You bought an EV and want to install a charger in your condo. Now what?

By Kristin Toussaint

October 31, 2022

Joy had been living in her Los Angeles condo for eight years by the time she bought a Tesla Model 3 in 2018. Her parking spot wasn’t near any electricity meters, which meant that installing her own EV charger would have required electricians to trench the ground, and would have cost her about $12,000—before the price of the charging system.

 

That expense didn’t seem worth it, nor did moving just so she could have a home charger. Joy, who asked to go by her first name for anonymity, could get by by visiting Tesla Supercharger sites in her area. (California has the most Supercharger locations of any state, and has an extensive charging network in general.) But in 2020, a neighbor also purchased a Tesla and reached out to Joy about installing a community charger on the property, which meant getting the HOA (homeowners association) board’s approval.

Joy thought that was unlikely. Their complex is large—14 buildings and 530 units—and at that time, the number of households that owned EVs was in the single digits. But more neighbors had been expressing interest in electric vehicles, though they were worried about charger access. Ultimately, Joy ran for a spot on her HOA board, campaigning on a community EV charger project. She was elected in the spring of 2021 and that year got approval to install EV chargers (and even a $25,000 budget from the HOA).

But that didn’t make the process easy. What followed was a year and a half of snags and setbacks as she tried to navigate the power company’s approval, the red tape of California’s rebate application, the intricacies of her HOA (including where to even put the chargers), and the details of finding installers who fit the budget. More than a year after Joy got approval, the community chargers still aren’t installed.

 
 

Joy’s story is just one example of what can be a long and frustrating process to modernize HOA communities for electric vehicles. Whether it’s getting board approval and the bureaucracy that follows, or infrastructure challenges on properties that weren’t built with EVs in mind, those in condo communities, HOAs, and other multifamily properties face barriers to home charging, which experts say will be crucial to EV adoption. As EV sales boom, with 26.4 million electric vehicles expected on U.S. roads by 2030, these residents may spend months and even years dealing with contractors, power companies, and HOA meetings to push forward projects themselves.

Old buildings weren’t designed for EVs

Those in single-family homes can, somewhat easily, install EV chargers in their garage or driveway. But for those in condos or townhouses, where parking spots may not be near outlets or meters—or in rental units where parking may be shared—home charging becomes much trickier. This is further complicated for properties with HOAs—self-governing organizations that dictate rules on everything from what sorts of lawn decorations are allowed to how many cars residents can have on their property to whether they can rent out their unit; board approval is often needed for exterior home upgrades or installations on community property.

A handful of states, including California, have “right to charge” laws, which give residents at multiunit buildings or planned communities the right to install a charging station for their own use. But those laws don’t require the community to cover the cost, which instead becomes the responsibility of the individual who wants a charger. And for older, existing communities, the specifics of a property—and its electrical infrastructure or parking layout—may be prohibitive to affordable upgrades.

 

“Because of the age of the property, it was not planned for EV charging installation,” Joy says of her 50-year-old condo community. “Ninety-nine percent of the residents here would not be able to install their chargers, even though there’s a law allowing it.” (Some new HOA communities are being developed with EV cars, and their charging systems, in mind—whether by requiring charging infrastructure at every unit or making spaces “EV ready” for residents to get their own systems.)

Roughly 29% of the U.S population lives in a community association, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research. That includes an estimated 358,000 community associations, and 74.2 million residents. EV ownership isn’t that large yet, but it’s growing: nearly 1.5 million electric vehicles were registered across the U.S. in 2021.

Though a nationwide charging system will be crucial to supporting that influx, the ability to charge an EV at home is important to mass adoption, too. Right now, about 80% of EV charging happens at home, says Ben Prochazka, executive director of Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit working to advance electric transportation. The convenience of charging your EV while doing something else is one benefit of home charging; there’s also a need to fill in the gaps of a fractured charging network. While some states offer EV charging on about every 5 miles of highway, others are more spread out—Montana, for example, has about 359 miles between charging ports.

 

In older HOA communities, the task of installing EV chargers may not only be an issue of board buy-in, but of architectural logistics: Can the current electrical infrastructure handle the load of multiple charging cars? Do new meters or outlets need to be installed? Is there a communal area where charging ports can go, and is it ADA compliant? (In Joy’s case, requirements for ADA accommodations at the site her HOA picked created another delay in the process; trees would need to be removed and a new walkway installed before they could move forward; she chronicled the entire process, and its multiple setbacks, on her YouTube channel.)

