Guide to Permits and Approvals For Condos

Inside a construction site with debris

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Condo living can be fantastic for people who would like to do some home remodeling, but not too much of it.

You're free to remodel inside your home and do things like paint, add flooring, and fix up the kitchen or bathroom. And when it comes to those big exterior projects, that's left up to the condo to do, which includes all of the residents and you. By living communally with others, you harness the power of numbers. Collective strength is powerful when it comes to adding a new roof, painting, or negotiating costs with contractors

Remodeling as a condo owner means dealing with some gray areas. If you're the owner of a single-family detached house and you want to add blown-in cellulose insulation in your home's exterior walls, you just do it. Your area may require permits or not, but essentially this is your project and yours alone.

With a condo, who controls permits for building projects? When you want to modify your condo, can you do this?

HOA Permissions vs. Municipal Permits

Homeowners' Associations (HOAs) control many 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. Upon purchase of the condo, owners become members of the association.

Municipal permits and HOA permissions are separate things. Municipal permits might include city, county, or even state permits for activities related to remodeling, whereas HOA permission refers to the legally binding agreement between you and your HOA. 

Municipal Permits For Condo Remodels

Permits are required for many condo remodels. Projects that require municipal permitting with a single-family house require permitting in a condo.

In a single-family detached house, it's rare that you would need a permit to replace a kitchen floor. Installing a new floor covering is not a hygiene or safety problem, and it doesn't affect adjacent homeowners.

Yet 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.

HOA Authorization for Remodels

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. For example, 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."

HOAs are even concerned about interior remodels that might seem to be outside of the purview of the association and other members. Installing a kitchen floor in a condo becomes a larger issue because the weight of the flooring may impact the structure as a whole.

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 of the common property. Plumbing (supply and waste) and electrical are both considered common property.

Typical Projects Requiring HOA Approval

Any condominium remodel involving the following areas of the condo usually need HOA approval:

  • Interior or exterior walls
  • Structural floor
  • Ceilings
  • Columns
  • Finish flooring
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • Aesthetic changes to the exterior

When HOA Approval Is Not Needed

Given the ambiguity of much CC&R language, it is highly recommended to run any kind of condo remodels past the HOA board first. Some projects that may not need approval:

Legal Authority of CC&R Requirements

The HOA can fine resident-members for infractions. If the HOA takes you to court, it is possible that they can recover those fines as well as attorney fees.

In one high-profile case, condo owner Howard Gottlieb made changes to his Acacia On The Green condo unit in Lyndhurst, Ohio involving electrical work for cable jacks and lighting, as well as the implementation of a "new thermostat, toilet, kitchen sink, bathroom sink, kitchen countertops, showerheads, 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.