Articles Posted in Renovation Projects

While maintaining an adequate level of reserve funds for deferred maintenance, capital improvements and other major expenses is always recommended, community associations that find their reserves do not cover all of their needs have a worthwhile option other than special assessments that they should explore and consider.

Bank loans and lines of credit for associations were very difficult to obtain during the height of the foreclosure crisis, but happily for many Florida communities those days are long gone.  Now, there are a number of lenders that focus on loans for associations and offer highly competitive rates and terms.

Special assessments are typically the first option that associations consider to cover shortfalls in their reserves and take on important renovations or other unforeseen expenses.  However, it may not be the preferred choice for many communities.  Millions of U.S. homeowners are still recovering from the crash of the housing market and do not have the ability to secure a home equity line of credit in order to pay a special assessment.  In addition, the implementation of a special assessment is viewed as a sign of financial distress in an association by lenders considering FHA-backed home loans for buyers ipool-deck-renovation-300x224n a community, and this can ultimately take a significant toll on sales and property values.

Most associations will begin their research into their financing options by first turning to the bank that maintains their operating and/or reserve accounts.  While this is the obvious place to start, in the majority of cases they are also going to need to shop around.

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RobertoBlanch2013.jpgFirm partner Roberto C. Blanch wrote an article that appeared in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s only business daily and official court newspaper, about the recent decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in the case of Andrews v. Shipps’s Landing Condominium Association. His article reads:

“. . . The Second DCA found that the association did not conclusively establish that the removal of the drywall ceiling resulted in a violation of the association’s declaration of condominium.

The association asserted that the owners did not obtain its approval before removing the ceiling drywall from the interior of the unit and demanded that the owners reinstall the drywall. In turn, the owners responded by filing a lawsuit against the association for declaratory and injunctive relief.

While the trial court record indicates that the owners requested and obtained association approval for certain alterations to the unit, it appears that the nature of the alterations were not precisely described by the owners when seeking the association approval.

Furthermore, while the appellate opinion indicates that the owners opted to remove the ceiling drywall during the performance of the previously approved alterations, it appears that the association did not provide any testimony to counter the testimony proffered on behalf of the owners interpreting that the declaration of condominium establishes that the drywall ceiling is within the unit’s boundaries.”

Roberto’s article concludes:

“Association representatives should also consider standardizing the process for unit owner requests for alteration approval, should it be determined that the association’s directors have the authority to grant such approval. For instance, it appears from the opinion that the association in question did not have a clear procedure or form for the requests for renovation approvals requiring detailed descriptions of the proposed alterations.

A form with detailed questions regarding all of the elements that will be renovated should be employed, and the approvals should include stipulations that only the renovations detailed in the form by the owners are being approved and no other elements may be altered without the association’s prior written approval.

. . . It is also imperative for associations to act promptly when seeking recourse or corrective actions against an owner if it is determined that an alteration has been made in a manner that is inconsistent with the design approved by the association. An association’s failure to do so may adversely affect its ability to successfully do so in the future.”

Our firm congratulates Roberto for sharing his insight on this new appellate decision with the readers of the Daily Business Review. Click here to read the complete article in the newspaper’s website (registration required).

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LisaLerner.jpgThe firm’s Lisa A. Lerner contributed a guest column in the Friday, March 13, 2015 edition of the Daily Business Review that focused on the changes that have taken place with some of the practices of South Florida community associations as a result of the foreclosure crisis and the investor-fueled recovery.

Lisa’s article reads:

. . . For all of these growing numbers of associations, things are quite different today than they were 10 years ago at the height of the area’s condominium and housing boom. After the national meltdown in the housing market and bursting of the condominium bubble in South Florida, the associations have adapted by becoming considerably more forceful in their collections practices, especially in cases involving prolonged foreclosures against their delinquent unit owners. Also, for many of the new condominium properties that are owned primarily by investors from abroad, the challenges caused by having so few full-time residents who are willing to take on the responsibilities of serving on the board of directors or even voting at the membership meetings are being met with novel and creative solutions.

