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Apr 22

One Year In Our Home: 10 Tips For Condo Buyers

student debt survivor

April 20th marks the one year anniversary of the closing date of when we bought out condo. Anxious first time buyers, the bf and I were determined to be well-informed before we made the, “big purchase”. So we did our due diligence, read a few books, did some online research, talked to our folks and watched far too many episodes of Property Virgins on TLC.

Despite all of this research, there were a lot of things thing came as a relative surprise to us. Let’s just say, there has been a bit of a, “learning curve”. But so far nothing we couldn’t handle, thanks to a solid emergency fund, and moving help from Mayflower.com. Out little condo has fit our needs just fine and overall we’re very pleased with our purchase.

We even convinced my grandparents to come for a visit to the “Big City” this Christmas. Something my papa said he’d only do once we bought a home (at the time he didn’t realize how expensive real estate here is, so he’s been waiting a few years for us to buy). So without further ado, below are a a list with the things we thought are particularly important for couples or singles purchasing their first condo to be aware of.

Before You Buy, Know the Following:

  1. Condo fees-Know how much they are and what they cover. When are they due and what happens if another owner falls behind? Is there a separate fee for garbage disposal or snow removal? Is landscaping included in the condo fees if there are common yard areas? Ask as many questions as you can. You don’t want to be stuck with, “hidden” expenses after you buy.
  2. Know Your Neighbors-What are the approximate ages of the other condo owners/tenants? Do they have little kids or teenagers? Are they college kids who come home late and play loud music? Our first night in our new condo our upstairs neighbors (tenants not owners) threw a raucous party. Their music was so loud I could hear it, word for word, through our ceiling. I was so mad (and so scared that we’d made a horrible decision to buy our condo) I cried. I later learned it was someone’s birthday, and they party like that once, maybe twice a year. Bad timing, but a good lesson in making sure parties like that don’t happen every night! Ask the other condo owners about any issues with noise before you purchase.
  3. Check the Reserve-Make Sure the Association has adequate funds to pay for emergency repairs. Just check out this post about the “Hidden” Costs of Condo Ownership where I describe the assessments we incurred after Hurricane Sandy. When you own a condo you should always have an emergency fund. If there are assessments you’ll be responsible for paying for your “share”, whether the damage or repairs impacted your unit or not.
  4. Condo Association-Does one owner like to throw his/her weight around and dictate how the building is run? Is there a condo association president? Why is his/her role? How often do all of the owners meet to discuss building issues? Is the meeting virtual (skype) or in person? Do you have to host the meeting in your home regularly? Our condo association meets very infrequently. I’d actually like to meet more frequently to discuss money and the reserve (but not everyone likes to talk about money as much as I do).
  5. Read the Association’s Rules-If the association has formal written rules, read them. Many of the important things you’ll need to know about living in the building will be included in the association’s rules. Want to know the policy on pets, allowing renters, and who’s responsible for what? Read the rules. Our association doesn’t have formal written rules, which sometimes causes a little confusion and frustration. I’m going to suggest that we draft some at our next meeting.
  6. Ask About Pets-Does your future neighbor own a dog that barks all the time? Isn’t house-trained and has accidents on the carpet in the common areas? Is aggressive and scares your kids? Our neighbor’s German Sheppard has lunged at survivor dog. Now we know to pick him up whenever, Karma (dog’s real name, go figure!) is around.
  7. Security-Do your neighbors keep the front doors of the building closed and locked at all times? Is there a security system or a doorman? After hurricane Sandy, our neighbors were propping open the front door of our building because they were plugging in a generator (to keep lights on in their unit, and their unit only) and storing gas in the lobby (holy unsafe!) I told them they needed to remove the gas and after about a week, they did. It got to a point where I almost called the fire department on them because I was so angry and so scared (again, know your neighbors). Additionally, with no lights and rumors of looting, I was pretty nervous to have the front doors wide open.
  8. Maintenance-If your condo association doesn’t contract with a maintenance company, be sure to ask about who does routine maintenance i.e. who changes light bulbs in the common areas, who salts the sidewalks during snowstorms, and who vacuums the common areas. A few weeks after we moved in I was terrified when I heard someone jiggling my lock and opening my front door. It was the cleaning lady who vacuums the common areas of the building (by plugging the vacuum in, in my apartment). Apparently this was the arrangement with the former owner, but nobody had thought to tell us (aside-change your locks when you move in, who knows how many people have keys to your apartment!).
  9. Cosmetics-Does the association care about the cosmetics of the building? Do they continuously make improvements to the common areas of the building (which can be expensive)? Or do they let things slide until things are in a bad state of repair and need a total overhaul (also expensive). Are most of the units owner occupied or rented? Typically owners take better care of the building then renters.
  10. Unwritten Rules-Sometimes there are ridiculous, “unwritten rules” that pop up once you’re an owner. For example, “We don’t do laundry when it’s raining because the water from the rain combined with the water from the washer floods the basement apartment” or, “We don’t put our air conditioners in the middle window of our units because some air conditioners drip water down the front of the basement and onto the basement apartment’s entrance”. Ask about this unwritten rules and be prepared for them (because inevitability one of these with catch you by surprise and piss you off-OK maybe I’m just speaking for myself there). I don’t mind putting my air conditioners in a certain window, but someone should have told me about this before I paid someone $100 to install it.

