FAQs About Your Building & Your Unit

The purpose of these pages is to address some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about

  • owners’ responsibilities concerning their common elements
  • the most common practical issues that residents face
  • problems residents encounter regarding their unit (noise problems are addressed elsewhere: click here for Noise Problems)

One of the key elements in understanding how a condo building works is to understand what types of "common elements" exist.

What Are Common  Elements?

Common elements are those parts of a condo complex that belong to all owners. With a few exceptions, they constitute everything except the units in which people live. Corridors, garbage rooms, lobbies, locker areas, garages, technical rooms, the roof, grounds, walkways are all common elements.

Other common elements include heating and air conditioning systems, hot water system, pipes, electrical systems, all light fixtures in common elements, and the security system.

Common elements generally are the responsibility of the condo corporation in terms of maintenance, repairs, and replacement.

What Are Exclusive-Use Common Elements?

Exclusive-use common elements are those parts of a building to which only the owners of a unit or owners whose units are adjacent to them have access. The most obvious are balconies, terraces, patios, and front and backyards. Also falling into this category are parking spaces and marina slips. 

However, it should be recalled that there is no uniformity in what constitute an exclusive-use common element in Ontario. In some units, some features, such as terraces and patios, are common elements while in others they are freehold (that is, entirely the property of the suite owner). How do you know what is what? The declaration of your unit will give this information.

Less obvious, fan coils, fire and security systems in each suite may also be common elements. Thermostats and exhaust vents may be part of the unit as well or may be common elements. In other words, these can be entirely owned by the unit or by the corporation. Again, this information will be found in the declaration.

A sound rule is that any feature that is within a unit is owned by that unit, unless stated otherwise in the declaration. Click here for What's a Declaration?

Townhouses, in particular, vary greatly in terms of what is considered to be a common element versus what is entirely owned by owners--please click here for issues provided by readers: Issues Specific to Townhouses.

What Are Restricted-Use Common Elements?

They are those parts of the building occupied by staff, such as the concierge desk and various offices, as well as electrical and technical rooms where only staff and contractors are allowed for obvious safety and security reasons. These belong to owners but are not their concern.

Amenities fall half-way in that category in the sense that some may be accessible only upon reservation (guest suites, party room, theatre, bowling alley). Others may be accessible only with a special entry card and within limited hours (pool, gym).

Who is Responsible for Maintenance, Repairs, and Alterations?

Owners should consult their condo’s declaration to know who is responsible for the maintenance, repairs, and replacement of their exclusive-use common elements. Some situations are unclear and may require legal interpretation.

Generally, owners are responsible for the maintenance of all the common elements that are their exclusive use. Rarely are they responsible for their repair or replacement. But there are exceptions and these exceptions will be specified in the declaration. Townhouses, in particular, show a great deal of variation in what is fully owned or is a common element, at times with costly results. Please click on Issues Specific to Townhouses for information sent by readers.

When time comes to replace features that are common elements, the reserve fund can be used. But if they are individually owned, each owner may be responsible to replace them.

Owners are responsible to pay for repairs and replacement when:

  • They have not carried out proper maintenance or have not allowed the corporation to do so and, as a result, for instance, the fan coil or the balcony has been damaged.
  • They have broken an item (a balcony railing, for example, or the fire alarm system) and repairs have to be carried out.
  • Their guests or tenant have broken something that is an exclusive-use common element or is part of one.
  • Toxic materials, car oils, or others have leaked, such as in a locker or in a parking space.


Tenants have not allowed the manager to come in to maintain the fan coil. After many letters, the manager went in to find access to the fan coil blocked by a bookcase. This bookcase is also preventing air circulation because the filter is right behind. The motor has burnt out. The owner may have to pay for repairs and replacement.

The Corporation is responsible for damage caused by leaks from the common elements, such as the roof, pipes that burst between walls, and leakages caused by worn out caulking outside. Boards cannot refuse to fix the damage because "there is no money." Rather, the board has to raise fees, or do a special assessment, or take a loan to top up the reserve fund.

Unless otherwise stated in the declaration, owners in Ontario are responsible for the twice yearly fan coil maintenance. But condos generally carry out this maintenance as part of the regular budget because owners would forget to do it or might use a person who is not qualified. This could result in water leakages, mould, and the rapid deterioration of the unit. 

Can You Make Alterations?