One of the most significant changes in today’s community association practices entails foreclosures by the associations against their delinquent unit owners. The practice was virtually unheard of 10 years ago, as the lenders would almost always move quickly with their own foreclosures against these owners, and the first-mortgage liens are superior to those of the associations. However, today it has become fairly common, as the lenders have proved to be anything but efficient and expeditious in the prosecution of their foreclosure cases while they wait for the housing market to recover.

The prolonged lender foreclosures caused significant financial strains for the associations, and many of their attorneys responded by helping them to complete their own foreclosure actions in advance of the banks in order to acquire and rent the residences before the lenders’ foreclosures are finalized. Since many of the lenders have been taking years to complete their foreclosures, the revenues from these rentals have helped to allay a great deal of the financial difficulties that the associations have faced.

Other major changes in how today’s condominium associations operate have to do with the nature of the current recovery in the market for new luxury condominium developments in South Florida. The predominant type of buyer for a great deal of the area’s largest and most expensive new offerings are investors, many of whom primarily live abroad and use their local condominiums as a second or third home. Typically, a considerable majority of these unit owners do not take part in the matters involving their condominium associations. Many of them do not even bother to vote in the annual elections for their association’s board of directors, let alone taking on the responsibilities of serving as a director.

For all of these new luxury South Florida condominium developments, it takes a greater level of outreach and communications by their associations and property managers in order to conduct all of their elections and association business as prescribed under Florida law. For example, Florida law requires that at least 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in order to have a valid election at the annual meeting, but even that modest percentage can be difficult to achieve for many of these properties.

For votes on material alteration projects and other issues that may require even greater participation rates, the associations and their attorneys have had to get creative in order to secure the necessary involvement. For example, several of my condominium association clients have developed and used password-protected websites that were designed to showcase to the unit owners all of the renderings and descriptions for proposed renovation projects, and these sites helped to facilitate the participation of owners who are not residing at the properties. The sites, which also included the paperwork and instructions for the owners to vote by limited proxy in order to approve or reject the renovations, enabled the properties to achieve the necessary votes.

Finally, perhaps the most important and positive change for community associations today is the increased level of informational resources that are available to enable association directors and members to cope with all of the difficulties that they have had to overcome. Blogs on association issues such as the one by our firm as well as those from other community association attorneys are constantly updated with timely and helpful information on the most pressing matters affecting associations, and there are also a number of publications and their corresponding websites that are devoted exclusively to community associations. With these resources and the help of experienced legal counsel, condominium and homeowners associations are implementing the necessary changes to overcome the challenges of today’s investor-fueled recovery.

Our firm congratulates Lisa for sharing this article on some of the changes that have taken place at South Florida community associations in recent years with the readers of the Daily Business Review, which is the South Florida region’s only daily business newspaper.

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Constant new development of residential and mixed-use towers can be seen all over South Florida, with new projects being announced constantly. The construction of these new towers evokes buyers to ask themselves: What is better, new or old? The answer to that question is triggering existing community associations to spruce up their communities by giving them a facelift in an effort to stay competitive.

With the intention of luring buyers to choose new over old, newer buildings are offering luxuries such as: sleek and polished designs, newer amenities, revolutionized living technology and the idea of being the first to live in a space that has not yet been inhabited. Add-ons such as state of the art fitness centers, exclusive resident spa services and five-star concierge and building services are making the choice of selecting new construction more appealing. However, this option commonly comes with a heavier price tag and some unexpected issues. A few draw-backs such as unforeseen construction delays and unknown kinks arising after construction are common issues owners face when selecting new construction. They also face the infamous turnover phase — a time that could be very difficult for newly established community associations if they lack the right experts to guide them through the process. These challenges have prompted older towers to improve their buildings with hopes of enticing these buyers to look their way.

pool deck renovation.jpgOlder buildings are using the risks buyers face when purchasing new construction to their benefit. Towers over three years old are labeling themselves “established,” having already dealt with most, if not all, construction defects found after the developer turned over control. They also highlight the fact that their boards are more seasoned, helping buyers feel like they are placing their investment in knowledgeable hands. Also, construction delays would never be an issue since these units are all move-in ready. In addition to highlighting some of the benefits that come with moving into an established community, many older condo towers are also making the effort in renovating their spaces to update their design to match the designs offered in newer construction. Some have gone as far as converting racquetball courts into multi-purpose rooms, yoga rooms, arts and crafts rooms and additional fitness centers. Simply by turning something old into something almost-new, these towers are keeping up with newer condos and competing at a price level that tends to be much more affordable, while still offering a similar style of living. With this in mind, the boards of these older buildings should be cautioned that their association’s governing documents may prevent some of the proposed changes, and that many alterations and improvements must be approved by the association membership. Accordingly, it is advisable for community association counsel to be involved in the planning of any such changes.

