No lawn to mow, no snow to shovel, a golf course in your backyard and a guard at the gate may be enough to entice you to buy a condo or co-op, even a single-family home in a community governed by a homeowners association.
It could be the best decision you've ever made — or the worst.
"It's a matter of compromise," says professor Gail Satler, a sociologist and expert in social policy and urban studies at Hofstra University, New York.
"If you purchase a condo, apply to a co-op board or move somewhere where important decisions affecting your lifestyle are made by others, you have to be willing to trade your independence and sense of self for convenience, stability and permanence."
Not everyone is capable of what Satler terms a "staying-in-the-box" temperament and that's where conflicts arise.
Association boards are magnets for people who want power, who want to set the guidelines, she says, and that can run afoul of those who have a strong sense of individuality and who bristle at rules that spell out the color of window curtains, what can be placed on the front lawn, or the size and number of pets.
Of all people who buy into housing governed by an association, those coming from single-family homes have the most difficult time adapting, she believes. Apartment dwellers have the least problem since they're already living a communal lifestyle, albeit without ownership.
In his book, "Condo Living: A Survival Guide to Buying, Owning and Selling a Condominium," (available from www.meisner-law.com), author and attorney Robert M. Meisner, a nationally recognized expert on community association law, underscores the need for would-be buyers of association-governed housing to grasp in advance the constraints of what he terms "careful living."
Condos and associated housing are not for an individualist bent on planting trees, decorating a home's exterior or expanding a deck or patio without permission.
"If you wish to live in a condominium, you must be prepared to give up a portion of the liberties and the flexibility of lifestyle which you might enjoy in a single-family detached dwelling," says Meisner.
It's not the only thing to fret about, he adds. Prospective purchasers should carefully review the association board's track record. And if they buy in, he says, they need to constantly monitor board actions.
"If the board is ineffectual, unreasonably dictatorial, myopic, vindictive, ignorant, inflexible, naive or unenlightened, self-serving and/or unwilling or unable to adhere to the condominium documents and general corporate law, the association is in for a heap of trouble."
Around the country, courts are littered with lawsuits over decisions and post-purchase rules imposed on individuals by some of the nearly 300,000 homeowner associations that the Community Associations Institute says now exist in the United States. And while some disputes are over quality of life issues, many involve additional levies to pay for under-funded or unforeseen common-area repairs or improvements. In many states, if you fail to fork over the additional money or pay fines for flaunting your association's rules, you can lose your home if the association board decides to foreclose your property.
In advancing a Bill of Rights for Homeowners in an Association, the AARP points out that "many disagreements and disputes can be settled rather easily, but some can escalate even to the point where ownership of the home is at risk. The use of foreclosure as an enforcement tool is controversial (especially in states that permit foreclosure without a court hearing) and can be devastating to a household. The consequences of disputes can be particularly severe for older homeowners, whose homes typically represent their single largest asset." The National Association of Realtors suggests that before you buy, ask the association's governing board to provide details both on reserves it keeps on hand and its investments. Since you'll be paying a monthly assessment, you'll also want to know exactly how that money will be spent.
The association governing board also should produce a list of special assessments that have been mandated in the past five years and how much each owner had to ante up. "Some special assessments are unavoidable. But repeated, expensive assessments could be a red flag about the condition of the building or the board's fiscal policy," warns the NAR.
And if you discover the complex or its association is embroiled in litigation, watch out.
"This is never a good sign," the NAR says. "If the builders or homeowners are involved in a lawsuit, reserves can be depleted quickly."