Tag Archives: Freezing Pipes

Avoiding the Special Assessment Trap


Don’t think owners won’t notice an extra charge from the association.  Prepare for a fight and plan ahead to avoid special assessments altogether.

Special Assesments for Necessary Repairs

Many community associations turn to special assessments when confronted by unanticipated repairs, but boards need to avoid making hasty decisions to fund these surprise expenses.

Special assessments should be the last resort – not the first step -in funding an expensive repair; they’re unwelcome surprises and can cause financial hardship.  Moreover, they are inherently inequitable because they fall on the people who happen to own at the time payment is due, without regard to length of ownership – a measure of how much an owner “consumed” the component being repaired.  Given these dynamics, it should not be surprising that some owners will search every nook and cranny of a special assessment decision and may emerge with troublesome defenses.

Owners may dispute a special assessment for many underlying reasons.  The challenges come from the disgruntled owner who simply doesn’t like the board or from the guy who disputes the wisdom of the project, timing, cost or the specifications.

The owner’s personal agenda doesn’t matter because he refuses to pay, but he will not stop there; misery loves company.  He will organize his neighbors, start a petition, appear at your next board meeting with a circle of supporters and wag his finger or wave his fist in your face.

Worse, he will encourage others not to pay.  Then the board may realize it doesn’t have enough support for the project.  Further, the board may be faced with difficult collection actions, lawsuits that cost money and create tension, and may need to delay the very work that the special assessment was intended to cover.

LITIGATION LEADER

In the experience of my law firm in collection work for community associations, special assessments are one of the leading sources of litigation.

Just when you think you have done everything correctly, you may find yourself embroiled in a legal dispute.  There will be a clever attorney on the other side, skillfully probing every step in your decision-making process.  Believing his claim has great merit, he will cloud the issues with distracting defenses, bury you under an avalanche of paper discovery, file an endless stream of meddlesome motions and posture for his client who sits by his side cheering him into battle.   It won’t be fun.

THE NEED FOR A PLAN

Hopefully, a special assessment will never will be necessary.  If a board plans properly and builds up its reserves, it may not be.

Unfortunately, some boards want to keep general assessments low, believing that owners consider only the monthly fee when determining how much they pay the association.  This is fiction; you can’t play hide-the-ball with a history of special assessments.

The association needs to engage in strategic planning to avoid the necessity of a special assessment; the adverse impacts of financial surprise and inequity are often too much to overcome.  Many managers are particularly good at initiating strategic planning because of their professional knowledge and experience, but even self-managed communities can map out a well-developed plan.

Strategic planning calls for an objective look into the future to minimize surprise.  What components and systems will need major repair or replacement in the future?  How much will they cost?  How will these needs be funded?

The board is responsible for preparing the annual budget, including reserves.  When asked how they determine reserves, some of my boards say they have been to Disney World, using the Magic Kingdom Formula of 5 percent.  Others simply contribute “whatever is left at the end of the year.”  Both approaches are arbitrary and subjective.

Many state laws and governing documents call for reasonable reserves for repair and replacement.  The key word is “reasonable.”  Since every community is different in terms of construction, quality of materials, level of maintenance, climate and other factors, each must be examined on its own.

The basis for determining what’s reasonable for your particular community should be a reserve study by an independent expert – one who does not stand to obtain the repair work, who has professional qualifications in this field and is designated by CAI as a Reserve Specialist (RS).  Couple the study with an energy audit to buffer rising energy costs.

If your association does not have a financial plan for reserves, is this a failure to plan or a plan to fail?  And what if the association has some reserves, but they are either inadequate or the board doesn’t want to spend the entire fund on one project?  If that happens, the next best approach is to borrow funds from an institutional lender, using an assignment of assessments as collateral.  Many lenders now offer such loans for community associations.

Borrowing has many of the equitable features of reserves because the debt service is paid in modest amounts over a period of years.  The obligation transfers from one owner to the next as sales occur, thus spreading the costs and benefits in the same manner as reserves.

Of equal importance is that the association would have all the funds up front to complete the project, and would be able to enter into contracts without worrying about whether all owners will pay a special assessment in full, on time and without the delay and cost of chasing delinquent owners.

Without a financial plan, how do you know where your community is going?  John Irving wrote in Hotel New Hampshire, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t belong where you are.”  The challenge for associations – volunteer leaders, homeowners and managers – is to find out where they’re going by engaging in strategic planning, starting with an objective reserve study and an energy audit, followed by setting a realistic level of funding.  This is the best way to minimize the need for a special assessment.

If your homeowners or condominium association doesn’t have a financial plan, it also may fall out of favor with the Federal Housing Administration.  The agency frowns on special assessments, and it requires that the budget contain a line item of at least 10 percent for reserves.  Since Feb. 1, 2010, condominium associations need to get on FHA’s approved project list before it supports any mortgages in the communities.  Failure to be on FHA’s approved project list will discourage real estate listings, leading to reduced marketability and resale values.

