Can’t we all just get along? It’s a million-dollar question. When people move into a community, they often look for the friendliness and camaraderie that living in an association brings. But with many personalities often butting heads on everyday-living situations, it can often get tense and things can go awry. Neighbors argue with each other, boards complain about residents and residents complain about boards. Minor issues can often be settled quickly and cordially without involving anyone beyond the disagreeing parties. But that’s not always the case. And when it isn’t, things get tricky.
Many disputes can arise between residents. “Animals, what [unit owners] can do in and around their unit, use of common elements and areas,” are some common examples, says Mark Rosen of Goodman, Shapiro & Lombardi, LLC, based in Dedham, Massachusetts. Problems between residents have a greater chance to get resolved quickly, since property managers can act as a third party. A good property manager can use his or her authority within the building to resolve the issue without the need of outside help.
Disputes between residents and boards can get complicated quickly, since emotions can run high if residents feel wronged by a board’s use of their authority. If a resolution can’t be reached, the use of a property manager as a third party can also prove to be problematic, since managers tend to work much more closely with boards, and tend to side with them. Due to such conflicts of interests, the opposing parties will usually seek outside help in such a situation.
In Massachusetts, state law says associations have to follow a special protocol in order to collect overdue common fees. Boards cannot utilize Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), or sue unit owners for delinquent payments for common fees. However, boards and unit owners still fall into many other conflicts to dispute in which this clause does not come into play—such as when unit owners unilaterally conduct renovations and repairs and then seek reimbursement from the association, says Rosen.
If two parties can't achieve detente on their own or with the help of their community’s manager, an outside referee or authority may be needed. It’s not always necessary to lawyer up and start litigating, even if early attempts at resolution have been unsuccessful. One effective (and much less expensive) avenue is ADR. There are several ADR options available to help New England residents come to an agreement. But, whomever you talk to you—attorneys, arbitration experts, mediators—they will tell you the same thing: The less willing you are to compromise, the more difficult the process will be. And the longer you hold out, the more you will pay.