The good, the bad and the ugly. When you buy a condo you’re not an island unto yourself. You have to interact with, and tolerate your neighbors and their idiosyncrasies. You might own your unit, but the loud neighbors upstairs and crazy neighbors on the first floor will impact your quality of life. So do your research and make sure your dream house doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

Are you/Have you owned a condo? What are some of your tips for first time home-buyers?

Image: Rutio

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  1. DC @ Young Adult Money

    I have not owned a condo, just a regular house (bought in back in October of last year). This is definitely a great list, though, and I know quite a few others who have gone the condo route. I think “unwritten rules” like this -> “We don’t do laundry when it’s raining because the water from the rain combined with the water from the washer floods the basement apartment” should be written down! Seems like a pretty important thing to know.

    1. KK

      You’d think that, right? I mean it’s sort of important that I know that. More so for the basement owners, but also because damage to the basement isnt good for the structural integrity of the building.

    2. Marissa @ Thirtysixmonths

      What? Tell me that hasn’t happened to you?!

      1. KK

        Wish I could say that wasn’t one of the “unwritten rules” but it totally is. The basement unit probably shouldn’t be a legal apartment, but the city has no record of the unit even existing. Pretty sad since the owner’s paid a half million dollars for it and it’s flooded 3 times since they moved in. (2 hurricanes, one big rain storm).

  2. @debtblag

    With condo association rules, it’s so important to understand what’s allowed and not just so that you don’t break them in the future. It can very well come up that the previous condo owner was breaking the rules *at the time they sold it to you* and now you’re stuck with a costly repair just to get into compliance.

    1. KK

      So true. It would totally stink to move in and learn that something the former owner was doing was against the rules (when you thought it was OK).

  3. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

    Great post, KK. I had no idea about the Unwritten Rules and the money you might need for fork over for repairs. Thanks for the valuable info!!

    1. KK

      Both pains in the rear, but unavoidable.

  4. John S @ Frugal Rules

    Good post! We’ve never owned a condo, just a house. I think the unwritten rules is a little on the nutty side. If they’re that important why not just have them written down? That would be too easy I guess. 😉

    1. KK

      Right? I was shocked by how many unwritten rules there are. I’m sure this is specific to our building (well I hope it is).

  5. Michelle

    This is a great list! There are so many things to think about before you buy.

    1. KK

      Sure are, we did a lot of research, but I feel like these are the things that people don’t necessarily tell you when you’re house hunting.

  6. David

    Good post. I am approaching this dilemma as we speak of either purchasing a condo or a house and the condo costs seem to be a very big determinant of price differential. Condo fees can also have crazy ranges depending on the city/building etc.

    1. KK

      Good luck in your search. Condo fees do vary a lot depending on the building and your city. We would have preferred to buy a house, but there aren’t really any single family homes here under 1 million, and those aren’t even nice. So condos were what we could afford at this point in our lives/careers.

  7. Edgar @ Degrees and Debt

    One suggestion I can add is to ensure you check out the condo complex during the daytime and nighttime during both the work-week and weekend. I say this because you might see the condo complex and parking, etc. at noon on a Wednesday, but what does it look like at rush hour and on Saturday morning? Is there still plenty of parking or will you be hiking a mile in the city? Also, at night, what does the lighting look like? Are the walkways nice and bright with an emergency call station or are they dark and spooky?

