By Erik J. Heels
First published 5/24/2011; ApplewoodVillage.org; publisher: GiantPeople.
I, Erik J. Heels, created this blog, at my own personal expense, on 06/22/10 to improve communication, both internally and externally, about Applewood Village. Although I am a member of two Applewood boards, the views on this website are mine and not those of Applewood. I think it would be great if Applewood took an active roll in marketing Applewood Village to prospective new owners, but we are not there yet.
Here’s my story.
On 11/23/09, I purchased 66 Macintosh Lane, a 2BR condo in Applewood Village. I moved to Applewood Village as a result of getting divorced. In the summer of 2010, my former spouse also purchased a condo in Applewood. We purchased in Applewood because we wanted our kids to stay in the Acton-Boxboro school system and we wanted our kids to be able to walk between mom’s house and dad’s house.
There is a lot to like about Applewood. Built in the late 1970s, Applewood’s construction is very good, much better than the early 1980s house in Acton that I used to live in. The trees are mature, the scenery is nice, and the amenities (pool, tennis courts, playground) are good for our kids. Plus it is very quiet. The walls between units are very thick and I almost never hear my neighbors. Sometimes I forget that I live in a condo.
Like all condo developments, Applewood is not perfect. After Applewood was built, there were the usual disputes between the initial owners and the developers. But those were all resolved in due course. There are no sidewalks connecting Boxboro to Acton, but my 13-year-old daughter is working on fixing that problem. For many years, fees were low, living was easy.
Unfortunately, everything wears out eventually, and many of Applewood’s systems started showing their age. A 10-year project to upgrade Applewood’s septic systems was completed before I moved in. Another project is currently underway to upgrade Applewood’s well/water system. Paving will need to be done (or alternative paving materials will need to be put in). Old, brittle, dangerous white pines will need to be removed. And it would be really nice if Applewood could purchase the adjoining “lot 6” (the planned site of Applewood One’s Building 1, which was never built due to the swampy nature of the lot) to prevent third-party development (such as a Massachusetts 40B development) in our back yard.
Because Applewood owners had it so good for so many years, common fees were kept low and special assessments were the exception. But things have changed. Since moving in, I discovered that the well/water system project is unfunded. Same for paving and other capital projects. In other words, there is no long-term capital plan in place for Applewood. This is fine when things are going well. But is is not OK when things are not going well. The late 2000s recession has not helped matters. Nor has the collapse of the housing market.
As such, I started attending condo meetings, both for Applewood One and for the Applewood Community Corporation (ACC). I ran for Treasurer of Applewood One in April 2010 and have held that job ever since. In April 2011, I also became Treasure for ACC.
As a volunteer board member, my goals are simple: to fix Applewood’s problems by applying best practices from other New England condo associations. We are not the first condo with under-funded reserves. We are not the first condo with capital expenditures that need to be fairly apportioned among unit owners. We are not the first condo association with ice dams, leaky roofs, and brickwork that needs repointing. These problems have been solved. I know what I don’t know, and I know when to ask for help.
In April 2010, when I took over as Applewood One Treasure, our finances were in rough shape:
- Five owners were over 90 days late on fees.
- Record keeping was not GAAP-compliant.
- Paper records were the norm.
- We had zero months of reserves.
Today, a little more than a year later:
- Zero owners are are over 90.
- Records are all in industry-standard QuickBooks with online billing and payment options.
- Condo records have been digitized, with over 800 documents scanned to date.
- We have three plus months of reserves.
So substantial progress has been made. But there is more work to do.
I am in the middle of securing financing (working with institutional lenders who specialize in working with condo and homeowners associations) to get a 10-year loan (a line of credit, to be exact) to fund the well/water system project. By spreading the cost over 10 years, owners, both current and future, can share both the cost and the benefit of the upgraded well/water system. This model can be used for other projects as well. The key to this project was hiring a law firm that specializes in representing condo associations.
The well/water system project will, no doubt, also result in Applewood’s bylaws and rules being updated to reflect modern times (e.g. to specifically permit telecommuting, indoor/outdoor cats, and the like) and to comply with current laws.
There are other projects that need the attention of Applewood boards as well. Security may be beefed up, for example, to deal with occasional troublemakers. Rental exemptions may be phased out. And capital improvements (such as porticos, shutters, brick walkways, patios, and larger decks) may be funded. But we must crawl before we can walk.
I believe, above all, that transparency and full disclosure should be the rule, not the exception. Applewood is not perfect, but it is a great place to live. I don’t think it does prospective buyers any good to buy a condo in Applewood and then discover, after closing, that there will be a special assessment for roof work, a “13th month” of common fees, or the like. As such, I will continue to post news about Applewood (found via Google Alerts), both good and bad, that is both public and true. I know how to sell houses yourself, and full disclosure is key.
Complaining is easy. Taking action is difficult. Last winter, for example, was very difficult: lots of snow, high snow banks, ice dams. Owners were calling vendors and board members to complain about not being able to see past the large snowbanks at the intersection of Route 111 and Applewood Drive. My solution was not to pick up the phone. My solution was to pick up a shovel. I personally walked down the street and lowered the snow banks to make it possible to safely turn from Applewood Drive onto Route 111.
So if there is a problem, the solution is action, not censorship. Fix the problem, don’t shoot the messenger.
“The person who says ‘it cannot be done’ should not interrupt the person doing it.” – Chinese Proverb