Get Smart – What Associations Should Consider in Light of the Rising Popularity of Smart Doorbells

Whether its excitement over new technology or a desire to discourage criminal activity, the demand for smart doorbells continues to grow. With these devices, someone is virtually always home and can easily respond to the delivery person, scare off a porch pirate or share video with the police in relation to a criminal event. With projections that sales of smart doorbells will triple over the next three years, community associations should expect an increase in requests for permission to install smart doorbells outside their dwellings. In anticipation of those requests, directors should be prepared to consider several factors associated with those requests. These factors include the aesthetics and type of smart doorbell the owner is requesting, the plans and specifications provided by the owner for any proposed modification to their residence or, in the context of a condominium, the Common Elements, and the proposed installation location of the device. 

In the condominium context, Section 47 of the Michigan Condominium Act provides that a co-owner shall not do anything that changes the exterior appearance of a condominium unit or of any other portion of the condominium, except as permitted under the condominium documents. The vast majority of condominium bylaws provide the association with the exclusive right to control exterior appearances and maintain the aesthetics of the community. In attached condominiums, the exterior of the buildings are typically general common elements that are under the control of the association, rather than the individual co-owners. Co-owners are generally not permitted to make any modifications to the general common elements without the association’s express written approval. Although the exterior of individual residences in a site condominium are typically owned by the individual and are not common elements, the association will still generally have architectural and aesthetic approval rights. Likewise, many subdivision declarations provide the association with control over exterior appearances and modifications, even though the individual residences are owned by the individual. A review of the association’s relevant governing documents will help guide the board in determining the basic rights of the association to control exterior attachments, including the installation of smart doorbells or other security systems. 

In evaluating smart doorbell requests or other video doorbell systems, boards must decide whether the best interests of the community are served in permitting such items. A history of crime in the area, the field of view of the camera and the privacy of other residents and owners are reasonable considerations. In addressing the latter two concerns, the board must consider whether there is a preferred installation location that will serve the co-owner’s needs, but not record or film a private place. The State of Michigan prohibits recording a private place, such as the interior of an adjacent unit, without the consent of the individual who has an expectation of privacy in that place. An owner’s request for a smart doorbell does not supersede an individual’s rights and expectations to privacy. Additionally, unique individual circumstances may obligate the association to grant approval. For instance, an association may make a reasonable accommodation for a co-owner to install a smart doorbell because their disability prevents them from utilizing the peephole in the door. 

Associations must also consider the aesthetics of the doorbell and the effect its installation will have on any common elements. There are a variety of options in the market for smart doorbells, so the board will have to determine whether it has a preference on size, shape, or color of the device. The board must also consider how the device will be installed. For instance, the installation of the smart doorbell may necessitate drilling holes through common property for wiring or otherwise have the potential to cause damage. The board may determine it does not want to approve a modification that impairs the structure or utilities. Recently, companies such as Ring have developed a doorbell camera that replaces the peephole in the door and does not require any drilling or screwing, thereby providing consumers with alternative options. 

If approval is granted following a thorough review of the proposed plans and specifications submitted by the owner, a written agreement should be prepared and entered into between the association and the co-owner. This agreement should clarify that the owner is responsible for the costs of installation, maintenance, damage, removal of the system and any potential liability that may arise. Additionally, the agreement should obligate the owner to only have the camera directed towards their exclusive use areas and not towards non-private places, such as sidewalks and roads. Should the owner violate the provisions of the agreement, including misuse of the camera, the association can demand the removal of the system. Finally, the agreement should also require the owner to indemnify the association against any costs arising because of the presence of this device in the community. 

Except for a disability-related modification, there is no obligation for an association to approve an owner’s request for a smart doorbell. However, given their increasing popularity, associations should take a proactive approach and determine sooner, rather than later, how they plan to respond to these requests and adopt a comprehensive policy which satisfies the desires of the members but also ensures the privacy of its residents.