If a condo/HOA owner has a problem with amenities or services, they’re probably going to bring it to the board. But what if that complaint is about another neighbor and doesn’t concern the association? Must the board still take action?
Associations are obligated to help members resolve some issues, especially those that impact the value or wellbeing of the community. However, they cannot be expected to mediate every time two neighbors get into an argument.
Finding a balance between being too involved and too passive is a learning process that becomes easier with experience. Our goal in this article is to help you find that happy medium.
Why it’s important for boards and managers to listen to owners
Associations simply don’t have the resources to resolve every complaint. That said, boards and managers are encouraged to listen to each person that comes to them for help.
If a resident comes forward with a complaint, whatever it may be, thank them for their input and let them know that they have been heard. Sometimes, people just need you to lend them an ear!
Acknowledge their concerns, but do not promise anything. You can let them know that you will follow up with them via email or written letter once you’ve looked into the complaint.
By addressing condo/HOA complaints, owners see that the association is fulfilling its duties and that it genuinely cares about its members. Furthermore, if the complaints are valid, then the association can take the appropriate steps as soon as possible. The complaint could be about a broken stair or a dying tree. These types of issues need to be dealt with right away to prevent costly repairs or injuries to other members.
Use a system to process complaints
Instead of welcoming verbal and written complaints, boards should establish procedures for submitting them. This ensures fairness and consistency, and a formal submission requirement may discourage frivolous complaints. This also gives the board a way to track issues and document communications if the issue escalates and requires court intervention.
Associations may have a dedicated committee to help them process complaint forms, especially if the condo/HOA is large.
Common condo/HOA complaints
Below is a list of the most common complaints board members will receive from owners:
Associations receive a lot of complaints from owners about neighbors who are too loud. This is especially true in condo communities. It could be music, the television, parties, or even loud footsteps.
Some owners forget (or intentionally disregard) pet policies. Concerned or upset owners may file complaints against the offending owner due to improper disposal of pet waste, aggressive pet behaviors or walking the pet without a leash.
Some owners without children are bothered by boisterous play. Kids may also leave bikes and balls on the road or on front lawns.
A condo owner may submit a complaint about garbage being left in the stairwell or in front of the garbage chute.
Ice or unsafe conditions
Ice, construction debris or other blunt items can potentially injure an owner. Someone may submit a complaint if the association falls behind on outdoor maintenance duties.
Not all HOAs can accommodate parking for both owners and guests. Disputes can occur if an owner routinely parks in a spot that does not belong to them (or if a visitor routinely parks in an owner’s spot).
Owners are very protective of the boundaries of their property. They will complain if their neighbor starts building a fence or structure on the owner’s side of the lawn.
Homeowners may be prohibited from smoking outside their homes, but that doesn’t mean their neighbor won’t be able to smell it. Smoke can get through closed windows and doors, irritating neighbors.
For the safety and wellbeing of the community, owners should file a complaint if they witness or suspect their neighbor engaging in illegal or criminal activities. Harassing or discriminatory behaviors should also be reported.
Steps for handling complaints in a fair and consistent manner
Complaints about the association
1. Ask for complaints to be submitted in writing
Create a form that every owner must fill out in order for the complaint to be taken seriously. If owners are concerned about being identified, explain why you need all of the fields to be filled out. The more information the board or management team has, the quicker issues can be investigated.
Having good, detailed records also helps protect the association if something goes wrong.
2. Make it easy for owners to submit complaints
A locked box could be installed at the clubhouse, or the association could create an email account specifically for submitting complaints. The association could also use property management software for service requests. An online system allows owners to submit new requests from their phones, and those in charge of managing these types of issues can be notified immediately when a new request has been submitted.
3. Know when a complaint requires board action
If more information is required, or the complaint is very complex, make sure the board is investing the time required to properly address the issue.
4. Stay in contact with the complainant
The person investigating the complaint should keep the owner who submitted it in the loop. A discussion may need to be had with the owner—depending on the nature of the complaint—if more information is needed. But, at the very least, let them know what has been done, what the next steps are and, if possible, give them a rough estimate of when the matter will be resolved.
5. Avoid complying with unreasonable actions or behaviors
Having a process for handling complaints is important because it sets expectations for owners. If owners are being abusive or insulting in an attempt to get their issue handled faster, the board can firmly explain to them that they must follow the process.
Abusive or intimidating behavior is never acceptable. If you or anyone else handling the complaint feels unsafe, seek assistance from an attorney or police officer.
Complaints against another owner
1. Ask for complaints to be submitted in writing
Just like complaints regarding the association, complaints about other owners should be formally submitted in writing. See our complaint template to find out what information should be collected from owners.
2. Investigate the complaint
The person in charge of handling the complaint should take the time to look for evidence and proof that a rule or bylaw has been broken. Do your best to stick to facts as opposed to siding with the person who appears to be the most upset.
3. Enforce rules in a fair and consistent manner
To discourage bad behaviors from recurring, condos/HOAs must make it clear that owners who violate the rules and regulations will be fined or receive the appropriate sanctions. It’s equally important to ensure rules are enforced evenly.
If a rule has been broken, follow the association’s enforcement process. Just as every community has its own rules and bylaws, each one has its own rule enforcement process. The steps that the association takes will depend on the community and state laws.
Many condos/HOAs will start by sending out a couple of warning letters, followed by a formal violation notice. If, after a certain amount of time, the issue is still impacting other members, the association may give out fines, revoke access to amenities, etc.
4. Let owners know mediation is an option
If the dispute between two owners continues, and the alleged offender insists they are not doing anything wrong, the association can invite them to participate in alternative dispute resolution. The condo/HOA would hire a third-party evaluator to mediate and resolve the issue. The costs would be divided between the owners and the association.
5. Consult your attorney
Neighbor disputes can be tricky to deal with. If you are concerned about a particular issue, or the liability of the condo/HOA, consult your attorney. Avoid taking risks that you don’t have to take.
What happens if complaints are really neighbor-to-neighbor disputes?
If after investigating a complaint, the association finds that this is a “he said, she said” incident and there is no proof a rule was broken, the board is within its authority to deem the matter a neighbor-to-neighbor dispute. The board can decline further action.
That doesn’t mean the owner who submitted the complaint can’t do anything more. Each owner may enforce the governing documents in their own capacity against other owners. Depending on the situation, they may also ask for help from the local police department or animal control, or even escalate the matter to civil court.
If a neighbor-to-neighbor dispute policy is unfamiliar to you, consider discussing this with your attorney. This type of policy may be drafted in a way to keep the association out of neighbor-to-neighbor disputes until the owners involved in the disagreement try alternative dispute resolution (ADR) first.
On a final note, associations don’t have to be involved in each and every neighbor dispute. However, if the dispute involves harassment or discrimination, the condo/HOA is legally obligated to step in.