Dealing With Vacant Units How to Cope When Nobody's Home

Dealing With Vacant Units

It’s a sight that's more familiar in Florida co-op and condo communities than perhaps any other region nationwide: multiple unoccupied units. Depending upon the neighborhood, this may or may not be a bad thing, since some communities have more “snowbird” owners from Northern states who just live here part-time. Other communities have many more foreign owners who may not be in town often, but nonetheless want their investments protected and so take a keen interest in the upkeep and administration of their adopted communities.

The flip-side of this is that in other places in the Sunshine State, the recession left some residential buildings and developments—many of them brand-new construction—unfinished and/or mostly empty. The foreclosure crisis also forced many Florida condo owners out of their condos, leaving those units on the market without any takers for months or years. And regardless of the economy, the seasonal ebb and flow of condo residents into and out of communities, particularly in many areas of Florida, means many units will be without residents in them for months at a time even in the brightest economic conditions.

However they become vacant, empty units can pose certain challenges for property managers and board members, whose managerial and administrative jobs continue year-round, regardless of the community’s population on any given day. Those challenges can include issues regarding security, emergency access to units, voting issues, and communication with residents, all of which is complicated when a significant percentage of a community is uninhabited. With fewer people around, it's much tougher to cultivate a sense of neighborliness, and there are fewer eyes to watch out for problems. Following some best practices for dealing with uninhabited units can help management, maintenance staff, and residents successfully manage these issues. Part of the process involves knowing what to look for, and part of it involves preparation.

Neighbors Away

Industry experts in Florida vary in their estimates regarding the percentage of co-op and condo units that are currently empty but many believe there are far fewer these days than at the nadir of the Great Recession, the effect of which many say is finally waning.

“What I can say is, the number has definitely gone down,” says Hedy Maurer, vice president of Association Services of Florida, which has several locations across the state and is part of national property management firm Associa. Of those units that are empty, most are due to the lingering recession and legal holdups with banks and titles, Maurer says.

Lee Heller, director of business development at Association Services of Florida (ASF), says a large percentage of South Florida condos are occupied seasonally. “But that percentage will differ between Broward, Miami Dade, and West Palm Beach counties,” he says. “The percentage also includes the foreign-owned units, not just seasonal.”

Foreclosures had been as high as 10 to 15 percent a few years ago, and are now down to about 3 percent, says Randolph Bell, CEO of BeacCorp Property Management in West Palm Beach. “In Palm Beach County, it’s a different animal,” he says.

Empty Nests

A lot of the empty units are empty because their owners simply walked away from them, Bell says, and as a result, some communities are hurting. With fewer residents paying maintenance fees, there is less cash to go toward maintenance. Sometimes, corners are cut, out of a necessity borne of a shortage of funds. “The first thing they save on is landscaping and maintenance costs,” Bell says.

The South Florida market may be unique in its percentage of seasonal residents, though perhaps not so unique among beach vacation spots across the country. Still, the number of snowbirds and other seasonal residents is impressive. Bill Worrall, vice president of FirstService Residential-South in Hollywood says about 30 to 40 percent of the South Florida condo market is comprised of seasonally-occupied units. He concurs with Bell that the number of abandoned units has shrunk dramatically and is much smaller than it was. “Among the buildings that we manage, it’s almost nil,” Worrall says.

From a maintenance and management perspective, some of the larger issues that either seasonally or perpetually empty units represent for HOAs include unkempt lawns, algae-choked pools, weeds growing in driveways, deteriorating roofs—even squatters, says Marc Rodriquez, director of management services for Associa.

To prepare for the off-season when they will not live in their condo, Florida unit owners should plan for the worst, industry pros say. Before leaving the unit for an extended period, owners should prepare it for hurricane season. That means closing shutters, removing outdoor furniture from terraces, and if possible, turning off the unit’s water. On the other hand, it's important to leave the air conditioning on; if the air is shut off for very long, humidity creeps in, and from that point, it’s not long until mold is rampant in the place—a health hazard, and a costly problem to fix.

“Those are steps that should be taken any time you are leaving the apartment for any amount of time,” Worrall says.

Other Considerations

As a matter of course, unit owners should be treated with deference and respect in matters pertaining to their homes. Their units are their property and their homes (even if only for a short time each year), and owners have a right to privacy. All of the community’s residents, though, have the right to see that their property—and the common areas of the community—are not devalued because of a neighbor’s apathy.

For all communities, access to the unit by management and staff is required for maintenance purposes. If needed, management can hire a locksmith to gain entrance into a unit to do necessary repair work. Most communities require that management give residents 24-hour notice prior to making entry to their condo but if access to the unit is needed because of an emergency like a water leak, it’s legal for management to go in and do what needs to be done.

The ever-present issue of underfunding for maintenance in multifamily communities in Florida has gotten tougher due to more unsold units. It’s hurt some communities more than others, and has made some boards almost drastic in their attempts to reverse the trend. The inability of HOAs to collect full delinquent fees has forced some to put liens on units with fees owed, and even rent them out to recoup some of the unpaid fees. Such a course can be a double-edged sword if a management team isn't well-versed in running rentals-in-condos, and for some communities, that course of action might gain more hassle than profit. “A lot of these communities just don’t have the expertise or staff to get into the rental business,” Bell says.

