I want to change a rule governing my condos management.
July 19, 2011 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Condominium Outrage! Today, while taking a shower in my bathroom, i suddenly saw a reflection of a man in the vanity mirror - he was just outside the slightly open bathroom door. I screamed bloody murder while my heart beat out of my chest - i thought i was about to be the victim of a home invasion. Now, i want to do something about the apparent rule/bylaw/custom in my condo corporation/board that allows workers to enter the unit without the express permission of the owner or resident.

So, it turned out that the home invader was in fact a member of the team going through all the units checking the smoke detectors, a process we'd been notified of via posters in the elevators. (He ran out when i screamed.) Why in the world he proceeded into my apartment despite being able to hear the shower running is beyond me, but he did. And 4-5 times a year, every year, workers similarly enter each unit for system maintenance purposes. While i understand the necessity of the visits, I have never understood why I have no choice about whether i authorise them to enter my unit without me there (or, in this unusual case, with me there). I own the unit and everything in it, right down to the flooring that gets scratched by their stepladders, and the laptops and underwear and jewellery that i always fear could get rifled through by these complete strangers. Every time i come home to the note that staff had been in my unit, it feels like a real violation of my privacy and property rights.

I want to somehow change this rule in my building so that workers can only enter the unit if they are let in by the owner or resident, or if the resident has authorised them to enter on their own. I expect that would be a battle - the visits would be more time consuming, and would require greater logistical rigor. But i don't understand how i can't have more protection for myself, my property, and my privacy, and i don't doubt that many of my fellow owners/residents feel the same way.

So, my question: How would i make this happen? Who makes these decisions - the condo board? The property management company? Are there any laws or Condo Act bylaws that would be useful to know about? i live in Toronto, Ontario - are there any resources available for my jurisdiction for these types of things? Any tips from condo board members, condo owners, real estate lawyers would all be helpful.
posted by Kololo to Law & Government (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Read your condo CCRs. Understand them fully. Nothing should be a surprise to you, especially if you own the unit.

In there somewhere is the procedure and necessary steps to take in order to make changes to the CCRs. You're likely going to need to get some sort of quorum of fellow owners to sign off on the move to make the change to the documentation.

Do they have a key to your unit? There's an easy way to ensure they don't have a key - change the locks.
posted by jerseygirl at 7:19 PM on July 19, 2011

4 to 5 times a year strikes me as an awful lot of maintenance visits for a condo.
I'm with jerseygirl; change the locks even before you go to the condo management board.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:24 PM on July 19, 2011

As a soon-to-be-resigning condo board member in Ontario, I suggest you read the condo corporation's regulations as jerseygirl suggests above, and very carefully review the process for suggesting a change.

We've never had a change to our regulations, but there have been times that people have suggested it and those are usually *at* AGMs. That's not the venue for proposing a change, that's a venue for voting on a proposed change. You want to make the proposal well in advance of the next AGM (be aware that most property managers will try really hard to dissuade you from calling an EGM for a regs change). Talk to the other residents, make sure you're really clear about what it is you're looking for, and get the proposed change into the board with plenty of time to spare. Small changes are more likely to pass than big ones, especially if you can clearly state the value of the change.

Your biggest challenge is likely to be owner apathy. People just don't care unless they feel pain in their wallets, and then suddenly everything is a crisis (yes, we did a Special Assessment, it wasn't much fun).

I doubt that you'd be allowed to change your locks, as jerseygirl suggests, without giving the corporation a copy. Again, there's probably a reg that mandates that they have access to the suite (i.e. in case of an emergency).

Finally, please remember that your condo board is probably just made up of fellow owners being given guidance by your property management rep, and their compensation for doing the job is hearing about people complain about stuff. The more you can spin things positively, the more likely it is you'll get them on your side.
posted by clicking the 'Post Comment' button at 7:31 PM on July 19, 2011

That's nuts. Four or five times a *year*?? I see our guys maybe once every two years.

Change the locks, then talk to the HOA Board. Keep it friendly. A little anecdote about how you almost had a heart attack when you saw that guy in the mirror might help them understand that it's in everyone's interest to put a stop to this sort of thing.

