A HOME OF YOUR OWN (ALMOST)

What you should know about condominiums.

In today’s market, ownership of an individual house is certainly not the only possibility for those who want a place of their own. More and more multi-unit buildings are going up, from town houses to apartment complexes, and the chances of calling your own section of such a building home are steadily increasing.

Condominiums are one type of such housing. A condominium is an apartment that you own outright. There are no questions or complications about title and ownership privileges in a condominium. It is not, however, exactly the same as owning a house. Operating and maintenance expenses are generally shared by the occupants, though heating systems are often made for individual units. You do not own the outside of the building, as does the owner of a house; your ownership extends only to the inner living areas. The lot on which the building stands is owned jointly by all the condominium dwellers.



The Condo vs. the House



If your heart is set on a place of your own, you should know that ownership of a condominium has some advantages over ownership of a house. This is not to say that it is necessarily a better way to live; there are simply some attractive features that this alternative form of housing has.

Living in a condominium is likely to be cheaper than living in your own house. This is only natural, since an apartment-sized living unit will generally be smaller than a house and personal ownership will only extend to the inner areas of the building.

Reduced responsibility for maintenance is another bonus for condominium owners. While the owner of a house possesses and is responsible for the entire lot on which his or her dwelling stands, a condominium owner actually owns only the air space he or she occupies. In other words, the owner doesn’t have a plot of ground that he or she must care for alone. All land, buildings, and air space outside the complex belong to the condominium owners in common. Sharing the land and the building means sharing expenses. And this means, in most cases, some savings and a good deal less effort.

What to Look For



The things to look for when you’re considering condominium living are not that different from the things you’d look for in a house. In certain ways, however, you’ll need to see things in a slightly different light.



Location

The fact that you’re living in multi-unit housing probably means that you’re in a well-populated area. One of the main reasons for such housing, after all, is that it saves land space. Whether in the city or suburbs, you should be within easy driving distance of commercial districts and public services.

Although you won’t actually own the land as does the owner of a house, the landscaping will still matter to you. Notice how well the grounds are kept. Chances are that a janitor or handyman does most of the yard work, but you’ll want to see whether whoever does the job creates the kind of environment suitable to your needs and desires. Sculpted gardens may be just the thing for you, but if you have kids, there should be a place for them to romp and play.

The number of people in the neighborhood will also figure in your concern about noise. If the apartment you’re considering is close to the street, you might have to put up with a certain number of annoying street sounds. Of course, much depends on the nature of the street life. If all seems generally calm and low-key, a location facing the street could be great.

A huge, modern complex of condominium buildings could be spread out, equipped with large play areas, and far from the main road, and still be noisy. Hordes of children or pets can make sounds that will penetrate any man-made barrier. A parking lot that, in late afternoon, is vacant and soundless can become very loud early in the morning. You may be delighted to see the trash facilities located just outside your window; your joy will dim somewhat when the garbage truck roars its approach at 6:00 a.m.



Outside Facilities

One of the great advantages of multiunit housing is that you can enjoy facilities you might not be able to afford on your own. Many complexes are equipped with a swimming pool. Not only will you gain the pleasures of poolside fun; you won’t have to go through the headaches of cleaning and maintenance. There will be the extra expense of keeping and equipping a pool, but when the expense is shared with others, it won’t be such a burden.

The majority of outside features, however, are more functional in character. Parking space will be most important. Make sure that you have plenty of space for whatever vehicles you might own. Normally, certain spots will be marked as yours and yours alone. Are these enough for you, or will you need more? Any space in an open parking lot will expose your car to the assaults of winter wind and summer sun. Garage space would be better, but a private garage will up the cost. Sometimes open parking areas are provided underneath the residential areas of the building. This arrangement will shield your car and you from nasty weather but will not protect your car from whoever might wander through the lot. The main thing is to make sure that parking facilities are adequate and convenient.

Lighting will be another concern. All the walkways should be well lighted. If the condominium borders a street, see if the streetlights are bright and evenly spaced. Some modern complexes are lit up at night by specially installed spotlights. This can be very beautiful and pleasant unless the lights are too bright or are directed toward your living-room window.

