Wiring: Where Does the Common Element End and the Unit Begin?
Associations and Unit Owners frequently disagree over who is responsible to pay for repairs to certain items. Sometimes it is easy to figure out. The Association needs to pay for repairs to the community swimming pool, and the Unit Owner needs to fix the stove. Whenever the item to be repaired gets close to the boundary of the Unit, however, the answer to this question becomes more difficult. I came across an interesting case, Winchester Condominium Association v. Auria, where the question was who is responsible to pay for re-wiring a wall outlet: the Unit Owner or the Association?
In this case, the Association required all of the Unit Owners to replace aluminum wiring in the outlets of their Units. The Unit Owners were informed that the replacement was required for safety reasons and for the Association to maintain property insurance. [Note: I have done this a few times for dryer vents, pans under hot water heaters and fireplace insulation.] Every Unit Owner made arrangements to have the wiring in their outlets replaced. Every Unit Owner, that is, except for one.
The sole holdout Unit Owner eventually did replace his wiring (after he was sued by the Association). The only argument was whether the cost should be paid by the Association or by the Unit Owner. The entire case turned on whether a few inches of wire going from the wall to the outlet are a part of the interior wall space or part of the outlet. Another way of looking at it is whether the “outlet” is just where you stick a plug into, or is it the box that contains wires and the entire receptacle itself? The Unit Owner argued that the outlets – especially the wiring for the outlets – were Common Elements. The Declaration defined Common Elements to consist of “all central utilities . . . including those within the interior wall within the confines of a Unit; but exclusive of the outlets thereof in each Unit.”
The Court decided that the “outlet” was everything inside the box, even though this was inside the space of the wall. They gave two reasons for this decision. First, the Court said everything inside the receptacle box was solely for the Unit Owner’s personal use. Also, because the Declaration said that the Common Elements do not include the “outlets,” the documents wanted to make Unit Owners responsible for those items.
You may be surprised at how often issues like this arise for Associations. More than anything, this case shows that even things that seem simple – like what is an outlet – can start an argument between Associations and Unit Owners. Associations need to carefully consider these whenever assigning responsibility for maintenance items.