December 2011 – A reader reports that his HOA is considering keyless access—like swipe or insert cards—for elevators to help increase building security. His board is particularly concerned about those who may have avoided proper screening or requested additional keys to allow unauthorized access for friends.

Here, we discuss the pros and cons of such systems.

Keyless Access: Our Experts Like!

“I think having access cards is a good move,” says Nancy Polomis, a partner at Hellmuth & Johnson PLLC in Edina, Minn., who advises associations. “Many associations use keyless access. It’s easier to copy a key than it is to copy an access card, so allowing unauthorized access is less of a concern with access cards. It’s true that you can give someone a key or an access card, but an HOA has far more control over access cards than keys. They eliminate the need to rekey if there’s a security breach. I also think people may protect access cards better than keys. Sometimes people are a little more free with keys because you can always get a new one.”

Bill Worrall, vice president of The Continental Group, which is based in Hollywood, Fla., and manages 1,300 condominium and homeowner associations totaling 310,000 residential units, is also a fan. “I’m a proponent of the access control systems because I don’t see a lot of cons,” he says. “The systems are very reliable, so you don’t see a whole lot of, or excessive, maintenance costs subsequent to the initial installation. And they give the management team, in conjunction with the board, the ability to provide enhanced security.”

Add James R. McCormick Jr. to the list of advocates. “It’s tight security,” says the partner at Peters & Freedman LLP in Encinitas, Calif., who represents associations. “I like keyless access not solely because of security but because of its enforcement capabilities. If owners have violated your governing documents and you suspend their privileges, how do you enforce that? Do you take their key back? You can’t do that. But you can make it so their key fob doesn’t open the door to the common areas. I think they’re fantastic ways to enforce the association’s governing documents.”

The Drawbacks of Keyless Entry

However, swipe cards and fobs aren’t flawless, says Jenny Key, Austin, Texas–based Vice President of RealManage, a Dallas, TX based, association management firm that oversees properties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Texas. In Austin, not many HOAs have keyless access to elevators. But nearly all HOAs with pools have keyless access to the pool area.

“We constantly remind people not to let others in who don’t have a key, but it’s the pool, and that’s not quite the same thing as restricting access to your actual living space,” explains Key. “But we do have people whose keys we’ve turned off saying to others at the pool, ‘I forgot my key, can you let me in?’ Most times, people do. But we have some HOAs with pool monitors. If someone doesn’t have an access card, the pool monitor tells him to go home and get it. That’s not greeted with a lot of warmth, but 9 of 10 times, it’s because he doesn’t have access. He didn’t forget his card.”

Keyless access can also be weakened if you don’t have strong rules about who can get cards or fobs. “Most HOAs have adopted a policy that says you get X number of cards because you’re an owner, and it’s usually one for each owner in a unit,” says Polomis. “If owners want more, they’d have to pay—a lot of times it’s $25–$50—and show good reason to have another card. An owner might say, ‘I want my cleaning person to have one.’ Some HOAs will do that. Others will say you need to provide another way for the cleaner to have access. It’s no different than giving the cleaning person a key in terms of security.”

Worrall agrees. “We have fobs tagged to a person, meaning a resident in the building,” he explains. “So maybe a house has a husband and wife with three kids, and they have five fobs. If they ask for seven, you have to find out who else needs one. You don’t grant fobs to boyfriends or girlfriends. They’re typically announced at a front desk, or if there’s no front desk, the system should include tele–entry or a phone box. Finally, if people say they’ve lost their fob and need another fob, you can give or sell them another. But you have to be sure to deactivate the initial one.”

Is Keyless Access Worth the Cost?

There’s no question that keyless access costs much more than simple keys. “It’ll cost in the thousands of dollars, though it really depends on the building and how many floors and elevators it has,” says Worrall. “It typically shouldn’t reach the tens of thousands.”

The question is how many people who shouldn’t have access to your building do have access. “How much do you typically spend rekeying?” asks McCormick. “If you haven’t rekeyed your development in 20 years, there are probably hundreds of people who have keys to your pool who probably don’t live in the community anymore. So ask yourself how much will it cost to rekey and, instead of that, how much it will cost to move to a different technology.”

If you bid out a keyless system, Worrall suggests double–checking the tech issues. “When you’re interviewing installation companies and bidding out the project, make sure the system’s software will integrate with the community’s management software,” he says. “That allows management to avoid having redundant systems that require maintenance where people move in and out; if you update a resident’s profile in the management system, it’ll automatically be updated in the security software. Name your current management system software and resident database in the request for proposal, and ask the vendor to describe how its system can and will integrate into that software.”

Could it be considered security overkill to move to a keyless system? “That depends,” says McCormick. “If your HOA has never had a break–in or security violation, it might be overkill. But if it’s a response to issues that have been raised by past activity, it may be reasonable. That question will be fact specific. If the HOA has a reason—whether it’s cost, enforcement, or owner peace of mind—you might have valid reasons for adopting it.”


Matt Humphrey is president of the Alameda, California-based, from which this article was adapted.


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