When I first meet with buyers to find out what kind of property they want, they often say they want to buy a condo. When I ask why, the answer is usually along the lines of, “So I don’t have to do work” or “So there’s someone in charge of taking care of things.” This is a common misconception: the idea that living in a condo is easier than owning a property by yourself. I call it the Myth of the Condo Fairy: the idea that you will enjoy all the benefits of owning a property but delegate all of the responsibilities to “someone in charge”. Living in a condo is different from living in a single family, but it is not necessarily easier. If you intend to buy a condo, it is important to understand how condo associations work and how much of a role you will need to take on as an owner.
Small associations are composed of the unit owners themselves and rarely have professional management. Usually, each unit has a vote when it comes to group decisions about things that affect the association and its common areas, such as repairs, maintenance, and rules. Small associations are usually self-managed and depend on each resident’s participation in basic activities, such as managing financials, shoveling snow, landscaping, and collecting estimates for repairs. This model becomes problematic when one or more unit owners fail to pull their weight, and it can be a source of friction among neighbors.
But, if you have a group of like minded, responsible condo owners, you could enjoy the benefits of sharing responsibilities and making decisions with input from different points of view. Much of our condo inventory in Cambridge and Somerville is in smaller buildings, often with just 2-3 units. A small condo association is a good option for someone who likes to pitch in, work collaboratively, and make decisions by reaching consensus with others. It’s important to note that condos turn over every few years, so the group of people you work with may change, and the priorities of the group may shift as well.
In larger condominium complexes with dozens or hundreds of units, the unit owners may vote to be represented by a volunteer Board of Directors, made up of a few unit owners who are charged with overseeing the association’s finances and maintenance and reporting at least annually to the other unit owners. The extent of that Board’s responsibility and authority are defined in the condominium documents (Master Deed, Declaration of Trust, Bylaws). Some Boards choose to hire a management company to handle the finances and take on the job of hiring and supervising contractors to maintain the property. Sometimes, there is even an on-site building manager. This type of condo complex is closer to the condo ideal many buyers seek, where the “work” of ownership has been delegated to a group of professionals.
However, it is important to understand that when you delegate management to a board or company, you have to live with the decisions that are made. If, for instance, you have a board/management company that favors keeping condo fees low and deferring maintenance until absolutely necessary, you may be periodically hit with large special assessments for work that needs to be done. Worse, the overall condition of the property could deteriorate and units could deflate in value and be hard to sell.
The management of your association is only as good as the oversight the unit owners provide. A lack of oversight can result in shoddy construction, embezzlement, and deferred maintenance.
Just as some people are attracted to condos based on false assumptions, others give condos a bad rap based on negative things they have heard. They repeat stories about friction among condo owners and unpleasant living situations. But, you could have that experience with neighbors no matter what type of housing you choose. Good problem-solving and communication skills go a long way in creating a harmonious environment anywhere you live. There are many upsides to condo living. For some, the idea of sharing responsibility for gardening, snow shoveling, decision making, etc. is very appealing. Condos provide affordable entry-level housing for many people who cannot afford a single family or multi-family on their own. They can provide a built-in sense of community. People who travel frequently like knowing that others are watching out for their home. There are many reasons that a condo could be the right choice for you.
When considering a condominium, think carefully about what living situation best suits you and how active a role you want in your association. Look closely at the association’s financials and minutes, if they exist. Are they running a deficit? Do they have a reserve fund, separate from the operating budget, to fund future repairs, like roof or siding work? Do they budget for routine maintenance, such as gutter cleaning, grounds maintenance, common area cleaning, elevator inspections? What percentage of the units are owner occupied? Associations with low owner occupancy tend to get rundown, and some banks won’t give loans to buy there. How have they addressed major repairs in the past? Did they do a comprehensive repair or replacement, or did they take a band-aid approach? Who are the decisionmakers? If there is a management company, search for reviews and references of their work. If they are handling association financials, do they provide a monthly income and expense report to the unit owners? Who collects estimates and vets contractors when work needs to be done? Who supervises projects? How are the unit owners informed of building issues and what role do they take in identifying them?
The reality is this: there are no zero-maintenance properties. If you care about the value of your property, you have to maintain it yourself or hire and supervise someone else to do that. If you choose a condo association that suits your lifestyle, it can be a great experience. Doing some research ahead of time will save you from headaches later on.
Thalia Tringo is the Broker/Owner of Thalia Tringo & Associates Real Estate, an independent agency based in Davis Square.