Every year the state of Florida experiences an ebb and flow of full-time and part time residents; as the seasons change, so does the population. Part-time residents from the northern United States and Canada live and work in Florida for an extended time every winter, while a percentage of permanent residents of Florida migrate north during the warmest months, and an even larger number of residents call Florida home 365 days of the year. The official census of 2010 places Florida as the fourth most populated state in the nation with 18,801,310 residents. Estimates increase those figures to 19.5 million currently and still do not reflect the influx of vacationers and visitors Florida attracts each year.
Snow- and Sunbirds
With 8,000 miles of shoreline and 1,300 miles of sandy beaches, it is easy to see why Florida is both the residential and seasonal destination for millions of Americans, Europeans, and international world citizens. 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.
Ben Solomon, Esq., managing partner and co-founder of the Association Law Group in Miami Beach, has seen varied scenarios with snowbirds in the heavily-populated Miami area. In his experience, oceanfront condos are most often occupied with seasonal residents—sometimes as much as 75 percent of the building's population—while nearly all the condos west of the beaches are occupied by regular full-time residents.
Trouble in Paradise
Inconsiderate or unconcerned seasonal owners can make life in the Sunshine State something less than paradise. “Security, short term leasing, and maintenance are all issues seasonal buildings face frequently,” Solomon says. Additionally, out-of-state or overseas 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 lines or country borders.
Solomon often becomes involved when things have not gone well. Many times a seasonal owner will rent out his or her unit by the month, week, or even by the day—and without association approval. Usually this is in violation of the condo documents and bothersome to other residents, particularly when transient guests fail to respect the property and its rules. Short-term rental tenants may themselves have guests, or parties, and a steady stream of strangers coming and going all hours of the day and night raises legitimate concerns about security. If the absentee or seasonal owner fails to maintain things like pest control, leaks, and air conditioning, mold, mildew and other unwanted wildlife can quickly wreak havoc for maintenance personnel and property values.
Solomon's firm recently resolved a particularly difficult case involving an oceanfront condo on Miami Beach. The unit was in foreclosure, and occupied by a squatter. The association requested the individual leave the building, but the squatter refused. When Association Law Group filed for eviction, the squatter presented a fraudulent lease to the court and was permitted to stay in the condominium. During the year it took Solomon’s firm to pursue legal action, the squatter also allowed family and friends to stay in the unit while he was away. Association Law Group obtained a court order and the writ of possession necessary for the sheriff to remove the squatter from the building, and to resolve the issue in the association's favor.
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. Having the correct, updated contact information is also necessary for proxies, and important votes. Florida law allows electronic means such as email and fax in order to establish a quorum or a proxy can be submitted making the administrative work easier for all concerned.
Bob Rebey has managed to avoid the difficult legal issues Solomon has encountered in Miami. Rebey lives and works on the central west coast of Florida. He had 12 years’ experience in maintenance for condo associations when he decided to obtain his license in a field he loves. He is both a maintenance engineer and a newly licensed Community Association Manager (CAM) with Sentry Management. Sentry manages The Renaissance I Association, Inc., an elegant 16-story high-rise condo with 244 units in downtown Sarasota. The full-time staff includes on-site management, housekeeping and maintenance, with a reception area that is manned 24/7. The building is secured and resident parking is behind electronic gates. Amenities include a pool and jet spa, large club room with full kitchen, fully-outfitted fitness center, multimedia room, conference room, business center, sitting room, massage rooms and guest suites.
The Renaissance I is governed by a board of directors elected from and by the owners; an active social committee organizes activities and opportunities for neighbors to meet and socialize. Downtown is in easy walking distance where a wide assortment of shops, restaurants and services are available, and Sarasota’s landmark Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is directly across the street.
Rebey is proud to be associated with this property and works with the board and residents to ensure that lines of communication remain open for both the annual and the seasonal residents. “Routine day-to-day maintenance and inspections do not vary when there is less than 100 percent occupancy, but large projects are scheduled while there are fewer residents on the property. Vacant units are inspected periodically to proactively avoid problems.”
The Renaissance I attracts a mix of residents ranging from young professionals to senior citizens, and remains 80 percent occupied all year. A user-friendly website is informative and kept up-to-date, providing useful information and a means of keeping informed about the community while residents are at home or away. Owners, renters, visitors, investors and other interested parties are all welcome on the site, but certain aspects of owner information are password protected for security and privacy.
“The website is an excellent way for all residents to stay informed,” says Rebey, and absentee ballots are always available for residents, who are away. “We also have an excellent newsletter, and of course, the telephone.” Rebey describes the Renaissance I community as “very hands on” with everyone taking an active role—the association was recently recognized in the top 3 percent for Florida’s Properties of Excellence.
While Rebey is able to fully focus on one property, it is a different story for Michael E. Chapnick, of Chapnick Community Association Law, P.A. in Boca Raton. He has been representing associations since 1995, moved to Florida in 2000, and opened his own practice in 2004. “There is no other [area of practice] that I know of that has as much diversity in legal issues and personalities,” he says. “I now represent about 350 associations throughout South Florida.”
Chapnick finds that areas like Fort Myers and Naples have high percentages of seasonal residents, while other areas in the state may notice less fluctuation in population throughout the year. When voting presents a challenge, Chapnick recommends using mail in proxies. “However, in the case of condominium board elections, proxy voting is not allowed, but ballots are mailed out to the members in any event, and an election may be held even if only 20 percent of the ballots are cast.”
Security and maintenance issues for seasonal residents are often a matter of good communication between the residents and the association board. “Unit owners are responsible for maintaining the interior of the units. That means turning off water, leaving air conditioning on, making sure the electric bill is paid, etc.” Chapnick further explains condo associations have a statutory right to access units to prevent damage to the unit and/or the common areas. However there is no corresponding right in homeowners associations.
A large portion of hurricane season occurs over the summer months when most snowbirds are up north. It is extremely important for property owners to ensure their units are secured while they are absent. Any patio or balcony furniture should be brought indoors, and the HOA or COA should be aware of all means of contacting the unit owners. Arrangements to inspect a unit before and after a storm should be made with the board or a private company. Chapnick suggest condo associations should consider keeping unit keys secured but available for emergencies.
“If an association has regular board meetings during the summer months, out of town residents can participate via speaker phone, as long as they can hear and be heard by all in attendance,” he says. With today’s technology most associations have websites for communication and updated information. A well-developed website is useful to all residents whether at home or out of town.
Chapnick advises boards to stay organized and follow the law, saying, “Those communities where boards and members stay in regular contact, effectively and efficiently communicate their ideas, and then act on them in legally appropriate ways, are the best-run and have the highest degree of satisfaction from their members.”
Whether snowbirds or sunbirds are flying away to their second homes, make sure they don’t fly the coop without first properly maintaining the primary residence they call home.
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.