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 condo fees on time we will be called upon to make up the difference so that the expenses will be covered.

We do not 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 may be 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 year should be available.

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 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 have the right to see the useful-life projections prepared by engineers for the common element components of the building.

If the projection for the roof gives it a useful life of only one or two years, for instance, your reserves will have to be much higher than if the roof is good for 10 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 know as a "lien for assessments." A lien is a cloud on a 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 sumary:

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. In order to make this lien enforceable, the unit owners association must file a memorandum with the county clerk within 90 days from the time the assessment is due.

If the condominium wants to enforce this lien by foreclosing on the unit, it must do so within six months from the time the memorandum is filed.

Maryland: Here too, any unpaid assessment is a lien on the unit. However in order for the 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 is due.

Under the statute of limitations for enforcing the lien, a suit must be brought within three years from the date the 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.

The District: 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 is due.