Other considerations must be approached in much the same manner you would approach them if you were buying a house. What about the sewage system, the water supply, the condition of the roof and gutters? Ask about the type of waste-disposal system being used. Usually it will be hooked up with the public system. If so, how well does it work and how much will it cost you? Here again, the neighbors will be a reliable source of information.

If you can’t see the roof from the ground, go up and look around. Rips or depressions in the roofing should be taken as warning signs. On shingled roofs, look at the edges; if you notice curls and tears, the shingles are probably old and not well cared for. The gutters, too, are important. If they are in good repair and clear of obstructions, the rain runoff will be effectively channeled away from your living area. Such things also show the general care with which the entire building is kept.



Inside Considerations

The interior will be of more personal concern to you. The living unit you’re examining is for you and you alone and will involve an immense investment of money, time and effort. Don’t think of yourself as looking for a comfortable apartment – inspect it as you would a home in which you expect to live a lifetime.

Space limitations will make the layout of the rooms vital to your living comfort. The kitchen should be easy to get to from all areas. The living areas should be separate from the bedrooms, and, if possible, the living room should not double as a passageway. The bathrooms ought to be close to the kitchen and bedrooms and, if possible, should not open directly into the living room. A bathroom just off the master bedroom is a good idea, though many apartments will not have one. It would be desirable to have the dining room close to both the living room and the kitchen.

Test the wiring. Turn on light switches, look along ceilings and floors for frayed or broken wiring, and check the fuse box to see how many circuits might well be in poor condition and dangerous. There might not be enough amperage for the needs of a modern household.

Insulation will make a great difference to you, especially since you will pay the heating bills. Since, in all likelihood, you’re not having the unit built yourself, it may be hard to determine just how good the insulation is. The best thing to do is to check the heating bills of the previous owner or tenant. Asking the neighbors might also help.

Of special importance is the quality of sound insulation. Are the walls thick enough to keep noises from the neighbors out of your living room? Does the insulating material muffle the sound enough? Give the walls a good rap or two to see if they sound hollow or solid. This isn’t surefire, to say the least, but it might tell you something. Better yet, ask if you can have a friend enter the unit next door and call out to you. Although you don’t want to bother the occupants, it never hurts to ask.

Check out the ventilation systems, too. If the unit is not open to the outside, you’ll want plenty of vents for air distribution. The kitchen especially needs to be well ventilated. Even if the unit you live in has air conditioning, access to air vents and the outdoors will be good for both safety and health.

Check all the faucets and the showers for hot water. See how long it takes for the water to warm up. In newer units, you should have hot water within seconds. Turn on the faucets and flush the toilets at the same time to check on the condition of the plumbing. See if the water pressure is sufficient for your needs: If you’re located on an upper floor, this could be a problem. Is the water clean and drinkable? Test it and check with those who have been using the water for a long time.

Closet and cabinet space will be another major concern. There may be storage space elsewhere in the housing complex for trunks, snow tires, and the like, but that could be far away or difficult to get to. You’ll want to be sure that you can store all the essentials – clothes, valuables, children’s toys, articles of daily use – in convenient areas in the home. A large closet by the front entrance is a good idea. Bedroom closet space should be ample, and the kitchen should have plenty of shelving both above and below the working area.

Be particularly thorough in your inspection of the kitchen. It should be good-sized and fully equipped. You’ll need a number of electrical outlets to service all your appliances. The stove, refrigerator, and sink ought to form some kind of triangle so that you can move easily from one to the other. Counter and work space should be ample; you should have space on at least one side of the sink and close to the stove and the refrigerator.

Give the appliances that are part of the purchase a thorough once-over. The refrigerator should be large and modern. If it is self-defrosting, you will avoid annoying and time-consuming work.

If there is an air conditioner already installed that will come with the home, try it out. Is it adequate for the amount of cooling you’ll want done? Many units have built-in places just to hold the air conditioner. Will you want this feature?

