ConDo? Or ConDon't?
March 1, 2017 5:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm buying my first condo!

I'm moving into my first condo, and I'm going to see my first prospects tonight.

Do you live in a condo? What do you wish you knew before buying? What are the things you *never* thought of? Would you do it again?

Condo fees scare me, so I'm looking for low-ish fees (less than $300.00/mo), parking, walkability, and kitchen storage... but don't get me wrong: I'm very new at this. I'm going at it alone. I want to make sure I've thought of everything. Thank you for your help!
posted by Dressed to Kill to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have owned stand alone homes and condos (in a condo right now and loving it.) Here are some things to think about -

- What do the grounds, roof, exteriors look like? Those are maintained by the condo association and you may not have a lot of say in their upkeep. If you want to be able to plant a tree right outside your door, some flowers in a pot, etc., those may be restricted by the condo association so ask about it.

- What is the percentage of rentals in the complex? This can affect living quality and your ability to get a lower interest rate loan so be sure you ask.

- Is there enough parking? People fight over parking spaces in my condo and we have a couple local parking nazis who make sure anyone parked even remotely in excess of the rules gets a ticket/notice. You may have a designated parking spot, but what if friends come to visit/

- Make sure the condo association has adequate reserves. Low fees sometimes mean inadequate reserves to pay for things like roofing, exterior paint, etc.

BTW, I love living in a condo community, and not having to worry about exterior maintenance. Enjoy.
posted by eleslie at 6:15 AM on March 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

I have owned a condo for some time. I have also served on the board for many years, though not currently.
The physical layout of the condo that is desirable to you is a highly personal thing. What I would pay more attention to is the finances of the association.
What exactly do you get for your fees? Common area maintenance, water, basic cable, property insurance, management fees etc?
What is the budget of the association and how long has it been since a fee increase? If it has been more than a couple of years that may be a red flag. Costs increase and if the association doesn't raise fees to cover them that could be poor budgeting. How much is in reserves? You don't want to have a special assessment. Knock on wood we have not in 35 years.
What is the age of the property? Older properties will require more maintenance, in general, than newer ones and that needs to be planned for.
Is the budget audited by an outside qualified firm annually? What about the board? How many members are there and what are the terms? Here there are 7 seats and two seats come up every year and then three seats. Do the members of the association participate in meetings and in voting etc? Or do they just send in proxies? I feel it is better to have members who get involved and care.
Think of buying a condo like buying into a business and ask questions accordingly.
posted by jtexman1 at 6:25 AM on March 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

A note on the rentals, I have a friend who's condo association decided that the percentage of rentals was getting too high and almost passed a rule that would have prohibited her from renting her second bedroom - which she needed to do to make the finances work. Also, ask about their standards for routine maintenance on grounds like landscaping, snow clearing, etc. Ask if there are any major exterior projects in discussion (and whether they would raise fees to do them).

I think condos are a terrific way to go. Just do the research and enjoy your find!
posted by meinvt at 6:26 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Make sure it isn't too noisy. If you're coming from apartment renting you're probably used to being able to hear your neighbors, but once you own the place, it's somehow more annoying - and much more difficult to move - if the walls are thin or you can hear the people above you stomping around all the time.
posted by something something at 6:36 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Make sure you know which channels to go through for things like the plumbing, AC, vents, etc. Generally, everything internal is your responsibility, but if you need the water main shutoff for a repair, you need to know how to coordinate that. Your association is also likely to have strict rules that define things like AC height, what you can put on your porch, color of your door, etc.

Association fees are usually tied to insurance (exterior -- you're responsible for interior), in addition to exterior maintenance. My monthly fees jumped from $100 to $350 back in 2004 when the hurricanes ripped through Florida and insurers pulled out of the state. So, have a plan in place if your fees could be subject to a hike like that. The upside of condo ownership is ownership, but the downside of living under a COA is they can foreclose on your house if you get behind on fees.
posted by Wossname at 6:42 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Part 2: A condo was a great first home for me because I didn't want to deal with a yard/roof, but 16 years later, I really want garden and garage space. I'd rather pay for lawn/roof service than continue to live in a condo. I want to be able to make noise after 8pm. My CoA is overrun with people who have nothing better to do than micromanage their neighbors (I don't have the spoons to run for a board spot), my upstairs neighbor flooded me out with a clogged toilet, and another upstairs neighbor almost burned the building down with a kitchen fire. I'm done with communal living.
posted by Wossname at 6:51 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

