Developers of condominium communities and HOAs often reserve access easement rights within the Declaration/Deed Restrictions for the subdivision, especially when the Developer owns yet-undeveloped neighboring property. But what happens if the Developer forgets to reserve such easement rights specifically within the Declaration or Deed Restrictions? A recent case explores this dilemma, and at least in this case, the HOA owners come out on top.

Facts

In a 2019 case, some lot owners within a subdivision, which had been advertised as a private, gated community, sued the Developer for trying to enforce an access easement he had for the main road within their subdivision. The Developer claimed he needed access to that main road in order to develop the neighboring lots behind the gated community.  The Developer also believed he could grant access to the owners of the neighboring lots through the gated community. 
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Even the best and most established real estate developers can face hard times, especially in the aftermath of recession and economic downturn, as we experienced a few short years ago. Many condominium and subdivision developments found themselves half completed, both in terms of units and homes built, and common area improvements (like streets and curbs) left undone.  Where a new developer comes in to build upon the remaining lots, what responsibilities does he take on?  As related in a recent 2019 case, the answer may be found in the original development agreements with the municipality.
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Becker Boards Summit, LLC v. Summit at Copper Square Condominium Association – 2018 WL 6695279 ( 2018 Ariz.)

Issues:  The court in this case addressed two important issues:

  1. Can a Developer, before turnover, amend a Declaration to convert Common Element to Limited Common Element for the benefit of a Developer Unit?
  2. Can Developer contracts entered into before turnover be voided after turnover?


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Issue:  If your association was destroyed by fire or some other hazard, and it did not make sense to rebuild, how would the funds be divided?

Problem.  Odds are that you don’t know the answer.  The fact that you don’t know should scare you.  Is every unit in your association worth the same amount?   I doubt it.  Do you each pay the same amount in assessments?  Does that control?  What does your declaration say about the distribution of insurance proceeds if the unit owners elect not to rebuild?  Do you understand what it says? Does it even make sense?
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A Court in Colorado recently dealt with a developer who placed a provision in the declaration of a condominium association prohibiting amendment of the declaration – ever – without the declarant’s written consent, and requiring that all construction defect claims be resolved through arbitration (Vallagio at Inverness Residential Condominium Association, Inc. v. Metropolitan Homes, Inc. (395 P.3d 788)).
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Yes, developers can be lazy, greedy good for nothing con-artists. Developers can also adversely affect the rights of an association by simply doing nothing.  Specifically, a developer (owner of the property and declarant of the association) with knowledge of construction defects can prevent the association and/or unit owners, after turnover, from potentially suing the contractor and/or engineer for construction defects.
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Is your condominium or homeowners association currently controlled by the declarant/developer? Would you like to be prepared when the developer is ready to hand over the reins to you, the owners?  In Wisconsin, developer turnover is governed by Section 703.15 of the Wisconsin Statutes.  To ensure a seamless transition, there are certain steps associations should take both before and after developer turnover.

Before turnover, it is essential that you obtain all financial and corporate records of the association, all construction documents, all association contracts, as well as a complete list of the names, address and contact information for all unit owners and mortgagees. You should meet with the developer and project manager to determine if there are any ongoing issues (financial, construction, etc.).  Set up an insurance committee of unit owners to review your insurance policies.  Decide if your association is going to hire a management company and interview potential managers.  Hire a knowledgeable condominium attorney to represent the association for the turnover.
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