Let's say the guy down the street is a sucker for all things medieval. On weekends, he dresses up in armor and whacks other armored men with clubs. Sometimes he even jousts. You get the idea. Now let's say this same fellow wants his home to reflect his passion. He plans to encase the place with faux stone, and erect two tall towers on each flank, to make it look like a castle. He's within his rights to do so, right?
Well, the answer is no—if he lives in a condominium complex and his home is governed by a homeowners' association. Condo boards and homeowners associations have stringent guidelines regulating what a homeowner can or cannot do on a given property, for just that very reason. There are rules and regulations about types of plantings, grass, shrubs, or trees prohibitions against erecting flagpoles, installing signs or fences, or placing ornamental decorations in the front yard. You can't paint your townhouse chartreuse or magenta, even though you may love the color, because that would violate the aesthetics of the community in which you live. And you certainly can't go around turning condo units into medieval castles with turrets and coats of arms.
That said, condominiums are not Soviet police states, either. Some alterations and renovations are allowed, pending board approval. It's just a matter of figuring out what you can do, and what you can't.
Individual vs. Collective
In New Jersey, condominiums can be high-rise buildings (as in Jersey City and similar urban areas), low-rise buildings (likewise), vast townhouse complexes (the suburbs), or just subdivided houses with only a few units (Hoboken, to name one). What they have in common is that condominiums are made up of units, which are owned by individuals, and common areas, which are the property of the collective.
Generally speaking, ownership of a condo unit is limited to the space within the walls. The unit boundary can be the backside of the interior drywall of the unit's dividing walls or at the centerline of the unit's walls. The boundaries of a condominium unit are an important consideration at the time of purchase—particularly if you are planning to do renovations, whether they include installing a dishwasher or digging a moat.
You may find that there are restrictions regarding major renovations such as new flooring, cupboards, plumbing, recessed lighting, and the like. Restrictions are usually spelled out in the governing documents—the bylaws, association house rules or the CC&R (covenants, conditions and restrictions).
"Basically, the board has to approve anything structural," says C. Jaye Berger, a Manhattan-based attorney specializing in construction, co-op and condo law in New York and New Jersey.
The reason for the red tape is not so the board can exercise iron-fisted control, although it may seem that way if your plans have been scrapped.
"They have to OK moving bearing walls, or removing something that would jeopardize the safety of the building," explains David Byrne, a partner at Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville.
"The board is looking to make sure that what you're doing is safe and not a problem for the building," Berger says.
For example, many buildings have adopted a "no wet over dry" policy, she says, meaning you can't move a bathroom—or anything else that generates water—over someone else's master bedroom. (This is also the reason most high-rise buildings don't allow fish tanks).
So there you have it—fundamentally, it's all about safety. Except that it's more complicated than that.
A Matter of Structure
"There's a fine line between cosmetic and structural," Berger says. "Many buildings have enlarged the parameters of what needs permission."
With condo complexes, where the units have separate and distinct exteriors, it's also about appearances. Most buyers expect uniformity in a condo; they see this uniformity, in fact, as one of the advantages of buying into this type of community.
"Renovations have to be architecturally consistent, aesthetically consistent," says Wendell Smith, of Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP in Woodbridge.
"They want to keep a certain look," Berger says. "They don't want anything that sticks out like a sore thumb. You can't just paint your townhouse pink, or go plant a vineyard."
Nor can you install a Jacuzzi—not without permission. Now matter how much fun the Jacuzzi and the vineyard would be at the annual party.
Couched this way, it may sound restrictive, a clamping down on creative self-expression. But aesthetics are a principal reason people buy condominiums. Simply put, condos look neat. The surrounding buildings all have a similar look and feel, unlike an ordinary house on an ordinary street, where nothing is stopping a neighbor with gauche tastes from building something awful in plain view of your deck.
Some boards are so strict that they require a certificate of insurance for something as routine as a fresh living room paint job—but only some.
"Anything internal is usually fine," Byrne says. "Changing the color of the rugs, for example."
If you want to get rid of the rugs and install hardwood floors, however, you might encounter a problem, if your unit is above another one.
"Installing hardwood floors could create a noise implication for the downstairs neighbor," Byrne says, if you live in a high- or low-rise or a duplex.
The Board's Role
Not that it's all doom and gloom. Alterations and renovations do happen. Boards do grant approvals. Kitchens and bathrooms get renovated; lighting gets installed and recessed. Things just have to be done according to the rules.
"It's essential for shareholders to give plans that are as complete as possible to the board," Berger explains. "Once the board approves the plans, [the plans] become the Bible for that subject."
Indeed, most of the problems between boards and residents concerning renovations occur once plans are approved, when the owners improvise, changing strategies on the fly.
Another common problem arises when owners assume that because the board requires approval, the board is further connected to the project.
"Just because the building gives permission, that doesn't make the building a construction manager or a partner," Berger says. If permits and licenses are required from the town, for example, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the owners, not the board. Owners, in fact, sign an agreement to that effect prior to any construction.
In general, condominium complexes have more issues with alterations and renovations than do high-rise condos.
"In high-rises, there's not much involved," Byrne says. "There's only so much you can do."
But the sprawling suburban complexes offer more opportunity for friction over renovations, because of the limited common elements.
"Generally speaking, common elements, legally, are items of shared use," says Byrne. "Structural items, exterior items."
The homeowners association owns the limited common elements, but a limited number of residents have access to them. These mostly include decks, patios and porches.
Any alterations to these limited common elements requires board approval, whether it's enclosing a patio, replanting the hedges or hanging an American flag prominently out front.
"One thing I've seen from time to time is placing satellite dishes on common elements," Smith says. "You're not allowed to do that—it's an aesthetic thing."
When Problems Arise
What happens if approval is not sought—or, worse, approval is not granted—and the owners do the renovations anyway? For big ticket projects, surprisingly, this is rarely a problem.
"It's hard to imagine a building where something extensive is going on and no one knows about it and calls to complain," Berger says. "You have dumpsters, you have noise. It's more common that people have approval, and then just run amok."
That's not to say these types of issues don't arise. There have been egregious violations of board policy.
"I've seen houses painted Easter egg blue in a bland community," says Smith, with a chuckle.
If it does get to that stage—if someone encloses a patio, say, or paints a color off the wrong palette—the board has the right to take action.
"They can have it removed, and then charge the cost of removal to the owner," says Byrne.
A good rule of thumb is, if you're looking to make an alteration or renovation, no matter how trivial it may seem, get board approval first.
"Sometimes people don't understand if it's structural or not," Smith says. "They should submit it no matter what."
A board just may relent and allow you to do something you didn't think they'd grant permission to do. Our friend the medieval history buff might be allowed his turrets and coats or arms, for example, if his board is stacked with fellow medieval history fanatics. But even they would likely draw the line at a moat.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.