Every year the cycle repeats itself in co-ops and condo communities in Chicago: as temperatures drop and snow begins to swirl, flocks of empty nesters and others fortunate enough to own a second home in a warmer climate pack up and head south.
Having these part-time residents’ units empty for months at a time poses certain challenges for the managers and boards of associations, whose administrative and managerial jobs don’t ease up just on account of the season. Security, emergency access to units, voting issues and communication all become pretty complicated.
The carefree lifestyle of condominium residents may make an owner feel as though taking off for a winter in Florida or Arizona is as simple as removing the trash and locking the unit doors. Managers and other real estate industry pros know it’s not that simple.
No matter what term is applied to residents, this annual migration may present challenges for the property management firms who work on a personal level with this segment of Chicagoland’s population.
“Every association is different but in our organization there are no specific rules for residents leaving on extended trips. It’s more of an informal thing,” says Barbara Hudetz, a community association manager with Wesley Realty Group in Evanston. “We really encourage unit owners who are going to be gone out of their units for any length of time, for any reason, to be sure to have someone go in and check on things, to make sure the heat is on in the winter and that type of thing. Sometimes you have to change the system in a unit from air conditioning to heat. It’s important to make sure someone is doing that. It’s also important for management to have access to a unit because if there is an emergency situation like a water leak or a water shutoff, we need to be able to get in their units to deal with that emergency. Some of our buildings that are older have Sloan-type valves. Every time you turn the water off the toilets run, so you have to be able to get in and adjust those things so it’s very important to have access to units while the owners are away. People are usually very cooperative about that,” she says.
“Some associations have specific rules in place to notify management when they will be out of town for a certain period of time to ensure that the resident has a plan in place in case their care needs to be moved or access is required in their unit,” says Keith J. Hales, president of Hales Property Management Inc. in Chicago.
“For smaller associations, we always send out reminders to encourage residents to have a plan already in place before they leave. A couple months ago, we needed to power wash the garage and gave the residents over a month of notice. Sure enough, one of the residents went out of town and didn’t leave his car keys with anyone so we had to tow his car as a result.”
In addition, short term leasing and maintenance are also issues seasonal buildings face frequently. Out-of-state or out-of-country property owners sometimes send in payments and fees late. If an owner fails to pay at all, it may be difficult to pursue legal action across state or country borders.
Many times a seasonal owner will allow his or her unit to be rented monthly, weekly, or even daily, and without association approval. Usually this is in violation of the condo documents and bothersome to other residents. Transient guests often fail to respect the property and/or the rules which can result in security concerns.
“We have no short term rentals in any of the community associations that I manage so we don’t have a problem with snowbirds trying to rent out their units while they are away,” says Hudetz. “It just wouldn’t be a possibility. We don’t allow that at all.”
“Snowbirds will often try to rent out their units while they are away; however, most associations have restrictions not allowing residents to lease their units out for less than a year,” says Hales. “This can cause some tension between the association and the snowbirds since they sometimes try to sneak in renters during that time.”
If the absentee or seasonal owner fails to maintain things like pest control, leaks, and air conditioning, mold, mildew and vermin can quickly wreak havoc for maintenance personnel and affect property values.
“Frozen pipes are one of the biggest causes of property damage during winter months,” says Joe Schneider, an Allstate Insurance Agency owner in Chicago. “When pipes freeze they can burst resulting in messy water damage, which can be quite costly. The key is to keep pipes insulated. Insulation should be installed in any areas exposed to outdoor elements, such as attics, vents, plumbing stacks, electric and mechanical chases. It is a good idea to install insulation on various wet sprinkler system piping as well. In addition, ensure that openings such as doors and windows are tightly-sealed, and fill any cracks or holes in exterior walls with caulk or insulation to prevent cold air from getting in.”
Schneider also notes that ice dams, melting snow and roof collapses are two common perils that snowbirds should take extras caution against while wintering in a warmer climate.
“Adding insulation above ceilings can work to trap heat inside the home and prevent snow on the roof,” says Schneider. “While having heating cables installed on the edge of the roof and gutters can be very beneficial as well, it is important to ensure drains and gutters are free of debris that may block snow melt from flowing off the roof.”
Protecting the Nest
The best way to avoid problematic security and maintenance issues is to have owners provide out-of-state or out-of-country contact information as the official record with the association. Then all notices and official communications can and should be sent directly to the owners, keeping them fully informed.
“Condo insurance differs from homeowners insurance because condominium associations are usually responsible for insuring common areas, like the building’s exterior, while the condo owner is typically responsible for everything inside the unit,” says Schneider. “The association’s insurance covers parts of the building structure but generally doesn’t cover personal belongings like furniture, clothes and electronics. A condo policy will help repair or replace possessions if they’re damaged by a covered peril (theft, fire, smoke). Talk to your local insurance professional to discuss your specific protection needs.”
Schneider states that snowbirds should consider a landlord package if they will be renting out their home while away or if they plan to rent a home or apartment in a warmer climate.
“Landlord policies provide property insurance coverage for any physical damage to the structure of the home caused by fire, lightning, wind, hail, ice, snow or other covered perils,” says Schneider. “It also offers coverage for any personal property the landlord may leave on-site for maintenance or tenant use, like appliances, lawnmowers and snow blowers. The policy also includes liability coverage; if a tenant or one of their guests gets hurt on the property, it would cover legal fees due to injury claims and medical expenses.”
Having the correct, updated contact information is also necessary for proxies, and important votes.
“If multiple board members are gone for an extended period of time that could present a problem because we need the board to be together,” says Hudetz. “Unit owners only have to vote at an annual meeting and they get proxies so it’s just an issue with board members. Luckily we haven’t had that problem yet.”
“Much of the correspondence these days is done via email making it easy to communicate from all over the world,” adds Hales.
Another option would be for out of town board members to participate in meetings via speaker phone as long as they can hear and be heard by all in attendance.
Real estate experts also believe that a user friendly website that is informative and up-to-date provides useful information. It can be a means of keeping informed about the community while at home or away and is an excellent way for all residents to stay current. Owners, renters, visitors, investors and other interested parties are all welcome on the site, but certain aspects of owner information should be password-protected for security and privacy.
“A lot of unit owners who are gone for an extended length of time have their mail forwarded,” says Hudetz, “So they do get anything that we put in the mail. But we mainly email them updates.”
Security and maintenance issues for seasonal residents are often a matter of good communication between the residents and the association board. Unit owners are responsible for maintaining the interior of the units. That means turning off water, leaving air conditioning on and making sure the electric bill is paid.
It is extremely important for property owners to ensure their units are secured while they are away. Arrangements to inspect a unit before and after a weather event should be made with the board, management, or a private company.
Real estate experts advise boards to stay organized and follow the law and that co-op and condo owners stay in regular contact with their management companies.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.