Every year the cycle repeats itself in numerous co-ops and condo communities from the Gold Coast to the Jersey Shore: as temperatures drop and snow begins to swirl, flocks of empty nesters and others fortunate enough to own a second home in a warmer climate pack up and head south.
Having these part-time residents’ units empty for months at a time poses certain challenges for the managers and boards of associations, whose administrative and managerial jobs don’t ease up just on account of the season. Security, emergency access to units, voting issues and communication all become pretty complicated.
The carefree lifestyle of condominium residents may make an owner feel as though taking off for a winter in Florida is as simple as removing the trash and locking the unit doors. Managers and other real estate industry pros know it’s not that simple.
A 2006 survey by Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida in Gainesville, found that of all the people who spend part of each year in Florida, the greatest number were from New York, with Michigan next, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, Canada, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California. Upstate New Yorkers have long gravitated to places like the central eastern coast and the area around Tampa and St. Petersburg. And now that South Florida has filled up, metropolitan New Yorkers and folks from the Garden State are popping up in nearly every place where Florida sand meets the sea. Most of these temporary residents migrated to counties in the southern part of the Sunshine State. And that means there are a lot of empty co-op and condo units.
It is unclear exactly when northern visitors to the Sunshine State became known as “Snowbirds,” but Canadian singer Anne Murray made the term famous in 1970 with the release of her song bearing the same name. The term is applied most commonly to the seasonal northern visitors who visit Florida annually generally during the period from November through April. National elections, early or late snowfalls and holidays can and do affect the annual exodus in both directions. Full time residents who leave Florida for several weeks during the hottest summer months are often referred to as “Sunbirds.”
No matter what term is applied to residents, this annual migration can present challenges for condos, HOAs and the property management firms that work on a personal level with this segment of Florida’s population. After all, administrative and managerial duties remain constant regardless of the season. Security, emergency access to units, voting and ongoing communications can get complicated when residents are miles away for months at a time. Well-run buildings and associations have systems in place to manage the myriad of concerns with proactive operating strategies tested and in place, all year long.
“The biggest risk,” says Jeff Martin, a New England property manager, “is when you have a cluster of these empty units” where winter problems can compound. Martin notes that “some residents may have family or caretakers checking their unit during the winter,” but that may not be enough, he adds. “Association boards can and should develop policies on winterizing… set up procedures, and then enforce them.”
As is the case with conventional snowbird departures from main residences, preparation is critical when second-home condos are vacated, however temporarily. It is suggested that owners try and leave their windows and doors shut, with the heat turned to a temperature that’s safe, if there is a central unit.
Prior to vacating the unit, owners should inspect every part of the dwelling making sure that if anything is malfunctioning, such as a leaky faucet, it is fixed prior to departure. That leaky faucet could become more severe and cause extensive damage if left to continue dripping. Additionally, managers recommend that all unnecessary appliances and electrical devices be unplugged. Managers also stress that access is key—homeowners should provide an emergency contact should fire, flood or any other threat suddenly arise.
“Obviously, the biggest risks are fire and water,” says Elaine Warga-Murray, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, the managing partner and CEO of Regency Management Group, LLC in Howell. “so that is why the above protocol is standard. In cases of apparent property risk, water or smoke, management has the obligation to gain access via locksmith or other invasive method; and notify the owner and local emergency contact. The purpose of management entry is to mitigate further damage if there are indications or reports of physical damage,” she says.
She notes instances in one property where food was left unsecured and pest infestations had occurred. This is rare, but it is serious risk if people leave trash or unsecure food in the unit or in their garage, she explains. The most infestations occur in garages because people often forget to clean them out, she adds.
In addition, short term leasing, and maintenance are also issues seasonal buildings face frequently. Out-of-state or out-of-country property owners sometimes send in payments and fees late. If an owner fails to pay at all it may be difficult to pursue legal action across state or country borders. And liens could be placed on your unit for failure to pay.
It’s important for seasonal residents that their monthly charges are paid on time. In some instances, associations provide fines if the above local emergency contact procedure is not followed, Warga-Murray says.
“Most of the seasonal residents I have will have their mail forwarded,” adds Manhattan property manager Jeff Heidings of Siren Management. “They don’t want to have it accumulate.”
