The last entry was for home owners looking to build a deck onto a single-family residence. But what happens when you live in a Multi-Unit dwelling like a condominium complex or a townhouse complex where there are several buildings and units involved? This question has become asked with increased frequency over the past decade or so. As these developments age this question will become even more important as some instances the desired changes cannot be done at all. The decks on these types of dwellings typically fall into a grey area. It is often the homeowner who is responsible for the decks. Occasionally the decks will be considered a ‘Common Space’ and included in the maintenance program set forth by the Home Owners Associations. However, this inclusion in the exterior maintenance is often not frequent enough (once every 4- 5 years) and the decks end up maligned and neglected requiring far more work to restore than if they were maintained on a regular basis. But what happens when the owner wants to change the deck all together? Who owners the deck then? And is there a different process that needs to be followed as the decks will now incorporate what was previously termed ‘Common Space.’ And who determines the ability to buy or sell that ‘Common Space?’ Does that change the valuation of a unit? Or does it limit the valuation of adjacent units? What if one unit has more space to offer than others? In legalese, the exterior of the unit may be the responsibility of HOA. That IS their primary purpose after all; to ensure preservation of the value of the development by using dues paid to cover the expenses required such staining or painting the exteriors or maintenance of the driveways and roofs. Unfortunately, the decks are left in a grey area. And it isn’t always clear who is and isn’t allowed to make changes to their decks. If you reside in this type of residence you should initiate this discussion with the board as quickly as possible. This entry will address how to handle some alterations that fall into this Grey Area.
What is the grey area? The grey area is simply one question “Whose responsibility is it to maintain the decks?” If it the homeowners, then are they allowed to make changes without permission from the HOA? Or does the HOA ultimately have the final say on who can do what to the decks? Again, the goal of the HOA is to preserve the integrity and value of the units. These questions are sometimes better defined in the Covenants Agreements. But sometimes they not. As an association or an owner, you want some uniformity from building to building. You don’t want a standing seamed roof on one unit and 35-year-old expired shingles on another. But somehow the decks have fallen into this ‘no man’s land’ and it is often unclear who and what can be altered to the decks. If the HOA says that the decks are the homeowner’s responsibility, then the home owner should have full say in what they and can’t do to the decks. This is rarely the case however. But If these alterations are going to result in an assortment of deck surfaces is the HOA doing their job correctly and preserving the integrity of the subdivision? It is one thing to maintain a redwood deck out of pocket on an annual basis. It’s entirely something different to allow an adjacent unit to expand the size of the deck simple because they have the ‘open space’ or ‘common space’ to work with? Or to remove the surface of the deck and use another medium such a composite product without a board approval. The question needs to be posed to the Home Owner’s Association board. Be prepared for a long discussion.
Balcony deck size increases are the most common requests we have received over the years. But ground level exterior decks have been increasingly a point of contention. And if the unit is a rental the simplest answer I can give regardless of the condition or desired changes is to look at the big picture rather than a unit by unit basis. There should be some uniformity with the decks just like the uniformity of the exteriors when they were designed. I am proposing that the boards initiate the discussion now as it applies to all unit’s decks. There exists a subtle difference that is worth noting. The decks are horizontal component to the structure and are less apparent than a vertical component such as siding and windows and doors regarding curb appeal. While this leaves the decks less intrusive visually it does not entirely mask the appearance of exterior, especially if a railing is incorporated into the deck’s design. In this situation the vertical railing façade is as important as the exterior finish. And with a plethora of decking surface and facade choices out there this question can become somewhat of a challenge. Does one want to see a grey deck next to a red-tone deck, or a brown tone deck. Or a difference in products used. Or if the deck height doesn’t require a railing by code should it have a railing for continuity? Should the HOA mandate what materials are used if they don’t perform? These answers can vary depending on one’s needs and desires. But the end result should be uniform. This means that the HOA Board should come up with a uniform prescription that can applied to each unit if so desired.
