Whether they know it or not, all condominium unit owners in Georgia have given their associations access rights to their units. This may come as a surprise to new condominium unit owners, but this authority is promulgated by the Georgia Condominium Act, O.C.G.A. § 44-3-70, et seq. (the “Act”). Specifically, O.C.G.A. § 44-3-105 reads, in pertinent part, as follows: “Each unit owner shall afford to the other unit owners, to the association, and to any agents or employees of either such access through his unit as may be reasonably necessary to enable them to exercise and discharge their respective powers and responsibilities.” (Emphasis added). The foregoing powers and responsibilities will be outlined in each specific condominium’s declaration.

Why would an association need to access a unit?

Although the terminology “powers and responsibilities” acts as a catch-all, condominium associations usually only access individual units to perform one of two things: (1) an inspection; or (2) maintenance. For example, required annual inspections are common for condominium units that have fire suppression systems. This may be part of periodic, building-wide checks on the performance of all life-safety components (e.g., the fire sprinklers, alarms, smoke detectors, etc.). On the other hand, an association may also need to access a unit to carry out its maintenance responsibilities. An example would be a common element pipe that is leaking and can only be accessed through an owner’s unit. Even though general access rights through condominium units are provided by the Act, boards and managers should still look to their association’s declaration for additional guidance.

When can an association access a unit?

The Act is silent on this issue, but condominium declarations typically are not. If the declaration does not specify when the association can access a unit, the general rule of thumb is this: during regular business hours and after reasonable notice to the unit owner. Keep in mind, however, that an association usually does not (and should not) have to follow these restrictions in the case of an emergency. An emergency may include, without limitation, a busted pipe that is flooding the condominium, or cries for help that can be heard from within the unit. Absent a common sense emergency, associations should not be entering units at obscure times during the day and/or without providing the unit owner with reasonable notice.

Do owners have to provide associations with a key to their units?

The Act does not require owners to provide their associations with keys to their units, but many condominium governing documents do. Providing a key may be uncomfortable for some unit owners, but it is often the best way to avoid a more expensive charge down the road. This is because, regardless of what an individual declaration may say, the Act still provides associations with general access rights through condominium units. So, in the case of an emergency, for example, if the association does not have a key to the unit in question, the association will need to hire a locksmith to come and open the door (presuming the owner is unavailable). This is generally expensive, and the charge for opening the door will likely be passed on to that specific unit owner. Either way, associations that store unit keys need to make sure they are locked up and protected at all times, as losing a key would not only create a security risk, it could open the association up to liability.

In sum, it is probably a good idea to educate condominium unit owners about the association’s access rights before they are actually needed. There are always going to be some difficult owners with respect to this; but generally speaking, most are going to be understanding and cooperative with their associations when needed. It usually comes down to proper notice and good communication from the board and/or manager.