Yes, you can make alterations to your unit, but only after obtaining a written approval from the board of directors and fulfilling the requirements stated in an agreement between you and the corporation.

Alterations should not compromise the external appearance of the property, the safety of residents, the assets of the condo, nor should they result in any cost to the corporation. This applies to anything, from installing flooring other than carpets to adding an electrical outlet to an outside wall. Adding or eliminating a wall is a particularly contentious issue because of the potential for structural problems.

Adding mats or outside carpeting or grass imitation on the floor of balconies or terraces is generally not permitted because these contribute to the deterioration of the cement and of any water proofing membrane that may exist.

Instead, boards may permit some slats that are mostly raised and that allow for water movement and evaporation. Water that pools on a terrace precipitates deterioration, creates stains, and invites mosquitoes.

Even drilling to attach flower pots or awnings requires board approval because exterior walls and balcony railings generally are common elements.

On balconies, only seasonal furniture is generally permitted as well as a reasonable number of flower pots. Light furniture and small objects left on a balcony could become lethal projectiles in high winds.

Earth flats in which to grow vegetables require board approval. The board may need to consult an engineer to know the weight that balconies can safely carry. The board should then enter into a written agreement with interested owners and determine permissible weight, prevention of damage to balconies’ cement, glass, or metal sidings, and other owners’ responsibilities.

What Should the Board Require?

For an outside alteration, the board will:

  • Set the standards in terms of appearance and material so that changes will be uniform throughout the building.
  • Enter into a general agreement with each owner regarding rights and responsibilities. This could include a fee for electricity or gas if owners place additional electrical outlets or a fireplace. An insurance adjustment may be necessary.
  • May require that the contractor be chosen by the condo rather than by owners. Naturally, there would still be a process of obtaining quotes from two or three contractors.
  • Require that owners register some of their changes and the agreement on the title of their unit before work proceeds.

What Can You Change in Your Patio or Yard?

In townhouses, patios and yards, especially backyards, are usually for the exclusive use of the residents of a particular townhouse or of a group of townhouses adjacent to a yard.  In some condos, these patios and backyards may actually be privately owned.

Owners need to read their condo’s declaration to understand what they own outright and are responsible to do in terms of maintenance, repairs, and replacement.

As in other condos, when backyards are exclusive-use common elements, owners are generally responsible for their maintenance but the condo corporation is responsible for repairs and replacement. This includes fences, gates, walls, steps, interlocking stones, bushes, trees and even flower beds. In some townhouse developments, owners have to prune the shrubs while, in others, the condo corporation hires someone to do this.

Flower Garden

In small townhouse developments, it makes financial sense to elicit residents’ cooperation in watering plants and keeping grounds clean.

If an owner wants to have a tree cut down in her backyard, she should obtain the board’s written permission because trees belong to everyone in an exclusive-use common element. (In some cities, cutting trees requires city permission.) The board may accede to the request but may not want to pay because cutting the tree may only benefit that particular townhouse. Furthermore, the board may rightly request that a smaller tree be planted.

Any change to common elements, including exclusive-use common elements such as backyards, requires board approval. Moreover, board specifications have to be followed.

When trees are infested, then it is a condo’s responsibility to have them sprayed or cut down and replaced by a different type of trees. Not only is this good for the environment but trees add value to a property.

If owners want to add bushes or trees or a gazebo, again board permission has to be obtained. The board may also request that owners enter into an agreement with them to the effect that they will be entirely responsible for the maintenance, replacement, and insurance of those additions that constitute “furniture.” The agreement may also include a clause requiring owners to plant more grass if a gazebo or a child’s swing damages the grass.

For townhouses, if an owner wants to add a BBQ kitchen, for instance, the above procedure has to be followed.

In addition, the board would be wise to have the owners agree in writing to a limit on the hours of use, with appropriate penalty if compliance does not follow, including removal of the entire installation. Neither should excessive noise or odours be tolerated at any time.

Recreational Amenities

These vary and include an exercise room with its equipment, pool area, sauna, billiard/ping-pong/bowling areas, TV rooms, movie/theatre room, BBQ, etc.

Every resident has free access to the gym and pool and, depending on the declaration and the rules of each condo, the TV room and other recreational facilities.

In most condominiums, recreational venues are open only during day time and evening hours.

