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Condo Living, from Both Sides

We don’t talk about our last home – the condo – here on the blog anymore (at least, not really), but it’s still very much on our minds. You might remember that while we no longer live there, we do still own that property, and we’ve rented it out to a great couple. There have been times since their move-in date where we’ve had to drop off an extra key, speak with our former Home Owner’s Association and work out kinks when issues have arisen.

We may not reside within those four walls, but we still love that place. And so, it remains important for us to make sure that these tenants and any future tenants are happy and comfortable, just as we were.

With that said, we do receive emails from you regarding past projects, paint colors and the like, and with every response from our end, we’re reminded – all over again! – that, yeah! Living there was pretty alright. (And we’d be lying if we said there were times when we didn’t miss that open kitchen, spotless bathroom and cozy, cocoon-like bedroom!) Most recently, however, I found a note in my inbox from Staci, and her question went beyond the things in our former home. Because her question touched on a topic that we’ve never really addressed, we felt it made sense to share our answer with all of you in the hopes it could be helpful for others in a similar situation. She says:

Hi, Kim! I have a few questions about your experience in your condo, if you don’t mind. I am finally getting serious about buying a place instead of renting! Budget-wise, the only option is to go condo or townhouse, but I’m worried that a condo experience will have all the same downsides of my current apartment.

What level did you live on? How many shared walls did you have? Did you hear your neighbors often? If you’d been so inclined, would you have been able to easily replace flooring/cabinets? Is there a Board you have to go through to get stuff like that approved? 

In our apartment, if something breaks we call maintenance. In a condo, I bet it comes out of pocket, but do they have plumbers, handymen, etc “on retainer” that know the building and how the units connect to each other well?

Excited to hear what you have to say!  – Staci

First, it’s very important to stress that every condo building will be a little different, with their own rules and regulations, shouldn’t-dos and okay-to-dos. To fully understand our reply, it’s important to know more about our scenario: We lived on the second floor of a three floor walk-up with less than 15 residential units. (So, yup, that would mean we had people above and below us; a double whammy!) Our building was small by some standards, but large enough that we formed a HOA (Home Owner’s Association) to manage and maintain the standards we’d come to expect as owners and, in some cases, renters.

Scott and I hashed out the ups and downs of living in a common building, below – but if you want the short answer? There are more pros than cons in our opinion, so Staci, go for it! (And the best of luck in your new home journey!)

THE GOOD

There’s a Board! Our Board was made up of a President, VP/Secretary and Treasurer, and they’re there to handle and delegate any building emergencies – i.e., a flood, a roof in need of repair or excessive hail. It’s not necessarily their responsibility to tell your upstairs neighbors to take off their heels (we’re all grown-ups, after all!), but they will step in if further action is ever needed in disputes. In other words, you’re not alone in this.

You maintain only your unit. Yards, common areas (such as hallways and sidewalks) and even the glass on your building’s front door is typically handled by a management company, which is hired by the Board of your HOA. Our maintenance schedule was once weekly, with snow removal on an as-needed basis. At the same time, we know of smaller buildings that go by the “we all pitch in!” mentality, which cuts down on the HOA fees (the additional monthly cost that pays for your building’s amenities, etc.)

The drywall is all yours! We wallpapered, installed shelving, painted, re-painted and swapped out every light fixture over the course of our 6 years there. Moving walls, on the other hand, may require Board approval, but this will vary (so in other words, you’ll want to clear demolition details with your HOA.)

Built-in friends! Some of our closest friends in Chicago still live in that building (remember when we went to those weddings in Grand Rapids and Mexico? Former building-mates!), and in the warmer weather months, back doors are left open, grills are grilling and drinks are flowing. There have been times where we – honest to goodness – couldn’t find Jack, and we’d eventually find him hanging out in the living room of our neighbor, chowing down on his Nylabone.

We had a plumber that was familiar with our building. Some neighbors shared electricians. Handymen were recommended and endorsed by those living above, below and next to us, and as a result, they did, in fact, come to know our building. Anything within our unit was on our dime, sure, but hey, that’s owning a home!

Depending on your location, living in a condo can mean small(er) space living. We actually really did enjoy this! Utilities stay low, and the best perk of all – less to clean, less to mow and less snow to shovel (which we’re really missing right now!).

Our building was secure. We had (have) security cameras at every entrance, tall gates installed in our back alley and flood lights.

Honestly? It just felt easier – for every reason listed above and then some. (Not to mention, maybe you’d be able to afford to live in a more desirable area as long as you’re willing to take on that smaller footprint?)

THE BAD

Yes, we actually enjoyed our small space living, but this could certainly be considered a downside depending on your needs. And as silly as this may sound, furniture choices are a little harder to come by. (Goodbye, mega sectional!)

