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Condos & Townhomes: Q&A for Buyers

The following form was obtained from Hammersmith Property Management. Greenwood Estates Realty urges you to consult a qualified insurance professional when choosing insurance coverage. THIS ARTICLE IS PROVIDED FOR GENERAL INFORMATION ONLY.

Condo: What Property Do You Actually Own?

Basically, condo buyers will own the condominium unit itself, and what is called an “interest” (along with all the other owners) in the “common elements” (sometimes called “common areas”) of the condominium project.

Details concerning the meaning of the above terms depend on the details in the documents governing the condominium project, namely, the condominium map (sometimes called a condominium plan) and the Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions and Easements (CC&R’s).

What You’ll Learn From the Condominium Map or Plan

The condominium map for the project will depict the exact physical location of the unit—where in the condominium building the unit is located, and where the boundaries of the unit are drawn. This makes it a good starting point for learning where the basic lines are between your property and common property.

What You’ll Learn From the CC&R’s

The CC&R’s for the project will likely tell you whether the following items are considered part of your unit or part of the common elements (the determinations vary among condo associations):

  • Interior walls: Although interior walls are typically part of a unit, the unit might include the whole wall, only to the halfway point, only the drywall, or only the surface paint.

  • Roof and exterior walls: These are most often defined as common elements, but the unit might include the interior surface or drywall.

  • Floors or ceilings: Similar to walls, the unit might include just the surface, halfway through, or the whole floor or ceiling.

  • Windows and doors: For example, the frames, glass, and the hardware might or might not be a part of the unit.

  • Permanent fixtures: Cabinets, flooring, sinks, and the like are typically considered part of the unit, but certain fixtures (such as an outdoor porch light) might not be included.

  • Plumbing, electric, air conditioning systems: The portions serving only the unit might be a part of the unit, but the portions also serving other units might be considered common elements.

  • Decks, balconies, and patios: These might be part of the unit, common elements, or limited common elements.

Difference Between General, Limited, and Exclusive Common Elements

Anything that is not part of a condominium unit is ordinarily considered a common element. Not all common elements are alike, however, so if you want to know the extent to which you have a right to use them, you’ll need to look a little further. You might see “general common elements,” “limited common elements,” and “exclusive common elements.”

  • General common elements are those that all owners in the condominium project can use. Stairways, lobbies, hallways, and amenities are often found on this list, as is the land the condominium sits on.

  • Limited common elements are those that less than all the owners have the right to use. For example, use of a common patio might be limited to all the owners of a certain floor of the condominium building.

  • Exclusive common elements are limited common elements that only the owners of one unit have the right to use. For example, a balcony accessed by only one unit, or a parking space assigned to a specific unit, might be an exclusive common element.

Your Ownership Interest Determines Your Maintenance Responsibilities

Your maintenance responsibilities with respect to the property—and therefore your costs for repairs and so on—will vary depending on what you actually own. A unit owner is usually made responsible for the maintenance of everything that is a part of his or her unit.

So, for example, if a “unit” in your condominium complex is defined to include the exterior shutters on your windows, those will be your responsibility to maintain. If they fall apart a couple of years after you move in, you will likely not be able to call on the condo association for help.

However, the owner’s association for the condominium project (often called the “HOA”) is typically responsible for the maintenance of anything that is a general common element. So, if the shutters are not a part of the unit, but instead are included in the definition of the general common elements, you can leave their maintenance to the association.

Your Right to Use Common Elements Depends on Your Ownership

Anything that you don’t own outright is probably not going to be yours to use or change without specific rights having been granted to you under the association documents. It’s important to know what is and is not included as a part of the unit.

For example, as you purchase a unit and decide at some point you want to do a remodel that requires moving an interior wall, and if the wall turns out to be a common element, you might have just kissed your remodel plans goodbye. If you are not the owner of the wall, you have no right to alter it without the approval of the association.

Whether Your Insurance Covers Damage Depends on Your Ownership

Knowing what you own, and what you are responsible for can also help you know where to turn if something goes wrong. If, for example, a huge windstorm knocks off half your deck railings , or a flood ruins your walls, you’ll need to know who owns the railings or walls to determine whether it’s a problem that your own homeowner’s insurance should cover, or whether the association’s insurance is responsible for coverage. (In some cases, unfortunately, the unit owner’s insurance won’t cover it, but the condo association hasn’t bought sufficient insurance, leaving homeowners in a lurch).


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