Non-Balcony decks or ground level decks pose some interesting issues of their own. It is commonplace for a subdivision, condominium, or townhouse complex to have some basic components. These may include the building, Units within the building, the parking lot, a recreational area, and what is typically called ‘Common Space.’ Ground level decks usually have a similar size deck allowance so that each unit will have the same usable space. The area beyond and between the decks is this ‘Common Space.’ ‘Common Space’ is usually ‘owned’ by the association. The dues paid go toward maintenance of the area such as landscaping and are uniformly applied as the space is divided equally between the units. The space benefits all residents regardless of the location of the ‘common space.’ This space however can be different is size depending on where it is in the development. Some units may have a greater amount of ‘Common Space’ than another unit. When this condition occurs, the homeowners will sometimes request permission to increase the deck size. This can create some internal discussion for the board. The discussion often means redefining the ‘Common areas.’ And can result in legal issues in property ownership and lot lines. I will not venture into this deeper as this is a very complicated issue to tackle. There are instances in which set back limitations may leave some buildings without the option to expand. This condition would require petitioning the proper entity and demonstrating a ‘Hardship’ which may result in setback changes or property boundary issues. I raise the issue due to the increasing importance and frequency of this discussion with individuals and HOAs alike as some of the decks are at an age where replacement may be required.
Hot Tubs on ground level decks have become an interesting point of discussion as of late. If the Homeowner has the unit included in a rental pool, they can rent at a higher rate than homeowner that does not have a hot tub. Many clients are interested in increasing the deck size to incorporate a hot tub. If a deck remodel permits this increase how does this affect the other homeowners? One of the biggest issues I see related to hot tubs and this type of deck alteration is the height of the hot tub. Should the hot tubs be recessed into the deck or placed on the deck? Or somewhere in-between? This can be a challenge to answer as each height has its pros and cons. But some association boards dislike the differing visual impacts between the two ends of the spectrum. This is an area where continuity is important and having a disjointed appearance between units is not financially advantageous for the development or member homeowners. When the decks are situated in the rear of the unit this may have little impact. However, if there is different vantage point visually this can be an important issue.
On another note, there is some importance as to the dangers that exist in hot tub heights. The issue is what is the safety factor for individuals sitting on the edge of the hot tub if they were fall backward. For hot tub recessed into the deck the complications are minimal. For a hot tub on top of a deck the fall could be more substantial. The real problem exists when the hot tub not recessed, and the edge of the tub is within proximity to the railing. Or if the deck doesn’t have a railing but is 23 additional inches added to the 30-inch tub height for a total of 53 inches or greater to the ground which can result in some serious injury. These backward falls are discussed in some deck contractor circles but not nearly enough; especially when the issue legality is asked. So, while most of this article will focus on the importance of aesthetics and continuity when considering deck alterations, it is important to note that there some safety concerns which should be included into the discussion. I look forward to seeing what the industry as whole is going to do address this. Park City proper has begun taking steps to minimize liability and requesting that a ‘wind screen’ or a similar barrier be included around the hot tub to prevent this type of injury.
The requirement of engineering and design should remain the same or similar whether it is 1 unit, or 25 units provided the layouts and building envelopes are identical. Often the building envelopes are different in these Multi-Unit dwellings. It may be realistic to have different designs created which fit the exterior and consider the subtleties between the buildings and the units. This approach often should include an architect as well as an engineer to ensure the preservation of the exterior appeal. Having a formal agreed upon option for the homeowners will allow for changes to be conducted while at the time maintaining a sense of continuity and uniformity that is important in those communities. The cost could be recouped by the board when the time comes for any such deck alterations by simply selling the engineered plans to the homeowner requesting the change. It would also allow for the contractor to have a stamped set of plans by which they could create an accurate estimate. All too often I will see a mash up of different engineering approaches and building methods used to create these altered exterior spaces. This can create a host of issues in time. Most of these issues cannot be resolved as simply as one would think so beginning the discussion is never too soon. In a most recent example, I have a client whose neighbor in the adjoining unit conducted an extensive interior remodel. In doing the remodel they created a post-free balcony deck using a cantilevered design. The visual impact was wonderful as without the posts the sight line from the living room was post free and expansive. Because of the interior remodel this change was able to be conducted. Without the interior remodel this post-free change would not have been possible. So, now the neighbor wants a similar deck created but doesn’t have the resources for such a large expenditure including the interior remodel. What can be done? The desired deck change will have to have posts incorporated which will alter the visual impact or curb appeal. Does such a change in the future need to be a minimum dollar amount? Does any interior remodel now have to include this cantilevered deck design? Should these changes be mandatory in the event a remodel is desire by a future owner? And lastly, once again, who owns the deck? If the deck is part of the building envelope should the HOA pay for all changes? Any changes? Or does the individual home owner have any input as to how the decks are addressed. Having a plan that addresses these issues is becoming increasingly important moving forward. If you have this type of situation I encourage you to begin the dialog as soon as possible. It may have a direct impact on the resale value of the property, especially if no change is possible. Knowing this approach ahead of time will benefit everyone in the complex.