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10/13/08: Dealing With Code Violations

Housing Counsel

By Benny L. Kass

Q: In our condominium, the neighbors below our unit installed their washer- dryer in an area that is in the kitchen porch, and vented the exhaust pipe into the back stairs. As a result, the polluted air and lint particles are blown into our unit, severely affecting my allergies. It also makes our unit smell like a Laundromat. It is my understanding that this in a violation of the building code in our area, in that the venting must go outside of the building. The back staircase is part of the condominium building.

The unit is now on the market for sale. I wrote a letter requesting the owners re-install these appliances, so as to comply with code and sent a copy to the real estate agent handling their sale. However, my requests have been ignored. Our management company had a contractor inspect the installation and everyone agrees that the owners have to correct the situation. What could we do, short of taking legal action, to get them to comply with the building codes?

A: This is an issue for your condominium association and you should demand that your Board of Directors take immediate action. The association’s attorney should write those owners telling them that a law suit will have to be brought against them if they do not promptly correct the situation.

You should also demand that the Permits and Inspection Department in the County where your property is located take appropriate administrative action. If this is a Code violation, it must be corrected – and the County (or city) government has the authority to take all appropriate action to ensure that these codes are honored.

The Association has another tool at its disposal. The condominium laws in all three Metropolitan Washington jurisdictions require that a potential condominium purchaser receive what is known as a “resale package”. This package generally consists of such items as copies of the association legal documents (Declaration, Bylaws and Rules and Regulations), a current budget, a statement of the amount of money in a reserve account, and the most recent audit report.

More importantly, however, this Resale package can also advise potential purchasers of the Code violation. For example, in Virginia and the District of Columbia , Associations are required to provide “a statement that any improvements or alterations made to the unit … are not in violation of the condominium instruments”.

In Maryland, the law is even clearer. The Association must provide a statement as to whether it has “knowledge of any violation of the health or building codes with respect to the Unit…”

You should insist that your Board of Directors include a statement in the Resale Package provided to potential purchasers that there are housing code violations in connection with the installation of that unit’s washer-drier.

There are two basic limitations regarding the resale package. First, some small condominium associations (under 7 units in Maryland and three or less units in Virginia ) are exempted from some of the statutory resale requirements.

Second, and perhaps of greater significance, too many potential buyers just do not read these Resale Packages. This is unfortunate, since its purpose is to educate and alert buyers about the pros and cons of the condominium association they are considering to be their future home.

It is important to understand that any community association – be it a condo, a cooperative or a home owner’s association – is governed by two separate sets of laws. The State (or the City of Washington ) has procedures that must be followed, such a zoning, housing codes and human rights obligations.

But associations also have rules and regulations that are binding on its owners and members. Typically, in order to install an item such as a washer-drier, the unit owner must submit plans to the Board of Directors for approval. Included in those plans are such items as (1) the scope of work, (2) whether the contractor is licensed appropriately, and (3) proof of adequate insurance coverage in the event of damage or injury to property or persons within the association.

It would appear that your downstairs neighbor may not have obtained the necessary approvals, and thus your Board of Directors must take appropriate – and immediate – action.

Finally, you have the right to complain to the real estate agent handling that sale. Since the agent has ignored your letters, I suggest that you contact the manager of the real estate office to discuss your concerns. You should then follow up your conversation with a letter, just for the record.

Your problem is not unique. Especially in this economic climate where units may not be selling for the highest price, many owners are upgrading their units. They must understand, however, that in most cases, the Board of Directors must review and approve the plans before any construction begins.

Kass Legal Group, PLLC