How to spot Red Flags when reviewing the operating environment of the community.
Investment Opportunities within Association-Controlled Communities
How to Spot Red Flags when Reviewing the Operating Environment of the Community
Part 2 of a 2-part series – By Perry C. Rohan, MBA, LCAM, CPM®
Many of today’s real estate investors are finding their opportunities inside of condominium or homeowner association-controlled communities. It is important to understand that these communities have a wide-range of rules, regulations and restrictions that are designed to protect the lifestyle of the residents who live there – And these conditions can make being a landlord easy money or can turn your dreams of rental riches into a living nightmare. This article intends to help you, the residential real estate investor, understand and evaluate the operating environment of condominium and homeowner associations, from the perspective of running a rental business inside one of these association-controlled communities.
UNDERSTAND THE OPERATING ENVIRONMENT OF THE ASSOCIATION
When a real estate investor buys into an association-controlled community, the investor is agreeing to abide by the rules, regulations and restrictions of that community. This is what we refer to as the Operating Environment – the terms under which the investor will have to follow, in order to operate a rental business inside the community. These terms are all available for review and understanding, but you have to know where to look to be able to make an informed decision.
Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) – Otherwise known as “The documents”. You will probably receive an initial set of these documents from the real estate agent (or the seller) from whom you are purchasing the property. It is important that you get on-line with the clerk of the county court where the property is located, and find any and all amendments to these documents. The original documents may have been created years ago, but the amendments through the years will modify the original documents. You have to review just about everything in here so find a comfortable chair and start reading, watching for things that will be important to you and your rental business, such as:
- What are you responsible for and what is the association responsible for? In a condominium, for example, unit owners typically have responsibility for the interior (drywall) or in some cases, just the paint on the drywall. Many condominiums are responsible for the roof and exterior walls, and of course, all the common walk-ways, roads and other elements of the community.
- What type of insurance do you need? The paragraph above will help determine that, but so will an understanding of what the documents say with regard to describing what the association insures within your unit(s). This is important – The most frequent issue between the association and neighboring residents, is water leaks. How does the association handle a water leak between units? Who is responsible for what? This is all spelled out in the documents and can determine the extent of the insurance coverage an investor will need for the property.
- What else has been amended through the years? We have seen amendments requiring no storage other than cars within garages. Amendments that added language requiring capital contributions by new purchasers, or amendments requiring that seller first offer their unit for sale to the association. Red flags in this area would be anything that makes it harder for an investor to operate their rental unit or sell their property at a later date.
- What are the rules on rentals in the community? This seems an obvious research item, but many communities have added amendments through the years to change the original language in the documents. Some communities began with a lot of flexibility in rentals, then as the economy changed and rentals proliferated, board members began changing the rules, making it more difficult on landlords. Some communities allow rentals but require tenant approval. Some communities allow rentals only after one (or two) years of ownership. This is your business so you have to be clear on what the rules are.
- What are the requirements or specifications on pets? As a landlord, it is a double-edged sword as to whether allowing pets in your unit is a good idea or bad. Pets allow you to charge a little more for rent, but also often cause a little more damage to the unit. But for an association, the rules on pets are important to understand. For example, if an association doesn’t have any pet restrictions, in many cases, this could be a red flag. Think about it, an association without restrictions on pets means that tenants with vicious breed dogs will be attracted to that community. If you are an investor who wants tenants with vicious breed dogs, then this is perfect for you. But if you are not a fan of these dogs, or you think it might be harder to rent your property without restrictions on pets, then you will want to avoid these communities.
Increasing rules on rentals and control of tenants. Condominiums that require unit owners to carry too much insurance. Pet policies that do not agree with your investment objectives.
Articles of Incorporation/By-Laws: As a legally formed association, the entity is required to form as a not-for-profit corporation, and therefore, must have by-laws describing how this corporation operates. Areas of potential concern to real estate investors include:
- Who has the power? In some cases, the developer of the community is still in control of the board of directors, and the by-laws will specify how control of the association is turned over to the residents. The by-laws might also specify how voting rights are distributed between developer and residents. Communities that no longer have a developer on the board have probably turned over to the residents, which leads to other questions such as follows.
- Who can be on the board and how many board members can you have? How does one get removed from the board? This is a big area of concern for most real estate investors. Who can be on the board is usually the owner of a unit within the community. But what if you are a bulk owner and you have 20 units in the community? Does that equal 20 votes? What if you are a corporate owner and want to be on the board, but just don’t have the time? Do the rules of the association allow for a “corporate representative” to be on the board? Knowing the procedure by which a board member can be removed is also important, as in some cases, it is as easy as a majority vote by the other board members. If this is your rental business you are protecting it by being on the board, then this information is very important to your decision process.
- How is quorum established? Quorum is defined as the number of board members “present” in which a legally permissible meeting can be held, and in which resolutions can be made. Watch for deviations from the norm – Anything less than “a majority of the board of directors is necessary for quorum” as a red flag.
- What are the rules for amending the documents? Most communities require a vote of the majority of the members (that means 50% plus 1), other communities require 2/3 of the voting membership, which makes changing the documents harder. Remember, changes in the documents [in the future] can cause problems for real estate investors if these changes affect their rental business.
Limitations on real estate investors becoming board members. Restrictions imposed by developer-controlled association communities.
Association Minutes: These are the records of board actions and decisions (resolutions) made over time and are an essential element of the files of the association. Associations are required to keep these records for a period of years (7 years in Florida – May vary by state). Review the last year or two of minutes and try to learn more about the business decisions being made by the board of directors, and assess their impact on you and your investment objectives.
- Is the board regularly reacting to maintenance and repair situations?
- Is the board proactively managing maintenance and repair projects?
- Are there legal issues that seem out of control?
- Are there excessive homeowner complaints and what are they?
Reviewing the minutes of the association about which you are to enter, will give you a good idea if this is the type of community you want to run a rental business in. While there are no pre-defined red flags (as each situation is different), your understanding is vital to the success of your rental business.
Rules & Regulations: Here is another area where there are no pre-determined red flags, but understanding what rules & regulations are in place, can help you spot potential problems within an association-controlled community. For example, if there are extensive rules on pets, pet waste, pets on leashes, noise from pets, etc., it’s a good bet that the community is having issues with pets.
In many communities, you will probably find rules and regulations concerning tenants, in fact, there may even be a whole separate set of policies and procedures about rentals and how tenants are to behave. Many landlords do not like association rules that require tenant approval [by the board] or associations that have the right to remove tenants for not following the rules, but I think these requirements are actually a benefit to landlords as a whole. Think about it…. If an association approves tenants for residency in the community, then theoretically, you have a tenant with a clean background and one who obeys the rules within the community. Therefore, the community is not overrun by tenants who are out of control, and the community lifestyle remains good. Then when it comes time for the landlord to sell, the quality of the “product” should be better, and the landlord maximizes return on the investment.
The business of investing in residential income properties can be challenging. Property must be purchased, mortgaged, insured and maintained, all within a cost structure that falls below income received from rents. Add to this the complexity of operating a rental business inside an association-controlled community where the investor is impacted by rules, regulations and restrictions that govern just how an investor can operate a rental business. It is important to understand the operating environment inside of a community, before making an investment in that community.
About the Author:
Contact: Perry C. Rohan, MBA, LCAM, CPM is a consultant to the community association management industry and managing member of Certified Residential Management Group – A Florida-based property management company.