How big is it? There are big and little condos, and they have pluses and minuses.
How much money do they have set aside for repairs, and is that money earmarked for something specific? (It's not amazing if they have 100k if they plan 95k of work in the next 12 months.)
How often do they ask for money outside of special dues?
Are there rules about matching window treatments etc? What can you put on the porch? What are the noise rules, the garbage rules, the pet rules, the tenancy rules? Look up the building on Airbnb to see how much is currently rented that way.
What are the rules for interior renovations?
posted by jeather at 7:11 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Check on parking, not just for your unit, but for all the units. I'm now required to pay for a permit in order to not be ticketed if I park alongside the street here, and this is partly because there is _not_ enough parking for the residents (also, alas, no real provision for bicycles).

If you think it's not that big a deal, especially if your unit is fine, search for "Finley Forest crime" and see what you get [edit: hey, we have a Wikipedia entry!]. (Yes, the incident was probably not entirely about parking, but it really increases the stress of a lot of my neighbors. I actually broke up a yelling session in the lot across the street last year - and we have plenty of spots).
posted by amtho at 7:12 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Some condo homeowner's association fees include utilities (mine does), and some do not --- this will, of course, make quite a difference! So does a specific condo building's have high fees that include water, electricity and gas; or does that building have low fees but each unit gets billed separately (additionally) for their water, electricity and gas? Or worst case, does that building have high fees plus each unit pays individually for utilities?

Is there adequate parking? Does each unit get assigned parking, or is it a free-for-all? Is parking limited to x (usually two) vehicles per unit?

What else does the condo fee include? Pool, gym, what? Are there extra fees, like my own building charges a one-time $50 move-in fee. If you want to rent out your unit, what are the rules?
posted by easily confused at 7:14 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

You're approaching it the way you would a rental, which is good - unfortunately that's necessary but not sufficient. Take all the criteria you set for finding a good rental apartment that you'd want to live in long term - parking, location, room layout, good kitchen, reasonable monthly cost, amenities (gym wifi) etc - and add in a bunch of criteria about the community. You care a lot more about hte neighbors, because you're stuck with them. You care a lot more about the management/board and what their policies are (regarding guests, roommates, leasing, noise, laundry, parking, complaints, decorating, etc) Have they done major repairs recently, or is there (eg) a big roofing project pending that they'll be collecting an additional contribution to cover? If there's any way to meet people who live there and find out hat they complain about, that's great! Also look at the turnover rate, are there a lot of people moving out?
posted by aimedwander at 7:15 AM on March 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

What's the current setup in the building for internet and video?

I know this sounds trivial at the moment, but because you have common facilities in the way you will pretty much be locked into whatever system the association has chosen to install. Make sure you're okay with whatever provider they are using.

When I owned a condo I had the ability to install my own satellite TV dish on my balcony because A) the FCC OTA Reception Devices Rule of 1996 allowed it but also because B) the building didn't have a common dish system that overrode A.

If the building has installed a common dish/cable distribution system, you can't install your own.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:25 AM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

It should be possible to pull minutes of prior HOA meetings, as well as finances. It's worth taking a look at those to see if there are any red flags, e.g. ongoing discussions about how the roof will need to be replaced without money in the budget to do so, etc. If there's a major maintenance issue that can't be funded through "reserves," the HOA will have to require a "special assessment," which means all the owners are on the hook for a big chunk of money, usually over the course of one year, on top of their standard HOA fees. Depending on the area and the HOA, these special assessments can reach $30k+.

If possible, visit the unit multiple times during different times of the week and different times of the day.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:27 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Don't necessarily be afraid of high condo fees. I pay $500+/month, but we have $800k-$1M in reserve at any one time, and replaced two elevators and the air conditioning hardware on the roof (30 year old building) with nary a special assessment, and increases in the fees kept in line with current inflation (ie not much and not every year). Plus it pays for the pool my daughter loves, the garage to function, our front desk staff, and the place to get shoveled out. I mean, of course make sure you personally are getting value for what you are paying, but high isn't necessarily a rip off.
posted by stevis23 at 7:39 AM on March 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

Yes along the lines of condo fees - there are a couple of philosophical approaches and for me the conflict was recently laid bare and screamed over at my building's most recent town hall meeting.

