Q: I am very interested in purchasing a condominium from a person who purchased it a few years ago from the developer. The building contains 30 units and, although it appears to be in good condition, it is about 50 years old.
The monthly condominium fee seems reasonable, but I am concerned that it can be increased significantly over the next few years, thereby putting an extensive drain on my monthly resources.
Are there any protections that I can obtain to guarantee that my fee will not jump drastically? What do you advise?
A: You are purchasing what is known in the real estate business as a "resale condominium." Although you have not told me where the condominium is situated, each of the three surrounding jurisdictions (Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia) has legal requirements regarding the burden on the seller to give you certain basic information on which you can make your decision whether to buy.
If there is a real estate agent involved in the transaction, ask the agent to give you the required documents. In any event, they can be obtained from the condominium association. Regardless of the size of a condominium, there must be an association, and the books and records of the condominium must be maintained carefully.
You should obtain, at the very least, the following documents:
*The current condominium records. These include the condominium declaration, the bylaws and the house rules. It is important to review these documents to determine whether you can abide by the rules and regulations that govern the condominium.
*The current budget. This is perhaps the most important document to review. It shows the income and expenses of the condominium as well as its level of reserves. It is important to recognize that, although reserves are required for such items as future repairs to the boiler, roof, electrical system and other items, all too often many condominium associations do not understand the necessity of maintaining adequate reserves. If the reserves are too low, you may want to reconsider purchasing in that building, especially if it is 50 years old.
*The proposed budget. Each year, the condominium association is obligated to prepare a new budget, taking into consideration the expenses from the previous year. As we all know, the cost of maintaining any building only will go up in the future. Thus, if your building has an oil burner, for example, because the cost of oil has gone up in the past, the budget will have to be revised to reflect this increased cost. It is these cost increases that will raise your individual condominium fee.
*A statement of the amount of the monthly condominium fee. You want to make sure to obtain a correct statement from the condominium association showing the monthly condominium fee that is assessed on the unit you are considering. You also want to assure yourself that the present unit owner is not in arrears on the condominium fee. Although the title attorney conducting your settlement should collect any arrearages from the seller, often this important item is overlooked and the delinquent condominium remains a lien on your unit.
You should review these documents very carefully. You asked whether there are any guarantees to protect you against significant increases in the condominium fee. Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Of course, you may get the seller to guarantee the condominium fee at a fixed level for a period of time -- one year, for example. This is all a function of negotiating when you sign a contract to purchase the unit. If the seller is very anxious to sell, you may be able to get such a guarantee.
If the condominium association has professional management, I recommend that you discuss the condominium with that management company. Review the records and ask the management company about its projected expenses. Most management companies are competent and should be able to assist you.
Often, the management company (or the condominium association itself) has engaged engineers and architects to review the condition of the building. If such studies have been performed, look at these documents and pay particular attention to the useful-life projections of the major systems. For example, an engineer may determine that the boiler, which will cost $30,000 to replace, only has a useful life of three more years. If adequate reserves are not being built up today to compensate for this replacement, in your building of 30 units, you may find yourself hit with a special assessment of $1,000 to pay the cost of the boiler.
I would rather pay $5 to $10 more each month to build up the reserves than have to come up with a large amount when an emergency arises.
Buying a condominium should not be considered lightly. You have to understand what condominium living is all about and how the particular condominium you are considering actually operates. Laws govern the operation of condominiums and yet, if the board of directors is not dedicated to the cause or if the management company is not deeply involved in the day-to-day operation of the condominium, these laws will not give you much comfort.
You also may want to consider meeting with other unit owners, perhaps by staying in the lobby on Saturday or Sunday and just introducing yourself. You may get a good flavor of the condominium membership this way.
After all, when you buy a condominium, you are subjecting yourself to living in a democracy. Majority rule -- a necessary ingredient of this democracy -- may not be your cup of tea.