For some homebuyers, condominiums are a godsend. They provide a means of building equity without the hassles of yardwork and other outdoor maintenance projects, as well as many of the indoor chores and financial responsibilities that single-family homeowners typically face.
But condo ownership isn't for everyone. And before you sign on the dotted line and enter into this agreement of communal ownership -- which is exactly what you're doing when you purchase a condominium -- you'll need to consider a few factors first. Not to burst your bubble, of course, but life in a condo brings with it a few hassles with which single-family homeowners feel grateful they don't have to contend.
For starters, as we alluded to last week in a related article, condominium owners share common walls. How many common walls you share depends upon whether you purchase a flat (meaning you have a neighbor living either underneath you or above you, as well as on one or both sides of your unit) or a townhome (which you gives you the reassurance that both upstairs and downstairs are yours -- although some high-rise-style townhomes are built in a manner in which residents may still have neighbors living either above or below their own units).
Comon walls are reminiscent of apartment life, which is something that homebuyers often are anxious to flee when they've reached the life stage at which a home purchase is attainable. If you have quiet and considerate neighbors, common walls become a non-issue. But it's a game of Russian roulette when you sign on the dotted line. You have no idea how considerate those neighbors will be until you spend your first night in that unit you're considering. And unfortunately, if your neighbors are obnoxious, you have little recourse as a condominium owner but to call the police.
Unlike apartment communities, in which renters may often pick up the phone and call a leasing office or an on-call security staff to report excessive noise, condominium owners have no such protection. They're faced with the sticky dilemma of going downstairs, upstairs or next door and democratically working out the problem neighbor to neighbor (which, let's face it, isn't easy to muster up the courage to do -- particularly if you're new to the condominium community) or calling the police. That's quite a way to introduce yourself to your new neighbors if they determine who blew the whistle on their late-night revelries.
Aside from the common wall issue, you'll also need to consider that if your local real estate market experiences a downturn, condominiums usually are the first casualties in those sagging economic times. Condominiums sometimes are pigeonholed into a "niche" market, and when the real estate market slows to a trickle, the few transactions taking place usually involve single-family homes. And of course, during slow periods, asking prices for single-family homes drop, making it possible for many aspiring homebuyers who previously thought a condominium was the maximum they could afford to move up to a single-family home, instead.
Then, of course, there's the entire issue of the condominium association. Their effectiveness and cost varies greatly from property to property. In a single-family home, you'll never be presented with a sudden fee which you must pay for communal property repairs. Take the case of a condo owner with whom I recently spoke, who told me her condo association recently informed her that, in order to pay for roof repairs to the entire complex -- her building included -- she and every fellow condominium owner in her development would have to cough up $650 on the double. That was in addition to her $120 monthly condo association fees -- and, of course, her mortgage.
A condominium association, in theory, is an excellent insurance policy for the continued maintenance of your exterior property -- not to mention a protection for keeping the property values high. On occasion, however, these associations become quite political, governing everything from the Christmas lights you string on your porch to whether or not you can keep a 50-pound dog in your unit. This communal lifestyle holds you accountable to a mini government of sorts. As an owner, you may, of course, make your views heard during monthly meetings, but there's no guarantee as to whether or not you'll be successful and affect change.
If you're informed about all of your obligations as a condominium owner before you sign the contract and are agreeable to them, you just may have found yourself the home you've always wanted. As with every major financial commitment, you'll have to weigh the pros and cons of the agreement you're preparing to enter. Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you make your decision is to take your time. Demand full disclosure of condo association fees and exactly what they cover. Know up front what your monthly expenses are expected to be; it can vary considerably among different condominium developments. Shop around, and get some perspective on how different properties approach their residents. Ask your REALTOR® if he or she has sold units in this development before, and what kind of feedback he/she has gotten from his clients after they moved in. If your Realtor hasn't conducted a transaction at this development, ask him/her to call fellow Realtors and find out if they've sold units at the condominium complex you're eyeing. First-hand reports are invaluable tools during your home search process, and you'd be wise to take them to heart.