When one buys a private single-family home, it’s clear who the king or queen of the castle is: the homeowner. When it comes to condominiums and cooperative apartments, however, the relationship between owner and property is a little more complex. While the shareholder or unit owner rules within the walls of their unit, everything beyond 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 that cover a far-ranging variety of issues and give the board authority over different aspects of how the building or association is 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 a skewed or 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 also partly because many are coming from a rental environment and wrongly see the association or corporation board as their landlord—which 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 may be some interface with local governmental authorities for provision of such necessary infrastructure as utilities, roads, and basic services such as trash collection, but as the homeowner, you’re in charge of maintaining your property, 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. You are the king of your castle—and all the responsibilities that come along with it.
There is a short step between condo and co-op ownership and single-family homeownership, and that is the HOA—the homeowner’s association. In these communities, the owners within the community own their homes (which may be free-standing and not attached to anyone else’s dwelling) outright, but band together to assume certain responsibilities that would not normally be attended to by individual homeowners. These include things like maintenance and management of roads inside the community’s borders; a community clubhouse, pool, and any other private amenities; and common elements that may include utilities, facades, or landscaping, depending on how the association is set up. But generally, like single-family homeowners, HOA members are in charge of their homes, both inside and out.