Real Estate Investing Basics

5 More Things Everyone Should Know About Condo Ownership (But No One Tells You)

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Interested in buying condos? Before you read this article, be sure to check out the original list of insider condo tips, “What Everyone Should Know About Condo Ownership (But No One Tells You).”

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Rules don’t rule.

We'd all like to assume the board members and management read the governing documents — but if you didn't read them, they probably didn't either. The only people I find who consistently read governing documents are lawyers, the occasional insurance agent, and me. READ THEM, even if you have to read them with a glass of wine. READ THEM.

I had a gentleman storm into my office one day because no one told him there was a rule that pets weren’t allowed on the lawn. Unfortunately, that was a big factor in his purchase of the condominium. Sorry, buddy, once you buy, you are legally bound by the governing documents. He claimed a resident told him that pets were allowed on the lawn.

Read the RECORDED documents, and make sure you have a current copy of the house rules. These typically aren’t recorded, but they include important rules regarding pets, rentals, etc.

You have no power.

As a homeowner, you have few powers. You have the collective power to remove an officer, amend your governing documents, and vote on a special assessment or capital improvement. Other than that, the daily operations are left to the board. Joe Blow might be in charge of EVERYTHING if you’re not careful!

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Investing in Condos and Townhomes

You may not agree with how the board is spending the association’s money or their interpretation of your governing documents, and you may have to live with that. Recently, I had to make a strong case to my board to make a change that impacts the resale of the condominiums in our building. The interaction left me feeling helpless, desperate, and exhausted. To make a long story short, they simply weren’t willing to do what was best for the entire community because it was going to cost the association money.

If you want change, I suggest you attend board meetings, participate on a committee, attend the annual meeting, and reach out to your board members and find out how you can be of help between elections. The more you’re involved, the more likely the board is to take action when you need it — at least that’s been my experience. Staying involved allows your concerns to be heard. There’s a level of accountability when the board has active members to answer to.


Your unit is a bubble.

I had no idea buildings could leak and rot when I purchased my condo. I was also 21 years old at the time, so I admit I was very naive. Furthermore, the pretty wrapping paper gave me no indication of what was going on underneath. This is what I like to call “the bubble effect.” The building was freshly painted, but it was the vinyl siding that was painted. I came to find out years later that’s a “no-no.” It was your typical lipstick-on-a-pig scenario that took seven years of my time as a board member to resolve.

While your bubble might be perfect, the surroundings may pose a real threat. You might find yourself with the pretty unit in an ugly building.

At the time of purchase, your home inspector is there to make sure your dishwasher works and your hot water tank isn’t ancient. That’s it. They don’t check the condition of the building. In fact, unless there is reason for an association to believe there are issues, no such report or investigation exists. If you’re thinking the reserve study will give you an indication, keep reading.

There’s very few ways for a buyer to ensure that the building isn’t leaking or has some other material defect, unless you spend thousands of dollars on an engineering study, which I don’t recommend. You might think that purchasing a condo in a brand new building will spare you. Not in my experience. Developers aren’t always in the business of building with integrity; they’re in the business of protecting their bottom line. This can lead to shortcuts that may go unnoticed. My mentor used to drive me around the city pointing out buildings under construction. He would say, “That’s going to leak. That’s going to fail. We’re going to see that wrapped in a few years.” It was eye opening.

Related: What Investors Should Know BEFORE Selecting Condo Insurance

You have to be your own detective. If you’re about to purchase a condo that was built in the ’70s that’s never had its siding replaced, there’s your first clue. Your best bet is to find a building that’s been through this process already. While that doesn’t insulate you from issues, it gets you a running start.

Silence won’t ever happen.

People make noise when they’re alive. Do not buy a condo unless it’s in a steel and concrete building. Noise travels; people cough, flush the toilet, drop pans on the kitchen floor, have friends over. You get the idea. Buy a house in the middle of nowhere if you want complete silence. Otherwise, welcome to community living.


You should know how to read the reserve study.

The reserve study bases their report on useful life, NOT current condition. If your courtyard is full of cracks and it leaks into the garage, you might be replacing that sooner than you think.

