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Condo Life: The Best of Times? The Worst of Times?

We boomers are at a stage in life where we would prefer things to be easier. Taking care of a single-family home can be lots of work, and in younger years, gardening and home improvements are proud and gratifying accomplishments. But if you’re thinking of simplifying things and moving into a condominium where everything is taken care of for you, know what to expect before you sign on the dotted line.

First, who runs the association?  If you’re buying a new condo or your new condo is under construction, the developer is probably still in control. If that’s the case, realize that the developer subsidizes many of the expenses of the association as a regular part of business. Lawyers, contractors, plumbers, etc. are all services that the developer routinely pays for. When the association is turned over to the membership, the members will have to foot the bill, and the quarterly or monthly maintenance fee will undoubtedly rise.

If the membership has already taken over the association, who is the president and who are the members of the board? What are their qualifications for running a corporation? That’s what a condo association is�a living, breathing corporation and it needs people at the helm who are capable of guiding the association properly. Watch out for “this is my territory” board presidents, too. Meet the board to decide whether they’re in it for the good of the community or whether they’re in it just to suit their own needs. Try to attend a board meeting, and notice how well things proceed.

After determining that you’re moving into a condominium with a responsible board, the next thing to consider is the reserves. How old is the association and how much money have it saved to repair roofs, fix the swimming pool, maintain the roads, etc. If the reserves are low or nil, expect assessments. These costs are in addition to your maintenance fees and can mean thousands of dollars in expense that will have to be paid almost as soon as they are billed. Non-payment will result in legal action, liens against your property, and potential foreclosure. If you don’t find that sufficient reserves exist, find another condo.

You should also check to see how many of the units are rented out, either seasonally or annually. A ratio of higher than 10% is not conducive to keeping a stable neighborhood.  Transients don’t maintain units the way owners do, and aren’t as concerned about the common areas because they don’t own them. Make sure that a maximum limit is recorded in the condo documents. Banks may not make mortgages in a condominium where too many of the units are even available for rent.

Do some research about the property management company who runs the finances of the condominium, too. Are they reputable? Have they ever been involved in a lawsuit? How long have they been in business? Are their community association managers licensed? (Licenses aren’t required in some states.) Be careful. Unscrupulous management companies have been known to abscond with community funds. Be sure your association uses a stable company with a good reputation.

Condo living is far different from living in a single-family home. Everyone has to work together to maintain the condominium in top condition, and that means you can’t do just what you want to do all the time. Unit owners own only the space within their walls. Everything outside the front and back door belongs to everyone in the community and so does the pool, the tennis courts, or any other amenities on the common property.

You may not be able to display the gnomes that you brought from your woodland home in front of your condo. You may not be able to fly a flag, except the American flag. You probably won’t be able to work on a car in your driveway or park a commercial vehicle on the property overnight. Your dogs will have to be leashed and you will have to pick up after them, and you can’t play loud music at the pool.

Yet, you will probably make some of the best friends of your life. Though condo living has its restrictions, it also has its perks. Neighbors get together for parties often, and you’ll never have to cut the grass or trim the hedges again. You won’t have to clean the pool. And you won’t have to paint your buildings or replace windows when they get broken, for whatever reason.

Every set of condominium declarations and by-laws are different. The last important thing you have to do is to READ the prospectus and be sure to get your own copy. Know what the rules and regulations are. Understand what the membership can and cannot do. Study the condominium laws specific to your state because buying a condominium is a big decision. Be sure to make it wisely.

By Patricia Cronin Marcello

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