When Is a Condominium a Townhouse?

Hickenbottom is past president of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI), a national nonprofit research and educational organization

QUESTION: We live in a 288-unit townhouse complex in Anaheim. It is very irritating to me that real estate agents list the units as condominiums even though our homes are called townhomes in the original developer's brochures and newspaper advertising. Unfortunately, the articles of incorporation call us a condominium homeowners association. What can be done to correct this error and rename our association as a townhouse association?

ANSWER: At the recent Los Angeles Times' Home Buyers and Sellers Fair many people asked me to explain the difference between a condominium and a townhouse. It is also a frequent question from readers.

The term "townhome" or "townhouse" is just a description of the architectural style of your complex.

Townhouse complexes usually have several buildings with a small number of units per building. The townhouse units are vertical-style, that is, they are often three-story units with the garage space occupying the ground level, living room and kitchen on the second level and bedrooms on the third level. The units are usually built in a row with shared walls between the units.

Many townhouse owners like the convenience of having their own garage stalls that connect directly to the living areas of the unit via a private entrance. Most townhouses have a private patio or adjacent lawn area that may or may not belong to the individual owners.

Usually, condominiums are larger buildings that look just like an apartment complex. The traditional condominium complex will have a non-private parking area, a common lobby, hallways and elevators and the individual units are usually like apartments.

Your complex is probably designated as a condominium association in the legal documents because all of the owners share in the ownership of the land.

If it were a planned unit development (PUD), each unit owner might own the land under the individual townhouse unit as well as a proportionate share of the common area. Thorough examination of your documents and deed will disclose the land ownership.

It is unnecessary for the association to be renamed since the legal documents were probably written to reflect the proper legal ownership of the land and common area.

You obviously feel that a townhouse has more appeal to a prospective buyer, so if your unit is for sale, ask the listing agent to advertise it as a townhouse-style condominium.

Can Little-Used Age Limitations Be Evoked?

Q: I own a condominium in an association that has age restrictions that have not been enforced for a number of years. The governing documents (CC&Rs;) state that "Each unit shall be occupied by at least one person not less than fifty (50) years of age and no person under eighteen (18) years of age shall permanently reside in any unit."

A 36-year-old renter has been a resident here for about six years. Another resident who is under 50 has resided here for a number of years. She recently purchased another unit and moved into it.

Since the CC&Rs; have been violated regarding age restrictions for a number of years, can we enforce the restrictions now? In the future, can a property owner be restricted from selling to someone under 50 years of age? These are questions that have divided our board of directors and angered a number of owners. One attorney that I contacted said, "If the board has knowledge of a violation of the CC&Rs;, and does not respond in writing to the offender before another board meeting occurs, that represents the board's approval." Can you provide some insight?

A: Evidently, the attorney you contacted is unaware of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and the federal laws pertaining to age discrimination.

The federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 prohibits denying residence of the basis of age. Unless your complex provides specific services or amenities for the physical and social needs of senior citizens, it would not qualify as senior housing. Your association would probably be in violation of the law and subject to penalties if you attempt to enforce your outdated legal documents.

The specific requirements that the association must satisfy to qualify as senior housing are numerous and complex. I suggest that you consult with an attorney who is familiar with the federal and state laws regarding age restrictions and senior housing requirements if you wish to explore the possibility of enforcing your age restrictions.

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