Prioritize trade-offs in house-vs.-condo decision

REThink Real Estate

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 28, 2011

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REThink Real Estate

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News™

Q: What is better to buy: a house or a townhouse? --Naida

A: In the house vs. condo or townhouse battle, the analysis of which type to buy is not as simple as "better" or "worse," per se. (For ease of reference, I'm assuming you are trying to decide between a single-family home and some sort of condominium, whether or not it is strictly speaking a townhouse -- i.e., a row-style, shared-walls, two-story home, which may or may not be part of a homeowners association).

However, there are trade-offs to each, and in the final analysis of which property type to buy, own and live in, your decision boils down to a matter of fit between your lifestyle, personality and finances, and the key characteristics of the property type you select.

The most common concern homebuyers bring up when making the "condo or no" decision are around homeowners associations: the monthly dues they charge, and the restrictions they impose.

While many people think paying any sort of monthly dues on top of your mortgage and property taxes is nuts, these dues often cover expenses that a single-family homeowner would have to pay out as individual line items to various vendors, like garbage collection, hazard insurance and maintenance of the building(s) over time.

Another common "pros and cons" comparison when it comes to the house-vs.-condo debate involves the commonly cited advantage of attached, HOA-style housing, in that it eliminates the biggest portion of the home maintenance single-family homeowners have to do. This is especially true when it comes to the buildings' exterior, landscaping, and maintaining big ticket items like foundations, boilers, roofs and windows.

Unit owners don't have to do that sort of work, but the trade-off is a different set of responsibilities that owners of non-HOA properties don't have: the work of participating in an HOA. That means attending board meetings, reading meeting minutes, staying informed about HOA issues, and voting. If you don't participate, you can't be surprised when the HOA levies surprise fees and assessments because expenses weren't appropriately anticipated or budgeted.

And here's another set of trade-offs: privacy vs. communal living. In a detached home, you have as much privacy from your neighbors as possible in light of the architecture and lot situation of the property you choose. In an HOA situation, you might share walls, ceilings, floors, parking areas and yards -- and, depending on the construction standards of the property, possibly also smells and sounds -- with your neighbors; as well, you definitely share some financial interests with your neighbors in a condo scenario.

Along with owning and living in a communal setting comes the obligation to abide by its rules. It is precisely the extensive covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and community rules and regulations that make a community of relative strangers run smoothly, which makes some prospective buyers bristle at the potential loss of autonomy and ability to freely choose your own home improvements, among other things.

It's not bizarre for condo rules to limit things like your flooring choice (because hard floors can create noise pollution for lower units); what you can put out on your patio; and the size, number and type of pets you can own.

The flip side? The community, together, possesses economies of scale and can collectively afford property amenities you could never afford to have in your own private property, from doormen to parking garages, pools to community centers, and even including business centers and parks.

So, my answer is: You decide. Do you value privacy over amenities? Ease of maintenance over independence? Ask yourself what your priorities are, and go see both detached homes and condo/townhouse properties in your area. The right personal choice becomes clear to most buyers very early in their house hunts.

With that said, I do have one caveat about condos and townhomes: There are a number of HOAs that are experiencing deep financial crises, post-recession, from the dues they charge being viewed as a low-priority obligation by homeowners struggling to pay their bills. As a result, some HOAs are increasing dues on all homeowners to cover their expenses, and levying special assessments to cover high-priced upgrades and repairs that urgently need doing.

Increasingly, in a large number of HOAs across the country, the units are unable to be resold due to the HOA's financial issues, rendering it impossible for prospective buyers to obtain mortgage financing -- when buyers can't buy, home values plummet.

If you decide you like condo living, talk with your real estate broker or agent about finding a unit in a healthy HOA -- buying into one that is struggling can dramatically impact the value of your home and the ability to resell it over the long term.

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