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Articles Posted in Community Association Law

Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column by Gary M. Mars appears in today’s print edition of the newspaper and is titled “Community Associations Should Break Ties with Developer, Board Members During Turnover.”  The article focuses on the turnover process by which control of a community’s operations and management is transferred from its developer to the home/condo buyers.  Gary notes that this is one of the most critical junctures for the future administrative and financial wellbeing of all condominium and HOA communities, and those owners who have made the investment to be the charter members of their new association should always begin their takeover with the same vital step: breaking ties with the developers’ board members and experts.  His article reads:

. . . Turnover is when a new community’s unit owners get their opportunity to hire independent legal counsel, financial professionals, and engineers to conduct meticulous audits and inspections. A very careful review of all a community’s rules and business records, as well as the physical state of the entire property, is very much the order the day. The end goal is to hold the developer, as well as its contractor, suppliers and design professionals, accountable for any budget shortfalls and construction deficiencies.

GMars-Herald-clip-for-blog-6-20-22-300x230Given the nature of the task at hand, this work should always begin with the careful vetting of prospective advisor accountants, attorneys and engineers to ensure only independent and highly qualified professionals are retained by the new owner-controlled board, which must be expeditiously transitioned away from any directors and professionals appointed by the developer during its preceding control of the association, or with any ties to the developer.

The financial, engineering and legal experts retained by the new unit owner-controlled board of directors will be charged with representing the interests of all the owners by holding the developer, contractor, suppliers and design professionals to their warranty and financial obligations. They should also be tasked with changing any rules regulating community affairs, collections policies, and construction matters that were in place under the developer’s regime for its primary benefit.

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Given Florida’s nickname as the Sunshine State, it is only fitting that solar energy would be the state’s most popular and effective source of renewable energy. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy fueled approximately five percent of Florida’s in-state electricity generation in 2020, and almost two-thirds of that came from solar.

It appears to be a sure bet that rooftop solar installations will be growing in popularity in the years to come for homeowners across the state. For those who own properties in communities with homeowners associations, internet searches will quickly reveal that Florida associations are prohibited by law from blanket denials of such installations. However, that does not mean that they do not have a significant say in the manner and form of solar panel installations in order to maintain the community’s aesthetic standards.

solar-panels-300x200The Florida Solar Rights Act protects homeowners who wish to install solar panels and other renewable energy devices on their property from outright bans. It provides that property owners may not be denied permission to install solar collectors and other renewable energy devices by HOAs or even local municipalities. The law expressly forbids binding agreements that limit access to renewable energy for dwellings.

However, the Act does allow for HOA architectural review boards and committees to determine the specific rooftop location where panels can be installed. Associations are therefore able to require homeowners to follow their set procedures for the prior review and approval of planned alterations and improvements. Review committees may request diagrams and information on the dimensions, location(s), and layout of proposed solar panels, including illustrations. They can also review and approve all the related wiring and electrical components, as well as the proposed height of the panels from the roof.

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RobertoBlanch_8016-200x300The firm’s latest Real Estate Counselor column in today’s Miami Herald is authored by Roberto C. Blanch and titled “Lawmakers Deliver Huge Milestone in Evolution of Florida’s Condo Laws.”  The article focuses on the state legislature’s passage of the most far-reaching condominium safety reforms in Florida since Hurricane Andrew.  It reads:

. . . The changes include many of the proposals from engineering, legal and community association industry task forces aimed at studying the perceived shortcomings that led to the Surfside catastrophe. They require inspections for buildings three stories or higher 30 years after completion and every 10 years thereafter. Buildings within three miles of the coast must be inspected at 25 years, then every 10 years. The first buildings impacted are slated to be those constructed before July 1, 1992, as they must complete their first structural inspections prior to Dec. 31, 2024.

The inspections are aimed at identifying any substantial structural deterioration that may present life-safety dangers, and whether remedial or preventive repairs are recommended. RBlanch-Herald-clip-for-blog-6-5-22-99x300The reports on their findings will be required to be distributed to association unit owners, prospective buyers and local building departments, which may then require the start of repairs within specified timeframes if substantial deficiencies are identified.

Associations will also be required to conduct reserve studies every 10 years for the funding of structural repairs and, most important, beginning by 2025 they will no longer be allowed to waive funding of many reserve components.

