Q: We are thinking about purchasing a condominium unit, in a relatively small building. We are concerned that if some of the other unit owners do not pay their monthly condominium fees on time, we will be called upon to make up the difference so that the expenses will be current. We don't have a lot of extra cash, and certainly cannot afford to make any additional monthly payments. Are there any protections in the condominium laws, and do we have reason for concern?

A: The owner of a condominium unit is not a tenant. Unit owners in a condominium only hurt themselves if they miss a payment, since in many condominium associations -- especially small ones -- the budget is very tight.

Before you purchase your unit, you should carefully review the budget of that condominium project. If the building is new (or recently converted) the proposed budget for at least a one-year period should be available to you.

If this is an on-going condominium project, you have the right to ask for and obtain the actual operating budget for the current year.

Look at the reserves carefully. There is no magic formula, unfortunately, to determine whether reserves are adequate or not, but the reserves must be sufficient to take care of major repair or renovation projects such as the roof, an elevator, or the boiler system. You are entitled to be given the useful life projections prepared by engineers for the various components in the building.

Needless to say, if the projection for the roof gives it only one or two years, your reserves will have to be much higher than if the roof is good for ten or 15 more years.

Because of the significance of the common assessment fee (the condo fee) most states that have dealt with condominium legislation have created what is known as a "lien for assessments." A lien is a cloud on title. If you have a lien on your condominium unit, the amount of that lien must be paid before clear title can be given to anyone else. In fact, if the lien continues, the association has the right to foreclose on the unit, and use the proceeds of the foreclosure sale to satisfy the lien.

The laws differ somewhat between Maryland, Virginia and the District. Here is a brief summary of these laws: VIRGINIA: The unit owners association is given a lien on every condominium unit, and this lien takes priority over all other liens and encumbrances except real estate tax liens, and previously recorded liens, including first mortgages on the condominium unit. In order to perfect this lien (to make it enforceable) the unit owners association must file a memorandum with the clerk of the court in the county where the condominium is located, within 90 days from the time such assessment becomes due and payable.

If the condominium wants to enforce this lien -- foreclose on the unit -- it must do so within six months from the time the memorandum is filed. MARYLAND: Here, similar to Virginia, any assessment, until paid, is a lien on the condominium unit on which it is assessed. However, unlike Virginia, in order for this lien to be enforceable, the condominium association must file a "statement of condominium lien" with the clerk of the appropriate court, within two years after the date the assessment becomes due. Under the statute of limitations for enforcing the lien, suit must be brought within three years from the date the condominium lien statement is recorded.

In both Maryland and Virginia, the association is entitled to collect not only the unpaid assessment, but interest, costs of collection and reasonable attorney's fees. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The situation is somewhat different in the city. The association need not file any memorandum or other statement with the recorder of deeds, since the D.C. Condominium Act provides that all assessments levied against a condominium unit automatically become a lien on the unit from the date the assessment becomes due.