When one buys a private single-family home, the homeowner is king or queen of the proverbial castle. When it comes to condominium and cooperative ownership, however, the landscape is more complex. While the shareholder or unit owner rules within the walls of their unit, everything behind the drywall—from the wiring and pipes in the walls to the shared common areas like laundry and fitness rooms, to the exterior elements that hold the building together and protect it from the elements—is governed by the community’s board under the aegis of its governing documents, which contain the rules and regulations of the community and give the board authority over different aspects of how it’s run. Governing documents are themselves regulated by individual state laws and statutes, and at times even local ordinances.
The hybrid nature of ownership presented by condominium and cooperative homes gives many owners and shareholders an incomplete—and often incorrect—understanding of who is responsible for what in their community. This is partly because few purchasers of condominium and cooperative units ever really read the governing documents of the community they’re moving into, and partly because many are coming from a rental environment and wrongly see the association or corporation board as their landlord—which, despite certain similarities, it most certainly is not.
Condos vs. Co-ops: Who’s in Charge Here?
To understand the role and powers of the board, it’s important to understand the difference between condo and co-op ownership versus single-family homeownership, as well as the difference between condos and co-ops themselves.
Single-family homeownership is very simple: You buy a home and the land underneath it. There will be some interface with the local government around things like utilities, property taxes, and basic services such as trash collection, but as the homeowner, you’re in charge of maintaining both the structure you call home and the land upon which it sits. If it snows, you remove the snow from your driveway. If your water pipes freeze and burst, you are responsible for repairing them. It’s your castle—and so are all the responsibilities that come with it.
Between single-family ownership and condo/co-op ownership is the homeowner’s association (HOA). In these communities, residents own their homes (which may be free-standing, or may be attached to others) outright, but handle certain responsibilities collectively. These include things like the maintenance of roads, clubhouses, pools, and other common amenities inside the community’s borders, and, depending on the HOA, may also include utilities, façade maintenance, or landscaping. But generally, like single-family homeowners, HOA members are in charge of their homes, both inside and out.