Many times a seasonal owner will allow his or her unit to be rented monthly, weekly, or even daily, oftentimes without association approval. Usually this is in violation of the condo documents and bothersome to other residents. Transient guests often fail to respect the property and/or the rules which can result in security concerns.
“When the owner is away for an extended period of time they must realize that their guests have to be covered by the co-op or condo rules,” Heidings says. “All of that has to be arranged in advance or at the very least they’d have to call or write me from wherever they are wintering and tell me that someone is going to be in their unit. If someone says I’m not going to be living here for November, December, January and February but my niece is going to be in New York and I want her to stay in my Hoboken apartment that has to be arranged in advance.”
If the absentee or seasonal owner fails to maintain things like pest control, leaks, and air conditioning, mold, mildew and vermin can quickly wreak havoc for maintenance personnel and affect property values.
Trouble in Paradise
The best way to avoid problematic security and maintenance issues is to have owners provide out-of-state or out-of-country contact information as the official record with the association. Then all notices and official communications can and should be sent directly to the owners, keeping them fully informed.
“It is important to have contact information, both a local emergency contact ( mandatory) as well as the information about how to reach the owner,” notes Warga-Murray.
She says it’s commonplace for the owners to assign an emergency contact, (either a local resident, family member or a friend) to check on the home regularly for leaks, breaks, etc.
Above all, though, preparing the property for their departure is rule number one, she says. In high rises or mid rises, the biggest risks are failure to keep heat above 60 degrees and to winterize toilets and sinks. People erroneously believe that the heat from upstairs or next door etc., will be enough to keep their units from freezing.
“Also, we require that all homeowners winterize their plumbing and shut the water off, but keep their heat at 63 to 65 degrees. Therefore they must keep their electricity active. It is important that the emergency contact check the home regularly to make sure there are no power failures and that the heat does not shut off.”
As a management company, Warga-Murray says they provide a checklist of items that owners can use before vacating their homes, (i.e. empty or remove all open food containers, trash etc;) as well as the above noted utility procedures.
Having the correct, updated contact information is also necessary for proxies, and important votes.
“I have a snowbird on the board of one of the buildings that I manage so they just don’t attend board meetings for four or five months, they are absent,” says Heidings. “But if you had more than one on the board it could become an issue because you don’t want to have a chunk of your board not showing up for winter meetings.”
Snowbirds are also having an impact on Gold Coast condos across the Hudson. One need the Fort Lee Cooperative & Condominium Association (FLCCA) aims to fill is to represent Fort Lee’s senior citizen population, many of whom spend their winters in warmer climates.
“We do have an older population,” says Marvin J. Rothenberg, secretary/ treasurer for the association. “What we have, my guess would be, is a larger proportion of snowbirds than most other towns have. That’s one of the reasons a lot of people come here into the high rises, so that they don’t have to maintain a home while they live in Florida several months out of the year.” Because of that, many Fort Lee homeowners aren’t around when important decisions are made. The FLCCA acts as a voice for those residents.
Another option is for out of town board members to participate in meetings via speaker phone as long as they can hear and be heard by all in attendance.
Absent or not, management life goes on. Thanks to technology, absent unit owners—even if they’re board members—aren’t left out of the loop on management issues. Newsletters, email and websites have made a big difference in communications. In the case of a website, owners, renters, visitors, investors and other interested parties are all welcome on the site, but certain aspects of owner information should be password-protected for security and privacy.
It’s a little different, though, if one is managing a vacation site condominium association. In this setup, owners are absent on an uneven schedule; they reside in vacation mode awhile, but aren’t generally involved in daily operations—unlike those who head south in the typical five- or six-month snowbird flight pattern but do return to more permanent status.
Paul W. Carroccio, president and CEO of TPW Management, which manages a number of seasonal resorts from Vermont to Delaware, says that, “There simply aren’t as many meetings and the boards of directors we work with generally make the same decisions a primary board would make (but) exclusive of the homeowners. They try real hard to get the homeowners to participate, but because they’re absent the board just has to make decisions in the best interest of the community. It’s a tough board role to fill.”
In any snowbird scenario, remember that communication is key. It is extremely important for property owners to ensure their units are secured while they are away. Arrangements to inspect a unit before and after a weather event should be made with the board, management, or a private company.
Real estate experts also advise boards to stay organized and follow the law, and that co-op and condo owners stay in regular contact with their management companies.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Managing Editor Debra A. Estock contributed to this article.