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Renovation Solutions: What to do before remodeling a condo

This client wanted to remove a wall in the kitchen, but because it's a condo, the plumbing inside the wall couldn't be removed. The solution: paint the pipes copper and work them in as a decorative feature in the design.
This client wanted to remove a wall in the kitchen, but because it's a condo, the plumbing inside the wall couldn't be removed. The solution: paint the pipes copper and work them in as a decorative feature in the design.
David T. Price

Being a condo owner often feels like living in real estate purgatory.

On one hand, you're an owner. The property is in your name, you are responsible for it, pay taxes on it, and have a say on what goes on there. On the other hand, your property is within the confines of a condo corporation, and so they, too, have a certain responsibility and say over what happens within their domain.

As a condo owner who wants to remodel, you have to walk a fine line between what you want to do with your home and what you're allowed to do.

You may have a project in mind that isn't allowed or may require certain permissions. The temptation is to just do it. However, a condo is not entirely your castle. It is better to be safe than sorry. Here are some things condo owners should do before they start renovating or remodeling:

Review the Status Certificate (also know as CC&R's—covenants, conditions, and restrictions). The status certificate lays out all the rules governing your condo, including whether special permissions are needed, what can be altered in the unit and what the common elements are. Common elements are the parts of the condo taken care of by the homeowners' association (things like the lobby, halls, front doors, windows, balconies, and in some cases AC and heating units) and which can only be changed by common consent.

Ask questions in writing. Status certificates are often written in "lawyerise" – so it's not unusual for certain things to appear less than clear. If you have questions about what's allowed or what you need permissions for, ask your condo corporation, preferably by e-mail. When dealing with any legal agreement it is best to have clarification and conversations in writing and email creates a nice and neat paper trail.

Consider hiring a contractor. Even if you are capable of accomplishing the project yourself, you may need to hire a contractor. Many condo associations have rules about when construction work can be done, and these times are often limited to 9 to 5 p.m. on weekdays only. Unless your work situation allows you to complete your project during these hours, you'll need to hire someone. Look for professionals who understand the constraints normally in place with condos. If work is being done in your condo, see who your neighbors have used and get their feedback.

Get approval. There are certain things – like knocking down a wall – that will absolutely require proper planning and permissions. Other things will depend on what is in your status certificate. If you're unsure, ask your association board. One of the advantages of working with an architect is that you will have drawings to clearly communicate the scope and intent of your project. Make sure you get the formal approvals you need from both the city and the condo association before you begin. Your homeowners' association may require a deposit to cover any potential damage that may occur in the common areas. Be sure to investigate whether mid-job inspections by the condo corporation are required.

Make prior arrangements. Start off on the right foot by properly booking parking, the freight elevator for materials (if available) and giving your condo's security, doormen or other staff a heads up on who is going to be coming and going from your unit. If your renovation involves any interruption to the building's main electrical or plumbing system, make those arrangements well ahead of time.

Be a good neighbor. You don't need your neighbors' permission to do approved work in your condo, but we can all admit it's annoying to live next to a construction zone. Let them know you will be doing some remodeling work before you begin. When the renovation is wrapping up, drop off cards to your neighbors thanking them for their patience.

Keep in mind we are not lawyers. Before you dive into your own project, do your due diligence. Rules, laws and norms vary from city to city and even from association to association.

Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founders of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local design firm specializing in home remodels.