Capital Reserves and the Future of Your Community

By Bob Gourley

I went to see a fortune teller recently. She took me into her reading room and asked me to gaze into her crystal ball. She then predicted my future. “I see wear and tear on your buildings. I see a new roof will be needed. I see aging windows that need replacing. I see… a depleted reserve fund!”

Silliness aside, it really doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that common elements in any community are going to age and need replacing. It also doesn’t take any magic to predict that communities with more amenities are likely to incur greater expense when maintaining and preserving their community’s assets. So, why is it that so many communities are so far behind in their goals for achieving a sound reserve fund for tomorrow’s expenses?

There are many reasons that reserve funds are not at their proper levels. First and foremost, in my opinion, is the fact that the “here and now” expenses are far easier to comprehend than tomorrow’s expenses. Has your community undergone an assessment recently? Was it for an emergency or one-time expense or was it for a routine expense that could have been easily predicted 5, 10, or even 15 years ago? The term “deferred maintenance” has become all too familiar in the language of community associations. Simply put, when a community doesn’t have the funds available to handle a routine maintenance item, they defer the maintenance until such time as the funds are available. Provided a plan to raise those funds is executed, that may or may not be a problem. More times than not, the path of deferred maintenance leads to the slippery slope of unfunded capital reserves.

How do you steer your community away from the path of depleted reserves and heavy assessments for routine items? The first step is to develop or review your association’s reserve study. Ideally, this job will be handled by a professional reserve study analyst. If your association does not have or cannot afford a reserve study, the Board of Directors should appoint a committee to take inventory of those items which the community holds in common. These items include common elements like grounds, paved roads, amenities (pools, tennis courts, club houses, etc.) and items routinely handled by the association (i.e. – roofs, building exteriors, windows). These items will vary by community so there is not a “one size fits all” approach to this. Once all of the items are inventories, the committee should evaluate each of those items to determine the element’s useful life. A roof that lasts fifteen years that has been in place for five years, still has ten years left. Roads that were paved 25 years ago may need replacement sooner rather than later. This list will ultimately yield the items that a reserve should be able to fund. For communities that have never done this exercise, the results can be a real eye opener.

The next step is to begin to estimate replacement costs for the common items. Inflation will have taken a toll over original costs so be prepared to factor that in. At the conclusion of this process, a realistic budget for a reserve will begin to emerge. At first glance, many of these numbers may seem too large or unmanageable. My advice is to use a technique called “reduce to the ridiculous” to help make the accounting a little easier to swallow. A reserve study that calls for $20,000 per unit to be raised over the next five years may sound better at $4,000 per unit per year or better yet at $333 per unit per month or $77 per unit per week.

The final step is to sell the concept to your fellow homeowners. None of them want to live in a rundown, outdated community. Poorly funded capital reserves will not only affect the quality of their lives but it will very likely damage their ability to attract buyers should they decide to sell their home. Community members need to be “told and sold” the value of a healthy capital reserve and a long range plan of how those reserves will be used. Tell them about the plans for how the money will be used and sell them on the idea of how it is in their best interests to keep the reserve fund healthy. You will be rewarded with a fiscally vibrant community that is never caught off guard without the funds it will need to flourish.