I'm so sorry this happened to you. I would have died of fright.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:32 PM on July 19, 2011

Just get a chain lock so they can't get in when you're home.
posted by amro at 7:34 PM on July 19, 2011 [35 favorites]

If someone walked in while you were in the shower to the point they could see you in the mirror, call the police and report it.
posted by tomswift at 7:35 PM on July 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

No idea about changing the rules, but you should get a chain for your door. This will at least prevent people walking in on you. My apartment management actually encouraged us to do this, to avoid incidents like yours.
posted by Metasyntactic at 7:36 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I actually can't change the locks - the condo security staff have a master key to all the units, even if i changed the locks they would still need work with the master. (The 4 visits a year do totally feel outrageously frequent. They are twice a year to check smoke detectors, and twice a year to check air filtration systems. I don't understand why they can't at least combine those so that its twice a year - smoke and air, together. )
posted by Kololo at 7:36 PM on July 19, 2011

Seconding tomswift. If he was standing there watching you shower, you should report him to the police, whether or not he was authorized by anyone to enter.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:39 PM on July 19, 2011

Just to clarify - i don't think he was staring at me shower. I could seem him in the mirror, and he was indeed futzing with the smoke detector when i started scream. (Then he ran).

I think he needs to be severely reprimanded for using terrible terrible judgement about entering my apartment when it should have been obvious that someone was home and in the shower and not telling him it was okay to enter, but i'm not sure i'd go so far as to call the cops.
posted by Kololo at 7:45 PM on July 19, 2011

I still second metasyntactic's suggestion to at least but an chain or other interior lock on your door so that no one can enter while you are in the house. It's nit changing the locks, and won't affect their ability to get into your unit during an emergency when you're not home, but at least you can sleep/shower more soundly while you explore your options regarding overall building policy.

Good luck.
posted by mauvest at 7:51 PM on July 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

(agggggh, sorry for typos)
posted by mauvest at 7:51 PM on July 19, 2011

The suggestions to install a chain are great - i am going to do that asap.
posted by Kololo at 7:58 PM on July 19, 2011

The moment he heard the shower is the moment he should have turned around and left, possibly leaving a note on the inside of the door with a number to call when you were ready, IMHO.

(depending on your setup, you might have left a note on the outside of the door stating someone is home and not to enter unacknowledged should you have wanted, but in my opinion all that should fall on THEM, not on you.)
posted by mephron at 8:11 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This may be a situation where the practical solution of a chain is going to get you about 90% of where you want to be for 10% of the effort it would take to get the rule changed. There seem to be two possible places where this rule is enshrined: 1) in the regs for the condo itself, 2) in the contract between your condo association and the property management group (since this is essentially a maintenance issue and it seems clear you have such a firm that handles that stuff).

If it's in the rules for the building itself, then you'll need to find out what the threshold is for getting a rule changed and then organize a campaign to get that many owners on your side.

If it's in the contract for the property management group, that may be stickier --- the property management co may (or may not) feel like they need to be able to have access after notice in order to get maintenance done on time. If they're inflexible on it, if the contract is long-running or if they are otherwise good managers and this isn't something lots of people in the building have a problem with....well, then you're probably going to have a tough time convincing the condo board that this is the hill they want to die on.
posted by Diablevert at 8:15 PM on July 19, 2011

also:I don't understand why they can't at least combine those so that its twice a year - smoke and air, together.

Different companies for these things, I would suspect. And different installation dates, so the inspections happen for each of those.
posted by mephron at 8:19 PM on July 19, 2011

Get a door stop. Just one of those little wedge-shaped things, either a scrap of wood or a "real" one from - home depot or somewhere. That way there's no sign of it in case the indoor chain locks are also against the condo board rules.
posted by lemniskate at 8:25 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

If all else fails...atleast get them to give you prior notice of their visits (eg. Date and rough time estimates...shouldn't be tough for them to hammer out a schedule as routine as the work is). So if you get a slip saying they'll visit in two days around noon..you'll know to not be in the shower when they stop by.

Home invasions while being vulnerable are probably the scariest things imaginable. They are going to have to be more sensitive to that and schedule/communicate that schedule better, knock louder or ring the doorbell before entering (in case you didn't get prior notification for some reason) even for their own safety. The way you've framed this...they may even stand a chance of being fired at by a resident confusing the situation as a home invasion. So being up front with notification and announcing presence loudly should be part of the policy, at the least.

