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Q&A: Finding the Leak?

Q&A: Finding the Leak?
Q I am the president of a condominium association, and we are very certain that a tenant is maliciously running up the water bills. The problem is that we don’t have definitive proof. Our water bills have gone up from about $2,000 a quarter (for a 16-unit building) to $4,500 and this quarter an astonishing $10,000!! The tenant in question has lived here many years and according to the sponsor he had done this in the past by letting his tub run 24/7. Is there anything we should be doing to make sure we have recourse against them?

—Wasteful in Watertown

A “Not only is continuously running water a wasteful and unnecessary expense, it may present a considerable threat to the association property,” says Scott Eriksen, an attorney at the law firm of Perkins & Anctil, P.C. in Westford, MA. “The association should immediately review its governing documents to examine its rights to enter into the unit for the purpose of addressing maintenance and emergency situations. In addition to the governing documents, M.G.L. c. 183A, §4(2) provides the right to access a unit for ‘making emergency repairs therein necessary to prevent damage to the common areas and facilities or to another unit or units.’

“Stopping continuously flowing water, and the need to mitigate any potential damages to condominium common areas, constitutes an ‘emergency situation’ which would likely justify access under the statute. Nevertheless, we recommend that the association take a measured approach to access in order to reduce the risk of potential liability in the future. Specifically, we recommend the association attempt to obtain voluntary access first and, failing that, by emergency judicial relief. Where neither of these avenues are practical or possible, we advise that the association follow the procedures below in connection with the access to a unit:

• Obtain a locksmith. This will prevent damage to the unit upon entering and allow the association to secure the unit afterwards;

• Obtain a police detail or private security guard.

• Bring a camera. Video is best, but photographs are an acceptable alternative. Use the camera to create evidence of the condition of the unit as you found it and as you left it.

• Minimize the personnel involved. Beyond property management and/or board members and the ‘guard,’ minimize the people involved to those necessary for performance of the required work.

“We realize that taking all of these steps requires time, effort and expense; however, we believe these steps are minimal compared with the time, effort and expense of dealing with a potential unit owner claim. As a reminder, all costs associated with this process may be assessed against the unit in accordance with M.G.L. c. 183A, §6(a)(ii).

“Finally, the association may want to consider having all units sub-metered such that each individual unit owner/occupant is responsible for the water usage costs. This would, at the very least, avoid the issues related to the excessive utility bills.”

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