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Condominium safety reforms were very much in the spotlight during this year’s regular session following the unforgettable tragedy in Surfside, Florida. Though legislators could not agree on legislation pertaining to safety reforms during the regular session, they successfully did so during a special session. In a surprising move, Senate Bill 4-D unanimously passed in both the House and Senate and was recently signed into law by the Governor. The following are the key takeaways from the 88-page bill:

The “Milestone Inspection”

  • Florida has now imposed a state-wide structural inspection program for condominium and cooperative associations that are three (3) stories or more in height defined as a “milestone inspection.”
  • Community association managers or management companies contractually hired by a condominium association that is subject to this inspection must comply with this section as directed by the board.
  • Milestone inspections must be performed by December 31 of the year in which the building reaches 30 years in age, based on the issue date of the building’s certificate of occupancy, and every 10 years thereafter. Buildings located within 3 miles of the coastline must perform a milestone inspection by December 31 of the year in which they reach 25 years in age, and every 10 years thereafter.  Buildings with a certificate of occupancy that was issued on or before July 1, 1992 must have the initial milestone inspection performed before December 31, 2024.
  • Condominium and cooperative associations are responsible for the scheduling and costs associated with the milestone inspection.
  • Milestone inspection means a structural inspection of a building’s load-bearing walls and primary structural members/systems.
  • Milestone inspections must be performed by a Florida licensed engineer/architect who must attest to the life safety and adequacy of structural components of the building. To the extent that it’s reasonably possible, the inspection must determine the general structural condition of the building as it affects the safety of building, such as necessary maintenance, repairs and replacements of structural components.
  • “Substantial structural deterioration” is described as substantial structural distress that negatively affects the building’s general structural condition and integrity.

fla-legislature-300x198Milestone inspections will consist of two phases:

    • Phase one — Visual examination of habitable/nonhabitable areas of building. If there are no signs of structural deterioration found, phase two is not required.
    • Phase two — If substantial deterioration is found during phase one, phase two may involve destructive or nondestructive testing at the inspector’s discretion. This additional inspection may be as extensive or limited as necessary to fully assess areas of distress.
    • Architect/engineer who performed inspections must submit a sealed copy of the inspection report and findings to both the association and appropriate local building official
  • Local enforcement agencies will provide buildings required to comply with this law notice of required inspection by certified mail.
  • Upon receiving notice, condominium/cooperative associations will have 180 days to complete phase one of the inspection.

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Many Florida condominiums are responding to new inspection and structural-integrity requirements from lenders and insurers by planning for projects to bolster and repair their aging towers. For such major construction projects, competitive bids are literally a must, as they are mandated by Florida law. However, for very small associations as well as for some other types of services and contracts, obtaining competing bids from multiple vendors is not required by state law.

In fact, for small condominium associations with 10 units or less, their owners may opt out of competitive bids with a two-thirds majority vote. For all other condominium associations, bids are required for any agreement for the procurement of goods and services that will exceed 5% of the association’s budget, with exceptions for contracts for the hiring of association employees, and contracts for attorneys, accountants, architects, community association managers, timeshare management firms, engineers, and landscape architects.

Bids-post-photo-300x200Additionally, in cases of an emergency or recovery from storms and other catastrophes, or if the vendor is the only provider of the goods or services being sought in the county where the association is located, competitive bids are not required.

While condominium associations are required to obtain competitive bids for materials, equipment and services that exceed 5% of the total annual budget, including reserves, they are not required to accept the lowest bid, and only two competing bids will suffice to meet the requirement.

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RobertoBlanch_8016-200x300Just two days after his insights were featured in the Miami Herald‘s initial article on the Florida legislature’s proposed new condominium-safety reforms, Roberto Blanch‘s input on the changes that unanimously passed in both the House and Senate on the state’s condominium associations and owners were prominently featured in the newspaper’s follow up report on today’s front page.  The article, which is headlined “‘A Major Move Forward in Safety.’ A Look at How Condo Reforms Will Work,” focuses on the new requirements for condominiums to conduct regular building inspections and build sufficient cash reserves to cover structural maintenance and repairs.  The article reads:

. . . The changes are laid out in a set of amendments to Florida’s condo law approved by the state House and Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday. In a surprise, the Legislature acted swiftly this week during a special session designed to address the home-insurance crisis after coming under substantial public pressure for doing nothing to shore up condo inspections and regulations  following the Surfside tragedy, which claimed 98 lives.

RBlanch-Herald-clip-for-blog-5-27-22-281x300The reform law generally hews to detailed findings and recommendations issued after Surfside by public-interest groups that include the Florida Bar, the Miami-Dade County Grand Jury, a consortium of Florida professional engineer associations, and the Community Associations Institute, a national organization that represents thousands of associations, managers and residents.

The reforms had broad but not uniform support from principal sectors of the condo industry, including association representatives, condo lawyers and real estate brokers.  Together, backers say, the reforms should markedly boost confidence in the safety of  Florida’s condos.

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A recent case from Leesburg, Florida, illustrates why community associations should avoid issuing and using debit cards in the name of the association.

According to a recent report by Leesburg News (www.Leesburg-News.com), John Joseph O’Connor was arrested and stands accused of stealing nearly $3,000 from the Coachwood Colony HOA by making multiple ATM withdrawals with the association’s debit card shortly after he resigned as president. The transactions were discovered by the association’s new treasurer, who reviewed the bank statements after joining its board of directors and discovered nine unauthorized ATM withdrawals totaling $2,972.