Certain amenities have to be reserved and this generally includes bowling alleys, party rooms, movie theatres, and guest suites. Reservations are taken by the concierge or superintendent and a form may have to be read and signed, a deposit paid, and a rental fee may also be required. The deposit will be entirely refunded once the concierge has carried out an inspection and found nothing that needs to be repaired. (Click here for Rental Fees, Guest Suites & Party Room Fees)

Owners and tenants have to familiarize themselves with the rules pertaining to each amenity.

Rules generally:

  • Limit the number of guests and the number differs depending on the facility involved
  • Pertain to safety and security so that people do not get hurt, such as “no diving” sign in a shallow pool
  • Prevent food and liquids (except for water) from being consumed in order to keep amenities clean and prevent damage or injury
  • Determine the age at which children can safely use a facility or equipment
  • Pertain to hygiene, such as not walking with street shoes and not allowing children who are not toilet trained in the pool areas
  • Suggest proper attire, such as not wearing bathing suits anywhere else except in the pool areas

Resident Parking And Guest Parking

Most condos have one parking space per unit. The space is either included in the sale price or the owner has to buy one at additional cost. Some condos have fewer spaces than suites and include a space only for larger units; other spaces are sold individually on a first-come, first-served basis. Parking spaces are generally exclusive-use common elements.

However, in some condos, parking spots may be sold separately and are individually owned and registered accordingly: They are not common elements. As such, their maintenance and repairs may be the responsibility of the owner.

Other condos have additional parking spaces which are rented to residents, as can be the case for lockers that a corporation builds in areas that serve no function.

Visitors’ parking is reserved for guests. Residents are never allowed to park in this area unless there is an exceptional circumstance.

For instance, a new arrival to Canada rented a suite and was told by the owner that a parking space was available. But he soon discovered that the owner had already leased it to another resident. The manager kindly put him in the guest parking until he could lease a space from another resident.

The general procedure is for visitors to be allowed in by their resident hosts and obtain a parking permit. At that point, they are allowed in the area of the garage reserved for visitors. 

Overnight permits are also granted. These may be limited to 9 or so nights per month to avoid the situation where a “guest” is actually a resident who has not been registered.

Townhouses may have an outside parking area reserved for visitors. But these areas are difficult to control because anyone can park, especially near a bus route or subway station. As well, residents often use these areas for their second car, which is against rules.

In one townhouse complex, the management distributes 5 to 10 permits yearly to residents. Their guests have to place the permit on the dashboard. All other cars are ticketed by the parking authorities. Cars that remain for a week are towed away after notices are placed on their windshield.

Noise Transmission

Noise too easily carries in buildings. There are several problems in the building code that allow for this situation. 

For instance, a fire wall between suites is a good way to prevent noise transmission. But such walls are often partly or entirely missing. In other cases, plumbing and wiring create gaps through which noise escapes. Furthermore, although cement is a good firewall between floors, the type of cement now used can actually be a great noise transmitter.

Drywalls in newer buildings do not absorb noise as well as drywalls that were used in older buildings. In addition, people’s love for hardwood floorings magnifies the problem, even though there is an underpad between the cement and the wood. This is why condos require that 65% of the area of a laminated floor be covered by carpeting to absorb noise. Click here for Noise Problems)

Building Code Problems

At least in Ontario, and this certainly applies to the rest of Canada, the quality of materials going into condo buildings should be higher.

As well, government supervision of buildings while they are being constructed should be less relaxed. We can talk here of inspectors who are largely absent, who are not on sites when insulation is inserted (or not inserted), or are turning a blind eye to defects. Or inspectors who might be on too friendly terms with builders.

Not unexpectedly, the Building Code is one area of legislation that is heavily influenced by various lobbies--as is the case for condo legislation.

One major area that should be addressed is that of sound proofing. High-rise condos, in particular, are vertical cities where a large number of persons live in close proximity to each other. Better sound proofing is necessary in order to make life bearable. It is not “normal” that one hears neighbours talk through the wall, listen to their music, their footsteps, their lovemaking, their quarrels, and so on.

People shouldn’t have to live worrying about having to be as quiet as mice!

Noise, studies have found, has a detrimental effect on both physical and mental health. There is absolutely no excuse when a rich country such as ours builds condos that act as sound transmitters rather than allow residents to enjoy the peace of their unit, as stipulated in the Condo Act.

Finally, the Ontario new home warrantee program (Tarion) needs to be tightened up and owners offered better protection as consumers.

Other FAQs About Your Building & Your Unit

Why Can’t We Get A/C or Heating Whenever We Want?

