Beware the Ugly Truth About Florida Condo Laws
People who purchase condominiums in the State of Florida do so without having any knowledge of the ugly truths that are hidden within the laws of the state that, in the right circumstances, can ruin or damage them financially.
The only way they learn about them is after a situation occurs that is so obviously wrong that they feel the need to file a formal complaint.
It is then when they find out that the chances they have of protecting their rights is almost impossible and can be very costly if they try to sue or even file a formal complaint.
Owners are led to believe that the laws protect them, but it has been made amply clear that they do not.
Therefore, anybody purchasing a condo in Florida needs to do so with eyes wide open. They need to understand that the rights they think they will have, simply do not exist.
What You Need to Know About Buying a Florida Condo provides some of the basic information about this issue, but this article explains how some of the current laws give lawyers, boards and management companies unbelievable levels of power over people's financial situations and lifestyles.
The Bureau of Condominiums Sucks
The Florida legislature created the Bureau of Condominiums which is the entity charged with overseeing condos in the state. It is their duty to make sure that boards and management companies are following the laws, handling finances correctly and treating residents fairly.
It would be terrific for all concerned if they actually did what they are supposed to do and also interpreted the laws fairly and correctly, but unfortunately, they don't. In fact, they will be the first to tell you that they have no real power to do anything meaningful and are not lawyers!
Reasons for their inability to function properly include but are not limited to
- lack of proper funding,
- laziness and
- work overload.
At this writing there are only 53 trained investigators available to help the residents of more than one and a half million condo communities (and I use the word "trained" lightly).
Furthermore, this agency is also charged with handling issues from other state departments as well.
This article explains the ugly details. When you finish reading it, you'll be as sick as the thousands of condo owners who finally realize that they are being victimized by the petty and biased decisions that this agency makes which are based on laws that are designed more to enrich lawyers than to protect people's rights.
Unfortunately, it is mishandling of many situations by The Bureau of Condominiums staffers that is the first stop on a journey that takes complainers deep into serious and expensive legal territory.
A Simple Example
A condo owner became concerned when the new and inexperienced President of his board began suggesting major costly changes to the common element which most residents would not be able to afford.
On the advice of the Bureau, he ended up filing a formal complaint because the board and the management company refused to fully comply with his request to access documents.
After more than a month of emails and conversations, the investigator closed the case in favor of the board even though he knew the lawyer and the board had lied to him., and even though he had documents in hand to prove that they were lying!
To add insult to injury, the board's attorney stated in his rebuttal that he reserved the right to try and collect his fees ($2,000) from the resident for the work he did on the board's behalf, his reasons being that the requests were malicious in nature!
It is very clear from this example that the board violated the law, but won the complaint anyhow due to a judgment call by an incompetent and lazy investigator.
If this is an example of a simple situation, imagine the position a unit owner places himself in if he tries to sue the board or management company for some major injustice.
The Playing Field Is Not Level
It is common knowledge that even when using an attorney, the great majority of condo owner legal cases bend to the favor of the boards and not the resident.
Furthermore, it can take years for such cases to settle and can cost complainants hundreds and thousands of dollars.
- Boards have attorneys that are paid for by unit owners.
- Residents have to pay for their own attorneys.
- If they lose their case, they also have to pay the legal fees for the other side.
This definitely is not a fair playing field and is the main reason why there is so much abuse by boards and management companies!
The Business Rule
Condominiums in Florida are not for profit corporations. As such, the laws that govern them are different than those for regular corporations.
The only qualifications for board membership is that you need to be breathing and don't owe any money to the association.
Boards can make all sorts of expensive. law breaking and abusive decisions,, but something called "the business rule" excuses them from the responsibility for their actions.
The reason is that the state knows that the people running the boards are everyday citizens, many of whom have no business background and most of whom are elderly (over the age of 55). They make the incorrect assumption that the mistakes are "innocent" an therefore board members cannot be held liable!
The only exception is when they seek professional advice, do not heed it and cause problems for the community.
However, confronting them in this situation means hiring a lawyer, going to arbitration and then probably taking them to court, where you, as the unit owner, are likely to lose the case!
So, when boards hold meetings without giving proper notice, refuse to produce minutes so that residents who don't attend meetings can know what is going on, defame residents and contractors publicly and allow some residents to do things that are violations, there is no reasonable recourse for owners.
There are three main areas where residents get to vote on issues. All are horribly flawed due to biased and unfair state laws.
Unit owners can vote to recall board members, vote in annual elections and vote for or against material alterations that the board wishes to make.
When residents become unhappy with the behavior of one or more board members, they have the right to recall them from office.
The catch is that doing so has several caveats that make it difficult or impossible to do and the recall may only be temporary.
- Residents must either call a member meeting or have residents sign paperwork stating that they want board members removed.
- More than half of the unit owners must agree to do this.
- They must also allow the board to choose replacements or, barring this, provide their own replacements.
