Return to normalcy eludes complex

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Kelly Wolfe
Friday, June 3, 2005


ROYAL PALM BEACH Last year, after Frances and Jeanne tore through Charolais Villas, 31 of the 44 units sat stinking, trashed and growing mold.

For months, the condo board waited for an adjuster from Citizens Property Insurance Corp. When desperation peaked, board members hired a public adjuster, who for a fee works on behalf of insurance customers rather than an insurance company. Weeks later, with the public adjuster's help, they held a check for $1.4 million and rejoiced.

But this happy ending had an epilogue.

"We're stuck in the Twilight Zone," said board Secretary Stephanie Yelton. "It's unfortunate because people aren't getting into their homes and we're coming up on our year anniversary (since the storms).

"We have three units that required more demolition work and mold treatment to repair them. We had mold damage to several fire walls that are going to have to come down. We had lots of additional electrical work to bring us up to safety codes; those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head."

These problems are similar to those being faced by numerous volunteer boards across the state that were unprepared for the aftermath of a disaster. In Charolais's case, a million-dollar construction project is pretty sizeable for an inexperienced, elected board.

"We've had to do everything ourselves it's just one thing after another," Yelton said. "It's a never-ending nightmare."

Yelton said she and with other board members spend several hours every day coordinating construction projects. She said contractors have started work and abandoned them, and they have remained confused about the role of a public adjuster. They thought he would be there several times, filing supplemental claims as new needs arose. Instead, they've learned, he won't file supplemental claims until all $1.4 million has been spent.

Yelton said the money has been allocated, and she can already tell the condo is going to need more.

"We just finished the mold treatment and couldn't start any reconstruction until mold treatment was done," Yelton said, when asked why the money hadn't been spent. "Now contractors can get in there. "

Yelton said 14 of 44 owners in the Charolais Villas can't live in their homes.

Bill Raphan, executive director of communication for the condominium ombudsman of Florida, said he takes daily calls from condo dwellers complaining that repairs are lagging and the new season is here.

"The damage that occurred created a multiphase problem," Raphan said. "First, the association had to contact the insurance companies, adjusters had to come in and do their things, and then the boards realized they didn't get enough money to take care of the damages."

Raphan said many of the condo boards try to save money by not hiring professionals to oversee the work like Charolais did. But in the end, they end up spending more.

"They are trying to do the right thing," Raphan said. "But it's a very complex issue, and it's very difficult for boards' members to handle it. They try and do their best, but they just can't handle it."

The condo ombudsman was a position created at the beginning of this year to hear complaints from condo residents across Florida. The office tries to mediate between residents and board members whenever possible.

"Before lawyers step in," Raphan said.

Since last year, public adjuster Ken Hecht has been the condo's liaison with Citizens Insurance, which covers all common areas in the condo building. He has suggested the association hire a professional to oversee all the construction, but Yelton said she was already burned by one contractor who walked off the job. Then, the board decided not to spend any money on anything that didn't go directly toward repairs.

"We don't have the money to pay for the repairs we have now and he was encouraging us to hire an architect that's not the response we needed," Yelton said. "We needed someone out here to see the damage and put in the bids."

But Hecht can't file for any more claims until the board has spent the money under rules adjusters must follow.

"I can't foresee that the owners will be back in their units by the next hurricane assuming we have one, I'm hoping we don't," Yelton said. "There's so much of the unknown. We don't want to budget a lot of money to something that is going to pull away. The main thing is that we get the building secure."

Looking back, she'd do it differently.

"I would probably hire one project manager to handle it to do all the hiring of the contractors and subcontractors. The general contractor we hired, that we hoped would handle all this, walked out on us," Yelton said. "We expected people to do the job they were hired to do, and we've been disappointed in the follow up that we've gotten. In hindsight, it's easy to see mistakes that have been made. I still feel we've done the best we could with what we've had to work with.