The Housing Scene

Stay Out of 'Condo Jail'

Don DeBat has been writing about real estate long enough in his native Chicago that he knows a thing or two about condos.

Not as much as his former wife, Sara Benson, though.

Benson, who has owned several apartments over the years, as well as a real estate company that bears her name, bugged her former husband for several years about writing a tell-all book about condos. With her knowledge and his writing skills, she reasoned, the two could produce something that was both readable and informative.

The result is a 624-page tome entitled "Escaping Condo Jail" (Sarandon Publishing), a book the authors bill as "a long-overdue wake-up call" that tells the truth about so-called carefree condos and homeowners' association living. The book examines the myths about how condos work -- or don't work.

This column normally does not do book reviews. But there's a first time for everything, so we'd like to call your attention to three books that have crossed this desk in recent months.

First, the book by DeBat -- a former real estate editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and the late, great Chicago Daily News before that -- and Benson, who operates Benson Stanley Realty.

The essential section for would-be buyers of condos, or of houses where homeowners' associations control the community, is the 10-point checklist that's found deep in the 22nd chapter.

Don't leave home without it.

Space does not allow for listing all 10 points, but here are a few that are usually overlooked:

-- Spend some time in the community you are considering and try to get to know your potential neighbors. If possible, request a meeting with a member of the board to see if he or she will openly answer your questions about the association.

-- Make your purchasing contract subject to your attorney's review. "The building's budget, balance sheets, by-laws, special assessment history, rules and regulations, and any pending legislation should be carefully considered," the book says.

-- Ask how often owners have been hit with special assessments over the previous seven years, and the amount of each. "This history will typically serve as a good indicator of the likelihood of future special assessments," DeBat and Benson write.

Another volume homebuyers might find worth their time is "The Home Book" published by the Building Standards Institute in Washington, D.C. This 274-page guide to owner and builder responsibilities has three authors: California homebuilder David MacLellan, architect George Wolfson and Douglas Hansen, author of the Code Check series of industry field guides.

"The Home Book" is based largely on the more than 500 cases alleging defective construction in which the authors were called as expert witnesses. Of particular interest to buyers, especially rookies, is a section on the most common mistakes they make. Here are a few of the bigger gaffes:

-- Storing household goods on garage or attic ceiling trusses, which are designed to support the weight of the roof above and the ceilings below -- and nothing else.

-- Altering finished grades so that they no longer carry rainwater away from the foundation. They slope away for a reason.

-- Failing to use bathroom and laundry vent fans. They should always be turned on to carry out humidity. If they are not used, water vapor can seep into the drywall, electrical outlets and even the framing members.

-- Overloading upper cabinets. If loaded beyond capacity, they can pull away from the wall. "Heavy china and cookware should always be placed in lower cabinets," the book advises.

Book No. 3 is the latest edition of the "Consumer Action Handbook," which is free courtesy of Uncle Sam ( Here, the section on housing offers unbiased insight into tenant rights, choosing a home improvement or repair contractor, dealing with moving companies, buying a home and choosing a mortgage.

But the part every consumer could find informative is about how to complain. "Even the savviest consumer has problems with a good service at one time or another," the section starts out.

There is a proper way to complain, and it doesn't involve screaming at the person on the other end of the phone, or sending nasty letters. Consumers need to remain calm and collected or they will get nowhere.

In the proper order, here's what to do if you have a legitimate dispute with a builder, landlord, contractor or any other business:

-- Start a file with all pertinent paperwork and a log to record all contacts, including the name, title and identification number of the person with whom you spoke, as well as the time and day of the contact.

-- Contact the seller, if the dispute involves a consumer product. If you're not satisfied, call the manufacturer. And if you still don't get anywhere, ask the industry trade association for assistance.

-- Next, call in the big guns. Contact the consumer protection agency in the state where the company is located. Also try the regulatory and licensing offices, which may have jurisdiction over the company.

-- Contact the local Better Business Bureau.

More like The Housing Scene