Condominiums are an interesting type of housing with a unique blend of pros and cons to discuss. Condos are often compared to apartments and townhouses. Let's take a look at why that is, as well as some pros and cons, and my experience buying a condo.
To begin with, it helps to know what a condo is: it's short for condominium. Condos are a privately owned housing unit, usually in a shared residential building.
A key part of condo ownership is the condo association/community. Along with the condo unit itself, owners also have a stake in community common areas, such as the staircases and entryways, but also the amenities like pools and gyms. The condo's association will handle a lot of the upkeep involved with common areas.
The difference between a condo and an apartment
Both condos and apartments are usually situated in large residential buildings, and have multiple units in one structure.
However there's a key difference: apartments are rented by the people who live in them, and condos can be owned by the people living in them.
Ownership over a real asset is a big deal in our capitalistic economy. So whilst apartment lifestyle and condo lifestyle may look similar on the surface, equity in a condo makes a large difference.
For one thing, as a condo owner you own the interior of your unit. You're free to decorate it as you please, put holes in your walls, or build your own kitchen or bathroom. With apartments, you're at the mercy of your landlord for repairs and alterations.
Both apartments and condos tend to have community amenities. This can range from the simple – such as a laundry room – to the luxurious. Greenery, pools, trash collection, gyms, clubhouses, and so on.
Both apartments and condos come with rules, however. In condos it usually takes the form of a homeowner's association (HOA) covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). For apartments it comes in the form of the lease. If you're not comfortable leading a life with potentially restrictive rules, then these might not be the best option for you.
However, one of the great things about apartments over condos is that with renting, you have the flexibility of moving once your lease is up. When you own a real asset, moving becomes a logistics hassle of selling and buying.
The difference between a condo and a townhouse
Townhouses are homes that are built sharing a wall with another house, like in the picture above. This is a lot like condos, although condos may also share floors and ceilings with another unit, not just a wall.
Townhouses are a lot more reminiscent of traditional single-family detached houses – except that instead of being detached, they're abutting another townhouse. This means that compared to condos, townhouses are much better about having space and privacy. You can have a yard and landscaping!
Both condos and townhouses have ownership models, in that the person living there can also own it. They're not necessarily rented out like apartments are.
However, townhouses include the structure and the land in ownership. That means if you own a townhouse, you own the roof and the yard in addition to the interior – which means you need to repair it, too.
Condos usually own just the interior and a stake in the common areas of the HOA, so stuff like roofs and stairways are the responsibility of the HOA. This nuance is a distinguishing feature between condos and townhouses.
Benefits of a condominium
The number one feature of a condo is simplicity: most maintenance is managed by the HOA, including things like landscaping, roofing, structural issues, and certain plumbing issues.
Having so many home ownership tasks handled for you leads to a streamlined experience. You can try a condo to see if you like owning a home, as opposed to taking on all the responsibilities of a standalone home. Condos are a great entry point for validating that you enjoy being handy and dealing with stressful problems.
It's also easier to travel with a condo rather than a traditional home. With so many tasks managed by someone else, you need to do very little prep before you leave. It makes it easy to the point that you can just lock your door and take a trip for a couple weeks without stressing about the home.
Condos also often come with amenities. By banding together into an HOA, residents have the opportunity to more efficiently purchase luxuries. It's typical to see an HOA with a pool or a gym or other quality of life selling point. They also frequently have services such as landscaping and security contracted out.
Insurance is also cheaper on condos. There's less property to insure, and the HOA usually insures the structure of the building your unit is in separately. It's also common to have lower taxes on a condo than on a traditional house.
The price point of condos is also worth calling out. Condos tend to be cheaper entries into urban environments. They're pricier than manufactured homes, but also more valuable and higher quality places to live. In my area, we landed our condo for half the price of an urban detached home. This is great as a young owner.
The urbanity of condos is also a valid selling point. Condos tend to be located in urban environments with lots of nearby features, such as malls, transit lines, restaurants, and parks. As a young queer couple, my dearheart and I are more than happy to stay in our relatively queer urban environment. Fellow queers are important for maintaining our network of friends, and feeling like we're thriving.
