Playing by the rules

Special to The Times

Any homeowner who has lived through a remodel can attest to the stress of the experience. But for condo owners governed by association rules and regulations, this additional layer of oversight can heighten the strain and lead to conflicts with neighbors and boards.

Rules are generally most stringent regarding work that affects the exterior appearance of the building, structural alterations or water and power systems. But owners contemplating even interior upgrades may first have to fight their way through a thicket of association covenants, conditions and restrictions, commonly known as the CC&Rs;, and make sure the work complies with them.

This can be a daunting, complicated and frustrating process; or, depending on where you live, it can be relatively easy and straightforward. The ground rules can vary so markedly that a nightmare project in your building may be a piece of cake in the building across the street.

Bob Perales, former worldwide facilities director for EBay and now an estate manager for private clients, has been handling the remodel of a 16th-floor condo in a luxury high-rise on the Wilshire Corridor. Condos in this building cost an average of $4 million, according to general manager Nancy Mohni, and Perales said his clients are spending about $500,000 to upgrade their two-bedroom, three-bathroom, 2,500-square-foot unit.

Work includes putting new flooring in the master bedroom, refinishing limestone in the main family room and entrance, and installing custom furniture, new shades, curtains and light fixtures. A high-tech system is also being installed to control lights, curtains and alarms.

The project, involving eight contractors, is running smoothly, Perales said, something he attributes to using two key players with experience in condo remodeling -- the Nickel Co., the main contractor based in Agoura Hills, and Los Angeles interior designer Lisa Pagano. Work started in November and is expected to be finished this month.

"Once you have a routine and everybody knows what it is, then the whole thing flows pretty good," Perales said. "It all comes down to scheduling and planning." He also credits good communication with Mohni, the building manager, saying that they worked closely together and that she was helpful, cooperative and forthcoming about all the rules and conditions applying to remodeling and maintenance work in the high-rise.

Those rules address common concerns among condo associations, including contractors' insurance and work hours, noise, building security, disposal of debris, parking for workers and keeping public areas clean and clear of obstructions.

In this case, Mohni said, every contractor has to carry $1 million in general liability insurance and $1 million in workers compensation coverage.

Chuck Swan, president of CDS Insurance Services, based in San Dimas, said those are fairly typical figures for contractors working in condos or family homes.

The hours of work, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., are also fairly standard, though a sampling of condos around the Los Angeles area revealed varied start times -- for instance, 7 a.m. for one place in Burbank, 10 a.m. at another complex in West Hollywood.

Legal restrictions

City ordinances take precedence over homeowner association rules. That means a complex cannot have rules that are less restrictive than city law.

Los Angeles, for example, allows construction from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. In the interest of residents, condo rules can be, and often are, more restrictive -- not less.

For the job Perales is handling, the insurance requirements eliminated some smaller contractors from contention while the strict work hours made "daily prep and wrap-up a little bit tedious."

Limited on-site parking means some contractors have to use the street, while special debris boxes must be brought in and hauled away each day.

Though Perales readily accepts that the rules are necessary and in the best interests of the building and other residents, he noted that the cost of complying added to the overall price of the job.

Joanne Pena, portfolio manager with Torrance-based Horizon Management Co., oversees nine community associations, including three large condo complexes, a 108-unit high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard and five town home/condo communities.

She said the approval process will probably be tougher in a high-rise, especially if work could affect the structural integrity of the building or the electrical or plumbing systems.

When replacing like-for-like, such as kitchen cabinets or carpeting, the approvals are usually easier to get.

While stressing that the rules vary from one association to the next, Joan Urbaniak, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Community Assns. Institute, said internal painting and plastering is not normally regulated.

She added, however, owners cannot just go ahead and change windows -- and sometimes they cannot change blinds either -- because it can affect the building's external appearance.

Manager Pena also points out that many of the issues surrounding construction in condos, such as noise, removal of debris, working hours, cleaning up and security, arise during projects in single-family home neighborhoods as well.

Good neighbor Sam

Susan Stockdale owns a condo in a 15-unit Burbank complex and served two years on the board of her homeowners association. She said it's important for remodelers to be good neighbors and let people know what they're doing and minimize the impact on others.

This, she added, can often placate the sort of character whom condo owners often dread: the curtain-twitching neighbor with a finger hovering over the redial button ready to call the management company with a complaint.

Stockdale's advice to potential condo owners is to read the fine print carefully "and see if you can live with that."

Others suggest gathering information by talking to board members and residents and possibly sitting in on meetings.

Lynne Collmann said serious problems can arise when people buy into communities unaware of all the rules and the amount of control they give the association over each person's private property.

Collmann, manager of the Savoy Community Assn., a 2-year-old, 303-unit mid-rise in downtown Los Angeles, said people need to educate themselves before they purchase.

"Diligent buyers will get the information they need," she said.

Each year associations are obliged to provide owners with updated information on a number of key topics, including the budget, dispute resolution procedures and the architectural guidelines setting out requirements for remodeling or similar work.

The free flow of information is crucial in avoiding conflict.

"We try to balance the needs of the community with what individual owners want," she said. "It's all about communication."

However, real estate agents caution buyers that some boards are reluctant to share information and that prospective owners may not get to read the CC&Rs; and other rules until late in the buying process.

That secretive approach does not impress Dick Pruess, a past president of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Community Assns. Institute.

"My feeling is that the easier it is to get that material, the more likely it is to be a well-run association," said Pruess, a former board member of the 48-unit Castlegate Homeowners Assn., in Pasadena.

The middle man

Often the manager of the condo complex plays a key role as liaison between the board and homeowners, helping to make projects run smoothly and timely, according to the Community Assns. Institute's Urbaniak.

Once the board knows what's happening and the architectural committee has given the green light, smaller day-to-day decisions may be left to the manager.

For example, the manager would probably coordinate temporary water or power shut-offs.

In any community association, Urbaniak said, there are responsibilities for boards as well as owners.

"There will likely be trouble for owners who do something without asking and think they can get away with it," she said. "Ask first. That's the key."

But Urbaniak also has a message for boards if they want to avoid creating problems and pitfalls for owners.

"Remember, this is a two-way street," she said. "Your responsibility is to make sure you have very clear guidelines for your owners."

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By the numbers

Associations can range in size from two to more than 20,000 units. Some of the largest in the nation are in Valencia.

In 2007, there were 295,700 associations in the U.S. Those associations consisted of 23.8 million housing units.

More than 1.7 million people serve on association boards. Close to an additional 400,000 people participate as committee members.

In 1970, 2.1 million people lived in associations; by 2006, the figure was 57 million.

The estimated value of all association homes is close to $4 trillion.

Annual operating revenue for community associations tops $41 billion.

Source: Community Assns. Institute, www.caionline .org

-- Frank Nelson

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