Q: I am surprised that so many condos have a "no pets" policy. How strict is this policy? For instance, I have a cat that would not go outside, so would my cat be banned also?

A: As a devoted dog mom, this is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart, especially as my first dog years ago was what I call a real estate rescue.

At the time, I was a real estate broker working in a big office, and adopted my Pekinese, Mr. Chom Chom Nelson (RIP), after answering the SOS email of an agent who was selling the home of some clients who were (you guessed it!) moving out of state, to a condo that wouldn’t allow pets.

I have personally only owned single-family homes, and all the condo transactions I’ve managed have been in California, which has a law prohibiting no-pet condo deed restrictions (California Civil Code Section 1360.50), so I was completely outraged at the idea of such a ban. It was a real education for me to find out that in states like Florida and New York, it is extremely common for every condo complex in town to have an outright deed restriction on all pets.

As pets have continued to grow in popularity, there are now groups of pet owners who are banding together to lobby against no-pet and other extreme pet-related deed restrictions; PetsInCondos.org is one such group. As you might guess, though, the wheels of justice move extremely slowly; until the laws change, here are two things you must keep in mind as a pet owner considering condos with pet-related deed restrictions:

1. Don’t count on exceptions that aren’t in writing. When it comes to pet-related deed restrictions, strict is as strict does; many owners of units with such restrictions live in communities where the restriction is not enforced and pets are tolerated. And legally speaking, if a community doesn’t enforce a deed restriction against pets for a given number of years (five years in Florida), owners with pets might be able to argue that their pets are legitimately allowed.

However, at any time, a homeowners association (HOA) can simply notify owners that a no-pet policy that has not been enforced will be, moving forward, breaking the five-year chain and putting pet owners who’ve been relying on this informal policy in a position where they are fined or even sued.

Most HOA policies that have exceptions to a no-pet policy will expressly state them in writing. For example, it is not at all uncommon for such stated exceptions to include: one "ordinary" pet per unit; two dogs or cats under 25 pounds; one indoor cat; etc.

Given the stress, inconvenience and expense you could encounter by buying and moving into a home in reliance on an informal policy of not enforcing the no-pet rule, I would encourage you not to rely on any exceptions to the rule unless you see them in writing from the HOA.

2. The law does carve out some health-related exceptions to no-pet deed restrictions. Federal and state fair housing laws require HOAs to allow "service" animals, which are not limited (as many people think) to seeing eye dogs, but can include a range of animals who are trained to help people who have a variety of issues. In a similar vein, there is an increasing trend for doctors to recommend that people obtain what attorney Gary Poliakoff has deemed "prescription pets," to manage depression and other medical issues.

Condo buyers seeking to have their animals permitted under these rules may be required to produce doctor’s orders or a medical "prescription" to the HOA board.

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