers financing on co-ops.

Finally, the National Association of Housing Cooperatives has information on various aspects of co-op housing.

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July 19, 2007 6:00 AM

Will condo prices fall?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: A friend has this theory that the cost of new $500,000 to $700,000 condominiums will drop significantly in the next two years because it's mostly investors who are purchasing the standard $300,000 to $500,000 units in these new projects, and no one is buying the more-expensive units. So once the mid-priced units are sold, the developers will be in a rush to sell the rest and they'll cut prices. What are your thoughts on this?


A: Real-estate economist Matthew Gardner follows the Seattle condominium market closely, and he's confident that new condo prices will not drop. In fact he says, "It won't happen."

"Point one: in today's market $500,000 to $700,000 is cheap. The market has exceeded that number," says Gardner, a principal in Gardner Johnson, a Seattle land-use economics firm. That's particularly true in downtown Seattle where new million-dollar condos abound and in the more-affluent Eastside communities. Propelling sales in that price range are dual-income career couples (some of whom purchased in Belltown a few years ago for $250,000 and now have the wherewithal to trade up to $600,000). Equity-rich baby-boomer homeowners looking to downsize are an even larger buyer group.

Point two: "Right now the situation is that most projects are sold out before they're even built," Gardner says. So there isn't a glut of $500,000 to $700,000 condos.

Point three: The Seattle area is growing, wages are going up so buying power is increasing, and "we haven't seen a ridiculously large amount of supply," notes Gardner.

He estimates 1,200 new condos will be added to downtown Seattle's inventory this year. Compare that to Miami where developers are cutting prices because sales are scarce and there are 8,500 downtown condos for sale.

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July 16, 2007 2:38 PM

Are parakeets next?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

A reader named Barrie sent this comment and question regarding the July 9 Home Forum question about banning smoking in condominiums.

I was particularly interested in the legal aspects of condominium ownership. You addressed the legality of banning smoking. It surprised me to learn it is a legal ban. That is what frightenens me.

If you can ban your neighbor from smoking, what comes next? No children? No Jews or Muslims? No Catholics? No parakeets? No martini for happy hour?

I hope you address this issue in one of your future columns.

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July 9, 2007 3:06 PM

Taking a condo smokeless

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: Is it legal in the state of Washington to put an article in a condo declaration that would ban smoking in the entire building, including privately owned units?
A: Kirkland attorney Brian McLean, of the firm Leahy.ps., says that "with the unanimous consent of owners, an unconditional restriction on smoking throughout the entire condominium that applies to current and future owners is legal. Where one current owner objects to an unconditional ban, the issue becomes more complicated because condominium living is complicated."
As McLean explains, a condo is created by a recorded Declaration of Condominium.
"The declaration distinguishes between common areas (e.g., shared streets, sidewalks, green areas, hallways, elevators) and owner units, and includes restrictions on the use of both," he says. Condominiums are being developed today in the Northwest that include, before the sale of any units, smoke-free restrictions that apply to the entire property. I believe such smoke-free restrictions are legal and enforceable.
"Banning smoking within a condominium becomes controversial when associations consider changing the status quo, as Washington state has recently done in public places, from smoke-tolerant zones to smoke-free zones. Owners expect that what they do within their units is their own business, and that their permissive use of their unit at the time they took ownership is inviolable. Even outside their units, in common areas, owners today have strongly held beliefs about their right to smoke, or the rights of others to smoke, or their right to live in a smoke-free environment."
As for how to ban smoking, McLean says there are two routes. By having the owners adopt a restriction or having the board of directors adopt a rule. He explains the difference:
"Restrictions require owner involvement and consent, become a matter of public record, and can be enforced against future owners. Restrictions are better suited to solve complex and divisive problems that affect the fundamental nature of ownership and use within a condominium. Restrictions can sometimes be adopted that affect only future owners, thus providing a way to gradually bring about change while accommodating the desires of current owners."
Rule-making, on the other hand, "is not as well suited to solve complex and divisive problems such as smoking," McLean says.
"Rules can often be changed on a whim (e.g., when the new board president pulls out a cigar at December's board meeting and announces the 'winds of change'). Having said that, as a general principle, a rule that bans smoking in the common areas when it poses a nuisance to others would probably be legal and enforceable.
"Setting aside a smoking area in a sheltered part of the common area, thus keeping second hand-smoke from unreasonably affecting other owners, is the kind of arrangement that may strike a reasonable balance between those who smoke and those who are bothered by smoke."
However "a rule that absolutely bans smoking within units, unless supported by a restriction in the condominium declaration, would likely lead to a dispute between owners (sometimes more dangerous than second-hand smoke)," McLean says.
"Until the Legislature or a court rules on the issue, absent unanimous consent of the owners, and with every condominium being a little different, there will be continued uncertainty about the extent of and limitations on the exercise of association power to adopt restrictions on smoking within a condominium, whether in a common area or in an owner's unit."

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Recent entries

Oct 10, 08 - 07:00 AM
Understanding new condo reserve study requirements

Sep 29, 08 - 03:57 PM
Collecting delinquent condo dues

Sep 24, 08 - 01:23 PM
Just what do condo owners get to vote on?

Sep 10, 08 - 08:00 AM
Dead rats create repair bill headache

Aug 28, 08 - 07:30 AM
Pondering the availability of condo repair loans

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