When I’m in my own condominium unit, I can play by my own rules. If I don’t feel like wearing pants while I fire up the grill on my patio, I’m free to take that risk. If I want to burn incense and crank up the heat and some Yanni while I perfect my Bikram Yoga poses, I can do that too. So, if my home is my domain, where I am free to do as I wish, what’s with all the dirty looks I get when I walk through the lobby?
Well, I live in a condo. That means no expansive yard, and no privacy fence (no buffer to shield my neighbors from the sights, sounds, and smells I create). To an extent, my antics are all part of the experience we each sign up for when we opt for condominium living. However, we all have limits, and what some might consider endearingly eccentric, others consider—well—just plain wrong.
As a condominium association board member, you regularly deal with owners that have a bone to pick about a neighbor’s behavior. Whatever the complaint, the first question to ask is whether the issue is one that the board, on behalf of the association, should be involved in at all. The board’s purpose is to enforce the association’s governing documents. If an owner’s behavior doesn’t violate the governing documents, then the board generally has no business butting in, no matter how loudly another owner complains. Even in a condo, some issues are merely neighbor-to-neighbor and are not the board’s concern.
In fact, most governing documents have little to say about how owners act (what they can and cannot do). Most governing documents do, however, have a provision that forbids “nuisances,” and usually specifies that owners may not engage in “noxious or offensive” activities. Of course, what constitutes noxious or offensive is left to the imagination, and could conceivably include any number of behaviors that can’t be seen, heard, or smelled outside the confines of the offending owner’s unit. In addition, most condominium documents regulate noise in one way or another and, increasingly, many condominiums ban or heavily limit smoking (in units as well as in common elements).
Though volumes could be written about smoking, noise, or “pants-less” grilling, for now, I will give you a few general tips for handling nuisance situations. First, be reasonable. Remember, you will be put in the position to decide whether your fellow owners and friends are acting appropriately. Take this responsibility seriously, and check your emotions and personal relationships at the door. Second, be predictable. Make sure owners know what they can and can’t do before they try. This means, for example, if your governing documents prohibit excessive noise, but don’t define what that means, adopt rules that set specific quiet hours. Predictability also requires evenhandedness. Don’t crack down on incense that wafts into the common area from one unit but ignore the marijuana billowing from another.
Lastly, know your role. Sometimes, two neighbors just don’t like each other and will always find something to report to the board. That doesn’t mean that the board is always responsible for solving their problems. As I mentioned before, if the governing documents don’t mention it, then it isn’t the board’s business. However, see rule number one: if there is something reasonable the board can do—even if it doesn’t have to—that will improve the situation: do it.