Safeguarding finances: 9 steps to prevent fraud and embezzlement in your HOA

Community associations fall victim to theft and embezzlement too frequently. Board members should know the warning signs and institute preventive measures before the community is left with a difficult recovery. Combining these safeguards should help to keep your association and homeowners from being victimized.

1. Know the association’s Federal Tax Identification (FTI) number. Use it to obtain periodic listings of all bank accounts and account numbers, and make sure they are all under the association’s name and FTI number.

2. Use a lock box system for deposits. A lock box allows owners’ payments to be mailed or transferred directly to the association’s bank accounts. This reduces the chance that the association’s money will be deposited into the wrong account.

3. Safeguard your association’s reserves. Like checking accounts, the reserve account(s) should be under the control of at least two people. Do not give one board member total control over reserve accounts.

4. Require duplicate operating and reserve accounts statements be sent every month. One statement should be sent to the management company (or, if self-managed, to the treasurer or bookkeeper) and the duplicate to a board member who does not have authority to sign the checks or make any type of transfer or withdrawal.

5. Check invoices against checks paid and the original receipts for credit card accounts, if any. If the association has professional management or a bookkeeper, the board treasurer should conduct this review. If self-managed, a board member without access to the bank accounts or credit card privileges should check for any unauthorized use.

6. Shop around for bank services. Unfortunately, some banks do not enforce dual-signature requirements or prohibit electronic transfers between accounts, despite being under different FTI numbers. If the bank wants your business, demand that it demonstrates the safeguards it has in place to minimize theft, especially through electronic transfers.

7. Insure the association’s money. Obtain fidelity coverage on the board members and the management company or bookkeeper, if any, in an amount that equals or exceeds the association’s reserve fund and several months of operating funds. Even with coverage through the association’s insurance carrier, the board should require evidence that the management company carries its own fidelity coverage, which would provide the first line of recovery in the event of theft by one of its employees.

8. Make sure the management agreement includes specific terms to require these safeguards. A professionally managed association should have its legal counsel review the original agreement and any renewal prior to execution, so the agreements are not riddled with lopsided terms that are detrimental to the association.

9. Regularly have an independent certified public accountant conduct an audit. While it may be too costly to conduct an audit every year, the board should commit to having one performed every few years. In the interim, the association should have an annual review performed, with the stipulation that the bank balances be independently verified.

This article was originally published on HOAResources.com, which provides information and tools to community association members living in condominiums, homeowners associations, and housing cooperatives. Read the full version here.

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Elevator safety: Deadline looming for NYC condos and co-ops

Condominiums and cooperatives in New York City have until Jan. 1 to comply with a safety regulation from the city’s Department of Buildings that requires installation of door-lock monitoring systems to prevent an elevator from moving if the doors are not fully closed, The New York Times reports.

This safety regulation, adopted in 2014, was prompted by a fatal 2011 incident. It’s estimated that about 44,000 automated elevators in the city need to be fitted with door-lock monitoring systems, says Donald Gelestino, president of elevator maintenance company Champion Elevator.

The installation cost of the door-lock safety systems depends on the elevator’s age, with newer ones needing only an activation of the device that is likely already in place or a software update compared to elevators that are at least 5 years old, which would either need to go through a retrofit or a complete upgrade.

Dennis DePaola, an executive vice president and director of compliance at New York City-based management company Orsid Realty, says the company communicated early on with approximately 170 condo and co-op clients in the city to let them know about updating the systems.

“The cost could be anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 per elevator, and many of our buildings have four, five, or six elevators, so it could be a costly endeavor,” explains DePaola. He adds that because the safety devices do not contribute to the operating life of the elevators, Orsid provided boards with evaluations about the remaining useful life of the equipment before they decided whether to either retrofit or upgrade.

Orsid got the discussion started early at each of its properties, but DePaola says that there has been “a lot of anxiety through the management community in New York City about the ability of elevator maintenance companies to go and retrofit all the elevators in the city. There’s only so much personnel and equipment to go around.”

