Before you put a down payment on a condo in a big city, there are a few things you need to think about and decisions you need to make. Here are 19 tips for condo-buying before you sign any contracts or hand over any money.
Consider the social aspects
Generally speaking, living in a condo is a lot more social than buying a detached home in the suburbs or even in the city. You’ll be sharing some common areas with neighbors, running into them at homeowners association (HOA) meetings, seeing them in the hallways, dealing with individual properties that have adjoining walls, and more. You might be surprised by how much more you interact with your condo co-habitants than you did with other apartment dwellers, even if you’re used to apartment living.
So the first thing to ask yourself is, what’s your comfort level with a more social lifestyle? Not every condo development is set up the same way; some are going to be inherently more social than others, and understanding how social you want to be and how the development is going to facilitate that is important before you start shopping in earnest. If you can handle a shared rooftop patio but really don’t want to deal with common laundry facilities, that’s really good to know before you sign any paperwork and make your condo dream a real commitment.
Determine your ideal building size
Some condo developments have only a handful of units, while others host dozens across multiple buildings. In addition to determining your level of comfort with the development’s social aspects, you’ll also want to think about how big is too big, how small is too small, and what “just right” looks like for you.
Bigger developments may have more amenities and structured meet-and-greets; they might also involve bigger HOA fees to maintain all that extra space. Smaller condo conglomerates are more likely to have lower fees, but that gorgeous gym that’s open to residents could also be a complete fantasy in a smaller condo. Those are generalizations, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but you’ll need to know going in what size is right for you.
Old vs. new
Many people think of condos as new, modern developments, but especially in larger cities, that simply isn’t always the case. There are plenty of established buildings that were constructed as condos or that have been renovated as condo developments, and lots of them are just as nice (or nicer) as the most modern and up-to-date condo project you can find.
Like most factors involving homeownership, there are pros and cons to choosing an older building over a newer one or vice versa. Older condo buildings might not have all the modern bells and whistles that you’ll find in the brand-spanking-new versions, but some additional history can be a nice bonus — especially in terms of knowing that the building can withstand any inclement weather that your climate throws its way, and that it has all the necessary requirements already handled, like appropriate gutters on the building. Some newer builders might cut corners and eliminate or just plain forget about features that are actually requirements, and paying for any updates can get very expensive, which can mean increased HOA fees that you didn’t expect.
Older buildings also have more history behind them in terms of unit sales and HOA budgets, which can make you feel more confident in your decision to buy a unit in that building. A newer building might be financially stable and prices could be appreciating there, but you’ll have a more solid understanding of the older building simply because there’s more information available.
Dig into the HOA
The HOA is a hugely important part of purchasing any condo because it’s the entity that sets the common rules for the condo — such as “no pets” or even how long guests can stay — and it’s also responsible for maintaining the common areas of the building, from the lobby and security up to any pools, gyms, laundry facilities, or other amenities that your condo offers to residents. Condo residents have to pay HOA fees to help keep this maintenance up, and the HOA also has a budget to manage its responsibilities, so two big questions you’ll want to ask about the HOA are “how much are the HOA fees?” and “what does your annual budget look like?”
You should also ask about HOA rules and regulations, and if you can, do some digging (using a lawyer or another form of investigation) to determine if there has been any mis-management with the HOA or if it’s been involved in any litigation with residents. Both of those might not necessarily be dealbreakers for you today, but it’s good to know what happened before you arrived so that you don’t have to deal with any surprises. You can also ask how often the HOA meets and how involved residents tend to be, and it’s also smart to talk to current residents, if you can, about how they think the HOA measures up to expectations.
Do some recon on the maintenance company
The HOA is responsible for hiring the people who maintain the building, and some might require you to use the collective maintenance firm to make any repairs or upgrades to your own unit, too. It’s always best to know what you’re dealing with, so make some inquiries about the maintenance company — at least Google the name and see if you can find any reviews of the company, either from individual unit residents or testimonials from other condo HOAs that the company serves.
If you can, you may also want to do a legal search to see if the maintenance company has been named a defendant in any lawsuits and what those lawsuits were all about; you don’t want to find out after you move in that this company has a reputation for not actually fixing the plumbing when they said they would or a similar scenario. And again, if you can get an opinion directly from the residents in the condo, that’s always a good way to obtain background information on any company or entity that’s going to be serving you as a resident.
What amenities are important to you?
Some condo-dwellers couldn’t care less about the “extras” that come with their condo, and that’s perfectly fine! But if you know that you could save some money every month by canceling your gym membership and using the indoor pool or gym facilities instead, then it might be important to you for any condo where you’re shopping to have those features. Common outdoor spaces with grills for cooking are another popular amenity in many condos, and others might not have laundry hookups in the units themselves; you’ll have to use the common laundry facilities.
