Before you lift a hammer to remodel your condo, town home, loft or other property governed by a homeowners association (HOA), you've got some paperwork to consider.
No, it's not the building contract, architectural blueprints, or the city's permit application.
Whether it's the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs), Master Deed or Rules and By-Laws, your homeowners association's governing documents dictate what you can or can't do to improve your home.
More and more home buyers are considering the affordability of condo-style home ownership, unfortunately, when it comes to remodeling your HOA-governed home, it isn't always your castle.
Home owner spending on home improvements increased some 7.3 percent in 2003 and a fourth quarter bursts indicates 2004 could shape up with even more growth beginning this spring, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
However, not much of any home improvement growth will be in the condo home ownership segment.
When you own a condo or similar type of community development, you only own what's on your side of the structural walls. When it comes to improvements, where "your side" begins can vary and begin at the interior drywall, but also include wiring and plumbing serving only your unit. The rest, what surrounds "your side," as well as exterior and common areas are all jointly owned by you and other owners.
Maintaining consistency in the "look and feel" is a big selling point for condo and similar communities. Consistency in the treatment of remodeling helps preserve that look and feel and the associations' ability to enforce other rules, says Pleasant Hills, CA condo law attorney, Beth Grimm.
Remodeling that isn't mindful of your community's aesthetic harmony, infringes on the common area, causes additional maintenance or liability for the association, blocks another resident's view or affects his or her quiet enjoyment or otherwise interferes with your community's commonality, is often unacceptable.
Even when remodeling is on your side, so to speak, it could be forbidden.
"Where units are attached, even the pipes in the walls, the structure, the look, are all common elements owned by all owners. Most statues require that if you are going to in any way affect the structure you need the association's approval," said condo-law attorney Robert M. Meisner, with Meisner & Associates, in Bingham Farms, MI.
Sometimes less restrictive are what's sometime called "site condos" "town homes" or "planned unit developments (PUDs)" often detached single-family homes on small, individual lots in a community where owners own their lot, but the development is nevertheless governed by a home owners or community association.
"Normally, a town home owner is going to be responsible for his or her own exterior, but even what you do to them is pursuant to the CC&Rs. They don't want any wild colors and the rules even go down to screen doors, windows and the like," said Oakbrook, IL attorney Irwin Leiter, author of "How to Buy a Condominium or Townhome" (Sourcebooks, $16.95).
Generally, painting, carpeting and installing new cabinets, appliances, fixtures for lighting, bathrooms and kitchens, perhaps even moving non-structural walls, can all be acceptable jobs.
Even so, it's always best to read your governing documents carefully before beginning all but minor jobs. Also approach your association's architectural committee, board of directors or other community management entity to get the okay.
Grimm says disputes between owners and the association generally arise when an owner makes or considers improvements without seeking approval.
Associations can also trigger disputes when they too rigidly adhere to the rules when a requested remodeling job plan reveals no obvious impact on the community's commonality.
"Compromise is critical to common interest (community association) development living. Home owners sometimes forget that the common interest (community association) development concept is about cooperative living. Intelligent compromise on the placement of that rose trellis or basketball hoop might bring satisfaction to everyone and improve the community," said Grimm.