What Is a Condo? Condo vs. Apartment vs. House, Explained

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On Oct 1, 2020
Listed in Real Estate News

 | Sep 29, 2020

What is a condo?

What is a condo? Short for “condominium,” a condo is a private residence within a larger building or complex.

The first condo in the United States was built in Salt Lake City in 1960, according to Matthew Gordon Lasner, author of “High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century.” Since then, this residence style has truly taken off. Currently, there are approximately 17 million privately owned condominiums in the U.S.

Condos might look like a lot of other types of real estate you may have heard of—like apartments, co-ops, or townhouses—but condos have their own distinct features, rules, pros, and cons. Here’s what condos are all about, and how they’re different from other structures in which you can live.

How condos work

Since a condo is part of a larger residential structure (although “detached condominiums” also exist), condo residents typically share certain common areas and amenities with their neighbors.

So what does this mean for a condo owner? It means you and your neighbors might park in a common parking lot or garage. You might use the same rec room or roof deck, or bump into one another at the condo complex’s swimming pool or gym.

Furthermore, these shared areas and amenities are enjoyed by all condo members without the need to maintain them on their own. Instead, condo owners pay dues to a board (typically made up of elected condominium owners) who then handle the hiring of landscapers, pool cleaners, and other professionals for anything that must be maintained or fixed, from faulty elevators to gopher infestations in common areas.

How much are condo fees, and what do they cover?

Average condo fees range from around $100 to $700 per month, although these fees can go much higher based on what amenities they cover. If the condo complex has high-end shared features such as a swimming pool, gym, and spa, condo fees can be several thousand per month.

Generally, condo fees pay for the maintenance of any amenities outside your personal living space that you share with your neighbors.

“Condo fees are your percentage share of the costs to run the building as a whole,” explains Janice Pynn, president of Simerra Property Management.

And in case you think your condo fees are too high, know this: No one pockets a cent of your checks or is getting rich off condo dues.

“They are not a profit source for building management; in fact, each building is registered as a nonprofit corporation,” Pynn points out. In other words, these fees go solely toward enhancing the value of your real estate, which is a good thing!

Here are the services and amenities you can expect your condo fees to cover:

  • Interior maintenance: Condo owners share the cost of maintaining common building areas like parking structures, storage rooms, laundry rooms, game rooms, fitness centers, saunas, and hallways, as well as mechanical systems like heating, cooling, electric, gas, plumbing, and elevator maintenance. If a crew comes regularly to clean the common spaces, its fees are also included.
  • Exterior maintenance: Condo owners also share the cost of exterior common areas like fences, walls, gates, pools, landscaping, and window cleaning, and seasonal expenses like snow removal, winterizing, and cleaning out rain gutters. If a gardening crew comes regularly to take care of the landscaping, its fees are also included.
  • Security: This could range from cameras at the entrance to full-time guards patrolling the grounds. If visitors have to be buzzed in to the building, this system will be covered by your condo fees.
  • Utilities: Most developments’ condo fees cover utilities such as water, sewer, and trash. Some buildings even include heat, electricity, cable, and Wi-Fi. Remember that the more utilities covered, the higher your condo fees will probably be.
  • Insurance: Most condo fees include a homeowners insurance policy that covers exteriors and shared common areas. Depending on where the condos are located, the insurance policies might also cover flood and/or earthquake damage. The nice thing here is that condo owners need only to purchase insurance policies that cover the interior of their home and their possessions.
  • Reserve fund: There are expenses that don’t come up on a monthly, or even an annual, basis that will need attending to, so a well-managed condo board will charge owners a certain amount per month that will go into a reserve fund. It would cover things like paving, reroofing, replacing water heaters, exterior painting, hallway and lobby flooring and redesign, and more.

What is an assessment?

In addition to your monthly condo fees, special assessments might arise. Every once in a while something big (e.g., a roof or an elevator) gives out, and there aren’t enough reserve funds to cover it. In that case, the condo owners will have to pay an extra fee for these additional expenses, typically tacked on to the usual monthly condo fees in small amounts until the assessment is paid off.

At times like these, it’s best to remember that, as with any type of homeownership, unforeseen expenses arise, and making the necessary repairs is in your best interest. In other words, you get out what you put in.

In addition to collecting dues, a condo board also enforces rules and regulations that owners agree to abide by when they purchase their condominium. The board can regulate everything from the size and number of pets you’re allowed to the ages of the people living in your unit. Retirement condo communities, for example, can legally require that all long-term residents be over the age of 55.