Several trade groups have been in talks with the Department of Buildings to request an extension for some buildings that cannot complete retrofits or upgrades before the Jan. 1 deadline.

The city’s Department of Buildings also is requiring elevators to have a secondary emergency brake installed by 2027, which is prompting many boards to contemplate a complete elevator modernization project for systems that are more than 20 years old, according to The New York Times.

DePaola recommends that condo and co-op boards looking to modernize their systems hire an elevator consultant to find out what specifically needs to be upgraded or brought up to code. The consultant will typically suggest that boards get bids from three or four maintenance companies before undergoing a modernization project.

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Be flexible: Steps for effective and consistent board governance

By Katie Anderson, CMCA, AMS, PCAM

Community associations have rules and regulations to provide certainty, order, and safety. Regardless of size or shape, every community association should strive to enforce its rules properly. And if they’re necessary and reasonable, they promote community harmony.

The goal is simple for association boards: Follow the rules and enforcement procedures detailed in the governing documents. Yet conflicting views and misaligned expectations can create complications. If your association is too rigid or too flexible, your board can follow a few steps to ensure your governing process is effective and consistent.

Transparency. If the board is to be taken seriously, it needs to be inclusive and transparent. You should hold public board meetings and annual elections, add open forums to agendas for owner feedback, and be available and visible in the community.

Clear guidelines. The governance process typically requires the board to develop policies related to enforcement and fines. It is extremely important that these policies are clear about what happens when a violation exists—from communication steps, grace periods, and the process to request exceptions to what the owner needs to do to reach compliance.

Communication. Different people require different forms of communication. Be dynamic in your approach. Sending a letter meets the requirements in most states for communication, but if compliance is the goal, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or send a text message. It instills trust between the association and the owner. Additional communication tips include:

  • Kind language. The first communication an owner receives about a potential compliance issue should emphasize that it is a courtesy notice and you are just reaching out to help educate them about the guidelines. Offer to discuss the issue in person and be open to answering questions.
  • Newsletters. If you’re seeing an increase in a specific violation throughout the community, send out an e-newsletter to educate homeowners on the issue.
  • Town halls. If the board is seeing an increase in neighbor-to-neighbor issues or a spike in noncompliance, hold a town hall meeting and talk it through. This will engage residents in finding a solution and create some responsibility in solving the problems.

Hearings. In many states, the requirement for a hearing may be mandatory before fines can be assessed. This process must be conducted impartially, and all parties need to be respectful. Each party needs know what information should be prepared prior to the meeting, given equal time to speak, and know when to expect a decision will be reached. The board or hearing panel should not favor a one-size-fits-all approach, as it creates more conflict in the long run.

Compromise. Having these foundations is important, but they will not prevent compliance issues in your community. So how does the board move toward a consistent but flexible process? By having face-to-face conversations with owners who are noncompliant and coming to a compromise—one that works for the owner but also meets the community’s guidelines.

Katie Anderson is founding owner of Aperion Management Group, AAMC, in central Oregon.

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Breathing clear: Adopting smoke-free policies in your high-rise community

Smoking bans in the U.S. have become commonplace over the past three decades. Policies have been adopted by local and state governments to make workplaces and public spaces completely devoid of smoke from cigarettes and, more recently, vaping devices. Secondhand smoke concerns have ignited efforts to completely ban smoking in high-rise residential buildings too.

Of the estimated 80 million people in the U.S. who live in multiunit housing, including high-rise condominiums and cooperatives, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that each year, approximately 28 million of them are exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes, inhaling many of the substances that can cause emphysema, heart disease, and lung cancer.

“The problem is that even when smoking outside, if you’re close to the building, the smoke is actually pulled into nearby windows and doors. Even if they are closed, the smoke still comes in because buildings are not air-tight,” explains Esther Schiller, executive director of California-based nonprofit Smokefree Air For Everyone. The CDC adds that secondhand smoke also can spread through cracks in walls, electrical lines, ventilation systems, and plumbing.