In addition to the amenities, it’s smart to know what’s available within walking distance of your condo. Walkability and convenience are really significant advantages to living in a big-city condo, so find out how close the condo is to the nearest bus or train lines, what coffeeshops and restaurants and bars are nearby, where residents do most of their grocery shopping, and any other perks that you can think of while you’re shopping around for a place to live.
Know the rules
One nice thing about living in a single-family home that you might not get in a condo is the fact that you can make your own rules. Are you a smoker who hates going outside to get your nicotine fix? Do you have eight cats? Whatever you want to do under your own roof is entirely permissible!
But when you live in a condo, you’re in close proximity to other people who might not appreciate cigarette smoke or who could be deathly allergic to cats. The HOA is responsible for setting and upholding the rules of the condo development, and you need to be very, very sure before you buy that you’re fine with those rules and can follow them. You could face some hefty fines and the wrath of an entire building’s worth of neighbors if you flaunt the rules, whether you do it intentionally or unintentionally, so ask about the regulations in place — and also ask about the process for repealing an old rule or implementing a new one so that you don’t get caught off guard if that happens while you’re living in your condo.
Controlling for noise pollution
A condo is shared with other residents, which means you’ll probably have some walls and hallways in common with other people. And some condo units are more soundproof than others. Before you buy, try to walk through the unit you’re considering (that very unit in particular, not a model) at different times of day, ideally including earlier in the morning and later in the evening, so you can get a sense for how much noise you can hear from neighbors or traffic outside, and decide whether it’s an acceptable amount or if it’s too much.
Some condos will pleasantly surprise you and you’ll have little to no noise pollution at all, but before you buy, it’s best to know exactly what you’re getting into so that you don’t feel any buyer’s remorse when your neighbors wake you up vacuuming in the early morning hours on weekends, or so the unit next to you slamming the hallway door yet again doesn’t set your teeth on edge.
Pets, kids, and other possible life changes
Even if you’re satisfied with the condo’s rules today, think about how your life might change in the future and how attractive the development will be to other people who want a similar lifestyle in the future. For example, maybe you hate pets and have never wanted to share your living space with an animal — that’s completely acceptable and your choice! But if you live in a city that’s known for being incredibly dog-friendly, will the fact that your condo is pet-free by choice potentially hurt your resale value?
Most condos are family-friendly, too, but you might discover that the lack of a playground or any kids’ amenities or facilities at all become a problem after you decide to have some offspring of your own. Those big life changes can sneak up on all of us, so think about how you’d handle them if you were to change something major while you’re living in your dream condo.
Understand the risks
There’s always a risk to homeownership, and owning your own condo is no different — although the risks themselves tend to be a little bit different. One big risk of buying a unit in a condo is the trust you have to place in the HOA to manage itself well. If some rogue runs off with the annual budget, or the HOA has been collecting money to maintain a part of the building that it’s completely neglected, fair or unfair, oftentimes that cost is passed on to the residents. And if the HOA has let the building insurance lapse and there’s a fire, that’s definitely a scenario that’s going to roll downhill to impact you as a resident.
Other risks involved might be completely outside your control, even if you do all the due diligence in the world choosing your condo and investigating the HOA. What if your neighbor goes through a nasty divorce and is compelled to sell the condo at well under fair-market value just to get out from under the mortgage? That’s going to bring your property’s value down, too. Understanding that risks exist and being prepared to handle them regardless is part of adulthood, and it’s also part of buying a condo.
Find out each condo’s renter-to-owner ratio
Renters tend to treat their spaces differently than an owner would, and if you buy a unit in a condo that’s mostly renters, you might find yourself quickly annoyed that your neighbors don’t seem to be as invested as you are in keeping it looking pristine. Ideally, you’ll find a condo development that consists of mostly owners instead of renters — you can ask the HOA (they should definitely know) or ask a real estate agent to help you figure out the renter-to-owner ratio.
One caveat: In this era of Airbnb and other vacation rental opportunities, there may be some developments that claim to be mostly owners but in fact are occupied by a number of short-term renters. A dead giveaway is lockboxes on doors, especially for units that you know aren’t for sale; you can also ask the HOA, but they might not be able to keep track of who really lives there and who’s renting part-time or full-time, so do some extra digging if you can to help you determine the truth.
How’s the parking?
You might not own a car, but if you have friends and relatives who do — and they want to come visit — it’s still a good idea to ask about parking facilities for the condo developments where you’re considering purchasing a unit. There might be a lot for residents only and no visitor parking, or visitor parking could be ample.
The HOA can give you more details about how parking works; also ask about how parking is regulated or maintained so that you can get a sense for whether people frequenting businesses nearby are allowed to park in your condo areas (or whether they aren’t allowed to and just do it anyway). If there are scofflaws parked in your lot, what’s your recourse? Is there a towing company on hand that can help you deal with the situation? Get a sense of what the parking situation looks like before you commit.
