7 Unspoken Rules of Shared Outdoor Spaces, According to Real Estate Pros

published Jul 17, 2023
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Outdoor space is almost always in the pro column when you’re looking to buy a condo or rent an apartment. But outdoor space can come with a few strings attached — those strings being other residents. While a balcony or small patio may be private to your unit, there’s often a larger yard, barbecue and dining space, or rooftop deck that’s shared by multiple units.

Whether you’re in a small, four-unit building or a high rise, there are going to be rules that make it easier and more enjoyable to live amongst neighbors. Kate Ziegler, a Realtor with Arborview Realty in Boston, recommends doing a little digging to see where the building stands before you ever put in an offer. “Ask for any available meeting minutes as part of a condo purchase, to see if there are pain points around outdoor space already being discussed,” she says.

Scan those to see if any of these seven unspoken rules pop up in the notes, and you’ll get an idea of where the outdoor space negotiations stand — and where you might need to shake things up if you move in.

Say Hello to Your Building Mates

In all buildings, but small buildings in particular, you’ll see the same neighbors day in and day out. So say hello! Sarah Lee, who lives in a four-unit building with a shared front porch, has found that simply by saying hello in the common spaces, she’s forged meaningful friendships.

“Be welcoming to your neighbors/housemates. When the space is available to everyone, it’s not ‘owned’ by anyone. It would be nice to always have the space on your schedule, but opening your dinner, after-work drink, or morning coffee to others can build and grow beautiful relationships,” says Lee.

Credit: Sandra Regalado

Decide Whether Gardening Should Be Outsourced

If you live in a large building, landscaping is likely handled by a crew hired by management. But in a smaller building self-governed by an HOA, it’s up to you and your neighbors to decide whether you’re going to spring for a landscaping company or handle it yourselves. 

It’s all too easy to let the garden or yard slide into neglect if no one wants to make the call. Make this decision early and stick to it. If you’ve been wanting to flex your green thumb, this could be your opportunity. 

Either way, this isn’t something to let slide. John Coleman, a Realtor in Washington, D.C., points out that your property value could depend on this one rule. “The value and attractiveness of an outdoor space is in direct correlation with the upkeep of it,” he says. “I see some buildings where it looks trashed and no one picks up, and others that have a pool and likely a cleaning person out each day to make it look nice.”

Implement a Reservation System for Outdoor Dining Spaces 

While living in a classic city co-op building that included a furnished courtyard and rooftop deck, Patrick Wilson found the common spaces ran like a well-oiled machine thanks to a reservation system that gave all residents an opportunity to book the larger outdoor areas.

“The dining area adjacent to the grill could be reserved for a nice seated dinner for visiting guests. It was twice as large as our small table in our apartment. This was all handled through a simple written sign-up chart at the front desk,” Wilson says. Implementing a system of your own could have a huge payoff in terms of contentment. 

Credit: Minette Hand

Leave It Like You Found It

Whether you’re in a small building or a large one, the golden rule is the best unspoken rule: Leave it exactly as you found it. Sadie Cornelius lived in a four-unit building where everyone naturally settled into their own roles such as watering plants, refilling the propane tank on the grill, or sweeping leaves. But regardless of the roles they took on, Cornelius says, “We all respected each other by always leaving the space exactly how we found it. We cleaned up after ourselves, threw away food, cleaned the grill, and put the furniture covers back on.”

Create a Plan to Replace Outdoor Furniture

With more people comes more upkeep, so a well-run building needs a plan to keep the outdoor spaces, including their furniture, in check. Finding chairs with worn-out cushions or missing straps can totally ruin the vibe of an outdoor space, and someone needs to lead the charge to keep things in tip top shape. 

Liz Malm, who lived in a high-rise building with a communal rooftop pool and seating areas, explains, “Management would replace the cushions on all the seats every season. I wouldn’t even have thought to look at this when we were touring the building, but it made a difference! We spent a lot of time using the space as a result.” She recommends asking the building what their annual or quarterly maintenance plan is. Whether it’s an amenity fee if you’re renting or HOA dues if you own, some portion of that should be allocated to maintaining what is there.

Know That Pets Allowed Doesn’t Always Mean Pet-Friendly 

Cleaning up after your pet should be a rule of outdoor spaces whether it’s in a shared building or a public park, and bad eggs can lead to an unfriendly environment towards pets. 

“Buyers in a ‘pet-friendly’ HOA might be surprised to find dogs unwelcome on the shared lawn,” says Ziegler, who recommends digging into meeting minutes rather than relying on HOA rules documents alone. Regardless of what side of the discussion you fall on, you’ll want to understand where the other residents stand when they’re on the record.

Remember It’s a Common Space, Not a Playground

It can be a hassle to drag bikes and other bulky toys back to your unit when you’re done with them, but it’s usually expected and necessary. And that goes for both grownup and children’s toys. “Owners with kids could expect some amount of outdoor space dedicated to toys is acceptable when other owners prefer a clean slate,” Ziegler says.