In an unpublished case addressing a peculiar repair, the Appellate Division recently reiterated one of the basics of common interest ownership: When in doubt, read your documents. Waldstein v. Highview at Hawthorne Ass’n, Inc., A-2281-05T1 (June 12, 2007).

Shortly after purchasing their town home as a resale in 2003, Plaintiffs Jay and Kathleen Waldstein discovered a broken sewer pipe was leaking water and sewage below the concrete slab that formed the lowest floor of their town home. Further investigation revealed that the pipe had ruptured when the slab failed as a result of a construction defect: the interior foundation of the home had never been built. Plaintiffs repaired the sewer pipe and rebuilt the floor slab, then requested reimbursement from the Homeowners’ Association.

After the Association declined payment, the plaintiffs brought a declaratory judgment action, asking the court to determine that the Association was responsible for the cost of the repairs and to award them fees and costs. The trial judge declined to do so, finding that, the Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions applicable to the development included no provision making the Association responsible for such a repair. On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed.

Plaintiffs relied on a provision of the Declaration that reads as follow:

Each townhouse Owner, by acceptance of ownership, agrees and covenants that if his townhouse, including any party walls, shall be fully or partially destroyed by fire or otherwise, the Association shall reconstruct said townhouse expeditiously, pursuant to plans approved by the Board of Trustees. Any such reconstruction shall be subject to all other applicable provisions of this Declaration and applicable governmental regulations.

Plaintiffs also pointed out Declaration provisions requiring the Association and the Owners to carry fire and casualty insurance as well as extended coverage.

The appellate judges rejected Plaintiff’s argument, limiting the Association’s responsibility to reconstruct under the cited provision to situations in which a townhouse is fully or partially destroyed by fire or similar casualty. Because Plaintiff’s repairs were necessitated by defective construction, the Association was not required to repair or reconstruct.

The court also rejected Plaintiff’s alternative argument that the Association was required to reimburse them since it maintained a reserve account for repair, replacement and improvement. Analyzing the Declaration as a whole, the judges concluded that the reserves were explicitly intended to fund repair, replacement and improvement of common property and the exteriors of the townhouses. No provision required the Association to fund the repair and reconstruction of an interior structural flaw in a town home, caused by a construction defect.

Finally, the court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that an easement provision granting the Association the right to enter a town home to repair breaks of leakage in the water, sewer or sprinkler systems that threaten damage to common property obligated the Association to reimburse them, finding that no evidence suggested that the leak below Plaintiff’s town home threatened the common property in any way.

The Waldsteins’ futile attempt to pass their repair bills on the Association is another reminder that no one formula sets forth responsibility for repairs and maintenance in common-interest communities. New Jersey law permits sponsors and developers great flexibility in designing the maintenance provisions of their communities, and the many variations in governing documents reflect factors such as marketing decisions, architectural requirements, and site anomalies, among others. Careful reading and analysis of the governing documents, that is, the Declaration or Master Deed, is always the first step in determining responsibilities for performing and paying for repairs.