Where do I get information on condos?
The major interest group for condominium projects and other so-called common-intereset developments is the nonprofit Community Associations Institute, 1630 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314; (703) 548-8600. Also, check the Internet where CAI operates an informative site as does CIDNetworks.

How are fees and assessments figured in a homeowners association?
Homeowners association fees are considered personal living expenses and are not tax-deductible. If, however, an association has a special assessment to make one or more capital improvements, condo owners may be able to add the expense to their cost basis. Cost basis is a term for the money an owner spends for permanent improvements throughout their time in the home and is used to reduce eventual capital gains taxes when the property is sold. For example, if the association puts a new roof on a building, the expense could be considered part of a condo owner's cost basis only if they lived directly underneath it. Overall improvements to common areas, such as the installation of a swimming pool, need to be considered on a case-by-case basis but most can be included in the cost basis of any owner who can show their home directly benefits from the work. To find out more about how the IRS views condo association fees, look to IRS Publication 17, "Your Federal Income Tax," which includes a section on condos. Order a free copy by calling (800) TAX-FORM.

Are condos a good investment?
Condominiums have held their value as an investment despite economic downturns and problems with some associations. In fact, condos have appreciated more in the past few years than when they first came on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, experts say. While there are lots of reports about homeowners association disputes and construction-defect problems, the industry has worked hard to turn its image around. Elected volunteers who serve on association boards are better trained at handling complex budget and legal issues, for example, while many boards go to great lengths to avoid the kind of protracted and expensive litigation that has hurt resale value in the past. Meanwhile, changing demographics are making condominiums more attractive investments for single home buyers, empty nesters and first-time buyers in expensive markets.

Can a condo association ban nudity?
Could you sunbathe in the nude on your own balcony? Not necessarily. In a condominium development, a balcony is not considered private property but common property assigned to your exclusive use - but a common area nonetheless. Covenants, codes and restrictions (CC&Rs) usually spell out what activities can and cannot be conducted on common property. Some associations prevent people from barbecuing on their balconies or hanging large plants from the railings. However, the larger issue of regulating personal conduct is not so clear-cut. It literally depends on what side of the fence you're on. If the sunbather can be seen from a public vantage point -- not by someone who must climb a tree or peer through binoculars -- then the rule probably would be considered reasonable, say legal experts. Incidentally, there are places where nudity is tolerated but again, only out of public view.

What's a house worth?
A home ultimately is worth what someone will pay for it. Everything else is an estimate of value. To determine a property's value, most people turn to either an appraisal or a comparative market analysis. An appraisal is a certified appraiser's estimate of the value of a home at a given point in time. Appraisers consider square footage, construction quality, design, floor plan, neighborhood and availability of transportation, shopping and schools. Appraisers also take lot size, topography, view and landscaping into account. Most appraisals cost about $300. A comparative market analysis is a real estate broker's or agent's informal estimate of a home's market value, based on sales of comparable homes in a neighborhood. Most agents will give you a comparative market analysis for free. You can do your own cost comparison by looking up recent sales of comparable properties in public records. These records are available at local recorder or assessor offices, through private real estate information companies or on the Internet.

Where do I get information on condo association laws?
Resources:
* "The Condominium Bluebook" by Branden E. Bickel, B&B Publications, San Francisco, CA; 1994; call (415) 433-1233).
* Community Associations Institute, Alexandria, VA; (703) 548-8600.

Do condos have to be made accessible to the disabled?
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act does not require strictly residential apartments and single-family homes to be made accessible. But all new construction of public accommodations or commercial projects (such as a government building or a shopping mall) must be accessible. New multi-family construction also falls into this category.
In all states, the Federal Fair Housing Act provides protection against discrimination for people with physical or mental disabilities. Discrimination includes the refusal to make reasonable modifications to buildings that aren't accessible to the disabled. Two educational brochures, "Housing Rights" and "Discrimination is Against the Law," are available through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing by calling (916) 227-0551. California residents can dial toll free (800) 884-1684.

Can condos ban smoking?
A homeowners association's board of directors can restrict smoking if it applies to indoor common spaces such as hallways or recreation rooms. Outdoor spaces are a different story, say legal experts. Any restriction would probably hinge on local laws (i.e. if a city banned smoking outdoors, a homeowners association probably could restrict smoking in its outdoor spaces). Typical covenants, codes and restrictions (CC&Rs), which govern condo associations, give the board authority to make and enforce reasonable rules for the use of common property. But that would not apply to interior spaces owned by smokers themselves.

Resources:
* Common-interest development brochure available free from California Department of Real Estate, Book Orders, P.O. Box 187006, Sacramento, CA 95818-7006; (916) 227-0938.
* Various Internet sites specializing in common-interest developments, such as those operated by the Community Associations Institute and CIDNetworks.