CLOSE-QUARTERS CAMARADERIE Condominium living has its own problems


Condo living. It sounds like a dream come true for those whose thumbs lack any trace of green, and who think that a screwdriver is first and foremost a drink. No weekends spent mowing the lawn, no spring afternoons devoted to repairing leaky roofs.

But condominium living has its own drawbacks, as anyone who's owned a unit knows. Unlike those who live in single-family homes, condo dwellers often can't paint their shutters any color they want, or keep a pet chimpanzee in their living room, if that's their heart's desire.

And unlike those who reside in apartments, condo dwellers must worry about protecting the value of their property, as well as dealing with neighbors who hold different opinions about how things should be run.

Indeed, disputes aren't unusual in condominiums, which some compare to living in small towns. A 1991 survey of 2,000 condominium community associations showed that 18 percent were engaged in lawsuits, according to the Community Associations Institute, the national, non-profit organization that conducted the survey. And it's not unusual for a building to be divided into warring factions, or for a board of directors to be pitted against unit owners, according to Michael Mannes, a law partner with Weinberg and Green in Baltimore who specializes in real estate.

"Any time people are living in such close proximity to each other, there are bound to be conflicts," said Peter Mertz, a spokesman for the institute.

"When you have a landlord, he sets the rules and that's it," said Morton P. Fisher Jr., former head of the real estate department at Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, who now heads a similar department for the Baltimore office of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, a Philadelphia law firm. "But when you don't have one, it gives rise to more disagreements, because people feel that they have more say in the matter."

Typically, resentment crops up around the issues of pets,

parking and noise, said local lawyers and management companies. "Parking spaces are a constant problem, because invariably people have more cars than spaces," Mr. Fisher said. "When they're not assigned, people argue over who has the right to use which space."

Tempers can flare so high that owners have been known to scratch paint and deflate tires of neighbors' cars, Mr. Mannes said. Party guests who unwittingly park in a unit owner's space might find their car blocked when it's time to leave -- with the owner having gone to a motel for the night.

Some condominiums have devised creative solutions for this problem, Mr. Mannes said. A board might decide to rent parking spaces elsewhere, for example. Faced with a shortage a few years ago, a condominium community in Anne Arundel County rented nearby land and paved a parking area on it to accommodate the extra cars, he said.

"If you're willing to take the gamble to be innovative, you'll have a happier community," Mr. Mannes said.

Pets are another area of contention. New owners often move into University One in Charles Village without realizing that no dogs or cats are allowed in the 154-unit building, board president Karen Stoddard said. It's the board's unpleasant duty to tell the owner that Prince or Buffy must go.

Getting rid of the pet often requires expensive legal maneuverings, said Ms. Stoddard, who noted that the problems usually occur because a new owner has not read the condo documents thoroughly, or has received outdated documents.

Although a board may be tempted to overlook such violations, it's risking a lawsuit if it does, Mr. Mannes said. "I've seen the board sued because it failed to take action on this issue," he said. "The board has a duty to enforce its documents."

It's also common for conflicts to erupt if a neighbor's dog barks loudly during the day, while the owner is out or if someone walks and talks too noisily when he comes home at night. "Someone might say, 'You make too much noise, I can hear it through the walls, I'm going to get the board to make you stop,' " Mr. Mannes said.

But if the board is smart, it will stay out of such disputes and encourage the neighbors to solve the feud, he said.

"The rules under which neighbors live don't regulate how they are to treat each other," he said.

Occasionally problems develop that are even more explosive. At University One in July, trouble erupted when a unit owner threatened to beat other residents, said Ms. Stoddard, who was a victim of many of the verbal attacks. He also threw pool deck furniture into a rooftop pool, causing nearly $7,000 worth of damage.

And one summer morning at 3 a.m., he walked out of the building wearing only boxer shorts and lay down in the middle of the intersection of St. Paul Street and University Parkway.

Because he was a unit owner, the man could not be thrown out ZTC of the building, and his movement in any part of its common areas could not be restricted. Instead, the board hired guards to escort owners to their residences. Eventually, it filed charges against the man for malicious destruction of private property. Those, plus charges by unit owners and staff members of disturbing the peace, assault, and telephone abuse, resulted in the man being sentenced to two two-year prison terms in March.

Still, the issue has not been entirely resolved. The man still owns the unit and could return to it once his jail term ends.

Still, most problems are less dramatic, such as late payment of condo fees and assessments, he said. The recession has prompted a rash of such delinquencies, he said, noting that "if people fall on hard times, they'll pay their mortgages, but they won't pay their condo fees." Unpaid fees can interfere with the resale value of units.

Responsible, tolerant owners who try to work out problems on their own can help to make a condominium run smoothly, said Mr. Mannes, who noted that the majority of these developments lack serious problems. "People have to be reasonable, and they have to be good neighbors."

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