April 18, 2016 7:37 AM   Subscribe

What should I know about purchasing a duplex home in a 2-unit building?

Looking for a home in a very crazy hot real-estate market, especially for a first home, is super duper fun exciting experience. Originally we ruled out buying a condo but now have been beaten down by the frenzy for single family homes.

But perhaps there is a middle ground with duplexes. In the area of MA we're in there are plenty of huge old Victorian homes that have been converted into duplexes (2-unit condos where the two unit owners legally create an HOA for the maintenance of common areas like the exterior and the foundation) in the past few decades. They are the size we want inside but for a lot less and with a lot less competition. There's no HOA, just us and the other party, which is cool, but it's definitely not like owning a piece of land outright right?

What should we know and do before purchasing a duplex?
What kind of investigation can we do into a particular duplex before we buy one--what should we look for in the current HOA legal docs, what could we ask current owners? What red flags are out there? What positive signs should I look for about the space and the owners and the history? What are your experiences specifically with 2 unit buildings?

Thank you for your assistance in these feverish times.
posted by Potomac Avenue to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's no HOA, just us and the other party, which is cool, but it's definitely not like owning a piece of land outright right?

Two unit HOAs are the worst possible arrangement - your cotenant has effective veto power over anything that might want to be able to do, so if they have financial difficulties and/or are just generally obstinate, you might find yourself with a unit that can't be effectively maintained. You should check what functions of maintenance are in the HOA agreement and which functions of maintenance (if any) are deeded easements. The distinction is subtle here, but an easement is a lot easier to defend in court if you have to pursue your cotenant for maintenance.

what should we look for in the current HOA legal docs

Obligations to perform maintenance, not options. Obligations are something you can pursue. An option is not (since your cotenant can veto anything). Even if the current cotenant is easy to work with, a new tenant can be completely the opposite.

What red flags are out there?

If you are not willing to potentially sue someone who lives 20 feet away from you in order to get the roof replaced, you should not buy this unit.

I think you might be getting the drift of my comments here - you are focused on the unit and the owners, when really, you should be focusing on the person you're going to have to negotiate with for the entire time you own the unit.
posted by saeculorum at 7:56 AM on April 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

not like owning a piece of land outright

Possibly untrue --- are you talking about two units side by side, sharing one vertical wall, or the upper and lower floors of a single building? If the first, then you probably would own the land on three sides of your unit; if the second, you'd probably own the land around the building jointly. Check that for sure before signing anything.
posted by easily confused at 8:07 AM on April 18, 2016

"are you talking about two units side by side, sharing one vertical wall, or the upper and lower floors of a single building"

Both are potential situations! Thanks for the clarification.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:09 AM on April 18, 2016

You can, if you are unlucky, get into an argument where the other person doesn't agree that the roof needs to be changed, or whatever. I'm in a sixplex, which is enough people that no one crazy person can derail everything.

Some other things you want to look into are rules about sound/insulation, rules about rentals, rules about Airbnb (which doesn't cover damage to common areas, and your insurance probably won't either), rules about people working from home, rules about matching curtains, rules about garden maintenance and access, rules about sharing keys, rules about snow shoveling.

A well-ordered agreement is very important.
posted by jeather at 8:20 AM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a renter who has lived in duplexes, one with shared master bedroom walls and the other with 2 floors:

- Pay attention to which walls are shared. In one living situation I had neighbors who occasionally went out of town and left their alarm clock on... When it's a shared bedroom wall, there's not much you can do.
- if there is a patio/outdoor area, is it separate or shared? Who is doing the maintenance? Can you have a grill on it?
- Dealing with pest problems requires the cooperation of everyone in the building. We had a garage rat problem that was made substantially more difficult because our neighbors used their garage as a living room, so food was down there and attracted the rats.
- If units are on different floors, does your upstairs neighbor have rugs? In my current situation with hardwood floors, it's really loud when someone walks around upstairs... But the person only lives there 1 day/month so it's not a major issue.
- What is access to meters/water heaters/etc. like? If your neighbor's breaks, does it impact you because it's in a shared area or above you (water leakage etc.).
- Do you have the amount of natural light you want in the rooms where you want it? Light wells and weird layouts can make duplexes a little weird.
- Is the other tenant someone who has been there for a long time or more of a flipper/ short term resident? Someone who has been there for the long haul will probably stick around but may be more particular about he setup, while frequently changing tenants means that you're continually building new relationships with people.

