Making owners pay service charges a major challenge

A lack of transparency over the cost of maintaining a building, low quality standards and services and confusion over what is covered by service charges have angered owners and led to many refusing to pay the charges, say industry sources.

Adrian Quinn, Chairman of Dubai-based strata management firm Essential Community Management, said that if a building has service fee arrears of 40 per cent, it would not be possible to continue maintaining it internally or externally.

The available funds would have to be used to make payments to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, insurance companies, master developers and district cooling suppliers.

Essential Community provide strata management services to more than 40 developers in Dubai and has worked with master developers Emaar and Nakheel.

Quinn said the major challenge for the strata sector in Dubai is making owners pay the building service fees.

“The delay in the enforcement of the strata law is allowing many owners to avoid paying their strata service fees,” he added. “This is due to many developers not wanting to – or not knowing how to – recover the outstanding service fees via the terms and conditions of their contracts of sale.

“Most contracts allow for the developer to sell the apartment or villa in the event of non-payment and also recover all the legal costs and penalties.”

According to a recent survey by Dubai-based real estate broker Harbor Real Estate, the average annual service charges for buildings across Dubai are Dh16 per square foot.

“The highest service charges recorded were in and around Downtown Burj Dubai at about Dh22 per sq ft, while the lowest were in the Greens at Dh11 per sq ft,” said Harbor Managing Director, Mohanad Alwadiya.

“Consumers are no longer able to ignore the pinch of the economic downturn and investors and owner-occupiers alike are starting to evaluate very carefully the impact of service charges on the financial performance of their property and their own personal wealth.”

The survey, shared exclusively with Emirate Business, reveals that the overall average charge for villa communities is Dh2.5 per sq ft calculated on the overall plot size. Charges for villas are highest on The Palm Jumeirah, where the highest are between Dh4 and Dh5 per sq ft. “The lowest price is about Dh1.16 per sq ft for some of the villas in the Meadows community. This is broken down into Dh1.03 per sq ft for the general fund, Dh0.05 per sq ft for the capital reserve fund and Dh0.08 per sq ft for the master community levy,” said Alwadiya.

He said many developers who sold off-plan properties had not calculated the service charges at the time of sale, leaving many investors not knowing what the fees would be until the buildings were handed over.

“This makes it difficult for investors to determine the yield estimates on potential investments and adds a further element of uncertainty in an already uncertain environment. When buyers are considering purchasing properties, a unit that is complete with fees already apparent is more appealing than an off-plan transaction,” said Alwadiya.

“The majority of developers of projects that are still under construction do not provide service charge figures until the building is completed. On the other hand, most buyers and sellers, and even brokers, will not mention this important subject until the final stages of the negotiation process.”

Walid Jaafar, a partner at the Dubai-based Fichte & Co Legal Consultancy, said the official gazette announcement of Law No27 of 2007 on Ownership of Jointly Owned Properties in Dubai – the strata law – was published on December 31, 2007. Article 33 of the law says the legislation will come into effect within three months of the date of publication – ie on April 1, 2008.

“However, the law has still to be implemented,” said Jaafar. “The law does not address the issue of tenants. The law is intended to regularise the relationship between the owners of units in a specific development.

“This matter is usually left to the owner and the tenant to agree on. However, in practice, unless agreed otherwise between the parties in a tenancy agreement, the service fees should be covered by the owner.”

Fichte & Co has not yet seen any cases involving disputes over unpaid service fees, but does not exclude the possibility that a few are being reviewed by courts.

“In the absence of a regulatory law and the absence of any owners’ associations, the only possibility to file such cases lies in the hands of the master-developers or the sub-developers,” said Jaafar. “The claims in such a case would be based on the sale and purchase agreements and the master declarations attached to them.”

Quinn said that, once implemented, the strata law would create more transparency within owners’ associations. “If a building does not use all the budgeted funds in a year, the owners at the annual general assembly would have the right to decrease the next year’s budget or transfer the funds into the sinking fund,” he added.

The law makes it mandatory for every strata to have a 10-year sinking fund to ensure that money is set aside to pay for long-term capital expenditure.

“We at Essential Community automatically create a 20- or 25-year sinking fund to ensure all major plant and equipment are properly budgeted for on normal lifecycle cost structures.”

A strata general manager is appointed by the landlords of the building to create a draft budget, which is then reviewed by a board.

“After it has been approved by the board it is sent to all owners before the annual general assembly and is then approved there,” said Quinn. “After the meeting has approved all the agenda items it is then up to the strata general manager to enact all the motions and ensure they are carried out.”

Quinn said the most important duties of a strata manager are to oversee the facilities management companies to ensure they and their sub-contractors carry out the jobs they are contracted to do.

“There is a major conflict of interest if a strata management company has its own facilities management company,” he added.

Landlords will control what the owners’ association does and how it spends funds through the elected board.

“This means that the individual landlords will have some power in what the service fees will be and be able to rectify things. The enforcement of the strata law will make it possible to split buildings into multiple cost structures,” said Quinn.

“The first is the master cost structure, which would pay the master community service fees, buildings insurance, essential service costs, the managers’ fees, the facilities managers’ fees, district cooling charges, etc.

“The second cost structure would be the residential component of the building, so it would pay all the costs for the specifically residential component, for example lifts, foyers, gyms, pools and car parks. The third cost structure could be then the commercial portion of the building and cover all the commercial areas.”

Jaafar said: “When the owners have control of their buildings they will, through their board, review complaints of tenants and issues to ensure a good relationship is maintained.

“At present a tenant may have problems and issues with the building he is in, but the developer does not want to know about it or does not understand what they need to do to rectify them. There are some developers that are doing a good job in running their buildings, but everyone still has problems with conflicts of interest issues on maintenance items.”

Jaafar said according to Article 25 (2) of the strata law, if a unit owner fails to pay the service fees, the manager of the owner’s association would take action against the owner three months after notifying him through the notary public, enforceable by the execution judge in any competent court.

“However, the unit owner may object to this decision within the three-month period. In such a case, the execution shall be withheld until a decision in the subject of the objection has been reached.” Meanwhile, analysts called for the strata law to be enforced as soon as possible.

Nicole Betts, Senior Manager of Asteco Association Management, said that while Dubai awaited the regulations that supported the jointly-owned property law, Asteco had been working for several years with a number of high-profile clients well ahead of the implementation of the law.

“We have been helping companies establish informal owner associations, set up service charge and budgeting models, set community rules as well as facility management and service provider selection procedures based on best international practices,” she said.

“Some companies are actively encouraging owners to take control for themselves – albeit at this stage this has to be done under the developer’s name.

“A good example is the MAG Group which is dedicated to transparency. We have worked with them from conception of their MAG 214 Jumeirah Lakes Towers project through to delivering onsite management services to an informal owners’ association. Our team works closely with the owners’ management board to assist them to preserve, maintain and enhance the tower.”

Mohammed Nimer, Chief Executive Officer of MAG Group Property Development, said: “We have always operated in an environment of transparency, so it was natural for our company to introduce best practice in property management to enable owners to truly run their own buildings.”

Asteco has also been working with another developer for the V3 Tower, also located at Jumeirah Lakes, where handover to owners commenced recently.

“Our role is to administer day-to-day operations and assist in the formation of an informal owners’ association and a management board,” added Betts.

2 thoughts on “Making owners pay service charges a major challenge

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  2. Excellent ! I actually love how it is easy on my eyes and also the data are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which must do the trick! Have a nice day!

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