Buying a condo can be a great way to dive into homeownership without worrying about much of the upkeep that comes with single-family homes and townhouses. Condo dwellers can also typically take advantage of shared amenities, plus having professional management to take care of building maintenance.
However, condos aren’t for everyone so it’s best to figure out what your lifestyle and budget needs are first.
What is the definition of a condo?
Short for condominium, a condo is a single unit within a multiple unit property — think apartments, except that you own it. It can be one of many units in a shared structure like a high-rise building. Your individual unit is privately owned, whereas other areas are shared — amenities which may include a park, pool, playground, gym and a dog area.
David Lee, team leader and realtor of David Lee Group with Keller Williams Realty in Orange County, California, says that shared areas of condos are usually managed by a condo association.
“A condo owner has the title to their individual unit but shares ownership of the common areas,” says Lee. “Being a part of an association, condo owners typically pay an established monthly fee to cover their budget and expenses set by the association.”
Condo associations can differ based on the requirements of the individual property. Some may impose additional fees to cover shared expenses such as unexpected building repairs or even adding new amenities that are approved by the condo board.
Seven tips for buying a condo
Here’s a condo buying checklist to go over as you start your search.
1. Consider your lifestyle
Hate to mow the lawn and trim the hedges? What about pressure washing your driveway? Are your finances such that having to lay out $5,000 or more for a new HVAC unit or roof will be a burden? If you answered yes to these questions, condo living may be for you.
However, if the desire to have a large backyard outweighs the time you’ll need to spend maintaining it, then another type of property like a townhouse could be for you. Or if sharing walls with a neighbor (as well as ceilings and floors) might shatter your peace, a condo may not be the answer. Condos tend to work best for those who have no problem with apartment living.
2. Work with a realtor with experience in selling condos
If you’ve decided that condo living is for you, it’s time to search for an agent who’ll have your best interests at heart. Ideally, you’ll want someone who has had a track record of selling condos so that you can trust that this person will help you address any concerns you may have, such as reviewing the condo association documents.
The agent will know the condo developments in your area and what issues, if any, they have including such things as finances, structure or infrastructure problems. They should be able to tell you if there’s been acrimony over community issues and they will know which developments have fared best in resale values.
3. Decide what types of amenities you want
Properties can offer a wide variety of amenities — some you may use, some not so much. When chatting with your realtor, make sure to address the types of amenities you want in addition to other factors like location and budget so you can find the perfect place.
Keep in mind too that amenities you don’t plan to use — a pool for example — may still be worth having because when you go to resell, a condo that lacks the amenities of others in the area will be at a decided disadvantage.
4. Make sure to find an FHA-approved condo
Mortgages for condos may not be as simple as for other types of properties. That’s because in addition to the usual underwriting criteria such as your assets, credit and income, the condo building itself will come under scrutiny.
The FHA has a list of approved condo projects on their website. Conventional lenders may have similar requirements to that of the FHA, so seek the assistance of an experienced mortgage professional.
5. Research the property management company
Understand who’ll be in charge of doing the upkeep is crucial since you want the property you purchase to be well-maintained. It can be frustrating to pay association dues only to have the amenities fall into poor condition, potentially affecting resale values or pushing dues higher.
When touring properties, ask who is in charge of maintaining the day-to-day operations. You can direct questions such as who handles resident requests and community rules to the property management company itself. Consider doing your own research on the company’s reputation.
6. Review association fees and regulations
Apart from your mortgage, you’ll need to pay association fees for the upkeep of the property and its amenities. Review those fees and ask what’s included — examples include snow removal, lawn care and cleaning common areas.
In addition, ask about regulations that you’d need to abide as a resident. Are there any noise restrictions? Or rules about booking common areas in advance? Understanding these regulations ahead of time will help you figure out whether you’ll want to abide by them.
7. Ask about special assessments
Special assessments are funds that the condo association requires to tackle a significant project — it’s typically voted on by its members (that’s you). It may not be common, but this is something you need to be aware of because you could end up paying more in association fees to cover this cost.
When looking at properties, ask about any planned special assessments or how one might work if there isn’t one in effect. That way, you can be prepared and not get caught off guard.
A well-run association will avoid special assessments, except in extraordinary cases. After all, it should come as no surprise when streets need to be repaved after decades of use or the 25-year-old clubhouse roof needs to be reshingled. Ask for copies of the association’s financial reports and make sure your lawyer or accountant reviews them to avoid getting stuck with a big bill for wear and tear created before you arrived.
Pros and cons of living in a condo:
If you’re thinking of buying a condo, it’s important to weigh the benefits and challenges. Here are some top things to consider.
- Lower maintenance, more affordability
Exterior maintenance on condo buildings (often with the exception of windows) is handled by the HOA. This includes lawn and shrub care, driveways and walkways, roofs and exterior siding. Because condos tend to be more compact and require less land than single-family homes, they can be a more affordable way to own property. Property taxes tend to be lower as well.
- Better sense of security
Some condo buildings have security staff, and there’s clearly safety in numbers. Having many other people around can be comforting, especially to older and single people. This can especially important if you work odd hours or travel frequently.
- Opportunities to be social
Some condo communities and their respective HOAs organize social events like pool parties, barbecues and doggy playdates. And because you see your neighbors in hallways and in elevators, you’re more likely than not to meet them in person.
Depending on the condo community, you may have access to top-notch amenities like a grilling area, business center, pool, dog park, covered parking, clubhouse and more, and the cost of enjoying these perks is shared among all residents.
- Investment risk
You are all in ownership of the property together. If one or many people fail to pay their dues, the entire community may suffer financially. Likewise, if one or more of your fellow condo owners go into foreclosure, the units could change hands at a steep discount, affecting everyone’s property values.
- Less privacy, possibly many renters
Because condominiums share common areas like the lobby, hallways and amenities, a condo might not be for you if you value your privacy. You’ll also be sharing walls, ceilings and floors with adjoining owners, so noise can become an issue. And keep in mind that some complexes may have many renters, with a constant stream of moving vans and tenants who may not be as considerate or have as great an interest in the community as homeowners.
- Parking and storage issues
Many condo buildings don’t have assigned parking so you may get annoyed having to lug your groceries a long way to your unit. Storage will often to limited to a small closet or two and there may be no outdoor storage space at all.
- HOA rules, fees
One of the biggest complaints about living in a condo community is that HOA rules can be restrictive, regulating everything from trash pickup to what types of items may be stored on your patio, how many pets you can have and whether you can rent out your unit. Breaking the rules can result in fines or even foreclosure of your unit in severe cases. And HOA monthly fees tend to go in one direction: Up.
Who condo buying is best for
Condo living is best suited for people who don’t want to do a lot of upkeep. It’s also best for those who want the use of shared amenities without dropping a ton of cash for them.
Judy Chin, with RE/MAX Villa in New Jersy, adds that anyone including, individuals, families and empty nesters can benefit from the condo living lifestyle.
“It can be a pretty stress-free lifestyle if it suits your current needs,” she says.
Lee agrees. “If you purchase a condo in a densely populated area it can be a convenient choice for those wanting to live in the heart of a city,” he says. “Not only do you have amenities within the condo, but you could be within walking distance to public transportation, shopping and dining options.”
Whatever your preferences, carefully consider your current and future lifestyle needs, plus your financial situation. Consult with a real estate professional who specializes in selling condos to show you the ins and outs of condo living throughout your home search and protects your interests during the buying process.
With additional reporting by Jennifer Lee Franklin.