Millions Opt for Community Associations: Homeowners Cite Security, Services

Article excerpt

When he talks about "the succession of the successful" - the phenomenon of mostly upper-income Americans insulating themselves from declining "public" services such as police and schools - author and social scientist Charles ("The Bell Curve" and "What It Means to be a Libertarian") Murray points to the phenomenal growth of community associations.

Today, an estimated 32 million Americans - residents of town houses, condominiums and subdivisions - live in community associations. Convenience and control are the two main features of community associations.

Residents voluntarily pay "taxes" (association dues) for such services as landscaping, security, garbage collection and snow removal and agree to follow certain rules governing the appearance and use of their property.

It's Tocquevillean democracy at its most local: Meetings are held, officers are elected, directions are set and differences are ironed out.

Americans obviously like the idea. It's been just 35 years since the nation's first condominium project - Greystoke in Salt Lake City - ushered in the idea of a condo association.

Today, there are an estimated 150,000 homeowner and condominium associations across the country, a more than sevenfold increase since 1970. By 2000, there will be 225,000 community associations, estimates the Alexandria-based Community Associations Institute (703/548-8600 or http://www.caionline.org).

With that kind of growth, it's a good bet there is a community association in your future. Community associations come in three categories. Town-house and single-family developments have homeowner associations, condominiums have condominium associations, and cooperative units (5 percent of the country's housing) have co-op associations.

The differences vary. In a homeowners' association you own your house and the lot it's on. You're responsible for all the maintenance to those areas. The association holds title to the common property such as a swimming pool, tennis courts or greenbelt. The association maintains the common area, the grounds, roads and street lights.

In the case of a condominium, the ownership concept is harder to grasp. You basically own the air inside your unit and are part owner of all the common property. According to your deed, if you live in a 100-unit condominium you own one-hundredth of that condominium complex.

Condominium fees typically are much higher than homeowner fees because with a condo, there is much more common property such as the roof over your head, elevators, boilers and air-conditioning systems. The association pays to maintain and replace all this and more.

Semantics aside, there are a few things you need to know before buying a home that is part of a community association. First, all homeowners have to pay fees or "assessments" to the association. The money goes for upkeep, insurance, reserves and other items. All associations have rules, known variously as covenants, conditions and restrictions.

"The main purpose of a community association is to preserve and protect property values," says Debra Bass, vice president of communications for the Community Associations Institute.

Whether you buy a town home, a single-family home or condominium, one of the main reasons you were attracted to it was because you like the way the community looked.

To ensure that property values remain as high as possible, members of the community association must accept and abide by the rules. "People like the fact that you have assurances that their neighbor's house won't fall apart from disrepair or that they won't park a broken-down car on the property," Ms. …