Fall House Hunt

At your service. Or not. In some condo setups, you don’t get what you pay for.

In many communities, units shell out for, but don’t receive, the same municipal services as the owners of single-family homes.

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Condominium owners pay the same real estate tax rates as single-family homeowners in cities and towns across the Commonwealth, but they usually don’t enjoy the same municipal services like trash pickup. They have to hire private contractors.


Condominium owners pay the same real estate tax rates as single-family homeowners in cities and towns across the Commonwealth, but they usually don’t enjoy the same municipal services.

While there are exceptions, many municipalities (including Boston) that provide trash pickup for single-family homes, don’t cover trash removal for condominium buildings. That means condo owners have to pay private contractors to haul their trash and recycling away, while single-family homeowners get that service at no additional cost.

Thomas O. Moriarty, a lawyer who specializes in condominium law and a principal at Moriarty Troyer and Malloy, said, although it is legal to treat them differently, “It’s fundamentally unfair that just because of the form of ownership, condo owners don’t get the services single-family homeowners get, even though they pay the same tax rates.”

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And it doesn’t end there. The way many communities charge for water and sewer is based on a water meter. Many single-family homes and many condominium buildings have a single water meter.

In Boston, water rates begin at $7.967 for the first 1,000 gallons used, $8.508 for the next, $9.279 for the next, and so on. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average US resident uses about 82 gallons of water a day. At about 328 gallons a day for a hypothetical family of four, it’s easy to see how a single-family home’s water rates can creep up. Small condo buildings can have a meter per unit, but they have to pay for it themselves, according to the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.

Now consider a midsized condo building with 20 units containing 40 residents and a single water meter. That’s 3,280 gallons a day. After a single day, the residents of that building are already approaching the fourth tier of water and sewer rates, though their water use per capita is about the same as residents in a single-family home.

And sewerage isn’t metered. It’s simply assumed that just about all the water that enters a building eventually leaves through the sewer system. Those rates are also tiered and even higher than the water rates, making it a double-whammy for condo owners on public water/sewer systems.

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The city of Boston declined multiple requests for comment on this story.

Moriarty said that discrepancy is unjustifiable.

“That’s wholly arbitrary,” he said. “The municipality is dispersing that water to a single-family condominium unit. It’s not a commercial use. It’s not an industrial use. It ignores the fact that this is an authorized form of ownership, a lawful form of residential ownership.”

Richard E. Brooks, a lawyer with Marcus, Errico, Emmer and Brooks, has been representing condo associations lobbying for equitable treatment by municipalities for decades. He said there are even more inequities.

For example, some condo associations are in small enclaves with private roads that essentially function like public roads, but the municipalities don’t plow or maintain the sidewalks, roadway, or lighting. The associations have to pay private contractors to do that.

“Over the years, I’ve worked with groups of condo associations to get about 36 municipalities to collect trash at condominiums,” he said. “And there are another 16 or 17 who are considering it.”

Brooks said the problem stems from the day developers apply for a special permit to build condos, since virtually all multifamily housing in Eastern Massachusetts is built by special permit. The developer has to “sell” the project to the municipality, and very often, he said, the sales pitch is a version of the following:

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“You’re going to get 50 new taxpayers, which will be much more revenue per acre than you’d get from single-family homes, and condos are going to pick up their own trash,” he said. “And they’ll deal with their own security issues. And they probably won’t use your school system because the units are smaller.

“The city is happy because logistically they know it’s a better deal for them. So the developer gives away all these rights, but the rights they give away are the rights of the future owners, not theirs.”

Brooks said many condo associations don’t want to sue for equitable treatment because it’s too expensive. To get municipalities to treat condominium associations more equitably, he suggested that condo associations in a community band together and lobby the municipal government.

“It’s a political battle, not a legal battle,” he said. If we sued over it, we’d lose because they are allowed to discriminate. I’ve been doing this for 34 years, and I’ve never sued a town over it.

“Just try and ask your town to change. You live there, so you can ask them to do it. And then you can show them why it’s only the fair and right thing to do.”

Jim Morrison can be reached at [email protected]

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