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Rules Clashes Show Condos Are No Communes

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Before you join a commune, baby, make sure of one thing: that everybody's on the same wavelength.

OK, not many of us are moving to '60s-style communes. But something like 30 million Americans live in communities governed by homeowners associations that have a lot of commune-like features.

Among the benefits are shared costs for landscaping, insurance and building maintenance. Typically, the homeowner is individually responsible only for the costs "from the drywall in," as the expression goes. This is especially attractive to retirees and vacation-home owners. Just turn the key and walk away whenever you want; someone else will water the lawn.

The downside is that you pay for all this maintenance and service, perhaps with multiple fees. And if money's a little tight and you'd rather postpone the road paving project a year or two -- tough luck, the majority rules. So it pays to be careful when you buy.

Standard advice calls for reading all the bylaws, contracts and rules and regulations carefully before you make an offer. You don't want to discover on move-in day that your 40-pound dog is 20 pounds over the permitted limit. Or that you can't bring a pickup or motorcycle onto the property. Or that you need a new wardrobe for the dress code in the clubhouse.

The prospective buyer also should find out if extra dues assessments are looming. Those may be charged for nonroutine projects such as a clubhouse refurbishment or repaving, or because too many owners are behind on their payments. Some condo owners have been surprised by a jump in fees after the original developer hands the association over to the homeowners.

Other issues can lurk beneath the surface, harder to detect than official rules and regs, and they require some sleuthing into the community's internal politics. Many communities break down into unofficial factions that can conflict with one another over rules and spending.