Buying a Condo: What Property Will You Actually Own?

Your rights to make changes or upgrades, as well as your responsibility to maintain, repair or replace, end at the point where your ownership does; which isn't always clear, in a condo community.

By , J.D. · UCLA School of Law

If you are buying (or already own) a condominium unit, you probably know that you won't end up with a parcel of land that's all yours, as you would when buying a traditional single family home. But what will you actually own? That's what we'll discuss here, including:

  • the legal definition of a condominium
  • how to learn more from the plat map
  • how to interpret your condo association's governing documents regarding ownership interests
  • how the different types of ownership interests are categorized in a condo association
  • the everyday, practical importance of learning the extent of your condo ownership, and
  • where to go for more information.

Condo Buyers Own Their Unit Plus an Interest in Common Elements

Basically, condo buyers will own the condominium unit itself, and what's called an "interest" (along with all other owners) in the "common elements," sometimes called "common areas," of the condominium project.

Just what the above terms mean depends on the details in the documents governing the condominium project, namely, the condominium map (sometimes called a condominium plan) and the Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions and Easements (CC&Rs), as discussed next.

You can (if you're still in the purchase process) get a copy of the relevant governing documents (condominium map and CC&Rs) from either your real estate agent, a real estate attorney, the title company handling the purchase transaction, or the real estate records in the county the condominium is located in.

What You'll Learn From the Condominium Map or Plan

The condominium map for the project will depict the exact physical location of the unit: where in the condominium building the unit is located and where the boundaries of the unit are drawn. This makes it a good starting point for learning where the basic lines are between your property and the commonly owned property.

However, looking at the map is not enough. You probably will not be able to tell from the map exactly what things, such as what interior fixtures, or what parts of the doors and windows, are included as a part of the unit you're buying.

What You'll Learn About Who Owns What From Your Condo Association's CC&Rs

The CC&Rs for the project will likely tell you whether the following things are part of your unit or part of the common elements (keeping in mind that the exact determinations vary among condo associations):

  • Interior walls: Although interior walls are typically part of a unit, the unit might include the whole wall, only to the halfway point, only the drywall, or only the surface paint.
  • Roof and exterior walls: These are most often defined as common elements, but the unit might include the interior surface or drywall.
  • Floors or ceilings: Similar to walls, the unit might include just the surface, halfway through, or the whole floor or ceiling.
  • Windows and doors: For example the frames, glass and hardware might or might not be a part of the unit.
  • Permanent fixtures: Cabinets, flooring, sinks, and the like are typically considered part of the unit, but certain fixtures (such as an outdoor porch light) might not be included.
  • Plumbing, electric, air conditioning systems: The portions serving only the unit might be a part of the unit, but the portions also serving other units might be considered common elements.
  • Decks, balconies, and patios: These might be part of the unit, common elements, or limited common elements.

Difference Between General, Limited, and Exclusive Common Elements in a Condo Community

Anything that is not part of a condominium unit is ordinarily considered a common element. Not all common elements are alike, however, so if you want to know the extent to which you have a right to use them, you'll need to look a little further. You might see (identified on the map and defined in the CC&R's) what are referred to as "general common elements," "limited common elements," and "exclusive common elements."

General common elements are those that all owners in the condominium project can use. Stairways, lobbies, hallways, and amenities are often found on this list, as is the land the condominium sits on.

Limited common elements are those that fewer than all the owners have the right to use. For example, use of a common patio might be limited to all owners of a certain floor of the condominium building .

Exclusive common elements are limited common elements that only the owners of one unit have the right to use. (Some condominium projects do not separately define these as exclusive, but as limited common elements with "exclusive use rights.") For example, a balcony accessed by only one unit, or a parking space assigned to a specific unit, might be an exclusive common element.

Why Do You Need to Know What You Will Own?

As a buyer of a condominium unit, you might be concerned only with having a nice place to live. Why bother with the details about what your unit actually includes? Well, apart from knowing just what you are spending your money on, there are a number of reasons to understand exactly what's included with your unit, as described below.

Your Ownership Interest Determines Your Maintenance Responsibilities

Your maintenance responsibilities with respect to the property, and therefore your costs for repairs and so on, will depend on what you actually own. A unit owner is usually made responsible for the maintenance of everything that is a part of the unit.

So, for example, if a "unit" in your condominium complex is defined to include the exterior shutters on windows, those will be your responsibility to maintain. If the shutters fall apart a couple of years after you move in, you will likely not be able to call on the condo association for help (barring evidence that the shutters were defective to begin with.)

However, the owner's association for the condominium project (often called the "HOA") is typically responsible for the maintenance of anything that's a general common element. So, if the shutters are not a part of the unit, but instead are included in the definition of the general common elements, you can leave their maintenance to the association.

When it comes to limited and exclusive common elements, however, things can get confusing. The terms of the CC&R's determine who has the responsibility to maintain, repair, or replace these .

The condominium association must, in most cases, repair and replace limited common elements, but the owner or owners with rights to use the limited common elements might have the responsibility to keep them in good condition and repair. For example, if the shutters in your community are considered a limited or exclusive common element used by your unit only, you might be responsible for their general upkeep; but if they blow off in a windstorm, the association might be responsible to replace them.

The only way to know exactly what things you must maintain, repair, or replace as an owner is to look to the terms of your project's CC&Rs.

Your Right to Use Common Elements Depends on Your Ownership

Anything that you don't own outright is probably not going to be yours to use or change without specific rights having been granted to you under the association documents. So, it's important to know what is and is not included a part of the unit.

For example, if you purchase a unit and decide at some point you want to do a remodel that requires moving an interior wall, and if the wall turns out to be a common element, you might have just kissed your remodel plans goodbye. If you are not the owner of the wall, you have no right to alter it without the approval of the association.

Whether Your Insurance Covers Damage Depends on Your Ownership

Knowing what you own, and what you are responsible for, can also help you know where to turn if something goes wrong. If, for example, a huge windstorm knocks off half your deck railings, or a flood ruins your walls, you'll need to know who owns these to determine whether it's a problem your own homeowner's insurance should cover, or whether the association's insurance is responsible for coverage.

In some cases, unfortunately, the unit owner's insurance won't cover it, but the condo association hasn't bought sufficient insurance, leaving homeowners in the lurch.

How to Get Help Regarding Your Condo Purchase or Ownership

If you are trying to figure out what exactly you will be buying when purchasing a condominium unit, or what you already own, a real estate attorney in your area can help. The attorney can get a copy of the condominium map and the CC&Rs for the condominium project, help you review them, and point out exactly what is included in the unit.

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