by Dave Twombly


In his poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost’s neighbor says “good fences make good neighbors”. But what if you don’t have a fence separating “what’s yours” from “what’s theirs”? What if you live in a space where things are “ours” and you have to share your perfect little piece of the pie? Clearly, Frost’s neighbor didn’t live in age of condos.

When out searching for your condo, particularly if you are looking for a young family, it’s important to remember that the space, while yours, is not all your own. Sure, you already know about condo fees (Homeowner’s Association fees, or HOAs in the listings) that cover maintenance, common areas and create a fund for big projects like new roofs and siding. But do you know who is sharing that space with you?

In a January 2011 issue of The Boston Globe Magazine there was an article about condo nightmares entitled “Home Sweet Hell: Falling into the Condo Trap”. The article highlighted stories of condo owners in small associations (mostly 2 unit associations) where one owner controlled 50% or more of the association, rendering the other owner powerless in any and all decision making.

Folks who seemed perfectly neighborly upon moving in became terrors with whom these new owners had to share space. And the owners with the smaller percentage simply had to grin and bear it. (And continue to do so through their attempts to sell their places to others who were wisely less interested in the smaller percentage of decision-making)

I have friends who recently put an offer on a condo in a 3 unit association. It seemed to have 3 separate owners, leaving ultimate control to no one person in particular. Upon further inspection however, my friends learned that two of the three units were owned by a husband and wife team with different last names. The pulled their offer and dodged a potential bullet.

What can you do? How can you protect yourself? Do your homework! Look to see who actually owns what. Find out with whom you share walls in your dream condo. Is your next door neighbor a drummer in a Death Metal band whose only free time to practice is between midnight and 3am? Does your future neighbor disagree with your views on composting, recycling and using green materials? Get your hands on condo docs and have your attorney examine them closely. Will the association allow your pet potbelly pig?

Further, you should talk to as many folks in the building association as possible. Look to see how the association actually functions (hoping that it does function). Talk to neighbors in nearby properties — they are not as intimately involved and may well have informative and helpful opinions. Ask yourself: have you thoroughly examined all of the common spaces? Don’t just fall in love with your unit and forego the rest (“hmmm…should those oily rags and blasting caps be stored right next to the furnace?”).

Sure, I know that all of this seems rudimentary and like common sense. But as we always say around the Ol’ 4 Buyers office, “buying a home is an emotional process”. When you stumble into the space of your dreams, shared or not, it’s easy to overlook the important yet less romantic issues that can impact your life, potentially for the next 30 years. It’s important to be unemotional and Do Your Homework or have someone with no emotional tie to the space think of these things for you.