EV chargers as an essential utility

Those questions are what can make adding EV chargers a challenge, even when residents and board members see the value in having them. “At this point, we’re seeing [EV charging stations] more as an essential utility,” says Kelly Dougherty, president of FirstService Energy, which advises multifamily buildings within the property management group FirstService Residential on energy-related projects. “It’s more about when is the right time for our associations to put in chargers.”

Within FirstService Residential are more than 8,600 associations, including HOAs, condo associations, and coops, and Dougherty says many are currently having conversations about EV chargers. Dougherty says the boards she’s talked to are open to installing chargers, but they often have questions. “They have a responsibility to all the owners in their building to do their research and make sure they’re doing it in the right way,” she says. “It’s definitely very different from a single-family-home situation where you can use an outlet from your own house. This affects other people.”

 

How a community installs chargers can look different depending on the type residents are looking for—which can vary by voltage, charging speed, cost, and installation—and if a property has public parking spaces or not. Community chargers can also be an income opportunity, which is how Joy first pitched her project to her fellow board members. The board could set its own rate on top of what the local power company charged for electricity, eventually breaking even, and even generating revenue.

“Where it gets a little bit more complicated is if they want to put infrastructure in place for every single deeded parking spot,” Dougherty says. “If they don’t have public spots, how would you make that decision of who gets the infrastructure and who pays for the actual unit? These are some of the questions that have to be asked at the board.”

Another is whether they’re looking for a short-term solution, like providing chargers just to the residents who currently have EVs, or if they want to plan for the long term, Dougherty says, “understanding that primarily everyone’s going to have EVs in the future, so does it make sense to put the infrastructure in place?”

 

In other words, there’s a lot of research to do to understand how a board wants to go forward with EV charging. And often, it’s the residents who already own EVs who have to do that work. “The person who’s pushing the project has to be the advocate for this,” Joy says. (As of mid-October, the power company had finally approved the installation designs, and the next step is to place the order for the chargers.) “I think if I weren’t on the board, I probably wouldn’t have pushed it,” she says of the project.

Planning for an electric future

That was true for Robert Cole, too, who rents from an owner in a condo complex in Nashville, where he has a deeded space in the community’s 50-car garage. Cole had to find contractors, pay for the installation, and educate his board on why this kind of upgrade was important, and what needed to happen to make it a reality.

“We’re in a building that’s going on 100 years old, and the electrical infrastructure in the garage is probably from the ‘40s or ‘50s, so that complicated things a little bit,” he says. Cole is a civil engineer who has worked in power plants, so he knew what upgrades might be needed, and had a “reasonable idea,” of what they might cost. But unlike Joy, who got HOA funding for her project, Cole had to finance his charger installation himself, together with a neighbor who was interested in buying an EV and split the cost, which came out to a little over $7,000 total. “The HOA [was] adamant that this needed to be zero cost to them,” he says.

 

Even though it came out of their own pockets, Cole and his neighbor still thought beyond their own individual needs; their installation allows for at least 32 charging spaces in the future. They wrote up a memorandum of understanding that covered how they would reimburse the HOA for the power their chargers used (the panel connects to a meter paid for by the condo association), and what to do if a future EV owner wants to tap into the panel they paid for (they would pay a fee to Cole and his neighbor for bearing the initial cost).

Just making the upgrades for one or two chargers would have been cheaper, “but it’s not going to be fair to people who come later and decide they want to put in electric charging,” Cole says. Because the garage has limited power capacity, they installed chargers that can do load sharing, which automatically adjust how much power a car uses if another EV plugs into the system.

That kind of forethought will be necessary in order to be ready for an EV future, Dougherty says—and planning for even more chargers could further benefit communities by attracting new residents. Though navigating the installation process can be complicated, there are also rebates and incentives that can help get these projects in place, she adds (and resources from advocacy groups like Plug In America and Electrification Coalition).

 

To Prochazka, of the Electrification Coalition, the important thing is that HOAs don’t limit access to chargers. “Our hope would be that HOAs understand that providing their homeowners or their apartment owners access to charging is something that should be just as important as providing access to sidewalks, access to playgrounds,” he says. “Transportation electrification . . . is no longer a question of if, it’s now a question of when.”

(10)