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When a home isn't a house

Buying a house is different from buying a condominium is different from buying a manufactured home. In Florida, home shoppers have all three options.

There's a lot of help and information available for someone buying a single-family house, but what about the thousands of Floridians who purchase condominiums and manufactured housing every year? Many are shocked to find that they have to buy a motor vehicle registration for their new mobile home _ or that a condo association has the right to ask them some pretty personal questions before they're allowed to buy a unit.

Here are some basic things to keep in mind if you're considering buying a condominium or mobile home.

Condominiums

"The first and most important thing people need to be aware of is that when you buy a condo, you're buying a lifestyle," says Jeri Kimbrel of the state's Bureau of Condominiums in Tallahassee. "It's not like you're moving into this carefree place where somebody else does all the maintenance. It's a self-governing, democratic community and the majority rules. The association is going to vote on levying assessments and you, as a unit owner, are going to have to pay your share."

Kimbrel recommends that anyone buying a condominium first should ask to see the following documents: declaration of condominium, articles of incorporation, bylaws and any other rules and regulations. "And you've got to read those documents even though it's a huge stack of paper they'll give you because you're going to live by those rules," Kimbrel says.

If you buy a new unit from a developer, you'll receive the documents automatically, but in a resale, you may have to ask to review them. (A new amendment to the Condominium Act will simplify this process by requiring sellers to complete a question-and-answer sheet with information on association rules and regulations. But it's uncertain whether that amendment will go into effect April 1, as scheduled. In the meantime, Kimbrel advises condo buyers to read the documents before closing.)

Some condo associations require that they be allowed to approve a buyer before the sale is closed. "It varies from association to association," Kimbrel says. If you want to buy in a community that does have that provision, you may be asked to provide the association with your credit and employment history, and the association may do some detective work. Be prepared to be scrutinized.

Taxes on condominiums are assessed much like any other property. "You pay on your unit just like you do on a single-family house," Kimbrel says. In addition, each unit owner usually also pays a share of property taxes on common areas of the community. "Before buying, you should check on how taxes are assessed in that community, definitely," Kimbrel says.

Although buying a condominium is slightly more complicated than buying a single-family home, Kimbrel says the lifestyle continues to appeal to millions of Floridians. "If that's your choice, to live in a system like that, then you'll love living there."

Manufactured housing

First, a matter of semantics. What's the difference between mobile homes and manufactured houses?

Technically, "there have been no mobile homes since 1976," says Jack Slater of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association. "That's when the building code in the state became the same as the federal HUD code, which calls the whole category manufactured housing."

In many ways, buying a manufactured house is much like buying a regular, "site-built" home. You pick out one you like (although often, that process takes place on the sales lot of a manufactured housing retailer), you get a mortgage and you move in. "The only difference," Slater says, "is that you move your new house to the site on a truck."

Taxes on condominiums are assessed much like any other property.

However, owners of manufactured houses need to know that if they move their home onto a lot in a land-lease community (where you own the home and rent the lot), they are required to buy a motor vehicle registration decal and display it on the home. "In effect, it's a license tag," Slater says. Cost of the decal is based on the size of the home; it usually runs between $75 and $150 a year.

If you move a manufactured home onto your own lot, "you pay ad valorem taxes, just like any property owner," Slater says. "All the impact fees and everything else are the same." If a unit owner wants to claim homestead exemption, he or she must purchase and display an "RP" decal, which identifies the house as real property. The one-time cost is $5 for a single-wide unit and $10 for a double-wide.

More and more developers, according to Slater, are building manufactured housing communities to address the need for affordable housing. "I was talking to a developer the other day," Slater says. "He's developing a 100-site community up in DeLand. He's going to be putting up 1,600- to 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath houses for probably about $80,000 apiece."

One of the industry's biggest stumbling blocks, Slater says, has been local zoning laws, which exclude manufactured houses. "State law says you cannot discriminate against manufactured housing," he says, "but it's done."

A new zoning law in Pinellas County has changed that in part. "Now they can put manufactured homes in a regular community, as long as they're comparable in size and features," he says. A handful of other counties have passed similar ordinances, according to Slater; others are considering it.

"We've had a perception problem, I'll be the first to admit," Slater says. "People hear manufactured housing and they think of that trailer that used to sit out in the field behind Uncle Jed's shed. But now they walk into some of these new manufactured units and they say, "Wow, it's a house!' "

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Here's how to get more information about condos and manufactured homes. Most of these agencies offer free consumer literature.

Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida, 530-7539 in Largo.

Community Associations Institute, Suncoast chapter, 521-3054 in Pinellas.

Florida Bureau of Condominiums, Tampa office, 620-6144.

Florida Manufactured Housing Association, (800) 444-FMHA.

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