DUE DILIGENCE

Sometimes, not even fully funded reserves can prevent a special assessment.  When it’s unavoidable, the board must exercise due diligence before imposing the additional fee.  Due diligence can be tedious and time consuming.  To cover everything, use the following 10-point checklist and document each step:

1.     Ask your attorney to review your plans, applicable statutes and governing documents.  Get suggestions for improving them to foster success.

2.     Follow all applicable procedures in the governing documents for approving the budget.

3.     Make sure you have a full board that is properly elected.

4.     Be sure all voters are qualified.

5.     Make sure you comply with provisions in statutes and governing documents for adopting a special assessment.  Some states have special approval procedures.  Virginia, for example, authorizes members to rescind or reduce a proposed special assessment by majority vote at a meeting.

6.     Be diligent in identifying and evaluating options.  Prepare a comparative analysis.  Be objective.  For example, if you are replacing the siding because it would cost less than continued repairs, collect reliable data to support this finding.

7.     Keep the owners informed throughout the process.  Remember your obligation to disclose information about the special assessment on resale certificates.  Better to include it, even if it is merely under consideration, than to surprise a new owner.

8.     Use competitive bidding to find the lowest and best proposal.  Three are usually enough; any more will just drive you and your manager nuts.  In selecting a contractor, remember lowest cost is not always best value.  Many of us have learned the hard way that the lowest bidder is usually lowest in quality and reliability, but highest in terms of contract management.

9.     Make sure the components and systems to be repaired or replaced are within the association’s authority.  For example, if you want to replace all the windows in the condominium, make sure the windows are common elements, not part of the units.

10.  Get an opinion letter from your attorney to make sure that you have satisfied all substantive and procedural requirements of your state statute and governing documents.

The old carpenter’s adage, “measure twice, cut once” is good advice for board members because it’s essentially encouraging due diligence.  If successfully accomplished, the tasks on your checklist will not only create the foundation for a successful project, but also will minimize the possibility of litigation by contrarian homeowners.

After your due diligence is complete, engage the owners in the process.  Avoid top-down implementation or the appearance that the project is entirely driven by the board.  Appoint a committee of homeowners to take ownership of the project and be responsible for presenting it to the members.  Even if you do everything properly, you will not succeed without broad owner support and acceptance.

Indeed, there is nothing special about special assessments.  They present lots of moving parts and traps for the unwary.  They can lead to litigation involving issues far more complex than the problems they are intended to resolve.  The better approach is to build reserves based on an objective reserve study and to augment funding through a loan.  If you have absolutely no alternative to a special assessment, exercise due diligence in your preparation.  And remember that old carpenter’s adage.

By Marvin J. Nodiff, esq.

Avoid Freezing Pipes!


An awesome post that will come handy for us. I felt that it had all the useful and important information with great advice to avoid disastrous incidents. Personally, frozen pipes is one of the last things that I want to deal with.

Via Lori Miles, Marketing Manager, Riverside Property Management, Inc. (Kennesaw, GA):

When water freezes, it expands. That’s why a can of soda explodes if it’s put into a freezer to chill quickly and forgotten. When water freezes in a pipe, it expands the same way. If it expands enough, the pipe bursts, water escapes and serious damage results.

Why Pipes Burst

Surprisingly, ice forming in a pipe does not typically cause a break where the ice blockage occurs. It’s not the radial expansion of ice against the wall of the pipe that causes the break. Rather, following a complete ice blockage in a pipe, continued freezing and expansion inside the pipe causes water pressure to increase downstream — between the ice blockage and a closed faucet at the end. It’s this increase in water pressure that leads to pipe failure. Usually the pipe bursts where little or no ice has formed. Upstream from the ice blockage the water can always retreat back towards its source, so there is no pressure build-up to cause a break. Water has to freeze for ice blockages to occur. Pipes that are adequately protected along their entire length by placement within the building’s insulation, insulation on the pipe itself, or heating, are safe.

Regional Differences

Generally, houses in northern climates are built with the water pipes located on the inside of the building insulation, which protects the pipes from subfreezing weather. However, extremely cold weather and holes in the building that allow a flow of cold air to come into contact with pipes can lead to freezing and bursting.

Water pipes in houses in southern climates often are more vulnerable to winter cold spells. The pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas outside of the building insulation, and homeowners tend to be less aware of freezing problems, which may occur only once or twice a season.

Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are all vulnerable to freezing, especially if there are cracks or openings that allow cold, outside air to flow across the pipes. Research at the University of Illinois has shown that “wind chill,” the cooling effect of air and wind that causes the human body to lose heat, can play a major role in accelerating ice blockage, and thus bursting, in water pipes.

Holes in an outside wall where television, cable or telephone lines enter can provide access for cold air to reach pipes. The size of pipes and their composition (e.g., copper or PVC) have some bearing on how fast ice forms, but they are relatively minor factors in pipe bursting compared with the absence of heat, pipe insulation and exposure to a flow of subfreezing air.