These guys have to get the work done though...which is probably why the sound of the shower was ignored...he likely wanted to replace the battery and just move on to the next house. There's room for an improved protocol however to ensure it doesn't happen again.
posted by samsara at 8:33 PM on July 19, 2011

Just to add a data point on the frequency, HVAC filters should be changed at least once a quarter, if not oftener.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:52 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gotta play Devil's Advocate here. You should have already known good and well that maintenance was coming around, AND that they come so frequently, so it was totally on you for not closing the door, installing a chain, etc. While I'd be spooked for a second, having known that they commonly come in unannounced and uninvited per experience and it being in the rules, I'd say your grounds for claiming ignorance or getting Smokey McChanger reprimanded are slim to zilch. Close the door.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 9:14 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did they give you the specific day and approximate time they'd be coming in? If so,nthing that it was up to you to prepare yourself.
posted by brujita at 9:18 PM on July 19, 2011

Forget the chain, use one of those new latches they use in hotels. Like this. But, know that there are devices designed to defeat them in the event of emergency.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:54 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Quarter Pincher, I don't think it's right to blame the OP here. She never said she had any idea when maintenance was coming, and maybe she needed to be in the shower at that time - to get ready for work or something. If the sign said, for example, "Maintenance men will be in starting at noon on Tuesday..." well, it could take them hours to get through the other units and into hers. How was she to know that those 15 minutes would be when the guy came in? Also, if she had the bathroom door shut and even locked, he would have scared her just as badly when she came out of the bathroom.

Even your "I'd be spooked for a second" doesn't really help much. Other people live in my house and when I don't hear them coming and they startle me, I scream too, and I know who they are and that they intend me no harm.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:11 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

This doesn't leave any telltale marks and seems like the door just, oops, must have gotten stuck briefly. Good thing someone was home to open it when this little glitch forced the worker to ring the doorbell like any other civilized human being.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:29 PM on July 19, 2011

Gotta play Devil's Advocate here. You should have already known good and well that maintenance was coming around, AND that they come so frequently, so it was totally on you for not closing the door, installing a chain, etc.

I disagree. It's one thing if you were sound asleep or had earphones on, completely missed the knocking, and got spooked. But it's a pretty hard and fast rule that if you're letting yourself into a stranger's place for maintenance and you hear the shower running, you GTFO. Come back later and knock. Exceptions might be a housecleaner who comes every week or the contractor who's been remodeling your kitchen for the past six months, but even then, you'd probably expect them to stay clear of the bathroom area, or at least shout a good loud hello so you know what's up.

What would you think if the same situation occurred in a hotel? It's no surprise that housekeeping is coming, but you'd be rightly upset if they came into your room and started cleaning while you were in the shower, even if you didn't chain the door. This would be why pretty much every competent hotel attempts to train its staff to leave immediately if they realize the guest is in the shower. (Of course, that doesn't do much to stop those who intentionally flash hotel housekeepers, but we're talking about your safety and privacy here, not the maintenance worker's.)

I think you'd have a tough sell making the policy "no entry without the resident present or their advance permission." That would pose problems for the building staff, as some owners would habitually fail to respond and the work would never get done. The building is generally required to replace smoke detector batteries whether you want them to or not, so they'd be in a tough spot trying to secure permissions from everyone who blows off the notices.

A more reasonable compromise might be a 72-hour notice policy (except for emergencies, where as much notice as reasonably practical shall be given) and a requirement for some sort of time window on the notice: e.g. "we'll be replacing smoke detector batteries in your apartment between noon-four on Tuesday." Something like this is fairly common in rental units anyway. The notices could be left in mailboxes or slid under apartment doors. A policy like this would share the burden more equally between you and the building management: they schedule the work ahead of time, and you decide whether to arrange your life so that you're there to supervise during that time period.
posted by zachlipton at 12:38 AM on July 20, 2011

I always lock the bathroom door when I take a shower. Maybe you could at least shut the door?
posted by KogeLiz at 2:50 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Quarter Pincher and KogeLiz: I was in my own home with my front door locked. It is a completely unreasonable and frankly, absurd, expectation that as a person living in my own private property, that i should have to firmly shut or lock the interior doors of my apartment as i move throughout my day. The assumption that I should be comfortable with people waltzing into my home while i'm there, and that its up to me to manage the situation so i feel less nervous, is insane. There is an expectation that when service people enter units that they will knock and get authorisation if the resident is home. The problem yesterday was that something unusual and unacceptable happened, not that its a situation i need to adapt to.

The folks who are actually answering the question about how (and if) to work with the condo corp are being really helpful. Thanks for those answers!

I'm not just interested in preventing yesterday's episode from happening again, i'm interested in changing the rule so that service people can't enter my home without my authorisation, whether or not i am at home. So while recos for chains and door stops are interesting, i'd really like info about modifying condo rules.
posted by Kololo at 3:24 AM on July 20, 2011 [8 favorites]

I work for a large (200+ units) condo building and have seen some of this from the staff perspective. I can only speak to my experience, but maybe some of it may be helpful here.

There probably isn't anything in the Rules and Regs or in the Bylaws that would govern this, as those documents are more about what owners (not staff) can and can not do. You don't need to change any governing documents to bring about this change. What you need to do is talk to whoever is in charge of the staff (or, if they're not receptive, persuade the Board to talk to them).

