Winter is here and now is a good time to reflect on actions condominium and townhome associations should take to prevent extensive damage caused by frozen pipes in abandoned, vacant and inhabited units – when owners leave for a brief vacation or for other reasons.
The current economy in most areas of the country has dramatically affected many associations’ annual budget as maintenance fee delinquencies increase. While boards pursue collection of these delinquencies, they continue to face the ever-increasing potential for widespread damage to real property, common elements and neighboring units, as many of these units are uninhabited or have been abandoned. Additionally, many owners who live in condominiums are unaware of some basic steps they should take to prevent their interior pipes from freezing.
During the winter, low temperatures can cause an extensive amount of damage to uninhabited and abandoned units in communities by frozen water pipes that ultimately burst. The problems associated with such incidents are, for the most part, easily addressed by shutting down the water source, extracting the water to salvage the common elements and neighboring units from further damage, and then re-securing the unit.
For uninhabited units, the association may have to forcibly enter the unit either by breaking a window or hiring a locksmith. However, the unit may be abandoned but not yet foreclosed by the lender, no maintenance fees have been paid for some time and there is no opportunity for reimbursement from the responsible party – the owner. This produces a new dilemma: who is going to pay for all of this? While the owner is still responsible for the unit, and the association’s legal counsel can pursue them for such relief, many times the reality is that there is no resolution.
So how can an association stop the potentially catastrophic consequences of uninhabited or abandoned units? One way is by the adoption of a Winterization Policy. Most association documents allow entry into a unit for emergency purposes. This provision empowers the association to access units that have a burst pipe in order to minimize loss of property and secure the unit. However, a Winterization Policy preempts such an emergency and allows the association to enter an abandoned or temporarily uninhabited unit to minimize the impending or anticipated failure of interior plumbing. Remembering that options may vary in different parts of the country and by construction, the key points of the Policy are to:
- Stress to all owners the importance of winterizing their unit if it will be vacant during the winter months by following these steps:
- Keep the heat turned on with the thermostat set to at least 65º
- Open their bathroom and kitchen cabinets so heat can access the pipes
- If an individual shut-off valve is available, turn off the water to their unit
- Drain all water from the plumbing by shutting off the valve and then opening the faucets, flushing the toilet, and running any appliance that may have residual water in it
- Apply a bio-friendly anti-freeze to plumbing traps and toilets.
- Clarify the timing of notice requesting action by the co-owner.
- Notify all co-owners that their failure to take such requested action may result in the forced entry by the association to winterize their unit, at their expense.
- Explain who will be entering the unit on the association’s behalf, and with what authority.
Once a unit is properly winterized, the potential damage resulting from freezing temperatures is negligible, thus minimizing the association’s exposure to property and monetary loss. Having a Winterization Policy in place is the first step in making this a reality. Be sure to have your legal counsel review the Policy for compliance with your governing documents and state statutes.
As a final note, and as discussed previously in Association Times (use key word “collection policy” in the search field), having a strong Collection Policy is essential to avoiding or at least minimizing additional monetary losses resulting from an abandoned or vacant unit. Be sure to take the time to review your current Collection Policy with your manager and legal counsel to ensure that it allows you to aggressively track and take appropriate action with your delinquent accounts as prescribed in your governing documents and state statutes, including the ability to collect reimbursements of expenses the association incurred in winterizing a unit or responding to the consequences of frozen pipes.
This article is provided by Associa Living.