Condominium Laws: What You Own When You Buy a Condo

Buying a condo can be a wise real estate investment and is ideal for those who want fewer home maintenance responsibilities. Condominiums are also a solid choice for buyers seeking amenities like pools and athletic facilities that might not be available with a traditional home purchase. But what exactly do buyers own after purchasing a condo? Here is everything to consider before buying a condo.

How to Learn What You Own

Condo communities are governed by “Declarations of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions,” better known as CC&Rs. These legally binding documents define the powers, rights, and responsibilities of the condo owners’ association (COA) and the property owners.

CC&Rs generally contain provisions that address the following:

  • Assessment obligations of members (fees for services)
  • Association & member maintenance obligations
  • Architectural control powers
  • Property use restrictions for shared & common & exclusive elements
  • Association enforcement authority
  • Dispute resolution
  • Insurance requirements

The CC&Rs disclose information about what the buyer owns and what the COA and interest holders own. This document will likely tell you what is technically a part of your unit or part of the common elements. These vary among condo associations, so we’ll discuss some of the most questioned parts of the home that buyers want to clarify ownership and responsibility for.

Interior walls, floors, and ceilings are generally part of a unit under the owner’s responsibility and may include the following:

  • The entirety of the floors, walls, or ceilings
  • Only to the halfway point of the walls, ceilings, or floors
  • Only the drywall or base surface
  • Only the surface paint and floor covering

The roof and exterior walls are typically considered common elements taken care of by the COA. Patios, decks, and balconies might be regarded as part of the unit when they are private. However, those connected to multiple units are considered common elements.

Doors and windows are most often the owner’s responsibility, but in some communities, CC&Rs might take ownership of these installations’ glass, frames, and hardware. Permanent fixtures on the interior, like sinks and cabinets, are considered part of the unit, while outdoor fixtures, like porch lights and fencing, aren’t included.

Plumbing, electric, and air conditioning systems may serve only one unit or be a part of a more extensive system that serves other condos or common areas. Those that serve common areas and other units fall under common elements. Interior pipes, toilets, sinks, electrical wiring, internal HVAC systems, etc., would be the owner’s responsibility, while the COA tends to common elements.

Elements: General, Limited, and Exclusive Common

Elements of a Condo Determine Who Owns Them

There are many styles and levels of ownership in condo communities. In addition to the unit, buyers will also own an “interest” in any common areas controlled by the HOA or the condominium management committee.

Areas not part of the condo unit are ordinarily considered common elements that fall under three categories: general common elements, limited common elements, and exclusive common elements.

General common elements are those that all owners can use, such as stairways, hallways, lobbies, and specific amenities in common areas. Limited common elements are those that not all owners have the right to use, such as a shared patio. Exclusive common elements are areas that only one unit’s owners can access, such as an assigned parking spot.

What Does Airspace Condo Mean?

While it sounds like the term only refers to the airspace in a condo, there can be a bit more involved when defining what airspace means in the condo world. Here are three of the most common definitions of what constitutes airspace in a condominium, but they will differ depending on how the CC&Rs are worded. In simple terms, some of these include:

1. Areas extending into the unit from the surface of upward-facing floor joists, inward-facing wall studs, and the downward-facing ceiling support beams.

2. Areas from the outward-facing surfaces of the ceilings, floors, and drywall.

3. Property owned by the owner consists of the “block of airspace” created by the interiors of the unit’s walls, ceiling, and floors and any outlets or finishes within them.

The boundaries of an airspace condo are significant, as they ultimately determine the scope of the owner’s repair and upkeep maintenance responsibilities versus those of the COA.

“Interest In” vs. “Owning”: Why Condo Owners Don’t Own the Land

Legally speaking, when one buys a condo, they also purchase an interest in the condominium association. What is and isn’t physically owned by homeowners may vary from community to community and between buildings on the property.

Would-be buyers often think owning a unit and an interest in the condo association means owning a percentage of the land, too. Some lots and property lines may dictate a small area of land fronting or backing the unit as part of a buyer’s owned property. However, many own no land and have no percentage of a stake in the community’s land.

The legal principle behind this setup is to protect the community from any legal actions that might be taken against an owner that might force them to sell their property. In essence, this could disrupt residential agreements in several ways.

For this reason, it’s more common for the condo association to have a business structure that states that they own the land the home sits upon and the land amid the entire property. Owners have an “interest” in certain areas versus full “ownership.”

Why Ownership Matters

Repair costs and property maintenance duties depend upon what is owned and by whom. In general, unit owners are responsible for everything that’s a part of their specific unit, while the COA uses owners’ monthly fees to cover the upkeep of common areas. While these fees vary significantly between communities, knowing what you will privately own helps determine what the overall upkeep costs will be.

Know What You’re Buying When Investing in Condos

When they choose a condo over a single-family home, most owners want to know what they will own and be accountable for, not just the perks and amenities that come with the condo lifestyle. Read those CC&Rs and discuss any concerns or questions with an agent representing condos in the community.

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