Let me spell this out for you. A reserve specialist will take an inventory of your common area building components, such as the garage door. For example, they might say, “Typically, a garage door of this type will last for 15 years.” Your building’s garage door is 8 years old. Therefore, you should plan to replace it in 7 years. This doesn’t mean your garage door has 7 years of life left — because the reserve study doesn’t take into account the component’s current condition. Perhaps your garage door is troublesome or owners continually run into it, shortening its life. Take the reserve study with a grain of salt.

If you’re thinking, “That’s it?!” then stay tuned for part three. I’ll discuss another round of topics that even the best real estate agents can’t prepare you for.

Investors: Anything you’d add to the above list?

Be sure to leave a comment and let me know!

Nicole is a community association manager currently studying for her PCAM designation which is the highest professional recognition available nationwide to managers who specialize in community association management. She's served in this industry for over a decade and was elected President of her homeowners board for eight years before she started a career in management. Cayce Association Management

    Aly W. investor from Middletown, New Jersey
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Great article, and so true! My husband and I own several condos in 2 states, and I’m on the board in our own complex. No one reads the documents, and we recently had a homeowner move away after he was originally told (by the realtor or the seller) that he could build a deck. He could not. From that moment on, he hated the complex, the board, etc. And I know there are things I don’t know about our documents as well, nor do some other board members, and we’ve had to pay for legal interpretation. Documents matter. And some board members are condo commandos, who treat the complex as their own personal fiefdom. Be aware.
    Nicole Sorensen Hull from Seattle, Washington
    Replied over 3 years ago
    @aly It’s funny how those of us who own condos, live in condos and deal with condos in general can identify with this! We’re often left with no choice but have an attorney interpret for us because the docs can often be interpreted more than one way! Thanks for reading.
    Replied over 3 years ago
    Wow … Talking about answered prayers! Each time I am about to look and check for rental properties, I would pray for signs to warn me if my search is worthwhile. And with true honesty, I received good signs & divine (as I call it) messages with the purchase of my SFR rental properties. I have lived in condos & can truly relate to the scenarios in your article. I have looked online for town homes & condominiums that I am scheduled to check this weekend. Single home prices here in the Bay Area & surrounding cities had dramatically increased & I thought condos might suit within my price point & will still give me good returns. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about condo ownership … like the other investment properties I’ve turned down because of bad overall analysis & “bad messages”, condos will be out of the picture as well.
    Nicole Sorensen Hull from Seattle, Washington
    Replied over 3 years ago
    @cristina Condos can be very tempting as far as price goes and you can definitely find yourself in a great building that doesn’t have any issues. You just have to know what to watch for and know that most likely during the course of ownership you will be faced with something, especially over the span of 30 years. It never hurts to join the board. Good luck!
    William Morrison investor from Silver Spring, Maryland
    Replied over 3 years ago
    I don’t think your point was to always avoid condos, just understand what your buying (the docs) and the board. One of my rentals is a Townhouse Condo and it’s in the same zip code as one that I have that is not a condo. It appreciates differently than the other in general. It is more rent based but is still linked to the growth of the other. A buyer who can’t buy the higher priced one will look at a condo townhouse. I’ve had them about 16 years and the values have stayed almost parallel in the long term. The insurance and mortgages are different. Both have associations that drive the exterior, like decks, yards and appearance. And that’s not all bad.
    Nicole Sorensen Hull from Seattle, Washington
    Replied over 3 years ago
    @William Exactly! See my response above. There’s plenty of people that have been burned and well tell you to stay away. I can be that person sometimes because I’ve been burned too. However, you can do well with condos if you know what to look for. I sold two of mine last year and walked away with a profit and a smile. However, I served on that board and I was heavily involved in the operations of the building. That doesn’t mean that was the key to profit and happiness but I kept my eye on my investment. Too many condo owners have a laissez faire attitude about their associations, assuming there will be someone else that takes care of things. As they leave the garage they think, “I’m sure someone else already reported that the garage door is stuck open.” Well, if every person thinks that way, nothing gets done. I get it, people have jobs, families and interests but that is no excuse not to contribute to your association.
    Leo Liu real_estate_agent from Brooksville, Florida
    Replied over 3 years ago
    great article! thanks!