All in all I've been happy with my decision to live in duplexes, but I've always had a functional relationship with the other tenants. The duplexes ha've always felt a let more like houses than like apartments - more spacious, slightly funky layouts, some outdoor space - while being much more affordable.
posted by asphericalcow at 8:36 AM on April 18, 2016

Oh, some other rules:

- how often you need to replace the water heater (we have a rule of every 10 years).
- possibly minimum heat for pipes etc.
- which things are paid for by common money, which not (as a general rule, anything that touches outside is common).
- chimney and vent cleaning schedule
- window cleanings
- smoking rules
- how close can the barbecue get to the house?
- maximum numbers of pets
- are you allowed to rent out the place?
- do you want to have a right of first refusal for sales?
- what areas are joint, what are individual, which are joint areas for individual use (for instance, my patios and outside doors are joint for individual use).
- what are fines/penalties like, what kind of enforcement is there? (here if you are maybe 60 days behind -- I need to check -- you are not entitled to vote)

You'll need to check up on how insurance works, how property taxes work, if this can cause any issues with having and/or evicting tenants (likely specific to municipal/state law).

I have spent a great deal of time on condo rules. It's like roommate rules, best to make everything clear in advance.

I'm not actually recommending against this (as I am happy living in one), but these are the issues you want to consider before you sign anything.

Do you intend to pay money into a joint HOA account monthly, or just each pay up when you need to repair the roofs?
posted by jeather at 8:38 AM on April 18, 2016

Thanks again for the advice! Quick follow up jeather:

Do you intend to pay money into a joint HOA account monthly, or just each pay up when you need to repair the roofs?

Which do you think works better? From what we've seen both are possible situations.

Sounds like paying for a lawyer's time to go over all the rules before making an offer might be extremely worth it!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2016

We lived in a duplex before buying our house. My one suggestion only applies if the units are stacked rather than side by side. If you're on the bottom, ask the top neighbor when they last replaced/serviced their hot water heater (if they have a tank-style heater). If you're on the top unit, make sure your water heater's in good shape.

We were the upper unit and ours burst while we were out for the evening. Our downstairs neighbor came home to an indoor waterfall and no way to shut it off. He had to call the fire department, and they broke in to our house (!!!) to make sure no one was in distress (maybe an overflowing bathtub with someone in it, they told us).

The folks who'd sold us the place had never serviced the hot water heater, and we didn't know to do as much. Insurance covered everything, but good lord did the downstairs neighbor have the shit end of that stick. All carpet and drywall had to be replaced. It was gross for weeks.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2016

I've lived in a duplex that shared a bedroom wall and it was terrible. I could hear everything that went on in the other unit, including the regular fights between the couple living there. There was also their alarm clock radio that was set for concert hall volume, and he still managed to sleep through it.

I'd strongly suggest you try to get an idea of how bad the noise is going to be, and consider if you are going to be able to live with it.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:46 AM on April 18, 2016

I would 100% pay money monthly if both are options. You might still have one-off fees, but this should cover insurance, property taxes and most regular maintenance. If you have a fund, that makes resale easier. You also want to make sure that if one person is behind on their taxes or mortgage that the other person won't be in trouble. (Typically there will be a way to set this up, often automatically.)

Also (I keep thinking of things separately), you want to know HOW you can change the rules, and who has to pay for planned maintenance when something is sold. (For instance, here if we plan in February to redo the front stairs in September, and someone sells in July, the SELLER is on the hook for costs, not the buyer. Again, your laws may differ.)

Absolutely speak to a lawyer who works with these kinds of buildings before you buy, and have them check over your agreements. There will be things I mentioned that are irrelevant for you, and things that no one here has thought of, and a local lawyer is the person who will know.

The waterfall issue is why you want to bring up shared keys.
posted by jeather at 8:57 AM on April 18, 2016

If you are not willing to potentially sue someone who lives 20 feet away from you in order to get the roof replaced, you should not buy this unit.

Cannot stress this enough. I know someone who is currently in exactly this situation.
posted by karbonokapi at 11:52 AM on April 18, 2016

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