REAL ESTATE

Turn the Tables: How to Interview the Board of a Condo, Co-op, or HOA

How to vet your condo board

How to vet your condo board  (This content is subject to copyright.)

If you're buying a condo, co-op, or a house in a homeowners association ( HOA), you will probably have to submit to an interview by its board before the deal is done. And sure, it may seem awfully intimidating to sit there and be scrutinized by the "in" crowd in a community you hope desperately to join. You wonder: Will they like you? Do you have what it takes to fit in?

Yes, friends, you're back in high school again.

But here's some perspective: You can ease up on the teeth-gnashing already. The truth is that they should be a bit nervous about meeting you, too. Sure, they may be peppering you with questions about your finances and assessing how well you'll get along with your new neighbors. But these boards have their own financials, their weak points, and their personality quirks -- all of which could have a big impact on what living there will be like.

So just are they are vetting you, you need to vet them -- and you need to do it before you decide to buy and move in. Here are some questions to ask them to help you suss out if they run a tight ship or are a total mess, so you can weigh the pros and cons of joining their club.

'What are your rules regarding pets/home improvements, etc.?'

Condos, co-ops, and HOAs are more or less closed communities, where members must follow a set list of rules -- also known as their Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, or CC&Rs. Home sellers will provide you with these CC&Rs during your review process, and it's important to read up on these regulations, and ask about anything that concerns you when you meet with the board in person.

"Quality of life questions often get overlooked during meetings with a board," says Kathy Murray, senior vice president at Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York City. No issues are too minor or silly if it pertains to something that's important to you. Love tinkering with your ancient Cadillac? Better find out if your HOA allows you to do so in your driveway. Interested in having roommates or subletting out your place using services like Airbnb on on occasion, to bring in extra cash? Better make sure that's allowed, or else you could get in serious trouble. Love painting your home wild colors? The board may need to give the thumbs up before you go off to buy the supplies.

If you don't like certain CC&Rs, don't just assume you can just ignore them once you're part of the community. Doing so could lead to fines (which you'll also want to ask about) or even get you evicted from your home. The good news? If certain laws really just don't gel well with you, you can cancel your contract. As long as it's during your review period, you can usually withdraw your offer, keep your deposit, and move on, just a bit worse for the wear.

So, it's worth making 100% sure you're game to play by their rules.

'How often have the monthly fees changed?'

Parking garages, rooftop gardens, neighborhood clubhouses, and community pool -- lovely amenities, all. But they also have to be paid for, in part by you, in the form of monthly dues. So before you buy, you'll want to know not only what those maintenance fees are, but ask how often those fees have changed over the past 5 or 10 years. Also ask whether any assessments have been made (these are temporary hikes to cover unforeseen expenditures) and how large a reserve fund is in place (which serves as a buffer against sudden fee hikes).

"Some new construction communities are under-capitalized at the start, so 10 to 15 years later, when some of the common property starts to need replacement, homeowners are surprised by dues increasing suddenly or special assessments being levied," says Christopher K. Bourland, a real estate appraiser and lawyer for Mid-Atlantic Valuation Group Inc., as well as a board member of a condo association in Pennsylvania.

'What's a board meeting like?'

Ask whether residents regularly attend open board meeting sessions, and if so, what those meetings are actually like. In a perfect world, you'd sit in on one yourself.

"Are people arguing at the board, or making recommendations? Are residents' suggestions welcomed, or does the board react defensively?" says Dottie Schindlinger, governance technology specialist at BoardEffect.You might also do a search for local news articles about the building or neighborhood -- particularly ones where a member of the board is quoted. Is this someone you want making decisions for you?

'How long do board members typically serve?'

Board members are typically elected by others in the community and serve for a year. But if these people typically flee the board as soon as (or before!) their term is up, it's a good bet that it's a toxic environment. On the other hand, if a board has had the same members for years, it can be a sign of stagnation. The reason? "There's no clear path for new voices and new leadership to flourish," Schindlinger explains.

What you hope to see: "A balance between veteran board members and new folks, a clear path to become a member of the board, and evidence that the board is upholding and operating in accordance with its own bylaws," Schindlinger notes. You know the phrase "Power corrupts"? that can happen in boards, too, so unless you're up for staging a coup, better make sure they're serving their community well.