Thinking About Investing in a Condo? Stop! And Read This First…

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A friend who happens to also be a business partner in one of my non-real estate ventures reached out this week with a question. He does this from time to time, seeing as I am such a big shot real estate expert and all…

This time, the text read: Hey, Ben – how about this condo…?

This was worth a telephone call. He needed to understand a few things!

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Two Basic Reasons to Buy Real Estate

There are only two reasons to buy real estate – cash flow and capital gain. Cash flow accomplishes the objective of financial freedom, which is defined as capacity to generate income outside of W2/1099. Equity, on the other hand, builds the balance sheet, which makes us rich. No big, earth-shaking discoveries here…

Related: NO, Condos STILL Aren’t Good Real Estate Investments!!

Why Condos Are Problematic

Indeed, condos are problematic with respect to both of the stated objectives. First, by and large, condos don’t appreciate as much as free-standing single family residences. Also, the cash flow can be unpredictable…

While there are obviously exceptions to the rule, mostly this is true, and there is a good reason for this:

Condos have an extra cost of ownership, which most houses do not — the condo association fee. Let’s remember that a lot of what drives values of owner-occupied real estate is availability and affordability of credit, which is to say the more people can afford to borrow, the more they will pay. Consumerism galore.

Well, when qualifying folks for mortgage loans, banks underwrite two metrics: the Debt to Income Ratio (DTI) and the housing expense ratio. I haven’t looked at the exact percentages in a long time since they are not pertinent to my business model, but essentially you are permitted to spend only a certain percentage of your income on all of your combined expenses, not including the debt service on the mortgage loan that you are applying for. And that new mortgage payment can’t inflate your total DTI above a certain percentage more.

Therefore, since your income is what it is, the crux of the matter relative to how much you can borrow is a function of expenses. Obviously, anything that adds to the expenses has the effect of diminishing the amount of P&I that your DTI can absorb…

Guess What?

Condo association fee is an expense, is it not? If your DTI permits your total hosing expense to be $1,200/month, then without a condo association fee, you’d be able to borrow the full amount of mortgage, resulting in PITI of $1,200. However, if there is a $275/month association fee, then since your total housing expense has to remain at $1,200/month and since taxes and insurance are what they are, you now must compress the P&I to result in lower debt service by $275/month. Well, crap…

Such is the logic. There are caveats, exclusions and intricacies that apply. If interested, please do further research. But since prices are set by what ready and willing buyers can afford to pay, which in a lot of ways is a function of what they can borrow, hopefully this explains why valuations of condos are structurally compressed.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem is that we want two things in a real estate investment – cash flow and equity appreciation. The condo association fee compresses appreciation of equity, as we just discussed. And since rents on most condos are not higher than rents on SFRs, but there is this additional and often substantial expense, the cash flow objective is also problematic indeed.

We have many “wants” when it comes to our investments, but there is only one “must have” — control, and this is perhaps the biggest issue with condos. The association fee will go up in tandem with CapEx, and unless you have substantive vote on the committee, you won’t be able to avoid paying.

Importantly, as that fee goes up (while the building is aging), your rents will likely not keep up. There’ll be newer and better amenitized condos in the marketplace by then. Ouch.

Related: Should You Buy a $30,000 Condo?

So, these will get cheaper, and investors will start buying more and more of them… because investors often think that cheap is good. Guess what? When there are too many investors in a condo development, the banks lose appetite for providing mortgages to investors, which completes the spiral cycle, and when you are ready to refi and bridge the equity, you may not be able to.

Conclusion

There is but one strategy that works well with condos, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. All and all, there are some serious problems with condos. Be smart!

Investors: Do you agree? Disagree? For those of you who HAVE invested in condos, what has your experience been?

Leave your comments, stories and tips below!

About Author

Ben Leybovich

Ben Leybovich has been investing in multifamily residential real estate since 2006. His area of expertise is creative finance. Ben works extensively with private as well as institutional financing. Ben is a licensed Realtor with YOCUM Realty in Lima, Ohio. He is also the author of Cash Flow Freedom University and creator of a cash flow analysis software CFFU Cash Flow Analyzer.

37 Comments

  1. Brandon Stevens

    While id say the basis of this article is factual. I don’t think problematic is the word i would use. The article fails to point out the benefits of a condo. We own a number of condos that do quite well, it still simply comes down to the numbers.

