Published in the ECHO Journal, April 2013

Owner and the Association’s Mutual Maintenance Responsibility and How It Affects the Building Longevity

Have you, the board member, or your association manager experienced an incident similar to these? An owner calls at 11:00 P.M to report., “There is water leaking into the carport.” Or, an owner calls on Saturday morning to report that his or her unit is flooding with water from a washing machine.

Chances are, if you are reading this Journal, you are a homeowners association board member, and residents in your property expect you to solve problems which really, with some education, could have been prevented or handled by homeowners themselves.

So, the challenge for both association board members and property managers is educating owners and their tenants about what are their own responsibilities in maintaining and repairing their homes or units, which ultimately keeps the building in a safe condition.

Association managers are constantly being educated through their business affiliations. Certified Property Managers must maintain their credentials by keeping up their education through business courses.

Association boards of directors are educated through their affiliation with ECHO and its seminars and monthly journal. These volunteers are taught that with frequent site inspections, routine maintenance and planning, people can protect their building structure, thus protecting their asset.

Who Are Your Homeowners?

In the makeup of most associations, there is a small percentage of owners who attend the monthly or quarterly board of directors meetings. Most of these owners read the bulletins and notices and are informed about the association issues. In part, these are the same owners who join committees and are willing to volunteer their time to the community.

There is also a percentage of non-resident owners who rent out their property. Although associations encourage these owners to visit their property regularly, many don’t. Historically, we find their tenants are afraid to report problems for fear that there will be a rent increase or the tenant will be financially responsible for the problem.

More often, boards of directors find that the largest percentage of owners pay no attention at all to the problems that surround their units or homes. Many of us are guilty of saying that owners think they live in an apartment building and that all they are responsible to do is lock the door before they leave. The rest of the responsibility belongs to the association. This mindset is often established when a unit is purchased because buyers are nearly always told that condominium living is carefree living.

In a high-rise building in San Francisco, there was a major fiasco resulting from an owner’s broken washing machine hose. An owner on the fourth floor was out of the country. The housekeeper decided before leaving for the day to throw a load of dirty rags into the washer. The load was started and off she went. The owner beneath on the third floor was away on vacation also, and the resident on the second floor had just left for a planned weekend away. The doors were locked, their homes safe and away they went. Then disaster struck. No one was home to notice the water leaking from a broken washing machine hose until it reached the first floor lobby. In fact, a couple of these owners had never completed their emergency forms, and therefore, there was no way to enter their units. The fire department was called and a high-rise ladder used to remove the windows to gain access so the clean-up could begin.

So, what was the financial loss from this water hose break? The water intrusion resulted in $12,000.00 in hardwood floor replacement and $1,100.00 for window repairs. And, this is just the beginning. The third floor owner had to replace appliances and expensive grass cloth wall covering that could not be matched. This owner also had an original artwork damaged. On the second floor the owner had several appliances and bamboo flooring replaced. The first floor homeowner suffered the most damage as it took several days for all the water to drip through before the drying and repairs could be started. The family on floor one lost flooring, appliances, art work and contents of their main clothes closet.

How could this catastrophe have been avoided? First by inspecting appliances in our homes. This hose was a $15.00 part and, with a few hours and a preventive maintenance inspection plan, this disaster might have been avoided. More importantly, we should always think twice before leaving our home with an appliance running, especially a water appliance.

Prevention, Prevention, Prevention!

Educating homeowners about potential water related damage is one of the most difficult challenges that managers and board members face.

Water intrusion is one of the most destructive elements to a building. This intrusion can come from the interior as well as the exterior. When dealing with water, time is of the essence. Water intrusion needs to be reported to the manager or the association’s emergency service and responded to immediately, because water contributes to dry rot, wet rot and mold.

How Do We Educate Owners?

How do we educate owners and tenants about their responsibilities?

Knowing that we live in a world where we are bombarded with information, and most of us do not have the time to read everything that is sent to us, how do we go about educating people? The answer is to try everything and anything. Each of us processes information differently. You will reach homeowners with varying means of communication. For example:

Annual Meetings

In the announcement for the Annual Meeting let the homeowners know that you will have in attendance a service vendor to make a presentation on a specific maintenance issue with the focus on prevention. Make sure the speaker provides visuals.

Special Meetings

Hold special onsite meetings with the fire department or a service vendor to review property components.

Community Awareness Bulletins/Newsletters

During the Spring and Fall or at quarterly intervals, provide reminders on seasonal maintenance and care for the interior and exterior of your units/homes.

Exclusive Use Common Area Inspection or Review

Visit decks, balconies and enclosed patios with a professional and have owners present to listen to what they could be doing to improve their property and to keep it safe. Use a check list. (there is a sample attached.)

Websites

Establish a website where information can be obtained by owners and tenants regarding property maintenance.