In almost every case, there will be an HOA fee in addition to your mortgage. These are paid monthly, and they cover everything from a management company to building amenities (a gym, party room or front desk staff) to keeping your common hallway lights on. Ask yourself what you’re really looking for in your building; will you use the free weights in the gym? Is the rooftop deck important to you? Depending on what your building offers and the city you live in, these additional fees could be anywhere from $100 to $500 (and up!), so know what’s important to you going in. (Our fees were/are rather low, but keep in mind that our building was/is on the smaller side.)

Pet restrictions can be a possibility. This may mean that size and quantity of pets can be taken into consideration, although we were (obviously) really lucky that wasn’t the case for us.

There will be times when a larger building update will need to take place; think: re-carpeting the main areas, tuck pointing or exterior deck cleanings. Sometimes, your HOA monthly fees will have a reserve to carry out these expenses; sometimes, it’s not enough. At that time, a special assessment will be required to cover those costs – in addition to your monthly HOA fees.

Yes, you will share walls. Problems were extremely rare for us, however, our current tenants have had issues that we didn’t experience (which has really been a bummer!). If you’re a light sleeper or keep odd hours, you may want to specify a top floor unit while home shopping.

Our pros certainly outweigh the cons, but our biggest piece of advice is this: ask questions. If you’re seriously considering a unit on a condo building or townhome, ask to meet the Board President! Ask him/her about your potential neighbors: Are they young professionals? Or retirees? Or, maybe, they’re small families? Ask what percentage of the building is rented vs. owned, and hey, does this even matter to you?

There are many, many variations on our list, but fellow condo/townhome owners, what would you add? What’s your favorite part of big-building living? Your least favorite? Let’s keep the conversation flowing in the comments, as I’ll be the first to admit that there’s much, much more to cover!

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  • Jennifer I2.7.14 - 8:45 AM

    I recommend research, each building will have its pluses and minuses — find out about it as much as you can. I lived in a neat open air condo that was great when it was just my hubby and I, bad when we had a baby. (all walls but bathrooms opened to each other) It was a remodeled old army barracks. It was old, and had lots of strange issues because it really wasn’t originally built with homeownership in mind. How thin are the walls if you are bothered by sound? Who lives there? Are there water pressure issues? Families, young people, older…these will all set the tone for what you can expect. It was a different living experience, perfect for where I was at the time — you get a bit more control over your living environment than in an apartment, and still not all the expenses and work of a home. Good luck!ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.7.14 - 9:09 AM

      Jennifer, that place sounds like it would have been so unique and fun! You’re absolutely right about finding out who lives in the building, as it will give you a peek into what stages the others are in their lives. For example, our building was gut rehabbed, and everyone moving in was a first time homeowner, for the most part, in their twenties and thirties. I definitely think that’s why we made friends so fast; we were all in the same boat!ReplyCancel

  • Laura @ Rather Square2.7.14 - 9:12 AM

    We too own a condo that we are renting out. With this weather recently, we are really missing having a homeowners association to shovel and plow for us! We love our house, but it’s definitely an adjustment becoming your own handyman/woman.ReplyCancel

  • Jody2.7.14 - 10:57 AM

    I am LOL at the pic of your pup trying to walk in the snow!! hahaa My hub just dug a long path in the snow with a large circle at the end for Walter, our bostie, to do his business. So cute!!ReplyCancel

  • Kim2.7.14 - 11:07 AM

    Jody, we definitely should have done that. The snow is SO deep in our yard! Jack would certainly appreciate it. (The photo above was taken a couple of years ago though.)ReplyCancel

  • Stephanie2.7.14 - 11:24 AM

    I have lots to say on this! We live in a Manor Style townhome, which is basically a condo in a building that looks like a house, with two units up and two units down. We live on the second floor on the left. We only share one wall (the kitchen and dining room wall) with neighbors, but do have people below us.

    The things I like:
    -no snow shoveling!
    -when there is a big repair, the costs are shared, so a new driveway was only a couple hundred bucks, all the roofs were replaced before we bought it, but the special assessment was only $1,000, and everyone got a brand new roof.
    -good neighbors. Our downstairs neighbors are so sweet (and tolerant of our probably-loud-kids!) We also have a family in one of the other buildings across the cul de sac that has kids for ours to play with.
    -we have a laid back association that does not micromanage what changes you like to make, and people are welcome to use the grounds for gardening and whatnot.

    The things I don’t like:
    -our association historically has had problems with deferring maintenance. It’s gotten better now with a new president, but there were some years that the outside was shabby looking and no one did anything about it.
    -we don’t have our own yard.
    -sometimes it does feel a little “apartment-y”
    -the condo market in our city TANKED, and we are way underwater (bought at the height of the bubble). This is the biggest thing – we loved our condo but we’ve outgrown it and can’t sell.ReplyCancel

  • Staci2.7.14 - 1:58 PM

    Oh thank you so much for answering my questions! Definitely sitting down my hubby to read this when he gets home from work.
    I love that you and your neighbors became such good friends–definitely something to keep in mind when we shop for neighborhoods. It’s such a huge decision!
    A standard HOA out here is about $300 (yikes!) but many of the complexes have really beautiful landscaping and water is often included. Well, I’ll keep you posted when we find “the one” ;)ReplyCancel

  • Liz2.7.14 - 2:05 PM

    Find out about the property management company, if there is one. Our condo has cycled through 3 in the past 7 years, and it turns out that the previous one we had has “misplaced” about $150K of our building’s reserve fund. My sister’s condo building hit her with a $7K special assessment for new windows within a few months of her moving in, then took 2 years to replace the windows (which were leaking so bad that she had to replace drywall and flooring). A company that manages the finances well is so important. Your real estate lawyer will review the records of the management company when they review the purchase contract.

