Starry-eyed condominium owners love to brag that their life style is "carefree."
Although there are no statistics on the number of carefree hours in every happy condo owner's life, it's probably true that more often than not they can be found at the swimming pool, tennis courts and party room, while hapless homeowners are washing windows, cutting grass and painting gutters.
But when it comes to the dull subject of adequate insurance coverage, carefree condo owners may have a lot more to worry about than a family residing in a bungalow.
Suppose your condominium asociation should lose a lawsuit and its insurance does not cover the judgment. The associaiton bylaws may require that you and other individual unit owners come up with the difference.
"An owner might have to hire a legal Superman to wiggle out of this tangle. Maybe it would have been an easier job for Captain Condo Insurance," said one insurance industry executive jokingly.
Actually, condo owners involved in such a lawsuit can avoid financial catastrophe if they have loss assessment coverage, available as an option in condo owner policies.
The coverage protects you if the association slaps you with an assessment for damage to the bulding or a liability claim that is not fully covered in the association's policy.
For example, if the boiler in your building explodes or the roof is damaged in a storm, loss assessment coverage will protect you against special assessment increases to cover your share of the repair or replacement cost. However, it would not cover a special assessment for a boiler or roof repairs caused by normal wear and tear.
There is a nominal charge for loss assessment coverage, about $2.50 a year for $5,000 worth of insurance.
When you buy that first condominium, it's important to know you'll be dealing with two different insurance policies to cover your property and your liability.
If you were a homeowner before, it's likely that you were covered by a single homeowner's policy. If you rented, chances are you were covered by a single renter's or tenant's policy.
But as a condominium owner, you'll need two kinds of property and liability coverage:
Condominium association policy. Purchased by the association, it covers the building itself, its hallways, lobbies, garage -- in short, all the common areas in which you share ownership with the other condo owners.
Unit owner's policy. Bought by unit owners, this policy covers personal property within the individual condominium.
If you're just moving into a condo, you won't have much to say about the association insurance policy, although you'll be paying for it in your monthly maintenance fees. But it's important to know the association policy details to help tell you the kind of coverage to get for your own unit.
In addition, owners should make sure the associaiton policy is adequate to protect the common property in which you share ownership and to protect you from liability arising out of that ownership.
If this coverage is not adequate, you could be hit with some extra assessments.
Like a homeowner's policy, the typical unit owner's condo policy, often called an "HO-6," covers all personal property -- furniture, clothing and possessions -- from loss or damage from such hazards as fire, smoke, lightning, windstorm and theft.
And like a homeowner's policy, most condo owner's polices will pay living expenses if our condo is damaged and you're forced to live elsewhere.
Again, as in a homeowner's policy, you will have to decide how much coverage you'll need to protect your personal property and whether you'll need a rider or endorsement on the policy to cover valuables such as jewelry, furs and antiques.
Remember, too, that the condo policy like most insurance policies, pays actual cash value for your losses -- that means the replacement cost of the items minus depreciation. However, many companies offer replacement cost coverage at a higher premium.
A recent insurance industry study by Atlanta-based Equifax Services indicates that 57 percent of American homes and condominiums are underinsured or are carrying coverage of less than 80 percent of replacement value.
"Most homeowners assume their insurance is perfectly adequate," said Tom Finch, director of Equifax's Property and Casualty Systems Center. "Unfortunately, that's not always true. Many people are finding out that their coverage isn't realistic in light of today's inflated construction costs."
Your condo owner's policy also provides liability protection for your unit. That coverage will pay damages if you're held responsible for someone's injuries or the damage to someone's property.
Another important type of protection provided in a condo owner's policy is the coverage on what insurance people call "improvements and betterments."
Those are the things you've put into your condo. They may include wall paneling, carpeting, cabinets, partitions, interior walls, appliances, lighting fixtures and any additions or alterations you have made. Coverage for such improvements usually is limited to $1,000, but this amount can be increased.
Of course, the amount of coverage you should have for these improvements depends on how much they're worth. But it also depends on whether they are covered by the condo association's insurance policy.
That's why it is so important for the unit owner to know just who is responsible for insuring what. And the best way to find out is to study your condo associaiton's declaration or its articles of agreement, its bylaws and its insurance policy.
Take appliances, for instance. Some condo associations may consider refrigerators, ranges or dishwashers the responsibility of the unit owner, and, therefore, they may not be covered in the association's insurance policy. Other association policies may cover some or all of these appliances, especially if they're built-in.
A condo association may consider itself responsible for nothing but the bare walls of a unit, with everything else the unit owner's responsibility.
But if you are going to be responsible for the insurance coverage of various improvements, it's important to know their value when buying condo insurance.
If you're buying the condo new, the association should furnish that information. If you're buying from a private owner, the seller should itemize those improvements for you.