Many condominiums have opted to adopt no-smoking amendments in their covenants, conditions, and restrictions to eliminate smoking in all indoor and outdoor common areas and inside individual units. Schiller’s organization provides resources, such as survey templates, to find out if most residents “want the whole complex to be smoke-free.”

If a community association’s documents do not have a stance on smoking, a unit owner may be left with a remedy of a claim for “nuisance” against neighbors who smoke and act against the board to stop the smoking, says Stephen Marcus, a partner at Marcus Errico Emmer & Brooks in Braintree, Mass., and a fellow in CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers.

Schiller says that tobacco smoke qualifies as a nuisance because it interrupts an owner’s enjoyment of their home. While condominium board members may know that tobacco smoke is dangerous, “they may not understand how dangerous it is, and they don’t understand the fact that they have liability,” she notes.

Liability insurance frequently has pollution exclusions—including tobacco smoke—in its coverage, Schiller adds. “So if there’s a lawsuit and the condominium loses, they have to pay out of their reserves.”

When determining if a no-smoking amendment is the right decision for a community, Ken Jacobs, a partner at Smith Buss & Jacobs in Yonkers, N.Y., explains that it’s important to consider residents’ complaints and the problems regarding secondhand smoke, the potential costs to the association if the building’s HVAC system needs to be revamped, and the latest government and medical studies regarding secondhand smoke.

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Kickstart saving: Millennials turning to crowdfunding to buy homes

Millennials are buying homes later in life or forgoing the purchase altogether compared to previous generations. Between student loan debt, the high cost of living in large cities, and rising housing prices, buying homes has become less practical for young people, according to Investopedia.

Nearly 70% of millennials identify saving for a down payment as the biggest barrier to purchasing a home, according to Bank of America’s 2019 Spring Homebuyer Insights Report. When entering the job market, college graduates with student loan debt must save for an average of 12 years to afford a 20% down payment, compared to 7.6 years for those without student loan debt. For millennials without a college degree, that number rises to nearly 17 years, research from Apartment List finds.

Crowdfunding could be the means to make owning a home a reality for millennials.

Touting itself as the first crowdfunding platform for homebuyers, HomeFundIt offers millennials a way to enlist friends and family to help fund their down payment and other closing costs associated with owning a home. Once they complete a conventional financial agreement with a bank or a mortgage lender, millennials can tap into their networks to start saving.

HomeFundIt offers aspiring young homeowners two ways to boost their savings:

Crowdfunding. Homebuyers can encourage friends and family members to donate to their fund directly. They can tap into their networks by sharing a personal story on social media along with the link to the down payment fund. There are no transaction fees, and funds are available immediately. The program also gives young homeowners a grant of up to $1,500 for closing costs and offers free homebuyer education. The crowdfunding option is limited to one year before buying a home.

Cash-back rewards. The program, called UpIt, allows the potential homebuyer, their friends, and family members to have a portion of the money they spend on everyday purchases placed in a savings account for a down payment. Up to 20% of everyday eligible purchases at participating retailers such as Walmart, Macy’s, or Expedia are applied to the crowdfunding goal. The homebuyer doesn’t need to be prequalified, and there’s no time limit on when to have the funds raised. The money is available within 24 hours.

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Pump the brakes: How some communities slow drivers

When CAI’s Common Ground magazine asked readers whether they have problems with drivers speeding in their communities, a staggering 98% of respondents reported that they do, and nearly all (95%) use at least some form of speed control measures—from signs and speed humps to ticketing and cameras. 

The most effective solution to slowing drivers is probably unique to each community.

Bent Tree Community Association, a self-contained, gated community of 1,200 homes about an hour north of Atlanta, regularly uses radar to monitor drivers’ speeds. The 20-mph speed limit on the community’s 55 miles of roads is part of the association’s bylaws, as is the fine for exceeding that speed, according to Tom Fowler, CMCA, AMS, Bent Tree’s general manager.

