Does Homeowners' Association Have to Fix Damage Caused When Entering My Unit?

Examining the HOA's rights and obligations regarding water leakage in a condo unit.

Question

Recently, a pipe burst on the second floor of our condominium complex. We weren't home at the time, and our HOA called in an emergency plumber. For some reason they couldn't find the master key, so they broke our door down to see whether our ceiling was affected, then opened up a hole in the ceiling plaster to see which way the water was seeping. There wasn't even any water coming our way!

We're not happy that the HOA entered without notifying us, but understand that the HOA is allowed to enter in an emergency. But now the HOA representative says the HOA isn't responsible for repairing our door (including the door frame, which was also damaged) and the ceiling, because the damage was to the inside of our unit. Can that be right?

Answer

To answer your questions, you'll need to consult the governing documents of your association (most likely the bylaws or the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions or CC&Rs). You'll be looking for the following areas of discussion:

  • who owns what property in your condominium complex

  • who is responsible for repairs after water damage, and

  • what the HOA's rights and obligations are regarding maintenance and repairs or entering a unit owner's private dwelling space.

Your HOA representative should also be looking at these documents, but given that many HOA board members are simply volunteers drawn from the community of unit owners, it's not uncommon for some of them fail to fully understand the responsibility they've taken on or the HOA governance system.

Chances are, you will find out that you are considered the owner of the door to your condo, but that the HOA owns the doorframe. If that's the case, there is little question that the HOA is at least obligated to repair the doorframe. The ceiling is more likely to be part of your property. But that doesn't necessarily mean, in this situation, that you're the one responsible for repairs to it, or to your unit door.

Your next step is to find out what your HOA's governing documents specifically say, if anything, about water damage. In some cases, the association makes homeowners responsible for the damage inside their units regardless of where the leak originated, in which case you may have to have a tough time holding it responsible—though you could perhaps argue that no actual water damage occurred in your unit.

Your condominium association's governing documents should also describe how the HOA is supposed to behave upon entry to your unit. It may, for example, contain language saying that any damage it creates during this period of entry is the HOA's responsibility to repair. If you can find and point to this language, you should be able to get the HOA to cover it. If its obligations are limited to repairing damage caused by its own negligence, then you could certainly argue that losing track of the master key was negligence, even if investigating your unit for leaks was not.

If you can't find a basis to claim that the HOA is responsible for repairs, your next stop should be your insurance carrier. It has every interest in avoiding paying for repairs, and therefore may take on the dispute with your HOA.

If all else fails, you might consult with a lawyer, depending on the cost to repair the damage and the degree to which you want to make sure that the HOA will abide by its obligations in the future.

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