Published in the ECHO Journal, September 2013

A common complaint from boards of directors is problems with absentee property owners. Renters and landlords are blamed for many of the problems in an association. Some associations have amended their governing documents to limit the number of rentals allowed in their associations. As a professional community association manager for over twenty-five years, I have found that a “problem” unit in the communities I manage are more likely to be occupied by a non-owner resident than by an owner resident.

Why do rental units become a problem for the association? Consider at minimum the following two possibilities:

  1. Poor choice of renters by the landlord: A renter may not fully understand or appreciate the lifestyle changes required for a successful residency in a high- density development. They may like to “party” late into the night, play their stereo or a musical instrument too loudly, have too many cars, or have animals or children who are allowed to play in the common areas without supervision. Sometimes to obtain the maximum rental income, the landlord permits a large number of individuals to rent the unit so that the unit functions more like a rooming house rather than a single-family residence. Many times in households with several unrelated adults, frequent numerous guests (also with cars) cause parking and noise problems. However, these traits are by no means limited to renters, and you may recognize one or more of these situations in your own association.
  2. Uninformed renters: Renters are sometimes not given a copy of the rules and regulations at the time they sign the rental agreement. The renter was not informed there is a limit on the number of vehicles that can be parked inside the development (which is invariably a number less than the number of cars they own). They didn’t know that the spa closes at 10:00 p.m. They were not told their friends couldn’t park in the fire lane when coming by “for only a few minutes.” No one told them they couldn’t have two dogs AND two cats.

The “rules-breakers” place the board of directors and the association manager in the role of being a policeman. No one wants to be a policeman in an association. It is one of the most undesirable elements of being a manager or board member.

Avoiding Problems with Renters

Use the techniques of education and enlistment. Make sure all your residents (both tenants and owners) are educated about the rules and what is expected of them. Enlist their support and cooperation. Don’t wait until there is a problem to make contact. The following are some ways to carry out education and enlistment.

  1. Create a resident handbook. Include information on parking regulations, quiet hours, pool and spa rules and hours of operations, garbage can storage, skateboards and pets. Publish the name and phone number of the manager or the board members if your association is self-managed. Give several copies to each non-resident owner.
  2. Form an active social committee. Invite residents and owners to get together periodically. Some associations I manage organize potlucks; Easter egg hunts for the children, Christmas caroling, Halloween parades through the complex, and volunteer workdays. In these associations almost everyone knows everyone else, and problems are minimized. Residents ask each other the important questions: “Does my dog bark when I’m not home? Is my teenage son’s music too loud?”
  3. Involve non-resident owners. Establish a telephone tree to call owners and personally invite them to come to the annual meeting. Increase attendance at your annual meeting by distributing flyers a few days before to remind owners, combine the meeting with a social event, consider a door prize. Consider changing the day and time (check bylaws first). Talk about resident issues at the annual meeting. Help the non-resident owner to understand that the manager and the board of directors are not landlords. Encourage them to be a good neighbor by choosing a good tenant for their unit. Encourage them to run for the board of directors. Some of the best board members I’ve worked with were non-resident owners.
  4. Develop a welcoming committee. Personally deliver a letter of welcome to all new owners and residents. Give them a copy of your resident handbook. Answer questions about the development. Create a sense of community in your homeowners association. Make new residents feel like a “wanted” member of the community. Most people want to be a good neighbor. It is much easier to solicit support and cooperation before a problem occurs.

Obtaining Compliance from Rules Breakers

You have developed your association’s rules and distributed them to all residents and owners. You should also develop a fining schedule (check the association governing documents first for authority) and distribute it to all residents and owners. Although the legal requirement is that the fining schedule must be distributed only once unless changes are made, I strongly recommend you mail copies every year to all owners and tenants. A good time to distribute the schedule to the owners is with your annual disclosure packet. I recommend the schedule have a provision for at least one warning before implementing a fine. Fines should be used as a tool to obtain compliance when a polite request to comply is not successful.

Sometimes, even after doing everything right, you still have a rule breaker. They probably know the rules, they either think the rule is not “fair” (my mother always told me life is not fair); doesn’t apply to them; or feel they can continue to get away with the violation. Those associations with the highest success rate in resolving violations have at least two board members willing to try the personal touch. A formal letter of violation is prepared to outline and document the violation for the record. Two members of the board personally deliver the letter to the resident in a friendly, non-judgmental environment. This face-to-face meeting serves to introduce the board members, explain what the problem is, and solicit the resident’s help in resolving the problem. I recommend two people (there is comfort in numbers), but more than two can seem intimidating, especially if you are meeting with only one resident. Don’t act like a policeman. Act like a neighbor.

If the behavior continues, mail a letter to the owner of the unit. If the unit is tenant occupied, send a copy to the tenant. Reference your earlier contact with the resident. Request that the owner attend your next board meeting to discuss the problem personally. Tell them the board intends to take action at this meeting to levy a fine. Give them an opportunity to attend the meeting to show cause why the fine should not be levied. Fewer than half of the owners receiving such a letter will actually attend. Expect to receive a telephone call from a non-resident owner saying they have spoken to the tenant about the problem and assuring you it will not happen again. The resident owner may or may not respond. However, in more than 90 percent of the cases the problem will not happen again, at least not in the near future. Again, owners and most tenants really want to do the right thing and be a good neighbor.

Many boards will decide to waive a fine if compliance is obtained. If you do take this action, send a letter to the owner and resident advising them of the action of the board. Again, as a board you appear fair, forgiving, and a good neighbor. You show that the intent of the threatened fine was not to generate revenue for the association but to obtain compliance with the rules of the association. In the cases where the behavior continues, assess the fine. Make sure the fining schedule has incremental fines for multiple violations. Send the fine invoices to the owner, not the tenant. The association has no legal relationship with the tenant. If the tenant continues to break the rules and the owner continues to obtain monetary fines, most landlords will give notice to terminate the rental agreement of the offending tenant.

Diane Rossi is the president and Founder of Shoreline Property Management in Santa Cruz. She is a member of the ECHO board of directors and a member and past chair of the Central Coast Resource Panel.