Unless each unit has its own heat pump or equivalent system, heat and A/C is a central system based on water circulating in pipes. This water is chilled in the warm season and heated in the cold season and contains some appropriate chemicals. In many buildings, this system has only one loop: The water comes down one pipe which then loops at the bottom and the water is pumped back up on the other side of the building.

Suppose that the system is on heating and there is a hot spell in late April. At that point, residents are understandably hot and bothered, especially those with a south or west exposure. They phone the office and ask, “When is the A/C going to be turned on?” And the answer may be “around May 10.”

Why not now?

Because the water in the one loop is hot. It would take several days to let it cool down, or drain it, before the A/C is started. By that time, the cool weather will have returned...and people will complain of being too cold!

And it’s the reverse at the end of the warm season: Some days get colder but the system just can’t be switched on in case the warm season resumes.

Managers check weather forecasts and have to use their judgement to decide when to switch to A/C or to heat. It is rare that the timing of the decision satisfies all residents...

What’s Fan Coil Maintenance?

What’s Fan Coil Maintenance?     

In newer buildings with a central heating/AC system, fan coils may be located behind a panel in the wall of one or two rooms in each suite along with the thermostat. At the bottom, there is an air filter with the in-vent and above is the motor for the fan and coil with a pan under to prevent condensation from dripping. The exhaust vent is above. A picture is provided below.

Fan Coil Maintenance Diagram

When the thermostat is on A/C or heating, the fan simply re-circulates air that is already in the room after the system has either cooled it or warmed it. The air does not come from outside. This is why, if this system is to work properly, no furniture should be placed in front of the grill where the air filter is. This is where the air goes in to be cooled down or heated up.

It’s a good idea to air a room regularly by opening a window but this should be done only when A/C or heating are not on. Otherwise, energy will be wasted and the motor will work harder and burn out prematurely.

Maintenance of the fan coil is carried out by a certified contractor, often a plumber, or by the same contractor who has the contract to maintain a building’s large systems. The contractor removes the filter and changes it. Then he vacuums the system, lubricates it, checks for leakages and the general functioning, including the thermostat. Maintenance is usually done twice a year. (Click here for Right to Notification for Entry into Unit)

This maintenance is necessary for proper functioning and to prevent leakages as well as mould formation. When furniture is placed in front of the air intake (where the filter is), the system can’t get air in and the motor may burn out prematurely.

Fan coil maintenance is generally owners’ responsibility and they should pay for it. (Check the building’s declaration.) However, managers are well aware that most owners would forget about it, may not hire a proper contractor, and would end up paying far more individually than warranted. As a result of neglect, the entire system would deteriorate much more rapidly. This is why many condominiums do it on behalf of owners and include it in the general budget.

Questions About Air and Ventilation

Why is There So Much Air Coming in From the Door of My Suite?

Unless you open your windows, there is no fresh air that naturally comes in your suite. As a result, air would become stale and unhealthy. As well, in winter, condensation on windows could be a problem and mould could develop.

Air forced into corridors comes directly from the outside. It is “fresh” air. The pressure of this air is designed to compensate for air that goes out of your suite through the kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans. That’s why doors are designed to let some air in all around, especially underneath.

So the air that comes in under the suite door helps a suite from being too humid or the air too stale. It also helps prevent condensation on windows in winter.

When corridors’ ventilation system is controlled, more air is generally pumped in during the days than at night. However, not all buildings have control over the system.

Where Does the Air in the Corridors Come From?

As mentioned above, it comes in directly from the outside from air intake units on the roof. For lower floors, air may come from side units on the ground or basement units that are hidden under large grills.

This corridor air is heated in the winter and constitutes a good portion of the costs of heating in a building. In summertime, the air is cooled and constitutes a sizable portion of the electricity used in the building. (Click here for Energy Savings Measures)

In order to save on energy use and cut costs, corridor air is not warmed to the same extent as is the case in suites during winter time. Similarly, in summer, the air is not cooled to the same extent as it is in suites.

Questions About Drain Problems

Drain Clogged?

A recurring and costly problem in condo high rises is that residents pour cooking oil, grease, hair or food and even kitty litter down the drains or even the toilets. Not only will the kitchen and bathroom drains clog but this may also cause a back-up in other residents’ kitchens.

This situation frequently damages suites and plumbers have to be called and may have to spend hours flushing stacks (pipes). This constitutes an expensive situation and may contribute to a rise in fees.

