How To Buy A Condo In Today’s Hot Housing Market

Article Courtesy of  Forbes Advisor

By Natalie Campisi

Published May 16, 2021

Whether you’re looking for a low-maintenance home, a downtown pad or a vacation getaway, condominiums, or condos, offer many attractive features. They’re typically a more budget-friendly way to access homeownership, especially if you’re in a high-priced city.

Condos can also be fairly sound long-term investments for people who want a holiday escape for a week or two and then rent it out the rest of the year.

In recent years, condos have gained popularity, likely due to the shortage of affordable housing supply and the feverish demand for real estate. In March, existing condo and co-op sales shot up by 29.1% from the same time last year, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). There were 710,000 condo sales this past March compared to 550,000 the year before.

Condo owners saw their property jump in value this year as price appreciation neared 10% nationwide, which trailed behind the 17.2% year-over-year price gains for single-family homes that same period. But, the median sales price for a condo—$289,000—was still below the $329,100 price tag on a single-family home, which reached historical highs in March.

What Is a Condo?

Condos are like apartments in that separate units are housed in a single building. The difference between a condo and an apartment is that condos can be owned by different people versus apartment buildings where one owner or company rents out the units. Condo owners will share expenses like maintenance of the entire property and insurance but will pay their individual mortgages and insurance for the inside dwelling.

Although condos are considered real estate, there are some distinct differences between buying a condo and buying a house. Some of the advantages of owning a condo are that there’s less maintenance and the price tag can sometimes be cheaper than a house.

However, condo owners typically don’t have the private outdoor space and ability to add on an extra room or build a pool that people with detached houses can do. The other drawback is that condo owners typically have to be part of a homeowners association (HOA), which comes with a list of rules and sometimes hefty fees.

Pros and Cons of Buying a Condo

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of buying a condo rather than a single-family home.

Pros of Buying a Condo

  • Condos are usually cheaper
  • Condos require less maintenance
  • More options in terms of location and budget
  • You might have access to more amenities (tennis courts, pools, gyms, etc.)

Cons of Buying a Condo

  • Less private outdoor space
  • Can’t add rooms that would take on more outdoor space or change the outside dwelling
  • Might have to join an HOA
  • The HOA might have restrictions on what you can put outside on a yard or balcony if you have one
  • Share walls with neighbors

Getting a Condo Mortgage

There are many similarities between getting a mortgage for a single-family house and a condo, but there are some differences, too.

Using Traditional Mortgage Options to Buy a Condo

Homebuyers can use most mortgage types to buy a condo, including conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) home loans. The process is similar in that the lender will check your finances, including things like your credit score, debt, cash reserves and income history.

However, some restrictions might apply to condos that don’t qualify as single-family homes. For example, to get an FHA loan the condo must be on the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) list of approved condo properties.

Home loans that allow condo purchases include:

  • Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loan
  • Veterans Administration (VA) loan
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan
  • Conventional loan

Mortgage rates might also be higher with a condo than a single-family home because they’re generally considered riskier investments. There are also times when a home looks like a single-family unit or townhouse but is deemed a condo to lenders. You can usually check in the details of the home sale listing, where it will show whether there is a HOA fee, or ask your realtor.

Lenders Will Verify That the Condo Association Is Financially Fit

Lenders will also check the financial health of the condo association as well. Because the mortgage is tied to a larger development, there are factors beyond the control of the borrower that can damage the value of the condo, such as high rates of mortgage delinquency across the property overall or poor management.

All of these things (and more) can give lenders insight into the stability and long-term viability of the property. If the condo project, as a whole, falls below the lender’s standards or risk tolerance, they might not approve the mortgage.

Condo Owners Must Abide by All HOA Rules

Since condo owners are part of a larger development, there are covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) that outline the rights and requirements of the condo owners.

Generally, CC&Rs include rules around how the property is used, how disputes are handled (and any associated legal fees), maintenance requirements, rule enforcement and lender rights.

It’s a good idea to read through the CC&R carefully before you buy. Some experts recommend having an attorney review the CC&R. There are also homeowners association rules that you will likely have to follow. These can be even more restrictive than the CC&Rs, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these rules before you buy.

For example, there might be a restriction on a grill or even plant that you put outside in your yard or balcony. There could also be heavy parking restrictions outside of a garage or for visitors.

You Might Be Prohibited From Renting Out Your Unit

If you’re thinking about buying a condo as a way to generate income, be sure to check your condo association rules first. Some condo associations don’t allow owners to rent out their places or for a certain number of years initially.

Furthermore, if renting is okay, some associations might have requirements around how long the lease must be. Some also might permit short-term rentals while others will only allow long-term rentals.

Another thing to check is whether there’s a set number or percentage of condos in the overall property that can be rented out at any given time. If there is and you plan on renting, find out if the property has reached or even neared its rental capacity.

Pet Lovers Beware: Some Condos Have Pet Restrictions

If you have pets, be sure to find out what the condo association’s rules are around having animals. Some associations will limit the number of pets and even the type of pet you have.

Keep in mind, state laws may also govern what associations are allowed to do. For example, in California, there’s a law (Civil Code 4715) that allows condo owners to have at least one pet, in effect restraining the association’s authority in this matter.

Bottom Line

If you’re considering a condo life, ask yourself what your goals are and what they might be in the future. If you want to live in the condo full time, make sure the building lifestyle is in line with your preferences. Some condos might put an emphasis on social gatherings while others prioritize privacy and maintaining a quiet, peaceful atmosphere.

Likewise, if you plan on renting out the condo for part of the year, find out what the HOA rules say about rentals. Some HOAs are lax about renters where others have very strict guidelines.

Be sure to talk to people who lived in the condo community for several years. Longtime residents will be able to give you insight into daily life that you won’t get from a 30-minute tour.

Find out about the people that live below, above and next door to you. Living in proximity to your neighbors can be a great thing or a terrible thing, depending on the people. So the more you know about the living situation before you sign a contract, the better informed you will be about whether or not this is the right place for you.