What to Look for When Purchasing a Home in a Common Interest Community

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As Bob Dylan noted in 1964, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” While this anthem of societal change may seem unrelated to the 2011 residential real estate market, in actuality, Dylan’s poetic title track serves as a template for today’s buyers. Back in 1964, most buyers were limited to “traditional” home ownership. Today’s buyers have a myriad of options, including living in a common interest community (CIC).

In a nutshell, CICs are formal legal entities (usually non-profit corporations) created to provide a common basis for the maintenance and preservation of the homes and/or the property contained in the community. In Pennsylvania, CICs are generally set up as either homeowners’ associations (HOAs) or condominium associations. CICs are subject to the statutes that govern both non-profit corporations and common interest communities. Most homes that are located within a CIC are purchased subject to Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs), which are restrictions placed upon each home to maintain uniformity within the community. This uniformity will hopefully lead to a preservation of property values for the homes located within the community. Homeowners pay dues or assessments so the CIC can pay expenses related to maintaining common property in the community, including roads, gated entrances and drainage basins and often to provide various services and/or amenities that are common to all of the homes in the community, such as trash removal, snow removal, security, landscaping, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a community center, or a playground.

Today’s buyers interested in purchasing a home in a CIC should consider a few important things, including:

    Reserves

Make sure that the reserve funds set aside for maintenance of common areas are adequate to fund a large scale capital improvement project, like repaving a road or replacing a roof. Owners will be issued a special assessment to pay for the project in addition to the normal assessment if the reserve funds are not enough. If not enumerated in the resale certificate issued to the buyer prior to closing, the buyer should ask for a breakdown of the reserve funds as well as expected, upcoming capital expenditures.

    Budget

Ask the CIC Association or the seller for a copy of the budget. Pay careful attention to the Association’s outstanding debts and liabilities, as well as the percentage of homeowners that are not paying their assessments. If the majority of homeowners are not paying, this spells financial trouble for the Association as well as its member-owners. This could also have a negative impact on a potential buyer’s ability to obtain a mortgage to purchase a home in a condominium association. Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration, which purchase and/or insure a majority of mortgages, place a 15% cap on assessment delinquency rates in order to approve lending for homes in the community.

    Insurance

Ask for a copy of the Association’s insurance policy to make sure that the community’s coverage is adequate. This is separate and distinct from an owner’s homeowners’ insurance policy. Ask your insurance agent to look at the Association’s policy. Coverage should include but not be limited to general liability coverage with no general aggregate, director & officer liability coverage, environmental impairment coverage, guaranteed replacement cost coverage and employee dishonesty coverage.

    Number of Investment Propertie

If a potential buyer is looking to live in the home as opposed to using the home as an investment vehicle or rental property, the buyer should look into the percentage of homes that are actually owner-occupied versus how many are leased to tenants. A high number of rental properties in the community could mean that a low level of owner involvement is present in the community. A high level of rental properties in a community can also have a negative impact on a potential buyer’s ability to obtain a mortgage to purchase a home in a condominium association. Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration currently require a 51% owner occupancy rate in order to approve lending for homes in the community.

    Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs)

Look at the CC&Rs for the community to make sure that you, as a potential community resident, can live with the limitations imposed on all owners in the community. For instance, many communities require that curtain backs–the side of the curtain that faces the window–be one color so that all of the community’s homes have a uniform appearance from the outside. If you must have fuchsia curtains for the world to see in every one of your windows, then perhaps buying a home in a common interest community is not the best choice for you.

Homeowners living in a CIC enjoy many attractive benefits and amenities, including security, access to recreational facilities and activities, and fewer worries about property maintenance. By carefully reviewing contracts and asking questions, homeowners will be able to determine whether living in a particular community is right for them.

By Edward Hoffman, Jr., Esq.
Originally published in Lehigh Valley Marketplace, December 2011

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