Saturday, March 15, 2014

BUYER BEWARE is one thing, but in this case – OWNER BEWARE too.

An Epiphany
I had an epiphany today and my guess is that very few real estate professionals, or for that matter anyone else knows about this.  Unless you are directly involved in what I will call the electrical power supply business, the details of how you get the electricity to maintain your home or who maintains the service rarely crosses your mind.  You spend less time thinking about that than you do the water you drink or the air you breathe. But it is very important.  I am going to talk about who owns your electrical power supply equipment – the lines, transformers and poles.

My Frame of Reference
I have lived in a so-called exclusive West Tisbury community populated by more than 45 families for over 40 years.  There has always been a ROW utility easement across the property and through the woods for the utility company to supply electricity to the abutting properties.  In my experience it has been the utility company that has always maintained proper clearance by trimming the trees along the ROW.  The utility company has always maintained the power lines, transformers and poles along the private roads network within the community.  It makes perfect sense to me that if I pay for the ‘service’, part of that service should be maintaining continuity and consistent service.  Right!

It ain’t necessarily so
I learned today, this is not the necessarily the norm on Martha’s Vineyard and only a few communities have service networks providing electricity to homes that are owned and serviced by the utility company, presently known as NStar.  In most cases NStar supplies and maintains an electrical service system to a point and beyond that, the system is the responsibility of the property owners along their private roads.

So, what is the big deal? 
It’s not a big deal until the trees along the service path are overgrown and threatening the service continuity, or until the infrastructure of that service has been fully depreciated and compromised.  What I mean by ‘fully depreciated is, when the electrical wires are old, brittle and leaking, transformers are failing due to corrosion and wooden utility poles are rotten and no longer able to carry their load.  The big deal is the cost of replacing all those components that provide the infrastructure keeping your lights on.  Actually, it’s not a big deal, it will be a huge deal and will cost you dearly – unless you choose to live ‘off the grid’ and even then you may be in for a fight with your neighbors.

Take down those utility poles Mister NStar
We can all agree that above ground utility poles and wires are ugly, and my vote would be to bury all utilities.  Spring Point in Chilmark is replacing their entire service and from what I have been told they are going underground all the way.  I love Spring Point.  Did I mention that they are one of the other rare Island community cases where NStar owns the service system and has to maintain it?  It is estimated that the service replacement is going to cost well over a million dollars.

What should you do? 
For one, if you are a Buyer considering a purchase in a ‘community’ with private roads, find out who owns the utility system.  My guess is that you will not find that information in the Association Rules and Regulations. If it is privately owned and there is a home owner association, do they have a reserve to set aside to earmark funds to maintain the electrical system (tree trimming and equipment replacement)?   If you are already an owner in a private community, find out what provisions have been made to support the maintenance of the electrical system. 

Brinksmanship can cost you dearly
Do not wait for a failure or a threat from NStar that they will turn off the electrical supply service to the community until certain maintenance issues have been corrected – like trimming trees around utility lines.  This all can happen during a storm and I am sure you can imagine the difficulty factor when trying to get personal emergency help during a storm.  You are just one more name on a list of hundreds.  This is just another good reason to own a back-up generator.

Sue me, Sue you Blues
I have been told on a regular basis there are any number of litigative actions arising out of disputes between home owners as to who owns what and what the fair share of each property owner should be when a utility problem occurs. The court costs alone can exceed any amount that would be paid for being responsible and setting up preventive measure rules and funds ahead of time.

Wouldn’t it be nice?
I think it would really be a considerate ‘public service’ disclosure for NStar to notify those customers affected that maintenance and safety of their service system is the responsibility of the home owners in their community. For all I know they may be doing that but if not wouldn’t it be nice. I hate surprises – don’t you?