One of the most important responsibilities of condominium associations is to actively collect maintenance fees from each homeowner. To avoid various legal and reputational issues, Boards of Directors must be sure that the process the association uses to collect maintenance fees is consistently applied. Many associations prefer to leave the majority of their collection efforts to their attorney; however, with a thorough collections policy in place, the Board of Directors (or the property’s manager) can easily handle the majority of the association’s collection efforts, which, in turn, can materially reduce the association’s collection-related expenses.
The association’s documents (i.e. Declaration and Bylaws), along with Florida Statutes Chapter 718, provide various collection methods for Boards to use in an effort to keep past-due maintenance fees to a minimum. These tools provide the foundation for successful collection efforts and will be discussed in detail below. We will only be focusing on past due maintenance fees in this blog post and will not be talking about fines, utility bills or any other monetary obligations of homeowners to associations.
I strongly recommend that prior to implementing a new collections policy, the Board have the association’s legal counsel review the policy. Further, I recommend the Board update and re-approve this policy annually to ensure continued compliance with Florida Statutes.
The collections policy should specify how frequently (i.e. monthly, quarterly) and on what date (typically the first day of the month or quarter) maintenance fees are due.
Late Fees and Interest
Most associations’ declarations or bylaws outline whether or not late fees and interest can be charged to homeowners that have accrued past due maintenance fees. If your documents silent on the amount of interest that can be charged, Florida Statute 718.116(3) specifies that interest should accrue at 18% per year. Further, 718.116(3) allows for a late fee for each delinquent payment of up to the greater of $25 or 5% of the monthly/ quarterly maintenance fee.
The Board should determine when and how they will apply interest and late fees to a delinquent homeowner. More specifically, by what date each month must the homeowner have paid their monthly maintenance fee, in full, to avoid accruing a late fees and interest? Will interest begin accruing immediately upon the homeowner’s account becoming delinquent (i.e. after their first missed payment) or will the association wait unit some later date (e.g. after the account becomes 90 days past due) to begin accruing interest? The relative difficulty of properly calculating and accounting for accrued interest should be considered when making these decisions.
The Board should also determine a procedure for waiving late fees and interest in certain situations. For example, the Board may include in its policy that the late fees and interest associated with a homeowner’s first delinquent payment may be waived upon request of the homeowner but that all other late fees and interest may not be waived. Or, they may decide that late fees and interest will never be waived except as part of a settlement or payment plan approved by the Board (we will discuss this more below). Again, it is very important that these rules be applied consistently. The Board must take care not to provide special treatment to certain homeowners based on personal relationships.
Delinquency and Pre-Lien Letters
The association’s strongest weapon against maintenance fee delinquency is their right to lien and foreclose on a unit if the homeowner fails to make maintenance fee payments when due. As such, the lien and foreclosure process should be included in the collections policy.
When a homeowner fails to make a maintenance fee payment when due, the homeowner’s account becomes delinquent and most associations will send a letter to the homeowner informing them of the past due balance on their account (including all late fees and interest accrued) and the next steps the association will take in the event the homeowner fails to pay. This letter should include a copy of the homeowner’s ledger (supplied from the association’s accounting program) and a date by which the homeowner must pay all past due amounts to avoid additional fees. The collections policy should specify when these letters are sent (i.e. how many days after the homeowner’s account becomes delinquent) and through what method(s) they are communicated (e.g. email, USPS).
As required by FL Statute 718.121(4), the association must provide a notice of intent to file a lien (f.k.a. pre-lien) to the homeowner. This notice should also comply with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The above mentioned delinquency letter may serve as the association’s pre-lien letter or the association may send a separate letter to the homeowner. If you would prefer to send a second letter as your pre-lien notice, the collections policy should specify when these letters are sent (generally some point in the second month of delinquency) and through what method(s) they are communicated (e.g. certified mail, return receipt requested as required by FL Statutes).
Lien Filing and Foreclosure
If delinquency and pre-lien letters failed to encourage a delinquent homeowner to cure the past due balance on their account, the association may choose to have their attorney file a lien on the unit. Filing a lien (which is only good for one year) is a prerequisite to foreclosure. If the association has chosen not to foreclose on any units, it may not be worth accruing the attorney’s fees to file a lien. The collections policy should state when the association will direct its attorney to file a lien against a unit (generally when the homeowner is more than 90 days delinquent), and what information should be provided to the attorney at that time.
Whether or not to foreclose a lien (which typically results in the association taking title to the delinquent unit) should be discussed on a case-by-case basis with the association’s attorney as there are many factors to consider including whether the unit is owner-occupied, rented or abandoned, and if there is a mortgage foreclosure case in process. Most importantly, the association should consider if they intend to rent the unit after they have taken title to it through foreclosure. While acting as a landlord can be time consuming for associations, the rental income earned often more than covers the past due fees owed by the old homeowner. The collections policy should outline the broad scenarios in which the association would foreclose on a unit.