When is it Cold Enough to Freeze?

When should homeowners be alert to the danger of freezing pipes? That depends, but in southern states and other areas where freezing weather is the exception rather than the rule (and where houses often do not provide adequate built-in protection), the “temperature alert threshold” is 20°F.

This threshold is based upon research conducted by the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois. Field tests of residential water systems subjected to winter temperatures demonstrated that, for un-insulated pipes installed in an unconditioned attic, the onset of freezing occurred when the outside temperature fell to 20°F or below.

This finding was supported by a survey of 71 plumbers practicing in southern states, in which the consensus was that burst-pipe problems began to appear when temperatures fell into the teens. However, freezing incidents can occur when the temperature remains above 20° F. Pipes exposed to cold air (especially flowing air, as on a windy day) because of cracks in an outside wall or lack of insulation are vulnerable to freezing at temperatures above the threshold. However, the 20°F “temperature alert threshold” should address the majority of potential burst-pipe incidents in southern states.

Mitigating the Problem

Water freezes when heat in the water is transferred to subfreezing air. The best way to keep water in pipes from freezing is to slow or stop this transfer of heat.

Ideally, it is best not to expose water pipes to subfreezing temperatures, by placing them only in heated spaces and keeping them out of attics, crawl spaces and vulnerable outside walls. In new construction, proper placement can be designed into the building.

In existing houses, a plumber may be able to re route at-risk pipes to protected areas, although this may not be a practical solution. If the latter is the case, vulnerable pipes that are accessible should be fitted with insulation sleeves or wrapping (which slows the heat transfer), the more insulation the better. It is important not to leave gaps that expose the pipe to cold air. Hardware stores and home centers carry the necessary materials, usually in foam rubber or fiberglass sleeves. Better yet, plumbing supply stores and insulation dealers carry pipe sleeves that feature extra-thick insulation, as much as 1” or 2” thick. The added protection is worth the extra cost.

Cracks and holes in outside walls and foundations near water pipes should be sealed with caulking to keep cold wind away from the pipes. Kitchen and bathroom cabinets can keep warm inside air from reaching pipes under sinks and in adjacent outside walls. It’s a good idea to keep cabinet doors open during cold spells to let the warm air circulate around the pipes. Electric heating tapes and cables are available to run along pipes to keep the water from freezing. These must be used with extreme caution; follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to avoid the risk of fire, and check to make sure the product conforms to UL 2049. Tapes and cables with a built-in thermostat will turn heat on when needed. Tapes without a thermostat have to be plugged in each time heat is needed, and may be forgotten.

Letting the Water Run

Letting a faucet drip during extreme cold weather can prevent a pipe from bursting. It’s not that a small flow of water prevents freezing; this helps, but water can freeze even with a slow flow.

Rather, opening a faucet will provide relief from the excessive pressure that builds between the faucet and the ice blockage when freezing occurs. If there is no excessive water pressure, there is no burst pipe, even if the water inside the pipe freezes.

A dripping faucet wastes some water, so only pipes vulnerable to freezing (ones that run through an unheated or unprotected space) should be left with the water flowing. The drip can be very slight. Even the slowest drip at normal pressure will provide pressure relief when needed. Where both hot and cold lines serve a spigot, make sure each one contributes to the drip, since both are subjected to freezing. If the dripping stops, leave the faucet(s) open, since a pipe may have frozen and will still need pressure relief.

If You Suspect a Frozen Pipe

If you open a faucet and no water comes out, don’t take any chances. Call a plumber. If a water pipe bursts, turn off the water at the main shut-off valve (usually at the water meter or where the main line enters the house); leave the faucet(s) open until repairs are completed. Don’t try to thaw a frozen pipe with an open flame; as this will damage the pipe and may even start a building fire. You might be able to thaw a pipe with a hand-held hair dryer. Slowly apply heat, starting close to the faucet end of the pipe, with the faucet open. Work toward the coldest section. Don’t use electrical appliances while standing in water; you could get electrocuted.

Going on a Trip

When away from the house for an extended period during the winter, be careful how much you lower the heat. A lower temperature may save on the heating bill, but there could be a disaster if a cold spell strikes and pipes that normally would be safe, freeze and burst.

A solution is to drain the water system. This is the best safeguard. With no water in the pipes, there is no freezing. This remedy should be considered even when the homeowner is not leaving but is concerned about a serious overnight freeze.

To drain the system, shut off the main valve and turn on every water fixture (both hot and cold lines) until water stops running. It’s not necessary to leave the fixtures open, since the system is filled mostly with air at that point and not subject to freezing. When returning to the house, turn on the main valve and let each fixture run until the pipes are full again.

Source: Institute for Business and Home Safety. IBHS is a national nonprofit initiative of the insurance industry to reduce deaths, injuries, property damage, economic losses and human suffering caused by natural disasters.