What are my rights?
Living in a strata can sometimes feel very restrictive. Especially if there’s been a complaint against you. Here, we provide tips for navigating issues in your strata. Learn steps to bring a complaint, or (if the shoe is on the other foot) how to deal with a complaint brought against you.
What you should know
Something to keep in mind before making a complaint
“When the new couple moved in next door, I was convinced they were having loud parties every night. These would stretch on 'til well after bedtime. And it would stretch my patience! I sat down to write an email complaint to the strata manager. But instead of finishing that letter, I decided to pop over, knock on their door, and talk to them about it. Turns out they’d installed the speakers on their new TV wrong. We cleared it up in no time. Now I can sleep peacefully again."
– Alexei, Burnaby, BC
Is this something severe or simply annoying? That is the question to ask yourself. Loud music and barking animals can be disruptive, but they may be one-off events, or have relatively simple fixes. Maybe your neighbour has no idea you can hear the music. Maybe that animal is a new puppy that will soon grow out of puppydom.
If you see someone breaking a strata bylaw (for example, smoking in a common area), you can politely remind them that it’s against the rules. But these situations are sometimes delicate. Another option is to ask the strata council if you can attend the next strata meeting to raise this particular issue. There you can suggest solutions, like additional signage in common areas. This helps ensure that everyone hears the same information and has a shared understanding of the problem.
When you bring a complaint, there’s a process to follow
A strata council can’t just issue fines or sue owners without due process. There are steps that have to be followed to ensure that the rules are properly understood and that all sides are heard.
A complaint should be made in writing to the council. It is easier for council to document that a complaint has been made if it is in writing.
The council must give the alleged offender notice in writing of the complaint.
The alleged offender gets a chance to respond.
Then, council makes a decision on whether a strata bylaw or rule was breached and, if so, how it will enforce the bylaw or rule.
Enforcement can take many forms, but it has to fit the complaint
Say the alleged offender — let’s call him Axl — got up to something that caused very minor disruption. In that case a simple warning may be appropriate. But if Axl did something more serious, he may be fined or asked to pay for the repairs. Here’s a list of common enforcement tools available to the strata council.
Levy a fine. It can’t be an arbitrary amount — check out the maximum amounts allowed under the law.
Restrict access to common property. For example, this could be banning Axl from the gym, if he persists in working out at 2 am to heavy metal music on a boombox.
Remedy the problem and make the offender pay for it. If there was damage to other units or to common areas, the strata council may ask Axl to pay for it. Water damage is a common culprit here. The good news is, stratas, by law, must have insurance. The bad news is, the deductible for water damage (that’s the minimum amount that has to be paid by the strata for the insurance company to pay for repairs) can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Know your deductibles!
Let’s say you get a plumber to work on your kitchen pipes. The pipes burst and water leaks into the common gym below, damaging the entire ceiling and equipment to the tune of $75,000. You think, “That’s rough, but I have insurance and so does the strata, so I should be covered for this.” Turns out, the strata’s insurance, which will cover the damage to the gym, requires the building to pay a $50,000 deductible for any water damage. The strata wants you to pay for it. But your personal insurance only covers deductibles for water damage up to $25,000. That means the remaining $25,000 is on you. You can try to fight the strata on this — saying it was their fault the pipes burst. Or you can ask the plumber to pay up. But this will be a legal headache that’ll take a while to resolve and probably require the advice of a lawyer.
How to bring a complaint
Step 1. Try talking first
You might try raising your concern directly with the offending party. But not when you’re really upset. Prepare your talking points in advance, or write a letter to them. Explain your concerns and the impact the offending behaviour has on you. If you can get the issue resolved without involving the strata council, it could save you time and pain.
Step 2. Make your complaint in writing
Write a letter to the strata council. Be factual and to the point. Include dates and times of the infractions, and photo evidence if you have it. If you’d like to stay anonymous, let the council know. (Though there’s no guarantee they can keep your identity concealed, especially if the offending party wants more information.)
Step 3. Let the council do their work
Don’t ask the strata council for updates every day. Dispute resolution takes time. Be patient.
Step 4. If you disagree, you can appeal
An appeal can be filed with the Civil Resolution Tribunal for a wide variety of strata disputes. This is often your best option — it’s done online, moves faster than traditional court, and doesn’t require a lawyer. But there are situations where the CRT doesn’t have jurisdiction and you must go to BC Supreme Court. You can learn more about what’s involved in a Supreme Court lawsuit from this BC government primer.
How to deal with a complaint
Step 1. Read the complaint
Then put it down. Grab a coffee or glass of water. And read it again. You may be annoyed or angry; that’s normal. But take a step back and think about whether you might actually be in the wrong.
Step 2. If the complaint is severe, you might want to get professional advice
Talking to a lawyer can give you some perspective. Yes, lawyers can be expensive. But it may be worth the investment to know how to best respond to a complaint. You can try to keep the scope of your lawyer’s work narrow. Tell them exactly what you do and don’t want help with. This is called unbundling, and can save you quite a bit of money in legal fees. At the very least, you may be able to consult with a lawyer for a nominal consult fee and they can give you information and options to handle the issue.
The strata's lawyer is not your lawyer
If the strata’s lawyer is involved, they're not on your side. They act on behalf of the strata. Anything you tell them could be used against you.
Step 3. Make your case
You don’t have to answer immediately, but the strata council will typically ask you to respond by a certain date. Ignoring the complaint is never a good idea. When you do respond, be concise and professional. And if you’re forthcoming, the council may only give you a warning. Sometimes admitting fault is okay.
Step 4. If you disagree, you can appeal
Ask for a written rationale for the strata council's decision. If you disagree, you can appeal. For a wide variety of strata disputes, your appeal can be filed with the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is often your best option for quicker and less expensive resolution — it’s done online and you don’t need a lawyer. There are situations where the CRT doesn’t have jurisdiction, and you must go to BC Supreme Court. You can learn more about what’s involved in a Supreme Court lawsuit from this BC government primer.