If a homeowner doesn’t pay a fine levied for speeding in the community within 30 days, the bar code on his or her entry decal will be deactivated. Without automatic operation of the community’s lift-gates, the driver must enter and exit the community through the guest gates, which are manned and operated by security guards.

Dunes West Property Owners Association in Mount Pleasant, S.C., started using radar about five years ago to gather information about residents’, visitors’, and contractors’ driving habits within the community, according to General Manager John Watkins, CMCA, AMS.

Just north of Charleston and bordered by U.S. Route 17 on the east and the Wando River to the west, Dunes West covers 3,000 acres and includes 33 miles of tree-lined roads and 100 named streets. The roads throughout the community are intentionally curved, which—like Bent Tree— challenges even the most capable drivers to slow down.

The association shares radar data with local law enforcement, so police know when and where drivers are most likely to speed. It also encourages local law enforcement to issue tickets on the community’s private roads.

Dunes West’s radar also has been effective in controlling contractors who drive within the community, Watkins says. Several homes are still under construction in Dunes West; builders can purchase coded decals that open Dunes West’s automatic liftgates so contractors’ vehicles can come and go efficiently from the community. If radar indicates contractors are habitually speeding, the codes can be revoked, which could be costly for a builder.

A pilot Pace Car program has been slowing speeders down in the Riverview Community Association in Cochrane, Alberta, since 2017.

The program, which has been used successfully in other Canadian communities for years, relies on individual volunteer residents to commit to driving the posted speed within the community, to stop for pedestrians crossing the road, and to be courteous to cyclists and vehicles other than cars. Drivers place a decal on the rear window of their cars that says, “Community Pace Car—I drive the limit,” and signs are posted at either entrance to the community alerting visitors that “We are a Pace Car community.”​

“The idea is that any driver driving behind a Pace Car will notice the decal and … will drive the speed limit as well,” says Jennifer Foy, board president of the community of 400 single-family homes about 30 miles west of Calgary. She adds that to prevent road rage, Pace Car drivers are encouraged to pull over and let other drivers pass rather than confront them. “If (a Pace Car driver) gets someone on their bumper who’s honking or being aggressive, they just pull over and let them go around,” she says. “We’re not the police.”

No matter what solution your community develops, communication and transparency with residents are critical. Remind them about speed limits and the consequences of exceeding it frequently.

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Facing the press: Strategies to manage media coverage of community associations

Frequent headline-grabbing coverage of community associations can cast a bad light on communities that are well-run and consist of hard-working volunteers and professional managers. With social media, it doesn’t take long for a negative message to get out, or a crisis to happen.

Common situations that can lead to intense and often controversial coverage include special assessments and rules enforcement, especially surrounding things like flags, playhouses, and pets. Criminal activity, such as alleged fraud or embezzlement, also can prompt media calls.

You can ward off many possible public relations problems at the beginning by clearly communicating with residents, but if your community finds itself in the media spotlight, here are some steps you can take to address reporters and camera crews:

Identify a spokesperson. This can be a board member, someone on the management team, or a member of the association who has experience with the press. If they’re inexperienced, consider professional media relations training so they will be calm and confident rather than defensive. If you’re confronted with a major issue, you may want to seek help from your attorney in crafting a response or refer requests directly to him or her.

Prepare a media plan. Have a plan that spells out what to do when a staff member or manager is contacted by a reporter. Consider having stock responses for common queries. Make a fact sheet to hand out with basic information about your community, such as when it was built, how many homes it has, its amenities, social media accounts, and contact information of your media spokesperson.

Be accessible. Respond in a timely fashion to media requests. Avoid answering questions with “no comment.” Develop working relationships with any journalist likely to repeatedly cover your association, such as a local community or business reporter. Help them understand your community and associations in general.

Maintain transparency. The board should have a communications policy that allows residents to submit questions, comments, concerns, and complaints in writing. The board should respond to them in a timely manner. Regular and frequent communication can help decrease gossip and misstatements.