It will be interesting to see what buyers will choose once most of these towers are finalized. Our firm’s community association attorneys have assisted numerous clients with redesign projects throughout the years. We write in this blog about important legal and administrative issues affecting associations in Florida, and we encourage association directors, members and property managers to enter their email address in the subscription box at the top right of the blog in order to automatically receive all of our future articles.

An arbitration decision rendered earlier this year by the State of Florida Division of Condominiums involving a dispute over alterations approved by a condominium board without a prior meeting and vote of the unit owners did not surprise our firm’s community association attorneys. We often find ourselves reminding association directors and property managers that the changes they are considering – albeit seemingly minor in nature – could be among those changes that are considered “material alterations” requiring approval by the membership.

While what constitutes a “material” alteration is not always clear, the rule of thumb is that if it changes the color, form, shape, elements or specifications from the original design or plan, or existing condition, in such a manner as to appreciably affect or influence its function, use, or appearance, then it is material. And, while the additional costs and time commitments that the approval process entails can be considered a bit ponderous, this recent decision serves as an important reminder of the potentially significant economic repercussions of forgoing the vote.

The case involved alterations that were approved by the Nine Island Avenue Condominium Association board of directors, which included changes and improvements to the pool deck furniture including cushions and fixtures, trellis, observation deck, pool steps and ladder, landscaping, the color of the paint in the koi pond, and the removal of a water filtration system. pool deck renovation.jpg After a hearing that took two full days and included a number of witnesses and experts for both the unit-owner petitioner, Ms. Jacqueline Simkin, and the association, the arbitrator found in favor of the unit owner and concluded that prior approval by the unit owners was required for practically every single alteration that had been made at the property.

The order concludes:

“Unless the alteration is approved by 66 2/3% of the unit owners, no later than December 31, 2014, the Association shall:

a. Return the color of the recreation deck waterways and curbing to the original light gray, and return the color scheme of the deck furnishings to original grey-blue, or something substantially similar;

b. Rebuild the trellises to the original footprint, design intent, appearance, and natural weathered wood finish, subject to current code requirements;

c. Return the gazebo to its original natural weathered wood finish;

d. Rebuild the wooden observation deck over the waterway;

e. Replace the pool egress ladders with ladders substantially similar to original, such that the steps extend farther down into the water and can be used as a means of egress from the pool by unit owners;

f. Return the entrance drive landscaping to its original, or substantially similar, condition; and
g. Repair or replace the building water filtration system with a comparable system utilizing current technology.”

Depending on how the final vote of the members turns out, the association may be facing significant expenses in order to return some or all of these elements to their original condition prior to the alterations being completed. These expenses, not to mention the potentially contentious nature of the meetings that will lead up to the vote as a result of this significant lapse in judgment, will certainly prove to be more costly and difficult for the association than the vote that it should have undertaken prior to moving forward with the alterations. Not to mention the attorneys fees and costs incurred by the association in defending this proceeding – and the unit owner’s attorneys fees and costs which the association will be responsible to reimburse.

This costly lesson comes free of charge to all other Florida condominium association boards of directors that are considering moving forward with what potentially may be considered a “material alteration” without obtaining prior membership approval as required by the Condominium Act. Bypassing the approval process is simply not worth the financial risk, as this condominium association learned the hard way.

Daniel Salas SRLDS.jpgConcrete restoration projects are unavoidable during the lifespan of every concrete building in South Florida. They are among the most expensive construction renovation projects that associations will be required to take on, and as such many associations and their property managers try to mitigate the costs as much as possible. However, the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds true with these projects. Associations should be very careful to avoid cutting corners on the record keeping, making sure to chronicle all of the work that was performed as part of these restoration projects in order to protect against the repercussions of shoddy work and defects.

