Condo Remodeling: When Permits and Approval Are Needed

Construction site
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Consider this scenario.  An owner of a single-family house wants to add blown-in cellulose insulation in her home's exterior walls.  What kind of permission does she need?  Other than contacting her local municipalities about pulling a permit, she's free to call the insulation guys and begin right away.  In fact, in most cases, she won't even need that municipal permit for blown-in insulation because it doesn't involve opening up the walls.

Now let's tweak the scenario a bit:  she lives in a condominium.  Screeech!  Yes, that's a sound bite of a record needle scratching across an LP, meaning:  stop right now.

With respect to remodeling, condos can be both wonderful and a nightmare.  Wonderful:  by living communally with others, you harness the power of numbers.  Collective strength is powerful when negotiating costs with contractors.  Also, big ticket projects tend to cost less than the sum of their parts.

Nightmare:  everything else.  

Homeowners' Associations (HOAs) tightly control all aspects of condo remodeling through the CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions), which all condo owners become legally obligated to follow when they purchase their property (see Note and Disclaimer below*).  

What's The Difference Between Municipal Permits and HOA Permission?

Completely separate things.  I'm using the word "municipal" to collectively refer to city or county building/remodel permits.

 HOA permission refers to your legally binding agreement between you and your HOA.  

Do I Need To Pull Municipal Permits To Remodel?

Yes.  Projects that require municipal permitting with a single-family house require permitting in a condo.  And more.

What's The "More?"

It's rare that you would need a permit to replace a kitchen floor in your single-family home.

 After all, it's not a hygiene or safety problem, and it doesn't affect other homeowners in the least.  But some municipalities require permits for flooring replacement in a condo.

For example, the City of Minneapolis requires a permit for any condo owner wishing to replace his/her carpet with hard flooring (wood, stone, ceramic, etc.).  In addition to the permit, condo owners need to install a sound mat below the hard flooring.

Why Do I Need HOA Authorization To Remodel?

Being communal groups, HOAs are concerned with maintaining the property as a whole.  Your unit is secondary to the welfare of the entire building.  That's why CC&Rs stress the word structural in the by-laws.  A typical clause reads,

Nothing shall be done in any unit or on the common areas which may impair the structural integrity of the building or which may structurally change the building.

In addition to structural integrity, HOAs are concerned about noise.  Noise is the number one cause of rancor in condos, so associations want to keep peace among residents.

Finally, HOAs need to keep control over the common property.  Plumbing (supply and waste) and electrical are both considered common property.

8 Projects Where You Need HOA Approval

Any remodel involving

  1. Interior or exterior walls.
  2. Structural floor.
  3. Ceilings.
  4. Columns. 
  5. Finish flooring.  
  6. Plumbing.
  7. Electrical.
  8. Aesthetic changes to the exterior.

Projects Where You Don't Need HOA Approval

Given the ambiguity of much CC&R language, I highly recommend running any kind of condo remodel past the HOA board first.  Some projects that may not need approval:

  1. Interior painting.
  2. Trim work (crown molding, baseboards, door and window casings).
  3. Replacement of light fixtures, outlets, and switches.
  4. Replacement of shower, bath, or sink fixtures.

Are CC&R Requirements Regarding Remodels Legally Binding?

Yes, absolutely.  The HOA can fine you for infractions.  If the HOA takes you to court, they can recover those fines as well as attorney fees.

In one case, condo owner Howard Gottlieb made changes to his Acacia On The Green condo unit in Lyndhurst, OH involving electrical work for cable jacks and lighting, as well as implementation of a "new thermostat, toilet, kitchen sink, bathroom sink, kitchen countertops, shower heads, bathroom cabinets, and tile flooring," according to court documents.

 Despite repeated HOA warnings, Gottlieb persisted with the remodeling.  The HOA took him to court and won over $18,000 in fines and legal costs.

* I cannot stress enough that, while CC&Rs are often derived from boilerplate templates, they are usually changed in many ways to reflect the desires of that particular HOA.  So, my advice is generalized; your situation may be different.