In a house you probably would not have to worry about washing machines, dryers and clotheslines. These could always be installed. But in a multi-unit complex, you’d better give a good deal of thought to the availability of laundry facilities. Are there enough machines in convenient locations? Will you have to wait in line Saturday mornings just to wash your sheets, or can you be reasonably sure the machines will be easily available? It may be that you can install laundry facilities of your own in your unit. Consult the management.



The Management Those who manage the place where you plan to live must bear many important responsibilities. In most cases, they will do their best to handle these responsibilities successfully. Yet you should make it a point to give the management a close check.

First, find out whether the land is owned or leased. If leased, go through whatever process is necessary to find out just who does own the property. It is crucial that you be assured that the actual owner is a reputable and stable member of the community. Otherwise you may wind up with a piece of paper. If anything seems a little vague, talk with an attorney.

If you can, ask who the builder is. Check out his or her reputation with local authorities (public officials, professional appraisers – even other builders). See if the builder has issued any warranties to guarantee the work. If so, you can feel a degree of confidence.

What rules have been laid down governing the use of recreational facilities? The managing board will have some clear guidelines set up. Decide whether these are too strict or too lax for your family’s recreational needs. Often there will be regular hours during which certain recreational facilities may be used. Will the hours fit your schedule or not?

In almost all housing complexes, a definite policy toward children and pets will be established. Since condominiums appeal very often to families, outright prohibition of either children or pets is not common (though it is the case in various “retirement” communities). However, if children or pets are allowed, certain restrictions may be enforced. Ask the management about such restrictions. And look around you. In this instance, anyway, you can tell pretty easily whether management’s rules are being obeyed or not.

Find out who the managing agent is.

Does he or she have a reputation for honesty and efficiency? A personal meeting will tell you much about the kind of person the manager is. If possible, you should find out how long his or her contract will run. If the building is in good hands now, you’ll want some assurance that this will still be the case in a year or two.

Explore also the power of the owners’ or tenants’ association to change the manager. You might select a real dud. If you do, you won’t want to be saddled with that manager for a long time. At the same time, you won’t want to change managers every time the whims of the association dictate. To attract a good manager in the first place, you’ll need to set forth job requirements and guarantees that are fair to all concerned.

In many complexes, insurance on elements held in common will be handled by the management. Find out just what is covered by this insurance and how much it is for. Naturally, you’ll want to arrange for your own insurance on the items you hold in your own name.

Perhaps the stickiest problems in dealing with management will arise over your right to sell or lease your unit. This should be looked into closely. If all the terms are clearly set forth from the start, there should be no problem at all. But certainly the managing agent will be affected by any decision you make regarding your use of the living area, and any plans you have should be thoroughly discussed.

Even the condominium owner who is in full legal possession of a unit can be loaded down with restrictions on his or her right to sell. Some contracts say that you must first offer the condominium to the association for “the right of first refusal.” The Department of Housing and Urban Development watches such policies closely.



A Glance at Maintenance

You’ve already checked out the condition of the outside facilities, but what about the maintenance services? Everything may look nice enough on the outside. The building may be clean, the grass mowed, and the hedges trimmed. But there are certain long-term services that you might feel are essential. It’s best to know in advance whether these are to be taken care of.

See about snow and leaf removal. Will walks and entranceways be swept clean and kept clean? Does the management hire a reliable janitor? Which areas are held to be the responsibility of the janitor? This can be found out informally – it’s another question you might put to the neighbors.

What about garbage removal? Where do you dispose of your trash and how often do the garbage collectors come? Does the janitor have any duties related to the clearing away of your garbage? (If your unit is not very far from the dumping place, see if you’ll have to endure loud noises, exotic smells, or early morning pickups.)

Ask about the gardening. Garden plots on the grounds surrounding the building are generally the responsibility of the management. Decide for yourself whether the job they’re doing suits you and whether you want to pay what it costs.

Somewhere along the line, you’ll want to go over the management’s annual budget. This is the best place to find out what specific maintenance services are being provided for. The allotment of money will tell you how priorities are ordered. Look at the amounts budgeted for roofs and gutters, elevator service, painting and decorating, laundry service, care of grounds – all the services you’d expect in an establishment of this sort. If there are insufficient funds in several areas, consider yourself warned.

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