My colleagues and I have experienced a number of instances where our association clients have had defects manifest themselves only a few years after a concrete restoration project has been completed. However, the associations have had a difficult time proving that the contractor was responsible due to inadequate and incomplete records of the work that was performed. After inspecting the defects in question, the contractors have responded by indicating that they were not responsible for the work on the affected areas. The associations then request records and work logs to verify the contractors’ claims, only to find that the contractors and engineers did not keep detailed work logs of the work that was performed, leaving the association with little evidence to prove their claims.

balcony renovation.jpgThere are a number of measures that associations should take to avoid this scenario and protect themselves against the potential for inferior and defective work in concrete restoration projects. The foremost among these is the retaining of an independent third-party engineer or project manager to oversee and chronicle the restoration work performed in the building, and to help ensure that all of the work is performed in a cost-effective and timely manner. A third-party project manager not only protects the interest of the association during the construction process but also protects the association’s interests should defects in the restoration work arise in the future. The benefits of hiring a third-party project manager are countless, for example, project managers will assist in the evaluation and hiring of the project engineer and contractor; evaluate the work of the engineer and contractor; hold timely meetings to review the process of the work performed; review the payment requisitions and daily logs; and keep the association informed of any potential issues on the project.

In addition to the use of an independent engineer or project manager, the association’s attorney should also be called upon to review and or draft the contracts for the restoration project. The associations should ensure that their contracts include stipulations requiring that the general contractor and engineer maintain and provide to the association detailed work logs of all of the work performed. The standard warranty language in general construction contracts will not suffice without the detailed work logs showing exactly what work was performed and the location of such work in every facet of the building. It is much more difficult to hold contractors liable for defects in areas that are not documented as having been part of the restoration work performed.

Although these additional measures will add to the costs of concrete restoration projects for associations, without them the associations would be taking a significant risk of being unable to hold contractors responsible for any defects that may arise in the restored areas. Additionally, these added costs are minimal compared to the costs that the associations would endure in litigation or in repairs to the areas which had been restored. There is no doubt that concrete restoration projects are expensive, time consuming and a nuisance to the residents of the building. However, keeping these measures in place throughout the process will mitigate the time and money spent on the project as well as result in a well done concrete restoration project, retaining the value of the building as well as the safety of the residents.

Many individuals or associations have been victimized by unscrupulous contractors. These experiences include defective work resulting in costly disputes with contractors and efforts to correct deficiencies; contractors abandoning jobs; and the filing of liens on the owners’ property, despite payment for such services or goods having been made to the contractor. A basic understanding of construction lien laws may minimize exposure to the problems described above. Chapter 713, Florida Statutes (the “Construction Lien Laws”), provides protection to owners engaging contractors to perform work on their property, and it protects contractors, their subcontractors, suppliers and other professionals to ensure that they are paid for their services.

Under this law, lienors have the right to record a lien against real property if they are not paid for services, labor or materials provided for the improvement of such property. A lienor may be a contractor; subcontractor; sub-subcontractor; laborer; materialman who contracts with the owner, a contractor, a subcontractor, or a sub-subcontractor; or certain professionals (such as engineers or architects). While the owners of real property may be able to ascertain their exposure to a lien resulting from non-payment to a contractor that was engaged for the improvements, exposure to liens from non-payment to other lienors may be difficult to ascertain given that it is typically the contractor hired by the property owner that is entrusted with the obligation to pay the other parties having a right to place a lien on the property. For example, property owners may be aware that they have entered into a contract with a specific contractor, but they may be unaware that their contractor has engaged a subcontractor to excavate the land for the pool, and they have acquired the plaster and other materials from suppliers.

lien formIn the above example, lienors engaged by the contractor must be paid for their services, labor and materials. While the property owners may be aware that they have paid their contractor, they may be unaware of the subcontractors or suppliers. Failure to ensure that payment has been issued to the subcontractors and suppliers may result in the filing of a lien against the property, even if the owner paid the contractor.