    1. KK

      Definitely. Parking was something we really wanted. Unfortunately our building doesn’t have parking (most buildings in our city don’t). Good tips for the day/night. We’d lived in our neighborhood (rented 2 blocks away) for several years so we knew the city and neighborhood well.

  8. Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce

    In keeping with #2, it also is a good idea to come at different times of day to gauge traffic noise, etc.

    1. KK

      Yup, and think about what floor you’re going to be on. The 3rd floor walkup is a little annoying at times, but the lower to the street you are the more street noise you get.

  9. Cat Alford (@BudgetBlonde)

    This is such an informative post!! I love the idea of a condo, but I’m not super thrilled of the idea of having a board and condo fees. I think we’re going to rent for a long time until we can get ourselves a spot out in the middle of nowhere. Haha, introverts to the core!

    1. KK

      We didn’t really like the idea either, but there’s no way we could have afforded a single family (1mil and up) in our current location. When we buy again we’ll probably move to the suburbs and rent out the condo. We’re pretty introverted too.

  10. MMD @ IRA vs 401k Central

    My tip for buying a new home: Make sure you’ve got more money ready for things than you think you’ll need. By the time you end up buying all the extras like curtains, dishes, fixtures, etc, you’ll have an extra $1,000 more into it than you expect.

  11. krantcents

    I would add make sure it is financially solid. I am my HOA treasurer, making sure there are adequate reserves is very important. Secondly, go to the meetings and ge ton the board.

    1. KK

      Ugg, I wish you were our board’s treasurer. We just have a president who does everything. There are only 5 units in our building, so it’s not like we’re huge, but I definitely wish we were a little more organized. Hurricane Sandy “ate” all of our reserve and I suspect we’re going to get hit with an assessment any day now.

  12. Kurt @ Money Counselor

    This is really helpful, thanks! To follow-up on krantcents, I wonder if it would be a good idea to go to a board meeting (if allowed) before purchase, just to get a sense of the issues and culture.

    1. KK

      I think that’s an excellent idea. We don’t really have a “board” since there are only 5 of us. But I wish I’d known more of the “politics” of this building and the characters in the building before we purchased (wouldn’t have changed anything, but would have given good perspective).

  13. Brian @ Luke1428

    This is a great list KK! I’ve never owned a condo. Just lived in apartments and have now owned two separate houses. And neighbors can swing any living arrangement in the positive or negative direction. If that partying would have happened once a week, I would have moved.

    1. KK

      Neighbors are the hardest thing about condo living for me. Well that and not having complete control of everything (money, decisions on contractors etc).

  14. Mackenzie

    Great post! We used to own a townhome, which had association fees. And yes, you are so right about the “unwritten rules” that pop up! That was definitely annoying…

    1. KK

      It’s like “what?”. There are so many bizarre things you learn once you move in. People can be quirky (that’s a nice way of saying it, right?). 😉

  15. Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies

    We never bought a condo because of the lists like this! =) It’s the same thing with HOAs. We like being able to do what we want with our property and not having lots of “unwritten rules” to deal with all the time.

    1. KK

      Agreed. Dealing with all of the personalities gets old pretty quick. Luckily there are only 5 units and 3 of them are owner occupied right now (including us). The renters above and below us are nice and we have no issues with them (well other than occasional noise). If we had the money to buy a single family we definitely would have just to avoid having to deal with other people.

  16. anna

    This is a great and very comprehensive list! Agree about neighbors, when it’s summer it gets really noisy by the pool area. For the most part it’s fine, but then they don’t clean up at the bbq pits. It’s pretty gross.

    1. KK

      Thanks Anna. We’ve learned a lot in the past year (good and bad). Uncleaned bbq pits sound pretty gross. Thankfully (sort of) we don’t have any outdoor space. The space backyard for our building is deeded to the basement apartment.

  17. Kim@Eyesonthedollar

    I think you’re so right about knowing the neighbors. You really do almost live with them or at least their noise and comings and goings. I’m glad you found a great place. There is never a perfect place, but as long as it works for most of your needs, home ownership is wonderful in my opinion.

    1. KK

      We’ve been really happy for the most part. There have been a few little things that are annoying, but for the most part our neighbors are pretty respectful.

  18. Do or Debt

    I’m not going to be buying a home anytime soon (or ever?) but this is good advice! It is so important you know your neighbors and any unwritten rules! Also, the idiosyncrasies of your neighborhood.

