Re: Building modifications
From: Edwin Simmers (
Date: Sun, 31 May 2020 13:12:31 -0700 (PDT)
The question has been raised about how to deal with modifications that owners 
propose, including the ones that they promise to maintain.

Several issues involving building modifications have arisen during the lifetime 
of Bellingham Cohousing. Perhaps some of our experiences may be helpful to 
other communities. Be aware, however, that condo laws vary from state to state 
and essential founding documents of communities vary widely. In other words, 
your mileage may differ.

Some of our modifications were done as part of original construction twenty 
years ago. We allowed very limited customization, recognizing that each custom 
item would increase overall complexity and cost of construction. Original 
custom items included interior finishes (wood flooring and countertop color, 
for instance), washer/dryer hookups, enlarged decks, skylights, and garden 

Modifications since original construction have included electrical and plumbing 
changes, still larger decks, rain barrels, heat pump cooling, and deck rail 
changes. There have also been a lot of landscaping changes, including block 
walls and fences, but I’ll leave a discussion of landscaping to another time.

It is essential to understand the difference between “units” and “common 
elements.”  In our community, because of Washington condo law and our founding 
documents, “units” have often been half-facectiously described as a box of air 
inside a building. That description is not a bad informal way for people to 
understand the concept. Wall finishes, floor covering, cabinets and appliances 
are part of an owners unit. Owners have the right to make changes to their 
units and the responsibility to maintain and repair them.

Windows, walls, skylights, doors and porches are all common elements of the 
condominium as are the rest of the buildings and all the land. 

The reason the distinction between units and common elements is so important is 
that while owners are responsible for their units the condominium association 
is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the common elements.

Here’s an example of how conflict can occur. One original owner paid extra for 
a fancy opening skylight in the roof above his unit during construction. Ten 
years later, after the unit had been sold, the skylight began to leak and 
needed to be replaced. Who’s responsible for the expensive replacement cost, 
the current owner or the association? Well, since skylights are common 
elements, the association was responsible. As you can imagine, other owners, 
none of whom had a skylight, weren’t happy that they essentially had to pay a 
share of the replacement cost.

Another example is an owner who expanded her deck to more than twice the 
original size and then later sold the unit. The association is responsible for 
painting and repairing decks so . . . . See the problem?

We found that there was no practical way to ensure that new buyers are aware of 
modifications or are told the original owner was willing to accept special 
responsibility to pay for repairs and maintenance, even if the original owner 
promised to do so. As a result, we did make some changes to our founding 
documents to deal with this by allowing the association to assess continuing 
monthly dues calculated as the ongoing anticipated expense of modification 
maintenance and repair. But that calculation is so hard to make and so 
contentious that we’ve never done it.

Bottom line advice for communities: Only allow modifications to common elements 
that the association is willing to accept the responsibility to maintain and 
repair forever into the future just like all other common elements.

> Message: 2
> Date: Fri, 29 May 2020 12:14:42 -0500 (CDT)
> From: Fred-List manager <fholson [at] <mailto:fholson [at] 
> To: Cohousing-L mailing list <cohousing-l [at] 
> <mailto:cohousing-l [at]>>
> Subject: Re: [C-L]_ Building modifications
> Message-ID: <alpine.DEB.2.20.2005291209270.17468 [at] 
> <mailto:alpine.DEB.2.20.2005291209270.17468 [at]>>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII
> Carolyn Dyer <cdyer1621 [at] <mailto:cdyer1621 [at]>> who 
> started this thread on May 19,
> is the author of the message below.  It was posted by
> Fred, the Cohousing-L list manager <fholson [at] 
> <mailto:fholson [at]>>
> after deleting quoted digest and restoring subject line.
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> --------------------  FORWARDED MESSAGE FOLLOWS --------------------
> Thanks for the comments here and the extternal communications.
> To clarify the situation at Prairie Hill, it is being  built as half the
> units in a 2- or 4-unit building have been subscribed for.  Construction
> has necessarily extended over 3 years so far and will continue at least
> another year.  Because of steep terrain and a couple of building styles
> each is designed by our architect separately, although many elements are
> repeated in the designs. . Instead of bulk purchases of materials which
> would not be possible without a warehouse to store materials, we have 2
> levels of finishes and substantial discounts negotiated with a set of
> vendors.Owners pay what construction costs, including costs of land
> purchase, site development, engineering, architecture, and similar
> so-called soft costs for each unit. As material prices have gone up, so
> have building costs.  When folks sell their homes, the price will be based
> on cost plus appreciation.   Our condo fees are apportioned with half based
> on the size of the home and half divided by the number of units. Members
> agreed to this formula and are comfortable with it. This model of
> development may not work for other communities, but it has worked for us.
> The modifications folks are proposing are, for example, screening in
> existing porches, reasonable after-market modifications in mosquito
> country., or extending patios with additional hard surfaces. Owners will
> maintain these non-community extras.

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