- One side felt that the condo board's obligation was to keep fees low for owners with as few increases at possible, because individual owners are best at managing and investing their money and would prefer (and always be prepared) to pay for special assessments as needed on ad hoc basis.

- The other side felt that the building was better at managing / investing reserves so the bigger the buffer the better, with owners ceding the need to plan and prepare for unexpected contingencies and special assessments on their own. You may have a particular stance here on whether this ceding is a luxury you want or a loss of control - know what the board's current position is.
posted by sestaaak at 7:48 AM on March 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

I bought my condo a little over a year ago and love it, but I definitely wish I'd paid more attention to the reserves; we've already had a special assessment, and there still isn't enough money for major projects. Also, remember that in a smaller building, you have fewer owners paying dues, which becomes problematic if even one owner stops paying.
posted by elphaba at 8:11 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

One side felt that the condo board's obligation was to keep fees low for owners with as few increases at possible, because individual owners are best at managing and investing their money and would prefer (and always be prepared) to pay for special assessments as needed on ad hoc basis.

Yeah, well, if you trust all your individual fellow-owners to handle this properly, so that no extra costs end up being imposed on you on an emergency basis, you are living in sweet sunshine land and should probably not be buying into a joint property.
posted by praemunire at 8:18 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yes, if you are a cyclist look into that. Are you allowed to carry your bike in the building and store it in your place? Are there bicycle locks available? This is often a super contentious issue.
posted by jeather at 8:19 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Check how well-kept the utility-easement section is; the back portion where in a poorly-maintained condo people dump all sorts of trash.
posted by DanSachs at 8:47 AM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

One more thing: My complex was built as condos. They were not apartment conversions. The difference is in the construction. Condos tend to have thicker walls and flooring, which can help, but not eliminate, noise. A condo tower will be different. But my complex looks like an open apartment complex. I personally would not buy a conversion to save my life. But maybe that is just me.
posted by jtexman1 at 8:50 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have no idea how to prevent this in a contract, but in my mom's old condo someone in the building took out a load-bearing wall and someone else installed a full-size, always-full hot tub inside their condo (wtf). These things together caused one part of the building to start sinking and another part to start twisting, causing doors in many units to stop closing properly and much drywall cracking. This resulted in insanely expensive structural remediation (which did NOT include replacing the wall or removing the hot tub), and that cost was shared between ALL residents based on square footage of their condos.

At my mom's new place she is happier being on a top floor without anyone clomping around on top of her, but it's a lot colder without someone else to insulate her from above. And the roof leaks into her place, which affects only her but since the roof is common property she has to get buy-in from the entire building to fix it since they all have to share the cost. And no one wants to pay to fix a problem with only one unit.

It all seems quite annoying to me, but I'm sure plenty of people are quite happy with such arrangements.
posted by MonsieurBon at 9:25 AM on March 1, 2017

> It should be possible to pull minutes of prior HOA meetings, as well as finances. It's worth taking a look at those to see if there are any red flags, e.g. ongoing discussions about how the roof will need to be replaced without money in the budget to do so, etc.

This is what I was going to say. My wife and I bought a condo as our first house; we loved the house, but were very lucky we were able to get out when we did (even made a slight profit, because pre-2008 housing boom), because it turned out the condo association was a disaster. We attended every meeting, and nothing ever got done because of absences (no quorum) and obstreperous/crazy neighbors who had issues they insisted on ranting about, and vital things like the roofs and support structures getting fixed couldn't happen, and we realized with growing horror that the buildings were just going to decay until they were unsellable. Like I said, we got out in time, but yeah, check the minutes and ask people how the meetings are.
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Find out if the building uses a management company, and then investigate that company in detail. A bad management firm can really wreak havoc (e.g., failing to properly separate building funds, leading to errors in budgeting, etc., to say nothing of repairs & maintenance issues!)