Managers post notices explaining how to dispose of cooking oil and grease. Such notices are required at least twice a year, especially before certain holidays. It is a good idea to provide translations for larger groups of residents who may not know English or French fluently.

Please remember that cooking oil and kitty litter thrown down the sink or toilet end up being very costly in terms of repairs.

Please, let cooking oil stand and solidify in pots.  Then wrap this solid in a paper towel, throw in the green bin.

In pans, sponge off cooking oil and grease with paper towels and throw in the green bin.

Kitty litter should never be flushed down the toilet or down the kitchen sink. It will solidify into something looking like cement and adhere to pipes. This can be catastrophic as pipes may need to be replaced with a lot of wall and ceiling destruction.

Recipe for Drain Maintenance

It’s helpful, at least once a month, to pour the following environment-friendly mixture down the drain to prevent clogging:

Pour one cup of baking soda down the drain. Then pour one cup of vinegar, preferably hot (microwave it). Wait about 5 minutes. It will produce a small “volcanic” sizzle. Then add 4 cups of boiling water. This can be repeated.

If this does not work because of stubborn clogging, then, before going to bed, mix one cup of baking soda with one quarter cup of salt, and pour it down. Then add one cup of boiling water. This mixture should do its work during the night. The next morning, flush out the drain with hot water from the tap for about 20 seconds.

Drain Backed Up?

Is this your problem or that of the condo? If the drain backs up when you are not using the sink, call the management office or the superintendent.

If the drain backs up when you are using the sink, that’s probably your own personal problem and responsibility. First, try the "recipe" in the previous section above. Then, try a plunger. If none of this works, a plumber may be needed. The manager or superintendent may be able to give you a referral. But you have to pay the plumber directly for this service.

Questions About Water Issues

Why Is Water Running Down My Windows in Winter?

This probably means heavy condensation. This happens when residents have thick drapes, window shades, or shutters down for the night. The next morning, it’s a good idea to push the drapes open because the window may be covered with a thin layer of ice that soon turns into water. If not blotted out, this water will run behind the wall and window sills and result in mould.

Windows that are heavily draped, a room air humidifier, and lack of fresh air circulation all contribute to condensation. There is usually nothing that the manager can do about it. This is what is called a “lifestyle problem.”

Toilet Overflowing?

Quickly open the cover and lift the float. Try putting the stopper/plug or flap down. This failing, turn off the water for the entire unit and have repairs done.

In the event that damage occurs to the suite below, you may be responsible to pay for the deductible. (Click here for Insurance) But owners are certainly responsible to repair the flange in the water tank. Failing to do so may result in the condo corporation doing it. In the event of non-payment for this service, a lien may be placed against a suite. (Click here for Liens)

Where Is the Water Shut Off?

Suites and townhouses come with individual water shut offs. In a townhouse, it may be in the basement or on the ground floor. Larger suites, such as penthouses, may have two or three separate water shut offs.

Generally the shut off is under a sink or in the laundry room. Ask the management office where it is and how it works. A special “key” usually comes with each suite. But when a suite has had several owners, the key may have been lost. Everyone should have one. The management office may sell some or may order more.

Water Freezing in Pipes?

During winter months, if there is no heat coming into a unit, water may freeze in pipes, a pipe may burst, and cause huge damage. This is generally a problem that occurs in townhouses. Example:

Just before going on a two-week vacation, a mother sends her 18 year-old son to the basement of their townhouse to make sure that all the lights are turned off. So long as he was at it, the young man turns off the thermostat and fails to tell his mom. One afternoon, after a warming spell, the neighbour returns home to find herself 6 inches deep in water in her basement study. She quickly phones a board member who has a master key. They go in and find that the water in a pipe had probably frozen, the pipe burst and then water came pouring down during the warm spell. The suite itself is already one foot deep in water.

The morale of this real-life example: Never leave home during the winter without letting a minimum level of heat in the unit.

What’s a Fob? A Card Reader?

The picture below shows both a fob and a card reader. In short, the fob is a “key” to common elements. It is programmed by the manager so that, if i lost or stolen, it can be neutralized and no one will be able to use it. It’s a good security feature.

Residents simply swipe their fob against the card reader and the card reader will read to see if a resident’s fob is acceptable; if it recognizes it, it will give the green light to open the door. At the same time that the card reader is activated, the security system at the concierge desk will indicate the unit number entered and the exact time of entry.