    As for neighbours, try and look for a building constructed with concrete walls and floors rather than wood framing. We live in a building built in the mid-70s (which comes with its own set of issues….) with concrete walls and floors. We occasionally hear water running in the walls, or if the neighbour upstairs drops something, but other than that, it is really, really quiet.ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.7.14 - 3:26 PM

      Liz, great tips on the concrete walls and floors – that REALLY helps! And I can’t believe that about the 7K special assessment; I would be livid. Was it a larger building?

      Stephanie, we also purchased our condo at the height of the bubble, but I think we were really lucky in that we live in a pretty desirable neighborhood, so we were able to rent it out. Is that an option for you?ReplyCancel

  • Kim2.7.14 - 2:08 PM

    Staci, please do!ReplyCancel

  • Julia@Cukoo4Design2.7.14 - 5:19 PM

    I adore the last photo! Floppy ears ;)ReplyCancel

  • Laurie2.7.14 - 5:54 PM

    I used to live in a stacked townhouse condo (so there was one two-floor unit above another two-floor unit and they were all connected). I was lucky in that I was the end unit so I didn’t have as many attached neighbours, but there were oh so many issues with the people I was attached to… like the downstairs neighbour who chain smoked and it bled through the paper-thin walls, and who lived with her physically abusive son, who we had to call the cops on more than once when we were afraid he was going to kill her.
    We too had a board, but they weren’t the brightest bulbs in the bunch – they paid for a fence to block the sight of the garbage area, making in inaccessible by the city’s garbage men. This then led to another charge to pay a service to pick up our garbage instead.
    Also it was in a – more affordable – neighbourhood, it was I believe the cheapest building across four towns, so there were a lot of rental units. This meant a lot of people who didn’t treat things as if they were their own, and things looked run-down really fast.
    That said, it meant I was able to buy a house instead of paying rental income very early in my work life, and I did love that they paid for all of the outside stuff – and that included anything to the walls – new windows, new roofing, new siding, even a new front door, snow removal, etc.
    So I definitely echo reviewing all of the condo paperwork, budgets, finances, policies before you buy, and get a feel for the neighbourhood and the other residents, because your’e going to be in close contact and it’s not as easy to get out if you get fed up…ReplyCancel

  • Jackie2.7.14 - 8:03 PM

    I don’t live in a condo now, but have in the past. (Although here they’re rarely “buildings” — they’re more like groups of townhomes. The first condo I owned was in a complex of 50 buildings that spanned two sides of a street. There with 4 units in each building (one ground level single story, two two-story units, and one upper level single story above the carport.) Like other real estate, location location location is really important. (Especially regarding crime and vandalism. Vandalism in the complex = higher fees for everyone.) Percentage of owners vs. renters can matter both in how likely people are to take care of the units and in how likely you are to qualify for some types of loans.

    My tips: keep in mind that HOA fees can and often do increase over time, read the covenants before making an offer (keeping in mind they WILL be enforced), and get on the board & attend the meetings.ReplyCancel

  • Dana2.9.14 - 11:49 AM

    I feel like I should chime in simply to give an alternate perspective. We too owned a condo in Chicago but had a horrible experience. Although we were friends with our neighbors and loved condo-living at first, the community aspect was a lot of fun!, things really started to crumble when our upstairs neighbors refused to respect sleeping hours (lots of stomping above the bedroom, dragging of furniture and music made sleep absolutely impossible–for over three years this went on). Their washer later leaked into our unit and destroyed our kitchen ceiling, which they refused to pay for. I was on the board and friendly with my fellow board members but they despised conflict and chose not to mediate the situation. The living conditions eventually became untenable (we were without sleep for so very long!! and any time we complained the neighbors threatened physical violence). We ended up dumping the condo in a low market, losing an obscene amount of money in the process. Those were very dark years for us and we’ll never go back to condo living…! You assume a lot of risks when you buy-in. It can be a really special experience… or fraught with conflict.ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.11.14 - 11:30 AM

      Dana, thank you SO much for your input! We did have problems with noise with our current renters, to the same tune that you describe here (which we were very, very fortunate to not experience on the same level). Those are definitely things to keep in mind, and especially making sure that your Board is willing to step in and mediate when it’s necessary (which it seemed like it was).ReplyCancel

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