So if you’re looking into buying a condo, make sure to study up on the condominium association rules (called covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or CC&Rs) and fees.

Condo vs. apartment: What’s the difference?

While condominiums and apartments might look exactly the same—a residence in a larger building—the key difference has to do with who owns the property. Condos are homes you can buy, own, and sell when you wish. Apartments are places you can rent, but do not own.

Another key difference between a condo and apartment has to do with property’s maintenance and repairs. With a rental, the apartment’s owner—often called a landlord—is typically responsible for any maintenance and repairs inside the unit as well as out. So for instance, if a renter’s faucet drips or they’ve got pest problems like mice or roaches, all they need to do is call the landlord to come fix the problem.

Condo owners, in contrast, are responsible for any repairs or maintenance inside their unit.

Condo vs. apartment: Which is better for you?

Whether you should buy a condo or rent an apartment can be a tough decision, since each scenario comes with distinct pros and cons. For instance, renting an apartment is great if you’re not sure how long you’ll stay in the area, or don’t want the hassles of maintaining your residence.

Buying a condo, however, makes more sense if you plan to stay in an area for at least a few years, and are willing to maintain your property (by paying repair professionals or by doing the work yourself).

Here are some other factors to consider.

  • Cost: Condos are meant to be purchased. Even if you get a mortgage, condos will typically require a down payment (typically anywhere from 3.5% to 20% of the price of the property). If you lack a chunk of money to offer upfront, then you’ll probably have to rent, which typically requires lower upfront costs (like first and last month’s rent and one month’s security deposit). That said, depending on the inventory available in a particular area, the monthly costs of renting vs. owning could be similar. As such, it’s worth comparing these two options with an online rent vs. buy calculator.
  • Home equity: Probably the main advantage for being a condo owner over a renter is that condo owners gain equity in their real estate over time. As they slowly pay off their mortgage and owe less on their property, they own bit more of their condo free and clear, month by month. Once the mortgage is fully paid off (which can take up to 30 years), they own the property in full. This is in stark contrast to renting, where you pay your landlord rent every month but do not gain equity.
  • Freedom: Condo owners are able to make changes to the property from painting the walls to renovating the kitchen. Meanwhile, renters are not allowed to make any permanent changes without their landlord’s permission.
  • Housing quality: Since homeowners tend to care more about their property than renters, condos tend to be better built and maintained than rentals.

Condo vs. house: What’s the difference?

But what if your real estate debate is whether to buy a condo vs. house? Take a look at the differences between these two popular residential options, and the benefits each can provide to you and your family.

  • Price: Condos are usually more affordable than a house, and are thus great starter homes for younger home buyers. To figure out how much you can realistically spend, try using an online home affordability calculator.
  • Location: If you want to be in the heart of the city, condos will be more prevalent. Single-family homes at around the same price could be found, but likely farther out from metro centers, which might entail a longer commute.
  • Privacy: Having complete privacy is possible in a single-family house, while condo living means neighbors will be quite close. Condos may not offer private outdoor space.
  • Freedom: Many condo communities have strict rules about everything from paint choices to the hours when you can take out your trash cans. As a result, a condo complex isn’t a great idea for fiercely independent homeowners who don’t want anyone telling them what they can and can’t do with their property. Single-family home communities tend to be more lenient.
  • Maintenance: With a house, the homeowner will have to take care of any maintenance, whereas condos include maintenance fees that cover landscaping and (sometimes) exterior maintenance on the unit. As such, condominiums are often ideal for people who want to own a piece of real estate but don’t want to worry about yardwork and repairs.
  • Budget: How much do you want to spend on the property? Condos are usually more affordable than a house. Give this point considerable thought. The last thing you want is to overextend financially. Try using an online home affordability calculator to help pinpoint a budget.

How to buy a condo

We totally get why people buy condos: They’re cheaper and require less maintenance than a traditional house (no mowing the lawn). Plus, they’re often stacked with cool common amenities from pools to gyms. What’s not to love? Yet while condo living might seem carefree, buying one is not necessarily a simple task.

Here’s how to buy a condo, how it’s different from buying a house, and a few insider tips to pave the way to ownership.

Consider your unit’s surroundings

While the condo unit itself is a key consideration, it’s also important to carefully check out the environment around it—particularly when it comes to noise. Remember, you’ll be sharing walls with your neighbors, and perhaps even ceilings and floors.

