A first-time homebuyer’s guide to condo boards
If you’re the type of person who loves vaping indoors and engulfing your apartment balcony in festive lights, condo living might give you a culture shock.
With the price of detached homes so incredibly high, condominiums are an attractive prospect for first-time buyers. Sure, there’s reduced square footage and maybe a little less privacy, but for a lower price point and fewer maintenance responsibilities, condos are a great option for wannabe urban dwellers. That is, unless, you’re not comfortable living with a few house rules.
Single-family homes and condos are very different when it comes to ownership. When you buy a home, you solely own the property and are responsible for all of its expenses and maintenance. With condos, however, you only own the interior of your unit, and maybe a parking space.
The rest of the building — the pool, the concierge desk, the hallways — are shared collectively. To govern how these places are used, and to set the ground rules for the building community, is the condo board. Every board is unique, and every building and its rules are unique too, so when hunting for a condo, buyers need to carefully consider if a building and its standards are right for them.
“People need to think about what they want to do in their unit, and then look to the documents to see if there’s any restrictions, for general noise and nuisance,” says Denise Lash, founder of Lash Condo Law.
Here, Lash breaks down what you should know about condo boards and the kind of rules you can expect to encounter.
The who’s who in condos
In the makeup of a condo community, there are a few key players — the condo board of directors, the condo management and the owners.
Condo boards are responsible for the general operations of the building on behalf of the owners, and make the big decisions in regards to the building rules, bylaws, maintenance and finances. Condo boards must also enforce compliance with provincial legislation, such as Ontario’s Condominium Act. The condo board is made up of volunteers, usually owners in the building, who are elected into power by fellow condo owners.
To ensure that the building operates smoothly on a day-to-day basis, the board will enlist the services of a professional management company, that will look after repairs, fee collection and respond to complaints, among other duties. In the case where a board does not hire a management company, they self-manage, but it’s not commonplace.
“These days, because of the potential liability, and all of the requirements of the [Ontario] Condo Act, few are self-managed condos,” explains Lash.
From occupancy bylaws, to the place where your dog uses the toilet, condo boards have the most power when it comes to setting rules, though it isn’t a total dictatorship. While owners can’t break condo rules without penalization, they can choose to vote against new rules and bylaws in owners meetings, or try to remove the current directors if they’re unhappy with their practices.
“The board, ultimately, they’re the decision makers, and if they pass rules, there’s an opportunity for the owners to vote against it,” says Lash. “But other than that, if they really continue to be unhappy with the way the board is conducting itself, there’s a process for removing the board members, and that is called a requisition.”
Pulling off a successful requisition is hard to do compared to voting against rules. For cautionary pre-purchase measures, you should always review a snapshot of the building prior to buying with the help of property documents like the Status Certificate and the condo’s declaration. The declaration will offer details about common expenses, amenities, pet allowances and shared spaces, known as common elements. The status certificate also touches on rules, but primarily provides a summary of the financial health of the building, including the reserve fund and fee increases.
“That’s the document that says whether the board, the corporation, is contemplating any increases in the budget,” says Lash. “So you’re buying and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, the roof has to be repaired and there’s no money in the reserve fund.’ That’s really important from a purchaser’s perspective, to see if there are potential increases.”
All documents, Lash stresses, are important to review with your lawyer before buying.
There are house rules, plus balconies
Every condo community has a different set of regulations, and these laws are always evolving. Policy changes that take place outside of the condo influence the kind of rules you’ll encounter as an owner, from new local zoning rules up to federal legislation.
When cannabis was legalized, for example, Lash explains that condo boards had to decide how they would manage the consumption and growth of plants in their buildings, which in some cases prompted condos to go completely smoke-free. From a purchaser’s perspective, it’s important to recognize these rules prior to purchase so lifestyle and bylaws don’t collide.
“If you want to be a casual cannabis smoker, you have to review the declaration, but more importantly, the rules, that’s where it usually is,” says Lash. “And when it says, ‘No smoking cannabis in the unit,’ and you really want to smoke, then this is not the building for you.”
Other rules that commonly trip up new condo owners are common elements. In the declaration, there are specifications as to what these shared spaces are, and not all of them are obvious. A balcony, for instance, is considered a common element with exclusive use, meaning that while only the owner has access to it, the balcony must still comply with common element rules.
“There’s reasons why you want people to remove Christmas decorations after a certain date — because of the appearance,” says Lash. “If somebody is selling their unit, what does it look like with all of these Christmas lights out in April or May? They want to control the appearance from the outside and also [for] liability reasons.”
Your puppy can’t live here
No one possesses magical foresight into the future, but when buying a condo, Lash explains that it’s important to consider your plans and lifestyle for the space.
Are you a young couple hoping to start a family one day? Some condos have a two-people-per-bedroom bylaw. Dreaming of renovating the kitchen? Watch out for building regulations. Even if you plan to get a pet one day, make sure the condo will allow them to stay under breed and size restrictions, especially when your furry friend grows up — it’s not unheard of for puppies to one day outgrow weight bylaws.
“You’re in love with your puppy, [then] six months later, you’re getting a board letter — a legal letter — saying remove in two weeks,” says Lash.
Rules are put in place for the safety, comfort and security of everyone in the building, and while it’s nearly impossible to achieve perfect coexistence between everyone, bylaws strive to achieve that balance.