    1. KK

      Yup, there are definitely weird little things about our neighborhood (but I knew most of them before we moved in because we used to rent a couple of blocks away).

  19. Holly@ClubThrifty

    I have never bought a condo, but I have bought a few houses now! My only advise is to be patient and wait until what you really want comes on the market.

    1. KK

      Good advice. I think a lot of people get excited or nervous and jump into the first place that comes along. We waited until we found a place that had most of our “want” list.

  20. Jim

    Great post, good information. I have never owned a condo, only a house. There seems to be too much with regard to a governing board for me to ever own a condo. At least with a house you have a bit more freedom, but I certainly understand in a big city you may not have that luxury.

    1. KK

      Thanks JIm. Our next place will be a single family (likely in the surburbs). I hate all the rules and dealing with the personalities, but when you live in the city and aren’t rich there aren’t a lot of other options.

  21. Financial Black Sheep

    I love this list, especially the unwritten rules haha.

    I would add, know what you are getting into when you sign the papers. I have never officially purchased a home. I have a mobile home that I purchased using a personal loan. Completely different with a lot less paperwork. If I were to upgrade into a house I definitely would be scouring the web and picking everyones ear about what it’s like to purchase a house. From paper work to move in day I would want to know everything.

    For me, I had to figure out how to unhook my house, move it and hook it all up. Let’s just say after I finish college this home can stay where it is at, because that was too big of a pain! But for the price, I cannot complain :)

    1. KK

      Knowing as much as possible is really important. We tried to do as much research as we could, but there were some things you just don’t know (or know to ask about) until you move in. I hope the list was helpful for other folks who are in the same situation (or going to be).

  22. femmefrugality

    We only rent, but people were leaving our front door open all the time to go walk their dogs. It was so annoying. And a bit dangerous. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door were getting a bit annoying. (No offense, guys. But you’ve already talked to me. You can move on, now.) Apparently I wasn’t the only one it bothered. Someone left a sign that said, “PLEASE MAKE SURE THIS DOOR IS LOCKED!” It took a while for people to build the habit up, but it eventually worked. That and I ranted as loudly and indirectly about it as I could in the mutual hallway.

    1. KK

      I just don’t get why people would think that’s OK? I mean don’t they care for their own safety as well? I don’t care what you do in your unit as long as it’s quiet and no bothering me, but when you prop open the front doors that’s putting everyone at risk.

  23. Jon @ PayMyStudentLoans.com

    I have never bought a condo but great list. After going through the home buying experience the one thing I can say is that when you are considering a place and think its perfect then it slips from your grasp in a bidding war an equally perfect house is only a few weeks away…what I mean is its so easy to get caught up in the this place is perfect mentality and forget that there will always be another house/condo coming on the market tomorrow.

  24. Michelle

    I love my condo…but…it’s in a triplex so I only deal with 2 other people. However:
    1.) Ask about dogs and how many per unit are allowed. Put it in the bylaws-no more than 2 a unit!!!! There are now 3 in one of the units and 2 in the other. That’s 5 in the freakin’ building. They bark incessantly during work hours according to the neighbors who are friends of mine.
    2.) Ask about yard work-how are duties split up
    3.) How much is the reserve?
    4.) Get copies of the insurance coverage for the building that you’re paying for
    5.) Are all owners living in their units?
    6.) Is there a limited number of units that can be rented at any given time?
    7.) What’s the process for assessments?
    8.) Any security concerns?
    9.) Does everyone understand how HOA’s work and what the purpose of having one is? I just discovered through a long conversation with the other owner that she really didn’t understand what the purpose was for the HOA and the fees. She only pays $108 a month for a 1200 sqf unit. It’s super cheap. She thought it was expensive and she HAS NEVER paid her fees! She is almost $3,000 in the hole. And we have just worked on how to get her in repayment mode. I don’t feel like suing her and putting a lien on her place…

  25. Kyle | Rather-Be-Shopping.com

    Great post. The unwritten rule thing can go to residential neighborhoods as well and I think they are ridiculous.

  26. Mo' Money Mo' Houses

    Good to know! Me and the BF are definitely thinking of buying a condo in the next few years so these tips really help!

    1. KK

      Glad they were helpful. If you have any questions (and I might be able to answer them) shoot me an e-mail :-)

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