Keeping an Eye On Things

Not every community will have the same issues with unoccupied units and some will just need the residents and staff who stay in the community year-round to be more vigilant in the off-season. Residents shouldn’t be nosy, but they should be alert and inquisitive if anything seems neglected or amiss. Management pros say they should report anything they see that seems not right with any unit, whether it’s occupied or not. If they see suspicious activity, they should call the police.

While some year-round residents of a community might be tempted to go to a nearby empty unit and poke around if they see something that seems amiss, they should not. It’s important for all residents to pay attention to conditions in their community and to recognize when things don’t look right, of course. But if Mrs. Smith’s unit, which is empty in the hottest summer months, has an open door or broken window when she’s been gone for a month, residents who see that door or window should notify the property manager, and leave it at that.

“I tell my owners ‘Don’t go over there’ to the empty apartment—that’s my job,” says Bell. “Because in the worst case, them going over there will create bad blood between neighbors.”

But if management is doing its job well, residents usually shouldn’t have to inform on conditions of a neighbor’s unit. “Regular property inspections are critical in this business—at least several times a week—walking around the entire property and the common areas. External visual inspections of the interior and exterior of the building are crucial,” Worrall says. In addition to ensuring that seasonal owners prepare their units before flying off to their other homes, managers also must do their part to protect the community while their seasonal neighbors are spending the season elsewhere. Management must be aware, more than anyone else on site, of any changes in the community.

“It’s standard operating procedure for our property managers to do multiple property inspections per week—they need to walk the building, looking for clean conditions and looking out for odd odors or broken windows, etc. We’ll advise unit owners of problems,” Worrall continues. These visual inspections are important all times of year, even to nip in the bud infractions such as an owner leaving a beach towel hanging on the balcony when it’s against community rules.

Better Safe...

Frequent inspections by management of the entire property will help uncover any problems more quickly. But some of those problems with uninhabited units can be prevented, too, with the right maintenance. One of the most common maintenance problems with uninhabited units results from the failure of a very small piece of hardware—the water supply line behind a toilet, Worrall says. Nylon water supply lines, as opposed to steel-braided lines, will sometimes break. “I’ve seen it a thousand times—that water line will blow and flood the unit and another unit.”

Just because a condo owner knows what generally should be done to prepare their unit for the off-season when they will be gone, doesn’t mean that professional help won’t go a long way. Some industry professionals recommend that if a unit owner is going to be away for a while, they should hire a maintenance company to oversee any maintenance needs of the unit before departing. Such companies provide interior maintenance contracts for all plumbing and mechanical aspects of the apartment; and they’ll inspect the unit prior to the owner’s departure and advise on its maintenance needs.

Maintenance companies also will replace air conditioning system air filters, which might seem like a simple task until you forget to do it. Condensate lines in an air conditioner can back up and flood the unit, all because of a lack of A/C maintenance. But what condo owner, save one who was raised installing heating and A/C systems with family, would think of all these things before escaping the sometimes oppressive heat of a Florida summer? That’s why the professionals can be helpful.

Remote Administration

Just because a unit owner doesn't live in the building—or even in the country—doesn't mean that boards and the manager can ignore them when it comes to getting owner input on decisions and policies that affect the community. Information on proxies, important votes on capital improvements and other board of directors’ legislative actions must be sent to the mailing address that the absent unit owner supplies.

When it comes to legislative issues of a community, and keeping owners in the loop even if they’re seasonal residents or live in a faraway land, the rule is always the same: as voting members of the community, seasonal owners must be apprised of the board’s actions, and of upcoming meetings and votes. Often, says Rodriguez, the owner of an unoccupied unit will assign a person to serve as their proxy, to cast the owner’s vote.

In this high-tech age, keeping residents informed of what’s happening in the community doesn't have to be difficult. Residents can be informed of such matters through postings on the community’s website or bulletin board, and by sending emails or e-newsletters to residents. Votes on community matters are a different matter, though.

Just like votes in a typical municipal election anywhere across the nation, association votes must be done either in person, with the voter personally casting their vote or doing so through a person designated as their proxy and voting on their behalf, or by old-fashioned regular mail as an absentee ballot.

For some residents with the right technology, knowing what’s happening in their empty beach condo is just a smartphone app away. State-of-the-art smart home technology enables unit owners to monitor conditions of their unit, even if they are thousands of miles away. With such technology, the apartment’s A/C can be adjusted, water leaks can be detected, motion sensors can notify the owner of possible intruders, shades can be lowered and lifted and lights switched on and off—all checked remotely, by phone or computer.

But nothing really beats a good set of vigilant eyes, watching out for all of the neighbors. Rodriquez recounts an incident regarding the importance of neighbors being on the watch for problems: An ice maker in the fridge of an empty condo unit in one community had been dripping for months before it was discovered. It caused mold in seven units, which cost $120,000 to clean up.

“The owner of the unit did not ask anyone to check it while he was away. To top it off, he had no insurance. The condo insurance only covers the drywall, and not the mold remediation,” Rodriquez says. “This situation ended up in litigation.”    

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator.