What are the common elements in a condo association?

What happens when one homeowner makes changes to common elements?  And what happens when they don’t check with the condo association board before making those changes?

Q: I live in a rather small condominium building of seven units. As you can imagine, our finances are fairly tight. We had one homeowner do some remodeling in his unit and his plumber replaced some common plumbing lines to connect his new drains to the common line. The owner never mentioned anything to any of the other owners or to the board of managers. 

After the owner completed the work, the owner demanded that the condominium pay for the work he performed on the common pipes. The owner had his plumber show the cost of this work on a separate invoice and then he delivered the invoice to the board. However, the board declined to accept the bill. Then, the owner stopped paying his monthly dues to offset the cost. 

The board sent him a certified letter to begin any legal action to collect the money he owed. He did pay his next quarterly payment but he still owes the building money. How should we proceed? Will the owner have to pay if we hire an attorney to collect the amount he owes?

Owner should have consulted with the condo association or condo board to change common elements

A: The whole episode is unfortunate, and we don’t know the whole story, but as you present it, the unit owner was wrong to do any work to the common elements without consulting the other owners and the board. No one unit owner should spend money on behalf of the other owners and expect to be reimbursed, especially when the cause of the expense was due to that owner’s specific work in his unit.

The board that runs the building is the party responsible for engaging in work on behalf of the unit owners. Had the owner doing the work found some additional work that needed to be done on the building itself, the owner should have consulted with the president or other representatives on the board to let them know what was going on. 

Unit owners making arbitrary decisions can set in motion all sorts of nightmare scenarios with unintended consequences. On the other hand, we can also imagine a situation where a homeowner starts work and finds something critically wrong with some building plumbing pipe. Given a critical problem, we’d think a building would want to have that fixed rather than cause some major problem down the road. 

Who pays if common element changes only benefit homeowner? 

So, let’s assume the owner found a pipe that was ready to burst and had his plumber fix it. He should have immediately alerted the building. Since you’re living in a relatively tiny property, the owner could have simply called all the owners and given them the opportunity to see the problem, evaluate what to do, and bid out the job. It’s quite possible that you and the other owners would have authorized the plumber to do the work at that time. As neighbors, you could then evaluate whether the owner did the building a favor by fixing the problem. If he did the building a favor, the building could decide to pay for the cost of the work.

However, your letter didn’t mention that the owner found a critical problem with the plumbing. Rather, the owner replaced some common pipes to accommodate his own plumbing needs. If that’s the case, the owner should have to pay for that work. His desire to renovate his unit and update his kitchen or bathrooms might dictate that he update the building plumbing systems adjacent to his unit. The other owners should not have to bear the cost of one unit owner’s desire to renovate beyond the capabilities of the current plumbing stack.

Condo association board can go after unpaid assessments

Now that the owner has failed to pay his assessments, the board has the right to go after the unit owner for the unpaid dues. You should know that most association documents allow the board of managers to not only recover the amount owed but any expenses incurred in the collection of the debt. Furthermore, the board would also have the right to file a lien against the unit owner’s condominium and could foreclose on the unit to force the unit owner to pay the debt.

We hope the unit owner comes forward and pays what he owes the building. As we mentioned, you are neighbors in a small building. You can decide whether the owner’s plumbing work benefitted the building as a whole and whether that work was a worthwhile expense. We’re not implying that the unit owner was right to do the work without board approval. But, there are ways to diffuse the situation, as neighbors, and see if you can find a compromise.

Let’s be clear: unit owners should not take building matters into their own hands and make arbitrary decisions. But sometimes things happen. When they do, you can decide whether you can compromise or spend money litigating the issue. 

Take a step back. Look at the work objectively. See if the plumbing work adds any value and benefit to the building as a whole. Determine what that worth is and see if you can all agree to a compromise arrangement. Again, if the work only benefited the unit owner and not the building, that unit owner should bear the cost of that work.