I am 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 fees seem reasonable, but I am concerned that they may be increased significantly during the next few years, which would strain my monthly resources. Are there protections I can obtain to guarantee that my fee will not jump drastically?
Although you have not said where the condominium is located, each of the three surrounding jurisdictions -- Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia -- has legal requirements putting the burden on the seller to give you certain basic information on which you can base your decision 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 documents. 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 things as future repairs to the boiler, roof and electrical system, all too often many condominium associations do not understand the necessity for 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 will only go up. Thus, for example, because the cost of insurance 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 owners are not in arrears on the condominium fee. Although the title attorney conducting settlement should collect any arrearages from the seller, this important item is often overlooked and the delinquent condominium fee remains a lien on your unit.
Review these documents very carefully. You have the right to obtain this information and cancel the contract if you are not satisfied with the information.
You asked whether there are 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. This is a function of negotiating when you sign a contract to purchase the unit. If the seller is anxious to sell, you may be able to get such a guarantee.
If the condominium association has professional management, discuss the condominium with it. Review the record and ask the management company about its projected expenses. Most management companies are competent and can 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 the condo has inadequate reserves to compensate for this replacement, 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 after an emergency.
Buying a condominium should not be considered lightly. You have to understand what condominium living is and how the particular condominium you are considering 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 introducing yourself in the lobby on Saturday or Sunday to try to get a flavor of the condominium membership.
After all, when you buy a condominium, you are putting yourself in a democratic living arrangement. Majority rule may not be your cup of tea.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington attorney. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address.