“I always suggest my buyers book a showing during typically ‘louder’ times of the day, such as dinnertime when kids are home, to see how well the walls actually dampen the noise,” says David Nelson with the Imperial Home Team in Minneapolis. He also recommends asking a few of the neighbors about general property noise, such as how loud the traffic and surrounding neighborhood are, and if they can hear theirneighbors through the walls.

The unit you choose can play a large role as well.

“End units share fewer walls than those in the middle, which can lessen neighbor noise,” says Nelson. Of course, that’s also one of the reasons why end and top-floor units are more coveted—and often pricier—but if you’re sensitive to noise, that could be money well spent.

Check out the condo board and association

When you buy a condo, you’re buying into the entire community—including its rules on everything from when and where it’s OK to let your dogs off the leash to whether RVs are allowed in your driveway. Most states will have a designated rescission period to peruse relevant documents. During this period, you’ll want to carefully read through the community’s covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or CC&Rs, as well as penalties for not following them.

“When a buyer agrees to the association documents, he or she is automatically bound to the condo board’s rules,” says Nelson. These typically entail parking space allowances, regulations related to pets, and homeowner responsibilities for repairs and maintenance.

“If there is something in the association bylaws that you as a buyer don’t agree with, and it is still within the rescission period, you can back out of the home purchase and usually get a full refund of any earnest money,” says Nelson.

Prospective condo buyers should also do their due diligence on the condo association’s finances, because this will affect your odds of getting a loan (more on that next).

Secure condo financing

In some cases, it can be trickier to secure a mortgage for a condo than a traditional home because the health of the condo development hinges on multiple owners paying their bills. Your mortgage lender is apt to conduct a thorough review of the condo complex as a whole, including documents relating to the overall health of the building and the condo association. The good news is that you can consider this an extra layer of due diligence to protect your own investment.

Prep for your condo interview

Sure, you’re checking them out, but they’re checking you out, too. Once your offer is accepted, many condo associations require prospective buyers to interview with the condo board. Don’t worry: These interviews must comply with all regulations against unlawful discrimination—the goal is to ensure that you can afford the home and fully understand condo rules. This is also your chance to ask questions about any of those rules, and also get a feel for some of the people you’ll be living with—so consider it less of a firing squad and more like a first date.

Questions to ask a condo board

“One of the biggest considerations when purchasing a condo is who manages it,” says Nelson. That’s why, before you sign on the dotted line, you should arm yourself with these questions for the condo board to make sure it’s the right fit for you.

  • What are the fees? Most condos have a monthly fee that can range from $200 to $400 (an upscale development with tons of amenities will cost more). Ask the board exactly what that fee covers—after all, you’ll be shelling out month after month, and year after year. What’s usually included is anything outside your condo, from cleaning public areas to removing snow to maintaining the community pool. Owners themselves generally pay for whatever is inside the walls of their condo, like painting and appliances. Make sure what you’re getting is on par with what you’re paying for, says Nelson. And always ask if the board sees the fee rising anytime in the near future, and how much it’s risen in the past.
  • Can I see the financial statements? A condo’s financials should be an open book (or, more accurately, a spreadsheet). And don’t worry if you’re not an accountant. You should quickly be able to determine if a condo’s income and expenses match up—a red flag would be more money going out than coming in. Also eye the condo’s reserve funds to see if it’s healthy enough to cover any unforeseen expenditures. If not—and the pool pump breaks—that could result in more money coming out of your pocket to fix the problem via an assessment (see our next point).
  • Are there any upcoming assessments? Assessments are periodic, one-time payments made to the association above and beyond the monthly fee, usually to cover capital improvements or repairs. So if the association plans to replace all the windows in the common areas or add a gym, you could end up blindsided by a huge extra bill—unless, of course, you ask ahead of time.
  • What are the rules? Each association has its own unique bylaws and regulations, which all buyers should review before their purchase, as they have to live by them afterward. So make sure you read every single one. Many of the rules are mundane, dictating where residents or guests can park. But some condos have rules that can range from no holiday decorations on your front door to limits on hours for barbecuing. Another biggie in condo rules is whether a homeowner is allowed to rent out their home, and for how long. While you may not want to rent it out, the ability to do so—or not—could affect your resale value. Did we mention that you should read the rules? Read the rules.
  • Are there any pending lawsuits? Lawsuits are a potentially huge financial drain on any condo board that loses in court. And even if there are no pending suits, a quick check of a condo’s liability insurance to make sure it’s up to snuff can’t hurt.
  • Who is the caretaker? Properties generally have a manager on-site to oversee day-to-day tasks. An employee who has been with a condo for a long time is generally a good sign your calls will be answered in case a maintenance issue pops up.