Development and zoning nearby
There might be a gorgeous view of the city skyline or one of the beautiful natural features near your city — but how long will it last? Before you buy a condo for the view alone, do your best to discover what kind of zoning and development exist nearby so that you can make an estimate as to whether that view is for keeps or whether it might disappear behind a bigger building or a massive development at some point in the future. You can ask at your city planning and development office, talk to a real estate agent and ask them to do some research for you, and look at the local Chamber of Commerce website to dig into what any empty lots might be used for (and when) so that you can make an educated decision about whether the view is going to last and whether it’s worth it if the view is, indeed, only temporary.
On the plus side, if there isn’t a lot of development nearby and you might get a chance to live near more amenities, then zoning and development planned in the area might be really good news! It’s simply smart to know what’s coming down the pipeline as much as you can before you decide to drop tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars on a condo and spend decades paying it off.
Price condo insurance
Condo insurance is a little different from homeowners’ insurance; you’re not going to be covering the entire building structure, just your unit and its contents, so it can often be significantly cheaper than homeowners’ insurance. Before you start budgeting for your new buy, talk to an insurance agent about what condo insurance at the address is likely to cost for the unit or units you’re considering so that you can factor it into your monthly costs and make sure you’re not overextending yourself.
Ask the appliance questions
Are appliances included in the price of the condo, or will you be bringing your own? If they are included, what’s the process for getting them repaired or replaced should that need arise? What if you don’t like the brand provided — can you upgrade or change it? If you’re providing your own appliances, are there any parameters around what you can and can’t use?
Every condo development and HOA is a little bit different, but before you drop some of your hard-earned money on brand-new appliances for your new place, do a little bit of research to make sure that you won’t get into any trouble (or face any fines) for doing so, and also do your best to determine whether you’ll be happy with the appliances provided you or that you’re allowed to use.
Security and privacy
Condos tend to be at least a little less private than a single-family home; for some people, the trade-off is worth it. Even though you’re sharing with more neighbors, the existence of an additional front door and sometimes security staff might make you feel more secure, so that’s a possible benefit of condo life. At any rate, you’ll want to think about whether you’re personally comfortable with the level of privacy and security provided at any condo you’re considering, and make your decision accordingly. Those are two aspects of condo living that are difficult (if not impossible) to change, and you’ll want to be at peace with the situation on the front end instead of deciding one year in that you just can’t deal with it.
Not all units are created equal
Even in a condo building where all units have more or less the same floorplan, some units are going to be more desirable than others — the unit that looks out over a street instead of the garbage facilities, for example. Make sure you are absolutely clear about which units are for sale and that you can personally inspect them, preferably more than once; a model unit is fine to an extent, but it’s not going to show you the precise angle of the sun in the morning or convey the next-door neighbor’s noise habits to you before you make a purchase. Nor will it help you take in how the unit smells or the feel of the flooring under your feet. And beware of any seller who’s leery of letting you walk through and suggests perusing the model unit instead — they might not have anything to hide, but then again, they might.
Decide what you’ll do about extra storage
You might have possessions already that won’t fit comfortably into a condo unit you’re considering, or maybe you just want a space to stash your camping gear during the winter months when you definitely won’t be using it. Not every condo development offers additional storage in the form of storage lockers or another option, but some do — so ask if there is additional storage included with the condo or how much the additional storage available will cost you every month you use it. If you know you’re going to need extra storage no matter what, it’s probably also smart to check out the storage facilities nearest to the condo and price the size of storage unit you’re most likely to need so you can factor it into your monthly budget and keep your things safe and protected from the elements.
Think about the future
If you’re happy in your current job and relationship status, you don’t foresee any major life changes on the horizon, and you plan on staying in your current city for at least the time being, then investing in a condo (or a home in general) is likely a good financial move on your part. But if you can see yourself changing cities or jobs, needing a bigger place for whatever reason, or making another shift in your life that a condo won’t accommodate, think hard about how you’d handle that change before you take the plunge and fork over your down payment.
Of course, if you do plan on making a big change, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d have to sell or leave your condo; perhaps you could maintain it as a short-term rental or vacation property if you’re no longer living there or only want to live there part-time. But regardless, it’s always smart to think about those options and opportunities well in advance, so that you can be prepared to execute when the time comes.
Buying a condo can be great for your social life, your health, and your finances, so if you think you’re ready to embark upon the road to homeownership and a condo seems like a good fit for your lifestyle, you’ll be able to find the perfect place for you if you take all these tips into consideration and learn everything you can about the condo development in advance. Enjoy condo living!
This content is not the product of the National Association of REALTORS®, and may not reflect NAR's viewpoint or position on these topics and NAR does not verify the accuracy of the content.