I just bought a new high-end condo! Nothin’ but air!

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about buyers of high end new condos looking to get out of a deal they signed at the height of the bubble. My firm has been lucky enough to be able to help out some of these buyers (my next post will focus on whether small buyers are entitled to use any legal leverage necessary to extricate themselves from a bad business deal — like any big developer would — or whether buyers should “accept the consequences” of their actions and just write off the earnest money).

In handling these cases, we’ve come to appreciate the “new” model for high rise condo development. First, though, some background about the “old” model for condos (and you condo experts please forgive me for a general discussion of the issue that does not apply to all condos — there are many variations — but which provides background for my larger point). When you purchase a condominium, you are buying the exclusive right to use a particular unit. You typically own this unit exclusively from “the paint in” — i.e. the unit and all its fixtures are yours to use as you please.

However, the walls, the structure, and even the land itself is owned by ALL of the owners as a common element. In other words, if your unit constitutes 1% of the total building, then you also own 1% of the whole common building (i.e. excluding other units) AND the dirt on which the building sits. The remaining owners own the remaining 99%, with each ownership share correlating to the size of each individual unit. So, even though you bought a condo and not a house, you still own — with others — real property, dirt, your own very small piece of planet earth. Because every piece of real property is unique — there is no other one exactly like it anywhere — and because humans are earth-bound (generally speaking, at least in terms of everyday living) real property has always been considered a good long term investment.

So what’s new? For various reasons (to allow for a hotel within the building, to allow the developer to retain an ownership interest in the property, etc.), large condo towers these days (such as Washingto Square Towers in Bellevue, Olive 8, and several others) are built “on” air, detached from the earth. If you bought one of those condos, you don’t own any dirt at all — only the building and airspace above the ground. Say WHAT?

Here’s how it works (again speaking generally — every project differs in the details, I am sure). The developer will create two parcels: a parcel on the ground, up to a certain height, and an “airspace” parcel above that. These are separate legal parcels, each with their own Parcel Number. The condo will be built in the “airspace” parcel. Owners will have an easement across the “land” parcel to guarantee access to their home in the “airspace” parcel above. I guess this could be described as a “man’s castle in the sky”.

I own a condo, and I take some comfort in knowing that I own dirt. The dirt will have value (unless/until we arrive at some “Mad Max” style future) regardless of what catastrophe strikes my condo. Presumably, my fellow owners and I will always have the option of selling that dirt to someone else (it would probably require 100% agreement and so its very unlikely, but it is at least theoretically conceivable). But what if you own only air detached from the dirt? Well, it seems to me you’ve got something much less valuable. And kinda weird too — who wants to live in an “airspace” home?

10 thoughts on “I just bought a new high-end condo! Nothin’ but air!

  1. Excellent, excellent post, Craig.

    I would like to add a few things I have seen over the years that refer to this sentence in your post: “the unit and all its fixtures are yours to use as you please.”

    That is often not the case, so buyers should be aware that they often need approval of the HOA to make changes inside of the unit.

    – Some don’t allow hardwood floors, except on the lowest level, for noise factor reasons of the unit below.

    – Fireplaces: if wood burning, often the HOA can dictate a mandatory schedule of having them cleaned at the owner’s expense, for fire safety reasons. Regardless of what kind of fireplace you have, if you want to change it from gas to electric or electric to gas or alter it in any way, often you have to send the specs to the HOA and sometimes use an installer they have designated.

    – Hot water tanks: Unit owner owns the hot water tank and pays for replacement. More and more HOA’s are requiring mandatory replacement at 10 years (and I highly recommend they do) as failure of the unit damages other units, and drastically impacts the Master Policy Insurance cost.

    – Windows and balconies are always a sticky issue. Windows and exterior doors are most often the owner’s expense, but they can only install windows and doors as approved by the HOA and they can only be installed by an HOA approved installer (in most cases).

    – Many HOAs have rules about window treatments that are visible from outside of the building.

    – Balconies are most often “private use common areas” and restrictions apply with regard to what you can and cannot put on the balcony.

    There are many restrictions regarding interior space. Suffice it to say that just because you “own” it, that doesn’t mean “”the unit and all its fixtures are yours to use as you please.”

    I have seen some very, very interesting cases regarding the land issue you speak about. Wonderful topic.

  2. P.S. When you want to get your Earnest Money back when you “shouldn’t”, always, always use an attorney to do that. There is no grey area about that. If you have a legal out or if the seller is in breach and so you should get it back morally, an agent can often get it back for you. But if you just want it back when you know you probably shouldn’t get it back…get an attorney, and he can probably get it back for you. Don’t ever ask an agent to do that.

  3. Pingback: How Buying At a Condo Above a Hotel is Different | urbnlivn on Seattle condos

  4. Pingback: Owning air « The Implied Observer

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