5 Questions to Ask When Buying a Condo

Looking to buy a condo? Don't go through the process with blinders on.
Looking to buy a condo? Don't go through the process with blinders on.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Your neighbor to the right likes to play loud music that always sets your dog barking. Your neighbor to the left likes to hang laundry out on the balcony. Your neighbor above you stomps around like a dinosaur. You feel boxed in on all sides.

Disagreements between neighbors can really sour a living experience. Unfortunately, those sorts of feuds can be fairly common in condominium complexes. Close quarters and compromised soundproofing are just two of the cons to buying a condo. But there are also plenty of pros. The exterior upkeep and maintenance management, which are normally handled through homeowners association (HOA) fees, are just two examples.

Condos are often recommended for aging adults who are looking to downsize, as well as people just getting their feet wet in the world of home buying. But before anyone jumps into the condo market, though, it's important to ask several questions of many different parties.

5
How Sound Are the Finances?

Condo associations charge monthly fees for maintenance costs. This money covers the upkeep of the condo in the short and long term, along with the price tag for the property management team if there is one. To pay for major repairs when they crop up, the condo association should be tucking away a portion of these fees each month. The older the condo complex, the greater the amount that should be held in reserve.

If a condo association doesn't have enough money in its replacement reserves, when big repairs come up, like the replacement of an aging roof, you might see a hike in your monthly fees or a one-time special assessment to cover the costs. Make sure you find out how financially sound a condo association is before you leap on board. Ask for proof of solid replacement reserves.

You also need to comb over the condo complex's insurance policy to find out what it covers. Does the complex's policy cover just the buildings themselves, or does it include your possessions as well? Does it handle all contingencies including flooding? This information will help you figure out what you'll need to pay for in a policy of your own.

Finally, consider the amount of the monthly fees themselves. They're on top of your mortgage payments, after all, so make sure you can afford them.

4
How Comprehensive Are the Services (and the Rules)?
This is the part of the condo under your control.
This is the part of the condo under your control.
Jupiterimages/Creatas/Thinkstock

Do you dream of never having to mow the lawn again? Fantasize about not being in charge of peeling exterior paint? Condo owners almost always get to skip the hassle of exterior maintenance, but you'll want to find out exactly what you get to skip. You'll also need to check out whether you'll be able to hang birdfeeders, decorate for the holidays or fly that little flag you think is so cute come springtime.

In terms of extras, many condo complexes have amenities like pools, fitness centers and tennis courts. They also sometimes have a security team and storage space for residents to put the possessions they'd likely shove in the attic or garage if they lived in a traditional dwelling. Christmas lights, floor fans, bikes and sleds could all fall in this category.

It's also important to go over the community rules before you sign on the dotted line. These are typically spelled out in the complex's covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&R). Some allow pets, and some don't. Some allow owners to garden, but others wag their fingers at it. You're agreeing to these rules if you buy the condo, and while many of them will probably be acceptable, others may not be, depending on your lifestyle.

Finally, examine your agreements closely for details such as who is responsible for the care of outdoor spaces attached to the unit, like porches or balconies. Get the details about both maintenance and repairs.

3
How Effective is the Soundproofing?

It's nice to occasionally chat with your neighbors ... provided those conversations don't take place while you're both in your own condos. Soundproofing is often a big issue in this market, so you'll want to find out how well your condo walls will perform.

To find out, just ask residents in the adjacent units to turn on their TVs or stereos at their normal volume. If you can hear Judge Judy's reprimands or the local disc jockey's noisy cut to the next jam, you'll want to keep shopping. If pets are allowed, see if your neighbors will get their dog riled up to get a gauge on whether you'll be able to tell when the treat container comes out. Creaky floors and squeaky doors can also be annoying, so investigate them as well.

Of course, if your neighbors throw parties from time to time, you can expect some noise pollution. You just don't want to be privy to the minutiae of their day-to-day lives.

2
How Experienced is the Management?

Some condos are managed by absentee landlords, and that's usually not a good thing. You want someone who's hands-on and experienced. Professional management means maintenance will probably be performed more diligently and at lower cost, since a pro will be more likely to know where to get good deals. You might end up paying a little more for the service, but when your air conditioner lets loose its last chilly gasp in the middle of the summer, you'll be grateful for someone who responds promptly and efficiently.

If it's a newly built building, check into the reputation of the developer to get a sense of what you can expect in your condominium. What does the Better Business Bureau have to say? If the developer's reputation is at all shaky, move on to the next one.

Also, take a look at the homeowners association (HOA) leadership. Are they trustworthy and fair? Do the neighbors think of the association as a resource for keeping the community happy, or as a clique of nit-pickers who keep everyone on pins and needles? It may turn out that the HOA is a bigger part of your life than the people next door, so get a sense of what your relationship with them may be like.

1
How Resalable is the Condo?

Unless you plan on kicking the bucket with this condo still in your name, at some point you'll want to sell it. To avoid having buyers laugh in your face 10 years down the line when they hear your asking price, do some digging to help ensure you won't have to sell at a loss in the future. Unless you have a Magic 8-Ball that actually works (you don't), there's no guarantee you'll recoup your investment or make additional profits, but certain questions will help give you a better picture of what you're buying into.

If your condo association charges higher fees compared to similar properties, obviously that's a problem, so ask around to make sure the prices are in the same ballpark as the competition. If your condo complex has lots of renters instead of owners, that'll be a factor, too. Owner-only properties bring a better resale value. The ratio of sold to unsold condos matters as well – beware of complexes full of unsold, vacant units. Lenders also don't look favorably on established complexes with lots of unsold units. Without a good sell rate, condo buying can become a major hassle.

You can't predict every market fluctuation, but with a little savvy, you can make an informed decision. What's the strength of the market in your city and zip code? Are condos scarce, or is the market loaded with them? Another consideration to keep in mind is how long you intend to live in your condo. If it's less than five years, a condo might not be the best choice for you – they take longer to appreciate in value than typical housing.

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Author's Note: 5 Questions to Ask When Buying a Condo

This article was interesting to write because I knew very little about the pros and cons of condo life. Like many people, I just assumed it meant staff-managed lawn care combined with an apartment-like lifestyle. There's obviously a lot more to it than that, though.

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Sources

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