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What to know about making changes to condominium common areas

Nobody wants a condominium property to fall into disrepair. Not only is it bad for the property owner who sees their investment crumble, it's bad for the individual residents who live there and want their unit value to increase, not crash.

Oftentimes, the condominium association is responsible for determining possible upgrades to the property. What role do the residents play in choosing these cosmetic or quality-of-life alterations? And what type of permission, if any, does the association need to get? It depends.

What the law requires

There is a Florida law that specifically addresses what a condo association needs to do before making a "material alteration or substantial additions" to common areas of the property. The first thing to look at is the condo association declaration.

Sometimes there will be rules for when the association can make changes without getting approval from residents. For example, maybe the board is allowed to make changes up to a certain dollar value, or with regard to specific parts of the property, without resident input. That declaration is generally what should be followed.

However, some declarations make no mention of resident input for common area changes. In those cases, Florida law says the association must get approval from 75% of the property's residents for any "material change or substantial additions" to shared space. And the board must get that approval before starting any of the work.

What counts as a "material" change?

In 1971, a Florida court helped define what counts as a "material alteration." Basically, it is an alteration that will "palpably or perceptively vary or change the form, shape, elements, or specifications" of the property in a way that will "appreciably affect or influence its function, use, or appearance."

That could be as simple as swapping the paint on the lobby walls from one shade of blue to another. Or it might be alterations to the landscaping, the installation of a new type of flooring, changes to the pool facilities and d├ęcor, or the addition of a new public-use room. There is a lot that could potentially fall under this definition.

There is an exception for some types of work and maintenance, however. In some cases, work that does make a material change to a common area, but is necessary to repair or protect the property, may be able to go forward without resident approval.

Unfortunately, there will be instances where a resident and condo association disagree about these definitions. Things may even become confrontational, potentially leading to expensive litigation. Fully understanding the association's declaration - and the law - can help everybody get on the same page.

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