Conversely, a good firm can be exceedingly useful in dealing with bad owners, helping force good budgeting practices, helping to identify good contractors for any repairs, and so on.
posted by aramaic at 9:51 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh, yeah, the management company's an important factor. Our HOA lost like 50K to fraud a couple of years ago -- it was one employee of the management company who wrote checks to himself, then fled.

Also, if anybody's looking to move to Chapel Hill, we might be selling soon. (Bike to Harris Teeter! Free bus lines! Yeah, I didn't think so...)
posted by amtho at 10:48 AM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Look at several years of sales history for the building/complex and see if there's been a rash of foreclosures/short sales. (A realtor may be able to help here.) Our complex had a whole bunch of foreclosures over the past 7-8 years, which meant that association dues weren't collected, shrinking the reserves and deferring maintenance. (Meanwhile, a couple of empty units had pipes burst, which further ate into the reserves.) Even though the market has now largely recovered, our association is still cash-poor and unable to afford to do things like replace a broken front stoop, and they've been skimping on other work, like painting - little stuff, but things are looking pretty shabby, which further depresses values.
posted by writermcwriterson at 10:58 AM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Definitely look at the condo association's reserves. When I moved into my current place, my realtor pointed out that the condo reserves were on the low side so that factored in to my decision and I wasn't surprised when the fees increased. If the condo has any bells and whistles (elevator, pool, exercise room), they need higher reserves to replace those things. If you can, check to see if the condo association is involved in any ongoing litigation.
posted by kat518 at 1:24 PM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

In addition to auditing the budget (and reserves), carefully read the rules and regulations (which should cover things like what alterations you're allowed to do within your unit and what the approval process for that is and where you can store your bike). Ask the board and the residents what enforcement of the rules and regs is like. Consider how you'll like living in that environment.

I own a condo in a 75 year old 144-unit building and one in a 90 year old 6-unit building. The advantage falls to the large building for things like common area maintenance & cleaning; the advantage falls to the small building for flexibility (like accommodating our contractors/budget when we had to replace a technically common element--our kitchen bay window--but had extraordinary difficulty in doing so while adhering to the rules and regs about appearance of common areas). We're fortunate that both places have boards that follow good processes for making decisions regarding exterior/common element maintenance and reserve levels but we've run into a couple problems at the small building with one person stonewalling noncritical decisions (like how to handle landscaping). Get accustomed to the idea of things like paying for a cable package you don't want because it's everyone or no-one in every condo building I've ever looked into.

Do pay attention to what the cap on rentals is and what the procedure for getting permission to lease out your entire unit is (I'm not talking about AirBNB or having a paying roommate--those are different issues which you might want to care about but for different reasons) because owners in buildings where the ratio of tenant-occupied to owner-occupied units is too high (as determined by arcane and private formulas) will have trouble getting mortgages or refinancing mortgages and sometimes getting equity loans to finance renovations.

Look at every possible part of the common area that you can. Is it clean? Maintained? Piled with random possessions of your neighbors? How much will that matter to you? Is it hiding a larger problem or is it just indicative of congenial neighbors who don't mind you keeping your snow boots and stroller in the hallway? Is cleaning and maintaining the common areas part of your assessments/fees or are you expected to participate in quarterly clean up days? Do you have a preference for one over the other? How much of a preference? For many people the advantage of living in a condo is never having to worry about house upkeep, roof maintenance or what happens if a stranger slips on your walkway in the snow--if the building is small and the HOA expects every owner to be very hands-on, will that suit you?
posted by crush-onastick at 1:59 PM on March 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

One more thing. All that stuff that you don't have to worry about or take care of in a condo -- someone worries about our and takes care of it in some way. Party of that responsibility is still yours.
posted by amtho at 5:40 PM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Get a home inspection before you buy.
posted by brujita at 9:17 PM on March 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and back when I bought my condo, my real estate agent (aka my father, so I know my agent definitely had my best interests at heart!) told me that the hardest units to sell are the smallest, the one-bedrooms and the studios; so he recommended never buying anything smaller than a two-bedroom. That was back in the '90s, and YMMV, but it still sounds sensible to me.
posted by easily confused at 5:34 AM on March 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Use an agent who is experienced with condos.
posted by Melsky at 5:57 PM on March 2, 2017

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