Florida Statute 718.303(4) allows associations to suspend a homeowner’s (and their tenants’ and guests’) right to use the common elements of the property if the homeowner is more than 90 days delinquent in paying their maintenance fees. When possible, associations should use this to their advantage by restricting the homeowner’s access to the property’s pool, gym, clubhouse, car wash, laundry facilities or any other amenities the property offers. For occupied units (and particularly for rented units where the tenant is restricted from using the amenities), this inconvenience can often be enough to encourage homeowners to pay their past due balance. The collections policy should specify which amenities would be restricted as well as how and when they would be restricted. According to FL Statute 718.303(6), the Board must vote to suspend a homeowner’s right to use the common elements at a Board meeting and must notify the homeowner of the amenities restriction via mail or hand delivery.
Lease Restrictions and Rent Garnishment
If a property’s declaration or bylaws allows the Board to approve or deny a proposed lease of a unit, FL Statute 718.116(4) allows Boards to deny a proposed lease of a unit due to a homeowner being delinquent in the payment of maintenance fees. Preventing homeowners from leasing their units is a very important tool for associations and, if allowed by the property’s documents, should be included the collections policy. The policy should specify when a homeowner becomes ineligible to lease their unit, how they are informed of their inability to lease their unit, and what will happen if a unit is leased by a homeowner that is ineligible to lease their unit.
Rent garnishment is the association’s primary weapon against homeowners with past due maintenance fees that are renting their units. Florida Statute 718.116(11)a allows the association to demand that the tenant make lease payments directly to the association until all past due maintenance fees have been paid. Further, if the tenant refuses to make payments to the association, the association may sue for eviction of the tenant. The collections policy should specify when the association will attempt to rent garnish and the process for doing so (the FL Statutes provide specific details on how the tenant and homeowner must be informed). Further, the collections policy should specify when the association would begin eviction proceedings should the tenant fail to make lease payments to the association.
The leasing section of the collections policy should be reinforced by a separate and distinct Leasing Policy (to be discussed is a separate blog post).
Florida Statute 718.303(5) allows associations to suspend a homeowner’s voting rights if the homeowner is more than 90 days delinquent in paying their maintenance fees. This particular restriction does not tend to do much to encourage homeowners to pay past due balances as those with past due balances tend not to care enough to vote. However, it is worthwhile for the association to include suspending homeowners’ voting rights in their collections policy as the association may reduce the total number of votes necessary to constitute a quorum of the membership by the number of voting rights suspended. This can be a difference maker if the association is struggling to obtain enough votes for their annual meeting, for amendments to the association’s documents, or for any other vote. Similarly to the common elements restriction, according to FL Statute 718.303(6), the Board must vote to restrict voting rights at a Board meeting and must notify the homeowner of the voting restriction via mail or hand delivery.
If a homeowner has accrued past due maintenance fees and would like to avoid having the association foreclose on their unit, they may wish to establish a payment plan with the association. While each payment plan approved by the Board may be customized for each homeowner, the collections policy should establish the basic guidelines for when the Board may consider a payment plan, how the homeowner should request a payment plan, how a payment plan is approved, who (the association or its attorney) will receive the payment plan installments, whether or not late fees and interest continue to accrue during the implementation of the payment plan, and what will happen if the homeowner fails to abide by the payment plan (typically foreclosure). The collections policy may also want to specify that the Board will not accept any payment plans that reduce the total amount owed by the homeowner.
A homeowner with past due maintenance fees may wish to come to a settlement with the association where by they would negotiate with the association some reduction in the amount owed. This typically occurs when the homeowner is looking to sell their unit. The Board will typically negotiate settlements on a case-by-case basis but some basic guidelines can be included in the collections policy including when the Board may consider a settlement, how the homeowner should request a settlement and how a settlement is approved. As I have mentioned before, consistency is key. Whatever the logic the Board choses to use in determining if a settlement is acceptable, they should be sure to apply that same logic to all homeowners and not allow personal feelings enter into the decision making process.
The collections policy should specify how payments are applied to a homeowner’s past due balance. More specifically, Florida Statute 718.116(3) specifies that payments should first be applied to interest, then to late fees, then to attorney’s fees and costs associated with collection, and then to the delinquent maintenance fees.
The collections policy may want to specify the situations in which a member of the Board or the association’s manager will actively reach out (via phone or email) to a homeowner with past due maintenance fees in an attempt to encourage the homeowner to pay. An appropriate time to do this may be prior to the Board voting to lien and foreclose on the property as there is no point in accruing additional legal fees if the homeowner is planning to make payment in full in the coming days or weeks. Further, it may be wise for a representative of the association to offer the homeowner a payment plan, as the homeowner may not have realized this was an option. In my experience, actively communicating with homeowners makes collection efforts more successful.
This post addressed all of the key components of a quality collections policy. If your Board does not have a collections policy, I strongly recommend this be an agenda item at an upcoming Board meeting. If you have any questions or would like our assistance in drafting a collections policy for your property, feel free to reach out to us.
Ryan is a Florida condo owner and a director of VERA Property Management, a condominium and homeowners’ association management and consulting firm. VERA will gladly draft a Collections Policy (including delinquency letters, pre-lien letters, rent demand letters and all other relevant notices) for your Association based on the desires of the Board, your association’s declaration and bylaws, as well as the Florida Statutes. Please contact us today for a quote!