What is the staff structure there? Where I work there's the Board of Directors at the top; below them, a contracted property management company (for financial and legal stuff) and a live-in building manager; and under the building manager, the concierge, security, and janitorial staff.

In my building, the person to talk to would be the building manager. If you have a different structure, talk to whoever schedules and supervises the maintenance visits (it may be someone at the property management company). Such requests are fairly common in my experience--it would be logistically impossible to get explicit prior consent from each unit, but there are always some units who ask for and (cheerfully) receive special treatment. Maybe they work at night; maybe they have a dog who is aggressive towards strangers; maybe they just... whatever, it doesn't really matter why. They talk with the building manager and schedule a specific time or time window for the work to be done, usually in the evening.

We couldn't do that for everyone, but not everyone needs it. The dozen or so units who need it ask for it, and it works. (Note that it gets more difficult--there's less flexibility--if an outside company is performing part of the work... like happens with the routine inspection of the fire safety systems. For the quarterly HVAC filter changes, the building manager does all the work and it happens over several days so it's easier to move things around.)

A few things, in no particular order:

You're likely going to need to get some sort of quorum of fellow owners to sign off on the move to make the change to the documentation.
Probably just a majority vote of the Board, I'd think. A general vote of the homeowners is usually required for changes to the Bylaws, but not for more mundane rules like this.

Why in the world he proceeded into my apartment despite being able to hear the shower running is beyond me, but he did.
He fucked up. He should knock, announce himself loudly, actively listen, and leave immediately if he hears a shower. No question.

And 4-5 times a year, every year, workers similarly enter each unit for system maintenance purposes.
This sounds normal. We have six a year: Four HVAC and two for fire safety systems (the two test different things and can't really be combined into one visit). And this isn't even counting the window washing and dryer vent cleanings that occur on ropes outside the windows.

The filters aren't actually very hard to replace if you know what to do. Most of our units have their HVAC systems in a closet; you just have to unscrew and lift out a cover, pry out the old filter, and press the new one in. (Some of the larger units also have a second HVAC in the ceiling; those are much harder to do.) Our building manager will happily teach a resident how to replace their own filter, and then will simply leave the new filters outside the door from then on. Some of our more privacy-minded residents choose this route. Depending on the complexity of your system, this may be an option for you.

I actually can't change the locks - the condo security staff have a master key to all the units, even if i changed the locks they would still need work with the master.
You are absolutely right about this. It is imperative that staff can enter in case of emergency. I speak from experience. Do not change the locks. On the other hand, a chain or any other type of inside lock seems totally reasonable to me and is probably your safest bet for peace of mind.

I have never understood why I have no choice about whether i authorise them to enter my unit without me there
Well, because a condo is not a house. Consider insurance, for example. Your building's policy would be jeopardized if you refused to allow routine maintenance and inspection on your smoke detector. It would be irresponsible--it would be downright negligent--if your Board were to allow individual owners to expose the entire building to such a risk. There are a lot of benefits to condo living but you give up autonomy. That's the nature of the beast.

right down to the flooring that gets scratched by their stepladders
This shouldn't happen. Talk to your building manager about it.

Some closing thoughts:

Give up the idea of changing the governing documents. If it's a large condo building--if it has more than ten units, even--there is no way that you will ever get the rules changed so that they require explicit permission from owners before routine maintenance visits. And... sigh... this is blunter than I wanted to be, but reading on preview, I think it needs to be said. The reason that you will never get these rules changed is because, and I mean no disrespect by this, you don't seem to really understand what a condo is. And at least one person on the Board will understand, and they'll know what kind of logistical work it takes to run it, and they will quickly dismiss your proposed change because it is impossible to put into practice. When it comes to things like authorizing maintenance vists, people are just really bad at responding. It has to be opt-out, not opt-in.

Learn more about how your building is managed and staffed. You give no specifics in your post, and I can only assume that's because you don't know much about it. (That's fairly common but it always surprises me.) It sounds like you don't have any regular lines of dialogue with the building management, the Board, or the staff. It's helpful to have some basic outline of how the building is run because...

... the thing to do to address your problem is to talk to the right person. I can't emphasize that enough. Say, hey, this happened the other day, and it needs to never happen again. And then work out a plan. Become one of the units that is handled differently from all the rest.