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Truth in fiction: 9 books that add an HOA twist to your summer reading list

“You can’t make this stuff up. Somebody should write a book about it.”

It’s a frequent refrain for community association board members, managers, and business partners, especially for those who have several years of experience and have collected numerous laughable, outrageous, and, sometimes, cringe-worthy stories.

Somebody, actually, somebodies, have written books set within community associations or that tackle many of the issues (neighbors, rules, pets, and more) you’re sure to recognize.

The beach is calling. The pool is inviting. The backyard is enticing. Take a seat, grab a book, and start reading.

A Man Called Ove (2014). By Fredrik Backman

Ove has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” When a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale that will shake one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations. A New York Times bestseller and soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks.

A River to My People (2019). By Jason Green

Follow a collection of short stories about life in the suburbs and the funny and infuriating antics, behaviors, rules, and regulations of community life. There are droll tales of walking dogs, trying to get grass to grow, dealing with speeding by teenagers and parents, errant parking, the work and the pleasure of backyard swimming pools, homeowners association election politics, and so much more.

Cats, Chaos, and Condo Board Wars (2019). By Nikki LeClair

When elections for condo board president come around, Hilary Brandt lets her friends and neighbors convince her to run against the by-the-letter, long-sitting president—also known as Hilary’s number one personal critic. As the election campaigns launch, a romance-that-almost-was reappears, a coworker tries to steal a client, and her opponent starts to fight dirty. Is the chaos just too much?

Condominium (2014). By John D. MacDonald

Welcome to Florida’s Golden Sands, the dream condominium complex built on a weak foundation and a thousand dirty secrets. It’s the home of shortcuts, crackdowns, breakups, oversights, and payoffs. Add it all up, and the new coastline community doesn’t stand a chance against the ever-present specter of disaster: the dreaded hurricane.

High-Rise (2012). By J.G. Ballard

When a class war erupts inside a luxurious apartment block, modern elevators become violent battlegrounds and cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on “enemy” floors. Human society slips into a violent reverse as once-peaceful residents, driven by primal urges, recreate a world ruled by the laws of the jungle. Developed into a feature film, released in 2016, starring Tom Hiddleston.

Little Fires Everywhere (2017). By Celeste Ng

In Shaker Heights, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules. When an enigmatic artist and single mother arrives with her teenaged daughter and rents a house from the Richardsons, the status quo in this carefully ordered community is threatened. Named book of the year by The Washington Post, NPR, Southern Living, and more. Soon to be a Hulu limited series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

The Condo Kids: The Case of The Disappearing Pool Monster (2019). By Jackie Burns

Excitement is just an elevator ride away for brothers Noah and Michael, who are best friends with all the other Condo Kids in their building. This tight-knit group of pals just want to have fun but always wind up in hilarious, sticky situations. The latest adventure finds the Condo Kids on the hunt for a mysterious underwater monster rumored to be living in the condo pool. This is the third book in a series for young readers.

The Pinball Lawyer (2019). By Marvin Nodiff

Condo lawyer Joshua Fyler is in a fight for his life. His clients are disrupted by weaponized drones, greedy investors, and corrupt lawmakers. Fyler ricochets from one crisis to the next as he tries to salvage his reputation. Written by a founding member of CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers and a retired community association attorney from St. Louis, Nodiff captures all the foibles of community association living in his sixth humorous and engaging novel.

White Elephant (2019). By Julie Langsdorf

A gaudy, newly constructed behemoth of a home soars over the neighborhood of Willard Park. When owner Nick Cox cuts down Allison and Ted Millers’ precious red maple—in an effort to make his unsightly property more appealing to buyers—their once serene town becomes a battleground. Newcomers and longtime residents alike begin to clash in conflicting pursuits of the American Dream, with trees mysteriously uprooted, fires set, fingers pointed, and lines drawn.

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Which Style Is Tops in a Dream Home?

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