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HomeNewsArchivesUndercurrents: Condo Dwellers' Castles in the Air

Undercurrents: Condo Dwellers' Castles in the Air

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

How does someone end up owning a home but not the land underneath it? And who are condo owners anyway?

In the next three weeks Undercurrents will take a close look at condominium life in the Virgin Islands, from the scope of this niche housing, to its special legal and social challenges, to what owners see as the pros and cons of life in a condo.

While they were rare before 1970, the number of condominiums in the territory has ballooned so much in the last three or four decades that complexes now dot wide sections of all three main islands. Records at the Tax Assessor’s Office show 4,718 residential condominium units in the Virgin Islands. That’s 2,798 on St. Thomas; 1,692 on St. Croix, and 228 on St. John. (There are also a few commercial condominiums – like those health complexes where health professionals buy their own space.)

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Residential condo complexes vary greatly in size and scope, from those with a handful of units in one building to those with hundreds of units contained in multiple buildings.

Not all units are owner-occupied. Some are investment properties whose owners rent them either long-term to V.I. residents or short-term as vacation sites. Some are vacation homes that sit empty in the summer months and are occupied only when their stateside owners fly in to escape the cold of winter or to establish residency for tax purposes.

But many belong to year-round residents who have adjusted – some more successfully than others– to the unique features of condo living.

What is it, really?

A condominium is housing that is owned partly by an individual and partly by a group of which the individual is a member.

There are some condominiums that look like townhouses or single-family houses. But the more typical condominium complex, especially in the V.I., looks a whole lot like an apartment building.

When you buy a condo, “you essentially get the space that’s located within the walls” of a particular apartment unit, said George Ethridge, a St. Thomas attorney who does a lot of legal work involving condominiums. But you also get a portion of the land on which the entire complex sits and a portion of all the so-called “common areas” such as the laundry room, the gray water sewage system, the outdoor lighting, and – if there are any – such amenities as the swimming pool, the guardhouse and the tennis courts.

How does it work?

The owners in a given condominium complex form an association for the sole purpose of governing the complex. When you buy a condo, you automatically become a member of the association. It’s a mini-democracy, subject to the laws of the United States and to the laws of the U.S. Virgin Islands. But the association can make up its own regulations too, deciding such things as whether pets are allowed, how late you can swim in the pool, and what color your front door can be painted.

The association is regulated by a declaration that set out the perimeters of the complex when it was first created, and by its own bylaws, which can be amended by the members. Over all this is the territory’s condominium statute, modeled after the national Uniform Condominium Act.

The association’s members – ie, the unit owners – elect a board and, usually, officers, to represent the association. Typically this happens annually.

“One thing that it does take is a lot of volunteer work,” Ethridge said, adding that he has been impressed over the years by the amount of time and energy some association members have donated to their neighbors, serving without compensation as officers and/or directors.

What does it cost?

Condo associations are non-profits. They collect money from the membership to cover costs.

“Basically, everyone shares the common expenses,” Ethridge said. Those can include the cost of groundskeeping, trash collection, cleaning the gutters, general upkeep of the building(s), painting the exterior walls, and general maintenance and repair of common areas. There also may well be accounting and legal fees to share.

The association itself, through its board, determines the amount of so-called “common charges” that each owner must pay on a regular basis, typically monthly. The idea is to keep the intake and the pay-out equal. For extraordinary expenses – say, an unexpected capital project – the board may also impose an assessment. An assessment may be a one-time lump sum payment, or it may be a temporary additional sum on top of the regular monthly charges.

Trying to compare associations’ common charges amounts is like comparing apples to oranges to peaches, to mangoes to genips. Some associations include insurance payments in monthly fees, some assess that separately. Some include fees for water, some don’t. Some include a capital fund, some don’t.

The range of amenities being funded also greatly effects the amount; if the complex doesn’t have a tennis court, owners don’t have to pay to maintain it. Even within a complex, amounts vary slightly, based on the size of the owner’s unit. Then there is the issue of whether the complex is primarily owner-occupied, primarily investment property, or a mix. Investment properties tend to have more expenses and higher fees.

Reviewing a recent multiple listing of condominiums available for sale on St. Thomas illustrates the point. An Anchorage unit listed pays $567.50 monthly. One at Bluebeards Castle Hilltop pays $1,153.42. Harbour House is $305. Grand View Villas, $556. Regatta Point is $566.80, but there is also a $242.31 charge for insurance and $116.49 for a special assessment. The lowest price on this particular listing was $50 monthly at Burnette Towers. The highest, $3,333 at Mafolie Villas 8 – though that’s actually a quarterly payment of $10,000.

(Next: The condo real estate market and regulations.)

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