    While we outsource management on our sfh and mfhs, we self manage the condo units because the maintenance is easy. I dont have to budget for large capital expenses, usually some type of city service is included, i dont worry about the roof or the lawn being mowed and many complexes offer amenities that appeal to renters. I actually think they are somewhat ideal for the beginning investor looking to get their feet wet.

    Aside from the numbers, a good association is key. If the grounds are kept and they are proactive about maintenence it will go a long way towards holding your value. If i had to chose between the 50k sfh pig and the 50k condo, the condo wins every time. Alas run the numbers, know what ya need, they wont lie no matter the investment.

    • Ben Leybovich

      Hey, Brandon – yes, certain management elements are easier in condo setting. However, I’ve known too many instances of people getting hit with special assessments at the most inopportune times…

      Most association bylaws allocate what I cal “2nd class citizen” status to invrestor owned units. Those often come without voting rights at all – I will consider condos if I am buying so many of them that I become a big-time voting member. Outside of that, there’s just too much risk…

      Thanks indeed for your comment!

  2. Terrence Arth

    Hello Ben, I can only speak for myself and my experience. In our town, there is a subset of younger professionals that want very few additional responsibilities outside of their current focus. They don’t want to worry about lawns, landscaping or pools. However, they want all the amenities, (lawns, landscaping and pools) and they want nice, new and convenient. And they are willing to pay for it and newer condos in nice properties fit the bill. It seems to me that every generation since WW II has valued quality of life issues as more important than the preceding generation. My interaction with the younger set indicates this trend should continue. That’s why I think the right condo/townhome in the right location with the right balance of age, finishes and amenities is a solid portfolio performer. There is a sweet spot above low end tacky and penthouse style that allows nice cash flow and above average appreciation. But like any investment it won’t work everywhere nor for everyone.

  3. Adam Middaugh

    Hi Ben,

    I like your post but I disagree in how you represent the HOA dues. If a responsible landlord is accounting for cap ex and upkeep of the property, these costs are rolled into the HOA dues and thus don’t have to be something (directly) tracked by the landlord as an added cost, just a different expense category. I conceptualize it as an escrow service and I won’t have to deal with managing the common areas and major repairs. The down side to this is you don’t get to choose the vendor providing the service (whether it be landscaping or roof replacement) and thus have little to no control over the costs (and a lost networking opportunity).

    Another item to consider when looking at condos as investments are special assessments. These would be additional expenses on top of the regular HOA dues and can occur when the HOA has a large unexpected expenditure. This will destroy your cash flow!

    I enjoy your articles and look forward to reading more!

    • Ben Leybovich

      Yes – but Adam:

      1. CapEx is scheduled and allocated for on a timeline conducive to the overall strategy behind the investment. This control is lost in the condo space, because association hikes and special assessments happen when the happen – as an investor, you have no control of either 🙂

      Thanks indeed for commenting, Adam!

  4. Paul Salmela on

    I started buying condos in 2008 and was acquiring several a year up until a couple years ago (I now own over 20). All of my condos have appreciated in value some very significantly (one is worth 3X what I paid). My association fees are my greatest expense so there’s no denying this fact. This fee has to be entered in the equation when purchasing to ensure proper cash flow. All my properties cash had a cap rate of at least 10% and that’s assuming a fair maintenance cost, vacancy and having a property manager. Also, all of my condos are located in what I would consider very good areas.

    While the association fees are high my other costs are significantly lower. Many of my condos don’t have a furnace and I don’t need to worry about anything outside the condo. Also, my insurance policy averages $150/year which is very, very low.

    I purposely chose to purchase condos because I was thinking that the management of these would be much easier. I’ve been able to hold down a full time job and do 100% of the management of my 20+ condos.

    • Bea Maia

      Hi, Paul
      I owe 4 condos in the Orlando area and was looking for some info on any extra insurance I need to or should have other than the one included in the association fees. What you wrote about paying an average of $150/year called my attention. Could you tell me more specifics on what kind of insurance you have? Should I shop around for “rental property insurance”?
      Thanks!