Sources Of High-Risk Components

Our homes are filled with many sources of potential trouble from appliances to fire safety issues. How do we remember them all? We have provided below a list of high-risk areas to help you get started. This list is a work in progress, and we’re sure that you will be able to add more components when you create such a list for your own association.

Kitchen/Bathrooms & Laundry Room

  • Water Heaters – Lifespan 11-14 years. Must be maintained, anchored to the wall for safety. Keep the area around your water heater clear of debris. Don’t forget that water heaters require special earthquake strapping. Warning: If you see rust in the line, the failure is imminent. Routine maintenance includes flushing out sediment.
  • Washing Machines – Feeder hoses should be made of flexible metal for more durability. Inside exit water drains should be kept clear of debris to ensure proper drainage. Shut the hot/cold valves off when going on vacation.
  • Dryer Vents – Clean the lint trap after each load. Clean ducts at least once per year. Follow instructions of the owner’s manual.
  • Dishwashers – Feeder hoses should be made of flexible metal, and it is important that the hose is not bent. Make sure you keep the inside water exit drains clear of debris so water can exit.
  • Refrigerators – Lifespan 15 years. Clean coils regularly. Check seals and water connections for an icemaker. Icemakers are the silent intruder because the problem usually manifests as a slow drip hidden between the walls, causing slow deterioration before it rears its ugly face.
  • Disposal – Use as directed and check often for leaks. Kinks and tight bends can cause the hoses to fail. Recommend changing hoses every two years.
  • Toilets and Sinks – Plumbing, Plumbing, Plumbing! Take note of leaks! Often a leak is caused by a break in the wax seal or small crack in the toilet. Replace faucet washers or o-rings as necessary and remove and clean the aerator. Use a screwdriver to see if the floorboards are spongy. If the floor is damp, you need to replace the gasket. You may want to consult a professional for this.
  • Showers – If you do not keep your shower head clean, it can back up causing a leak down the plumbing line. Also, caulking tubs and showers should be an annual review. The smallest crack in the grout enables water to get behind the walls. The caulking around shower fixtures should also be examined. Always run exhaust fan or open a window while showering.

Bedroom/Living Rooms

  • Windows- Check for tight seals and soft caulking and keep weep holes clean and do not seal these. Let your rooms breath! Open windows and air-out the house when possible.
  • Furnace – Approximate Lifespan: 20+ years. Change your furnace filter yearly for safety, longer life and better performance. Keep combustible materials stored away from your furnace. Make sure that access doors and ducts fit tightly.

Exclusive Use Exterior Areas

Decks/Patios

  • Weight – Consider the planter, soil, plant/tree over saturation.
  • Plants/vegetation – keep vegetation away from structures. Use a trellis or lattice for your climbing vines.
  • Standing Water – Remember that West Niles Virus is here. Help discourage mosquito breeding grounds by removing water from plant saucers.
  • Drains – Keep surface drains clear of debris such as leaves.
  • Barbecues – Hot ashes from grills can compromise the weatherproof membrane.
  • Furniture – Pad the feet!
  • Bird Feeders/Pet Food – Food left out attracts rats, mice, skunks and moles. Keep food in sealed containers and do not leave pet food in dishes outside.
  • Attachments to Exterior Surfaces – Avoid this practice whenever possible. There are correct ways to affix almost everything. Learn how or let an expert do it for you so that walls will not be damaged or invite moisture into the structure.

Miscellaneous Issues

  • Carports/Driveways – Cleanup vehicle fluids dripped onto asphalt/concrete as soon as possible. Be mindful when disposing of hazardous waste material.
  • Report Lifting Concrete – A quarter inch lift is considered a trip hazard.
  • Report Ponding on Asphalt – Water source can be from rain, irrigation or a broken pipe. Get the problem corrected.
  • Report Vandalism – Vandalism is upsetting even when the motivation is not malicious. Timely action will minimize or can prevent lasting damage.

Fire Safety Issues

  • Smoke and CO alarms – Change the batteries. Consider daylight savings time change days as a reminder.
  • Fire extinguishers – Certify them once per year. Consider your birthday as a reminder.
  • Chimney Sweep and Fireplace Cleaning- Have them cleaned and inspected regularly based on usage.
  • Have a 72 Hour Self-Sufficient Emergency Plan.

It Takes a Village

Remember, it takes a village to manage and maintain the association’s property. The association manager is not the only one responsible for this task. Everyone—board members, residents and non-resident owners and service venders—must keep their eyes and ears open. Yes, your service vendors! Ask them to report to you anything unusual that they notice while working on your property. When something doesn’t look right, a phone call to the appropriate person should be made. The efforts of everyone working together as a team is what it takes to keep your investment sound.


Stephany Charles and Diane Kay are association managers in Marin County. Stephany is the owner at Charles Property Services in San Rafael, and Diane Kay is the owner of Kay Star Property Services in Novato. Both firms are members of ECHO and both authors are members of the North Bay Resource Panel.