Condominium living. At its best, it is a neighborly and efficient way to share costs and provide for amenities that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive to support and maintain on your own. (Unless you already have your own swimming pool, tennis court, and weight room, in which case, te salut.) At its worst …well, I’m pretty sure the word “condominium” is the loose Latin translation for “high school for adults.” In representing condominium associations and residents over the years, I’ve seen all ends of the spectrum, from kumbaya moments of good community governance to bickering factions, torches and pitchforks (not literally), and condo commandos who operate like mall cops on steroids.
If you live in an Ohio condominium development, then your association, your unit, and ultimately you fall under the purview of our association’s recorded declaration and the Ohio Condominium Act (Revised Code §§ 5311.01, et seq.). (Likewise, if you live in a homeowners’ association or other planned community development, you fall under the roughly analogous Planned Community Act, R.C. §§ 5312.01, et seq.) Your condominium association relies on your monthly maintenance fees to provide for common expenses and amenities. If you fall behind or do not pay, your association has the legal authority to place a lien on your unit and ultimately foreclose.
What do you do when the condo collector comes calling, only there’s a dispute over payments, fees, and the delinquent account balance, if any? This happens far too often in my opinion, particularly with self-managed (read: “poorly run”) associations. Often, the alleged balance is in the low four figures, which is juuuuuuust enough to get your attention, but still small enough that it’s not economical to mount a scorched earth legal defense. In light of that reality, let me offer the following DIY tips for dealing with your condo collector. (The usual disclaimer, of course, is that these are only general principles and not legal advice specifically tailored to your situation.)
- Be Proactive. Do you pay your maintenance fees once a month? Once a year? Do you know your current account balance? If not, request an account ledger. You may think you’re current, but just one late payment, alleged late payment, or accounting error, no matter how far back, generally sets in motion an exponential accrual of late fees and penalties. By getting your hands around this information early, while your memory is fresh and documentation is more easily accessible, you will be in a better position to refute the association’s allegations.
- Do Your Homework. So now you have a copy of your account ledger, and it shows that you are delinquent. Run your own calculations. Double check the math. Cross reference the association’s records with your own payment documentation (e.g., canceled checks or credit card statements). Did they miss a payment? Itemize, summarize, and break down the various charges. How much of the alleged balance is actual maintenance fees versus interest, late fees, and other miscellaneous charges? Courts interpret your condominium declaration as a contract, and the law disfavors “penalty” contractual provisions, specifically in a residential contract.
- Homework (Part II). You are entitled by law to review all books, records, and meeting minutes of the association and its board of directors. C. § 5311.09. Request and review those minutes. Did the board vote upon and authorize a collection procedure? If so, was it followed in your case? Were your directors validly elected or appointed? If not, it is possible that they do not have the authority to lien or foreclose on your unit, or take any other action on behalf of the association.
- Take It to the Board. Property managers and collection attorneys churn through stacks of delinquent accounts. You are just a number to them. Your association’s elected volunteer directors are not only your neighbors; they are also the people who have the final decision-making authority as to each collection matter. Try to talk to them, calmly and respectfully of course, and ideally at their next regularly scheduled board meeting. (Kindly ask to be put on the agenda ahead of time.) The directors may be otherwise clueless as to your situation, particularly where the property managers and attorneys have piled on their own additional fees.
- Pay Up or Lawyer Up. Then again, sometimes there’s nothing else to be done. If the board won’t budge, your choices are generally to pay up or lawyer up. This can be frustrating because, as I said before, given the amounts involved it’s often cheaper to pay up than litigate. What’s important, perhaps even moreso than making the right decision, is making a decision right now. Putting your head in the sand won’t make the problem go away, but only make it worse.