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Condo Living: Rules That Hit Home

To celebrate their freedom from the tyranny of lawns to mow and homes to maintain, the new owners threw a condo-warming party. In return, they received a letter from their condo association issuing them a $250 fine. Their crimes? Excessive noise ($25), noncompliant decorations ($25), smoking in restricted areas ($25), having glass in the pool area ($100) and violating the visitor parking policy ($75).

“It was not a nice way to say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,'” says Nalini Kapadia, a 65-year-old retired doctor. “We are not some young kids [who’ve] come to trash the place.” But Kapadia admits that she and her husband, Ranjan, 69, a retired physician, had not considered the restrictions of condo life when downsizing from a single-family home.

“We hadn’t done our homework and hadn’t asked about condominium rules,” she says. “Our real estate agent should have given us a copy [of the condo documents] prior to closing, but she didn’t.”

Is the Kapadias’ experience typical? Unfortunately, yes, says Gina Angstrom, an independent real estate agent based in Washington, D.C. New condo owners often don’t realize that they’re signing on to potentially restrictive rules when they close. “Sometimes, they don’t know until I give them the documents and tell them to look them over, in case they have questions,” she says.

Condo rules in the D.C. area can vary from crazy to practical, but you can navigate them by being well-informed of your rights and responsibilities — and standing up for yourself, if necessary.

In Angstrom’s experience, few prospective owners have been deterred by the rules they find, since many of them are “about basic courtesies that neighbors living in close quarters should offer each other,” she says. After all, condo rules are designed to protect owners — not to limit the number of parties you can throw or the music you can play.

Of course, some bylaws are less than welcome. Condo rules might require owners to hold certain thresholds of condo insurance, protecting everything inside the walls, including personal belongings. Generally, they’re meant to preserve real estate values for all owners. But not all rules are governed by such logic. “Some rules are about maintaining the aesthetic dimension that’s part of the concept of the building,” Angstrom says.

Jonathan Adler of Bethesda encountered conflict with his condo association when his design preferences clashed with the overall scheme of his building. Adler, 32, placed two white plastic chairs on his patio and was issued a $25 fine for each day he refused to remove the pieces. “The building’s ethos is sophisticated and ultra-modern,” Adler, a lawyer, says. “Plastic chairs from CVS don’t exactly fit.”

In fact, Adler’s condo association’s rules specify that synthetic materials may not be displayed on patios or balconies, even though the spaces belong to the owners. “I asked if this was some sort of fire hazard,” Adler adds. “But the president of the board told me that my chairs were tacky and invoked the ‘No Synthetics‘ bylaw to force me to remove them. So, if I want to buy new outdoor furniture, I have to make sure it isn’t ‘synthetic.’ But what isn’t synthetic these days?”

Adler removed the chairs, but he was not too happy about it. “I [had] just bought a new condo,” he says. “I am not ready to splash out on non-tacky, non-synthetic outdoor furniture — or ask for the board’s approval before I purchase it. I just sit on the ground.”

Although Adler’s frustration is palpable, D.C.-based real estate lawyer Laura Jones confirms that condos are well within their rights to enforce such rules.

“Condo rules can’t violate individuals’ civil liberties, the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act or state and local laws,” Jones says. (The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing based on race, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates proper accommodations for people with disabilities. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act bans discrimination on credit applications based on the same categories as the Fair Housing Act.)

Jones notes that although it is unlikely that condo developers or boards will attempt to circumvent the Fair Housing Act, there have been some notable cases in which the laws have appeared murky. This includes the now-infamous case of Henry E. Ingram Jr., who sold his New River, S.C., plantation to developers in 1998 but included several restrictive covenants for the property that was burned by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops during theCivil War. Among them: The condos cannot be sold to people with the last name Sherman, anyone whose last names contain letters that might be rearranged to spell Sherman, or Yankees (in his definition, anyone who has lived north of the Mason-Dixon line for a year or was born north of it). Yankees might purchase condos, however, by taking a loyalty oath to the South and whistling “Dixie.”

Despite its now-controversial status at her condo, Ringgold’s flag is of great comfort to her. “[My husband] has been gone for about six months, and it’s our first deployment. … When I return home from work, … when I sit out on my patio, … it is nice to be able to look at the flag, because it makes me think of my husband and everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting. It’s a part of our home now,” she says.

When Ringgold and her husband were purchasing their condo, they received and read a copy of the bylaws, but Ringgold says that they were “not written in plain English, and there were so many of them.”

Because none of her neighbors had complained about Ringgold’s flag, she was frustrated with the letter demanding that she remove it.

“With them knowing my husband is in Iraq — I go to every condo meeting, paid my fees a year ahead of time — they could have approached this in a better way,” Ringgold says.

Ringgold says she is willing to work with the board to address their concerns that her flag poses a threat to the structural integrity of the building.

Since the letter, Ringgold has responded to the condo association’s request with a letter that cited the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act, which guarantees that condominium associations may not restrict owners from displaying the United States flag on residential property.

She also recently received a note of support from an engineer who had heard about her story; he offered to install brackets so the flag would not be nailed directly into the post, and she took him up on it. Now, Ringgold’s flag is compliant with the condo rules. But Ringgold and her husband, James, are still upset that she was asked to take it down.

“It’s a symbol of America, and it shows patriotism,” Ringgold says. “It’s just like the apple pie.”

Despite Ringgold’s not-so-positive experience, plenty of condo owners are satisfied with the rules of their residences — especially those who took the time to read them carefully before closing. Navdeep Kathuria, 31, of Arlington is one such example. She says she adores her condo despite the minor inconvenience of its rules. Kathuria, who works for a software company and runs, an online magazine for South Asian women, lives in her first condo, although she had purchased a townhouse prior to the condo. Before closing on the unit, Kathuria received a copy of the condo documents, and she read them carefully.

“The condo that I had previously rented … had some rules that I thought were too strict,” Kathuria says. “So, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was in for.”

Despite her attention to the rules, Kathuria found herself in violation of them when she recently was asked to remove the mat in front of her door. “We’re not supposed have anything outside of our property,” she says. “I was a little annoyed by that, since I like to wipe my shoes on that before coming in. But it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

In general, Kathuria finds herself satisfied with her condo association. “They leave you alone just enough but come down on you for the important things,” she says. “There are certain pluses about living in a condo that I love: having a trash chute, not having to worry about a lawn and having a gym just downstairs. The condo association is definitely a necessary organization. They are there to make sure my property value continues to rise.”

Written by Roopika Risam for Express
Photos by Regan Kireilis for Express and courtesy of iStock