Keys to the Castle–Do You Need to Turn Them Over?

[Original Post September 21, 2009]

Like animals, people view their homes as their personal “den”–a safe place where they can raise their family and not worry about the dangers of the outside world.  So it’s not surprising that one of the most common conflicts that arises in shared ownership communities, and especially condominiums and co-ops, is the question of whether an owner must turn over a key to management.  It’s one thing for strangers to have the walk of the building, but to be able to actually enter your home?  That’s a little hard for many to swallow.

First, understand that a number of state laws specifically allow an association to request keys for emergency entry.  Further, many association documents will have a clause mandating that a key to every door be turned over to the management office.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember that your “documents” are a contract, and you are legally bound to abide by the provisions they  contain.  So at the outset, understand that in many or even most situations you will be legally required to provide a key to the staff that operates your community.

Remember also that it’s a basic principle of life in a shared ownership community (condo, co-op and hoa) that you give up some of your basic homeowner’s rights for the good of the community as a whole.  You can’t expect to have the exact same privileges in an SOC as you would in a traditional detached home.

But then, why would management need a key to your unit?  Why not simply call you when they need entry?  Let me lay out some common situations, and why having a key is so important for your staff.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down.  The first situation involves true emergencies.  Fire, floods, gunshots, heart attacks–these are the situations where, if management does not have a key, they will certainly break down your door.  In a true emergency, that may not bother you–better to pay for a broken door than to have your home destroyed by an electrical fire.  But be certain that, in an emergency, management has every right to enter your unit by whatever means possible (in the situations above, it would most likely be police or firefighters doing so).

The second situation, and one that is far more common, involves small emergencies, such as water leaks.  These are the ones where a lot of conflicts arise, but remember that small problems become big problems very quickly.  Assume, for example, that the neighbor three units underneath you has water damage from a leak in her ceiling.  To troubleshoot the leak, the manager or superintendent will have to enter each unit above the apartment and investigate for signs of damage, evidence of overflowing or clogged pipes, toilets and sinks or even active floods.  Sometimes, the source of a leak can be several units above, and many of these investigations reveal damage that unit owners wouldn’t even know existed (for example, water stains on the ceiling of a dark closet, where mold commonly develops).

So say, for the moment, that you’re a person who refuses to give their key to the management office.  Now imagine that you have a leak in your unit that is actively destroying your wallpaper.  What if every owner in the building above yourself also refused to hand over their keys to management?  The office would have to call each owner individually, wait for a response, find a time when the owner could allow them into the unit, sometimes even fight with the owner about management’s right to enter the unit–and all the while your damage is getting worse.  Not really fair to you as an owner, is it?

Even when it’s not a true emergency, issues like water leaks, hazardous smells (chemical smells or gas, for example) and pest problems need to be investigated by management immediately, and if owners have not provided their keys to management, it is absolutely guaranteed that the damage to one or more units will be significantly worse than if they had.

The final category involves everyday, 9-5 maintenance.  In a high-rise building it is common for staff to have to enter individual units to investigate maintenance issues like balcony or wall cracks, pipe noises, electrical issues that affect multiple units, fire sprinkler issues and even reports of foul odors (that can sometimes be evidence of hoarding problems).  While these issues are not likely to damage units in the short term, requiring management to get individual permission to access each unit is extremely inefficient, costs significant money in wasted time, and is likely to result in greater remediation costs once a problem can be fully fleshed out.

In my opinion, every set of documents in a high-rise building should require a key to be turned over to management.  Not doing so can result in dangerous situations during true emergencies (and require the staff to break down doors), can lead to increased unit damage due to hazards like water leaks, and will cost significant money in lost time and inefficiency when carrying out day-to-day maintenance activities.  If you are an owner who has been recalcitrant about turning over your key, please consider the arguments I’ve made and see if maybe giving a semi-stranger a key to your home is a lesser evil than the potential damage that occurs otherwise.

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