The laws provide property owners with tools to notify the general public of their agreements with contractors hired for the improvement of real property so that potential lienors that have a right to file a lien on the owner’s property may then provide the owner with notice of their rights to lien for non-payment. In such cases, the property owner will file a Notice of Commencement in the public records of the county in which the property being improved is located. Those having lien rights for the work being performed and materials being supplied will be able to serve the property owner with a Notice to Owner advising the owner that they have been hired by the contractor to provide services or materials in connection with the project. Once a property owner is alerted as to the existence of all parties having a right to lien the property in connection with the improvement, the owner is in a position to ensure that all lienors are paid by the contractor, thus reducing each respective lienor’s rights to record a lien to the extent that they receive payment on the owner’s behalf. In order to ensure that lienors have been paid, the owner should condition that the contractor and other lienors provide releases of lien upon their receipt of payment.

The construction lien laws consist of a tedious set of statutes – complicated further by case law interpreting legal disputes involving such laws. Although the foregoing serves as a basic introduction of such laws, managers and directors must implement the procedures to protect against pitfalls such as those described above. Managers and directors should work closely with their engineers and attorneys to ensure that a contractor’s requested payment is conditioned upon satisfactory performance of work and compliance with procedures and forms included in the construction lien laws.

Has this ever happened at your condominium? You’re on the Board of Directors. The building has not been painted in 20 years and could definitely use some restoration. You realize that a special assessment is going to have to be passed in order to start a painting and restoration project, but before an assessment can be passed, you need to know how much it’s going to cost. Bids for a painting and restoration contractor are requested, and ultimately High & Dry Painting Company (“High & Dry”) is hired to do the work. Without having an attorney look anything over, the association signs a contract with High & Dry and the project is underway. High & Dry arrives at the building along with a crew and equipment, and the company finishes the job in a month. The association writes a check for the full amount of the contract and everybody is happy. Or so you thought.

Six months later the paint starts to crack, the manager realizes that High & Dry forgot to deliver a warranty for the work, and the association has just received a document in the mail entitled “Claim of Lien” from ABC Equipment Supply, a company the association did not contract with, threatening to file a lawsuit against the association and lien the entire building if payment is not made within 30 days. building painters.jpg In addition, the unit owners are disgruntled with the work and start to discuss whether they should challenge the special assessment because they don’t think the restoration work was even needed. Now what? Begrudgingly you call the association’s attorney and advise him or her of all that has transpired and hope that the nightmare will soon end. After a little research by the attorney, you’re told that not only was High & Dry not licensed, but they have since closed up shop and run for the hills. The nice little project has turned into a nightmare for the association.

All of this could have been avoided if the condominium association’s attorney had been contacted when the determination was made that the building needed to be painted and restored. The fact that the association did not have an attorney review the contract was the root of every problem in the scenario outlined above because contracts performed by unlicensed contractors are unenforceable in law or equity. Accordingly, the contract that the association entered into which may have provided a warranty is now unenforceable, and High & Dry is nowhere to be found. When an association signs an agreement with a contractor it must be diligent in obtaining all of the appropriate releases not only from the contractor, but also from the subcontractors, material men and suppliers hired by the contractor. Even if the association has no knowledge of who ABC Equipment Supplier is, and regardless of whether the association paid High & Dry for the full contract amount, the association may still be responsible for any outstanding sums owed to ABC.

Contractual problems or disputes such as the example set forth above may be avoided by the board simply seeking the advice of a professional or expert prior to the signing of an agreement. In the case of third party contracts, an attorney would be able to prepare a contract to protect the association from unlicensed and uninsured contractors. In addition, utilizing the services of an engineer or other professional for advice as to needed repairs and restoration will further insulate the board from liability when the disgruntled unit owners threaten legal action.

Some condominiums tend to rely heavily on their property managers. However, property managers may not engage in the unlicensed practice of law. This includes the giving of legal advice and counsel to others as to their rights and obligations under the law and the preparation of legal instruments, including contracts, by which legal rights are either obtained, secured or given away, although such matters may not then or ever be the subject of proceedings in a court.

Finally, preventing a condominium nightmare by having an attorney review a third-party contract or consulting with an expert can save an association thousands of dollars in unexpected costs for repair, not to mention attorneys’ fees spent defending and prosecuting actions on behalf of the association.