The astute treasurer contacted the bank and was told that the debit card used for all the transactions was the one issued to O’Connor.

cwood-300x161The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was notified, and a deputy questioned O’Connor who said he lost his wallet with the HOA’s debit card and had reported it to the bank. However, further investigation revealed that he had never reported the card missing, and ATM surveillance video proved to be incriminating. He was arrested and released on a $7,000 bond, and is scheduled to appear in Lake County Court on May 31.

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Michael-Hyman-srhl-lawThe firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Michael L. Hyman appears in today’s Neighbors section and is titled “What Are Some Common Traits of Excellent Community Association Boards of Directors.”  The article discusses how Michael realized from the start of his work with associations more than 50 years ago that the decisions of these boards, which are of momentous significance for the administrative and financial well-being of their communities, are sometimes influenced by the petty whims and infighting of some of their directors. His article reads:

. . . Boards of directors often fall into one of three categories:

The Autocrat: These associations are ruled by a president who has typically served in the position for many years. Everything the president wants, they get; everything they are against has no shot. The other board members are happy to follow along and not rock the boat.

Herald-clip-for-blog-5-8-22-103x300The Fence Sitters: These boards’ votes are almost always split decisions with a swing-vote in the middle, and they typically deliberate for a very long time before making any decisions. Sometimes for issues involving pressing matters, they may even kick the can down the road rather than making a difficult decision.

The Varsity Team: These boards of directors are typically comprised of experienced board members who, for the most part, see eye to eye on many important issues and decisions. They listen to experts, discuss and weigh their options together with all the interested unit owners at the board meetings, and always make decisions that are in the best interests of their communities.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s Gary M. Mars was the first South Florida community association attorney to weigh in on the recently proposed SAFER in Condos Act in a major local media outlet with his article in today’s op-ed page of the Miami Herald.  The article, which is titled “After Surfside, Federal Condo-Safety Legislation Deserves Bi-Partisan Support,” focuses on the SAFER in Condos Act that was recently introduced in the U.S. Congress by Florida representatives.  It notes that questions regarding condominium safety have been in the spotlight since the horrific Champlain Towers tragedy that claimed 98 lives, and changes failed to pass in the state legislature but have been enacted at the federal level from lenders and also at the local level from counties and municipalities.  Gary’s article reads:

. . . Part of the reason the state legislature could not agree on a set of reforms was because the new funding requirements for structural repairs would have been too much for the unit owners of many condominium communities to bear. Plus, financing options for both condominium associations and their unit owners for such extremely costly property restorations were getting worse by the day, as interest rates have been on the rise and are predicted to continue climbing.

Herald-clip-for-blog-5-3-22-462x1024For a problem of this magnitude and national scope, only the federal government has the capability and resources to truly make an impact.  Its first effort at addressing it was proposed on April 18 by U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Broward, Miami-Dade) in the form of the Securing Access to Finance Exterior Repairs (SAFER) in Condos Act of 2022.  The legislation would allow condominium owners to finance critical building repairs with loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Unit owners would be able to combine a special assessment from their association for structural repairs with their existing mortgage debt into a new, 30-year loan insured under the FHA home rehabilitation program.

For those who do not have a mortgage or would prefer to leave it as is and continue to pay it off, the legislation also grants owners access to the FHA Property Improvement Program to finance such an assessment over a 20-year term.

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Gary-Mars-2021-2-200x300The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column authored by Gary M. Mars featured in today’s Neighbors section is titled “Possible $8M Fraud Against Florida Community Associations is a Wake-Up Call.”  The article, which is the second of two parts, is on a developing case from Southwest Florida that appears to be one of the largest incidents of fraud and embezzlement ever inflicted on community associations in the state.  It reads:

. . . An excellent Naples Daily News/The News-Press investigation has found that the associations are reporting more than $8 million has been taken from their accounts. Association directors have told the journalists that APMS took sole control of their Wells Fargo Bank accounts by telling them to sign new signature cards but then never submitting them to the bank.

The ordeal that these communities are now undergoing is horrific, and many of us who provide essential services for associations in Florida have been impacted by this case. We shake our heads in disgust at the brazen actions that appear to have taken place, while also hoping that we have successfully helped every association we work with to avoid the potential for any such malfeasance.

Herald-clip-for-blog-4-24-22-297x300The association board members and bankers that appear to have been hoodwinked in this case had in all likelihood grown to trust APMS and its owners wholeheartedly. That would likely explain how the state-licensed property management company allegedly succeeded in securing, submitting and executing all of the necessary documentation in order to remove the community associations and their directors from their own bank accounts. Apparently, the necessary red flags did not go up, resulting in the success of the scheme.

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