In the first situation,getting people to sign their names to papers (or even vote by raising their hands) to remove a board member from office is extremely difficult. After all, board members are also their neighbors and there can be social repercussions that come from doing something like this.
Secondly, it is almost impossible to get more than half of the people living in a community to commit to a recall. Imagine trying to do this chore in 500 unit condo!
Finally, even when people manage to recall a few board members, it's almost a useless cause because the remaining members will simply vote other friends into office because they know they'll vote with, rather than against, them on important issues.
Finally, even when people are recalled, they can run for office the following year and get on the board again!
You may wonder who would vote for them? Well, a vote isn't always required.
For example, one condo has a seven member board. If more than seven people do not run for office in a given year, any person who simply puts his name on the list to run is automatically on the board!
So what good is the recall law?
One power that people do have is to be able to vote to elect board members and vote in favor or against any alterations that change the look of or materials used in upgrades to the common element.
There has been a huge problem in South Florida in recent years due to vote fixing. As a result, the state has passed new laws, but so far, they have proven to be ineffective. This, again, is because of the bias against unit owners, the lack of competent and empowered investigators and the costs and time involved in litigation.
So, while people can vote to elect board members, cheating is rampant in some communities. This means that the corrupt officials remain in office despite the fact that they and their friends break the law in order to maintain their positions.
Residents can complain, but only if they hire lawyers to help them. Even when this happens, enforcement is rare.
One example is creating a ballot in the name of someone who is out of town and either does not send in his vote or does not vote at all. It's very easy to do and almost impossible to detect unless someone in authority is overseeing the vote.
Laws that provide no realistic means of enforcement are totally useless.
When it comes to voting for material alterations, residents do have the ability to vote yes or no. However, they are not aware that a "yes" vote means they are financially committing themselves to a project regardless of the costs that might be involved. They think they are only stating general preferences.
Boards are not required to tell residents the potential costs of a project and, in fact, state law even goes so far as to say that cost cannot be a consideration when it comes to making a material alteration!
Boards get to decide which alterations are material in nature and which are considered to be normal maintenance. In the latter situation, there is no voting.
If residents question the decision to call an issue normal maintenance when they think it is a material alteration (which would allow them to have a vote), they must hire a lawyer and go through arbitration or litigation to settle it!
Thus when residents find changes unnecessary or too costly, there is generally nothing they can do about them other than to pay up, and paying up can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Stating that cost doesn't matter when it comes to making alterations is ridiculous. Of course cost matters, and of course cost should be a determining factor.
The state even goes so far as to tell boards they are not required to accept the lowest bids for any work they contract.
When boards make careless spending decisions, residents suffer the financial consequences, which sometimes result in the loss of their homes.
The Florida Legislature is made up of attorneys. They have set up the laws in such a way that they require condo owners become embroiled in expensive, lengthy and often fruitless lawsuits if they want to protect their rights.
Many of them use their positions to milk money out of unsuspecting residents. In one case, a lawyer charged more than $6,000 while "investigating" a potential lawsuit over a 9 month period, only to tell his client that there was no grounds for a suit! She lost a lot of money. He laughed all the way to the bank.
There simply is no way condo owners can win when things go wrong for them because the cost of fighting problems is far too high once they involve lawyers.
There should be oversight from the state to protect condo owners. Currently there is none.
If you contact the state's ombudsman, he simply directs you to the capital to see if they can assist you. Usually they tell you to call a lawyer!
Unit Owners Are Powerless
Unrealistic and unenforceable state laws open the doors for condo boards and their agents to blatantly and consistently violate them.
Some boards wantonly spend excessive and unnecessary amounts of resident money, show bias towards residents they dislike and put communities at risk of failing, knowing full well that unit owners can do little to stop them.
The state has laws on the books that make it look like residents have power, but they really do not.
The only way they can become powerful, is to get themselves elected to boards, but few think the work or responsibilities involved in sitting on a board makes doing this worthwhile. Furthermore, some do not feel capable, while others are old, sick or apathetic.
- the state does not protect people
- those willing to sit on boards can choose to abuse their positions and
- others are unwilling to step up
you create a noxious stew like the one Florida condo owners are now facing.
Corruption Is Rampant
No matter the circumstances, condo owners need to understand that once they buy a unit, they are putting themselves at grave risk because the few examples cited here are just the tip of the iceberg.
Communal living in its very nature requires people to give up certain rights, but it certainly should not require them to be victimized financially or socially by incompetent or unscrupulous laws, lawyers, boards and property managers.
The Florida Legislature must start reviewing and changing condo laws such that the state, not the individual, enforces them.
This will mean providing better training and more funding, but it will be money well spent.
Just knowing that the condo laws of Florida are biased against owners serves a small level of protection, but until the laws change, owners need to beware.
The Florida State Condo Laws are ugly and can cause grave damage to owners who fall into their vicious trap.
Do you think that the State of Florida needs to end its bias against condo owners?
© 2018 Sondra Rochelle