The fine print in community codes can deflate dreams

August 07, 1994|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Special to The Sun

Compared to the summer's biggest thriller, community association bylaws hardly make compelling reading. Wading through the thick stack of rules and restrictions buyers get when they purchase some homes is a chore, real estate agents agree.

"It's a subject as dry and dull as you'll ever get," says Arthur E. Davis, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors.

The documents don't become interesting until new buyers find out community laws prevent them from bringing beloved Fido into their home, storing their trailered boat in the driveway or building a fence on their property.

If a house is part of a homeowners association, which many moderately priced homes are, the seller is required to give the buyer a copy of the community codes, covenants and restrictions (CC&Rs), including association bylaws and budget, before settlement. The buyer must acknowledge they have received the documents. They have from five to seven days to review them and can back out of the sales contract if they don't receive or don't agree with the CC&Rs.

But most real estate agents say buyers rarely read through the documents.

"It's fair to say most people do not read them but will sign anything to say they have," said Adam D. Cockey, general manager of W. H. C. Wilson & Co. Realtors in Baltimore.

"They are real thick," acknowledged Robert Ward, builder and developer of Bob Ward Homes in Harford County. "Quite honestly, few people read them."

He certainly wishes they would. Mr. Ward recalls with a sigh the buyer who didn't know a drainage and utility easement cut five feet into his new yard.

Associations are entitled to grant rights of way to utility companies and local governments. When the buyer began to build a fence along his new property line and was stopped by the association, he wasn't pleased.

Instead of enclosing his entire yard, he had to bring the fence line in behind the easement. That reduced the size of his narrow townhouse yard by five feet.

"We as the builder weren't aware of his plans for fencing, so it wouldn't occur to us to say he couldn't put a fence there," Mr. Ward said. "It didn't occur to the buyer to ask. He figured it was his property." This homebuyer would have been saved himself the surprise and aggravation if he had reviewed the engineer's ++ drawing of his property contained with the association documents he got before settlement.

Some homeowners have had more expensive shocks when they don't closely read community association bylaws to find out where their responsibility stops and management's begins. People who buy townhouses and condos may wrongly believe they are buying just their individual units, said Stanley Sersen, president-elect of the Chesapeake Chapter of the Community Associations Institute in Bowie, a national nonprofit group that represents associations.

"In fact, they are buying their pro-rated share of all the common elements," Mr. Sersen said.

Other homebuyers don't review the association budget and don't realize their associations may have no money to cover unexpected structural repairs.

Mr. Sersen tells of the owners in a Richmond, Va., condominium community who found out the concrete bridges between their units were beginning to fail. The association had no reserves in its budget for such catastrophes. The 250 people living there had to split the $250,000 cost of repairs among themselves.

At most condominium developments, problems such as these are rare, said Benjamin G. Proctor, senior vice president of Wallace H. Campbell and Co. Inc., a residential management company in Baltimore.

But grief of a different kind can come to owners who fail to read their bylaws and understand they can't install the curtain color of their choice, or can't own large dogs.

Mr. Proctor, whose company manges Quail Creek Condominiums in Hunt Valley as well as others in the Baltimore area, said there's usually little owners can do to fight the laws that govern their community.

"When they settled on that unit, they obligated themselves to abide by the documents," Mr. Proctor said.

First-time homeowners or people coming out of individual homes into townhouse developments are the people most often surprised by restrictions.

They, in particular, should review their community association bylaws carefully, Mr. Proctor said, before they settle to make sure the place won't cramp their style.

"They can rescind the contract if there's something there they don't like," he said, as long as they read about the offending rule before the property goes to settlement. Afterward, they'll have to sell if they want out.

"The way we look at it, everything that is on record, the homeowner has to comply with," said Rudolph E. DeMeo, an attorney with Alderman, DeMeo and Riggs in Towson. "The bylaws are the constitution and the private law of the community. If buyers want to change or modify it, they have to get a super-majority vote," or more than two-thirds of other association members to agree to change.

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