Another opportunity to condos is the community building aspects of an HOA. You can get to know your neighbours, thanks to a slew of meetings and casual run-ins and events. Really, that's a major part of the condo lifestyle.
Downsides of a condominium
The number one downside of condos are HOA dues. Amenities and upkeep are not free, and that money comes from the pockets of the collective homeowners. Expect to pay hundreds of dollars a month in HOA dues.
That's not the only source of costs, either. HOAs are often underfunded, which means that when they don't have the money to pay a large expense, they must levy a "special assessment" to cover the costs. As a condo owner, that means getting hit with a sudden mandatory bill that often ranges into the thousands. This isn't unique to condos, however, as traditional homes break down too.
Another downside is that HOAs can be mismanaged. Especially smaller ones that rely on a few members of the community, where you don't have a deep talent pool to draw from. Condos aren't great if you prefer to be self-reliant, and hate being stuck with people in charge that you disagree with.
The CC&Rs of an HOA are also considered a downside. The covenants, conditions, and restrictions are a set of rules you need to follow as an owner. This makes sense for certain common-sense items, but HOAs have a nasty habit of becoming overly restrictive or asinine about rules. Ostensibly this is also a good thing, because everyone must abide by the rules you can get higher property values, but it's also a source of friction.
Condos also often come with limited privacy and lots of issues with noise. You're sharing a building with neighbours, and if there's one thing I've learned it's that people are not considerate! Think things like neighbours slamming their door at five in the morning and shaking the whole building, or neighbours playing their loud music late into the evening.
The limited privacy is also of particular import to us. They say "love is blind, but the neighbours certainly aren't," and being known as queer and polyamorous is something that I prefer to choose to reveal. I don't like being outed by nosy neighbours.
Condos are also allegedly harder to sell. The restrictions in place with HOAs and the unique lifestyle associated with them filters out a lot of home buyers. It's also harder to get a mortgage for a condo, though in our experience we had an easy go of it with our credit union.
There's also a lot more risk with buying a condo. You're sharing a building with people you can't control. Who knows what kinds of problems they might lead to, whether they're making meth in their bathroom or simply have a rampant ant problem that they refuse to fix.
Finally, another downside of condos is that they tend to be in dense urban environments. This leads to limited outdoor space. It's also common to have too many cars putting a strain on parking.
Our experience buying a condo
Our experience began with our first house hunt, which went swimmingly well all told. We avoided some obvious pitfalls, had a smooth deal and close, and have enjoyed our condo ever since.
Of course home ownership is not a smooth ride. We had a costly repair with our kitchen floor, which we used as a DIY opportunity. We laid our own floor, learning a lot of practical skills in the process! It was a lot of fun, for a construction project.
Which is really what condo ownership is all about for us: that validation learning loop. You start simple, and then scale up to harder and more complex situations. Rather than trying to dive into a traditional home with little prior experience, we're easing into it with our condo.
Another great win for us was having all this private space and room during the pandemic. After living for so long in an efficiency flat, we know how important it is to our mental health to have lots of open space. Being able to work in a different room than I sleep in is a big deal too for sleep hygiene.
Also, another aspect of home ownership we aimed for is the ability to play host. We want to build relationships with others, and having the space to do so was yet another upgrade over our efficiency flat. We can cook for our guests now, and invite them over to play board games and chat.
Finally – now that vaccination rates are rising in our county – we've also gotten to sit in on a community meeting. It's a learning experience to see what our neighbours are truly like – many of whom are complainers and overly picky about trivial problems with the community.
Yet the experienced board members and the HOA manager shut down those complaints in short order. I love learning about how power is actually handled in reality. People are so much messier and emotional than most writings/articles admit, and you have to embrace those faults if you want to deal with people.
Since I'm so young, observing these community dynamics is a great opportunity for my personal growth. It's something I wouldn't have even thought about, had we not bought our condo.
As it stands, I'm glad we did.