Good luck. I hope that you find a solution that makes you feel comfortable in your home again. Seeing a stranger in the mirror while you're showering must have been scary as hell.
posted by kprincehouse at 4:17 AM on July 20, 2011 [11 favorites]

My favorite apartment ever had a second deadbolt on the front door with no outside keyhole, but a chain is probably right for your situation.
posted by bookdragoness at 4:41 AM on July 20, 2011

Your building management needs to have a key to your door, in case of emergencies; however, there may already be a procedure in place for unit owners who only want the maintenance personnel to enter when the homeowner is present --- my place calls them "red tag units", as those units' keys are marked with, you got it, a red tag.

Also, they should be able to tell you approximately when each visit will be; in my building (a 16-floor highrise with over 400 units), a notice is sent around & posted all over the place each time, saying 'the 4th floor will have their smoke detectors checked Monday, July 18; the 5th floor on Tuesday, July 19; the 6th floor on Wednesday, July 20.' (They really can't specify closer than the particular day, as some units may take more or less time, plus the guys --- all our maintenace people are in-house, by the way --- may need to drop everything for some emergency.)
posted by easily confused at 5:06 AM on July 20, 2011

Here's the secret. Act in secret. My dad lives in a condo. He made the large developer's life a living hell and cost them millions while preserving the individual owners their rights.

The developer still had seats on the board per Illinois law and wanted to interpose a second tower in between my Dad's and the lakefront.

The condo board owner slots were filled with cronies with conflicts of interest with the developer--contracts for this or that in the building and the like. Usually every condo board election is a mere yearly formality.

So my dad and his co-conspirators created a board campaign in secret, so the company and their cronies would never know. I think they appeared to be innocent, unorganized gadflys or got written in, I don't know. Using word of mouth, they got the word around and on election day, suddenly appeared in the lobby with a table and lots of pro-looking pamphlets. They cruised to an easy victory. My dad's an administrative judge and lawyer and got to know the Illinois code on condo associations inside and out before running. They got a majority on the board and induced those whose terms weren't up to resign if there was a conflict of interest.

For them, the concern was a sweetheart cable deal that needed to be reversed and keeping their Lake Michigan view. Being in control of the board gave them political access and there still is that big swath of grass between them and the lake. But there's no condo tower. My dad testified at city council hearings and zoning board hearings. Where they were, he was. I can say without a doubt he personally cost the developers tens of millions of dollars and permanently reduced the value of their parcel by a like amount. But he preserved the value of the individual condo owners units, which retained the value of the lakefront view they paid for.

I suggest you work to get on the board itself or take it over. Once you are on the board, dismissing your concerns is a lot harder. Step one is state law. In many states condo boards and the like are governed by state law. Get a lawyer friend to help you find, understand and exploit the code.

Once you're in you are likely to find there are a lot of problems. But having influence on the condo board can really help you.

If you are in DC or Maryland, MeMail me.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:02 AM on July 20, 2011

Ok, I see your in Ontario from your profile. Find out all the provincial law on the subject first, then look at the condo agreement, both with the Board and with the developer. And find out the deals on who gets paid for the visits. They are often rotten. Get them combined.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:05 AM on July 20, 2011

This legal blog has a recent article that may be of interest to you. It has a link to the Condominium Act of 1998.

I would think that the fact that they notified you about the work lets them off the hook. Maybe get one of those door signs they have at hotels saying "do not disturb" to hang on your knob during future inspection dates.
posted by JJ86 at 6:21 AM on July 20, 2011

You have my sympathy -- your situation (frequent unrequested, not-previously-cleared visits by maintenance) mirrored my own -- it was a big reason I sold my condo. A breaking point was when the stated purpose of one of these visits (always during the day, when I was at work) was "somebody heard a noise."
posted by Rash at 8:38 AM on July 20, 2011

It is important that they be able to get into your unit in an emergency. The Fire Department does not take permission or keys into account. Our condo board lost our key, resulting in our door knob being destroyed by a prybar when the fire alarm went off while we weren't home.

The second time we had a much most substantial doorknob (and the board forgot to give the key we had given to them to the FD), so they took the doorjamb off with a prybar. Make sure that whatever additional lock you add is one that you won't mind finding in pieces when there's a fire alarm and you're not home.
posted by Four Flavors at 8:59 AM on July 20, 2011

I know some people who solved this problem by installing a very cheap alarm system. They can assign and revoke passcodes as necessary for maintenance. And I think they even get a record of which passcodes have been used and when.
posted by Hither at 11:05 PM on July 20, 2011

I just wanted to make a note that i never said i wanted to change the locks or never let them in ever. I know they need to come if for maintenance.

Thank you to those of you who tried to answer the question with information and advice - it will be very helpful as i decide what to do.
posted by Kololo at 6:08 AM on July 21, 2011

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