B.C. legislation asks much of owners of attached homes

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Understanding that your interest is the lesser interest and the strata corporation’s is the greater is a start

Suzanne Morphet

‘Another election,” we’ll complain, when faced with going to the polls yet again.

During that triple whammy between October 2008 and May 2009 that had us voting in federal, then municipal and finally provincial elections, most of us were worn out by our democratic obligations.

Pity then, those of us who live under yet another level of government, this one with annual elections.

I’m talking about what’s sometimes called the “fourth” level of government, the one that the million or so British Columbians who live in strata developments are part of, whether they like it or not.

When you buy a strata property, developers and their brokers like to say you’re buying a “lifestyle.”

True enough, though it may not be the relaxed, carefree one they suggest.

The lifestyle of a strata owner involves not just elections, but annual budget decisions and — if you’re on council — record-keeping and bylaw enforcement.

This column isn’t intended to scare you away from buying a strata property.

There are good reasons why half of all taxable properties in several of B.C.’s larger urban centres are strata properties: they’re more affordable and carry a lighter environmental “footprint” than detached homes.

Rather, this new column is intended to help you better understand the obligations that go with owning a strata property and to ensure your fourth level of government is operating in your best interest.

Let’s face it: sitting on a strata council or even participating at your council’s annual general meeting isn’t the way most of us would choose to spend our Saturday afternoons.

Retired people often buy a strata property to lighten their load.

And the young adults at the other end of the strata-ownership spectrum are often so preoccupied with careers and families that they have little free time to get involved with their strata councils.

Yet, in many ways, living in a condo requires more knowledge and obligations than other kinds of property ownership.

Consider this list of activities condo owners should be willing to take on, according to our provincial legislators, who passed the Strata Property Act:

– Attend meetings and help make important decisions.

– Understand the bylaws and rules of your strata corporation.

– Educate yourself about the Strata Property Act.

– Compromise your interests for the good of the strata corporation as a whole.

So much for spending all your free time on the golf course!

Elaine McCormack, a lawyer at Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP in Vancouver, helps strata corporations and owners resolve problems.

She says the biggest challenge for council members is exercising their quasi-judicial role, which means enforcing bylaws and rules.

“Because you’re standing in judgment of your neighbours and you’re obliged to follow the rules of natural justice and deal with it in a fair and appropriate way,” she says.

“That is something most people aren’t trained for and something that’s very difficult to do.”

Not surprisingly, many strata councils hire management companies to help them run their affairs. But that can be problematic, too.

Imagine handing your life savings over to a financial adviser, giving him or her free reign, then finding out that individual is incompetent, but you can’t easily “fire” him or her. Now what?

Four condo-owners associations exist to help.

The Condominium Home Owners Association, the Vancouver Island Strata Owners Association, the Pacific Condominium Association of B.C. and the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Condominium Institute all offer seminars and have websites with online information.

Membership ranges from $20 to $550 annually, depending on whether it’s for an individual or a strata council.

At that price, joining an association may be the smartest thing you and/or your strata council do.

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