  5. maggie smith

    I love these points, pro and con- lots to think about. One question, Ben- What is the “one strategy” you refer to that would help the negatives become more positive, presumably? Very curious, and most appreciative if you would be willing to share. I live in SW Florida- Condo Land- where many of the retirees love the idea of no maintenance as much as Gen Y does elsewhere, and new condos are going up everywhere.

  6. Luis Roa

    Ben,

    in general (by that I mean in most cases) you are right.

    But, every deal should simply be calculated using the numeric data for that deal (including all relevant factors such as macro and local economic factors, deal numbers, etc)

    As a counter example, I purchased a couple of condos in Tampa, Fl in 2009 and sold them in 2013. The condos were purchased for around 49K each and I sold them for around 70k each (capital gain of 20K each, minus the repairs I did when I got them originally and during ownership of around 7K each, if memory serves correctly). The monthly rent was around $900. Condo fees of around $230, PITI around $380 and mgnt fees of around $90, all of which left a monthly cash flow of around $200 (all numbers are estimates from memory… sorry.. but you get the idea).

    This means that not only we were getting a nice cash flow, but also that there was appreciation. Both of them were condos.

    However, if you think of all possible deals, they probably follow a bell shaped distribution curve and this is probably in the tail end of the curve (on the profitable side). Good deals depend upon a lot of factors (macroeconomics, current state of the property, tenants, etc, etc).

    I think, as you always advocate, there is no substitute for analysis. And only with analysis (and a little bit of luck, of course) can one be on the right side of the curve.

    So, your blanket statement is mostly right, but… one still should do the numbers!

    Luis

    • Ben Leybovich

      Right – I did not title the article “Don’t buy condos…they never work”. Sure, sometimes the downside can be priced in sufficiently and condo is a good investment. This was just an outline of the difficulties that are ever-present in the space and that have to be mitigated…

      Thanks indeed, Luis!

  7. If Terrance hadn’t listed off all those things that, well I myself can see the benefits of being catered to on, I would have thought another nuts and bolts investors true point. As for me, I want to own the ground, but I can certainly see how a growing number of financially ok people just wouldn’t care if it was the very best use of their money if it got them what they wanted and probably wouldn’t have to sweat qualifying for the money too very much.
    For the most of us I am sure that condos aren’t an area that we would be likely to have a clientele list that would support the idea of on a regular basis but the idea is one I’m not opposed to.

  8. Generally good advice, but make sure if anyone does buy a condo, the HOA R&R allow it.

    I have 20 condos myself. They were bought during the crash. Prices have come back dramatically since then. HOA fees also save on other costs.

    I would rather a condo, with some sort of rules in place, than a lower income neighborhood that an owner/tenant next door can ruin for you.

    • I’m actually in the process of thinking of buying a condo. I’d love for someone to reach out to me and walk me through the numbers to see if it makes sense. I already own one and it is rented, but I purchased it in 2010. I lived in it for a couple years, then my wife and I needed a home and instead of selling, we rented it out. An old neighbor from that association approached me and asked if I wanted to buy it. Can someone help me with a detailed message or can we even set up a phone call to decide what I should look at and measure to see if this is a good investment?

    • Ben Leybovich

      I am not going to disagree with your statement that you “would rather a condo, with some sort of rules in place, than a lower income neighborhood that an owner/tenant next door can ruin for you”. I’ve written extensively on the blog and forums cautioning folks against buying PIGS in Mid-West.

      Those posts are title (Do Not Buy $30,000 Pigs…”, leaving no ambiguity for interpretation. This post is more of a “be careful, because there are issues” 🙂

      Thanks so much, Eric!

  9. Micki M.

    I love all the condo naysayers because it leaves room for solid contrarians to make money with them. While everyone in Denver is struggling to cash flow, I have a condo meeting 1.5% and another at 1.2% including those horrible condo fees. It’s such a matter of perspective for someone to say that Capex maintenance is scheduled and within your control and that condo fees aren’t. I would much prefer my monthly HOA fee to a surprise roof or HVAC repair. Of course you have to buy smart just like you would with SFH or MF, my condos have no mechanical in them and I’ve made exactly one repair in the past 18 months. I have no lawns to mow, no snow to shovel, and I attend exactly one meeting per building per year. Before you buy you absolutely must vet the board and management style, but a well managed HOA or a small easily infiltrated one can both make owning an investment property much easier. My large condo association provides me amenities I would never have in a SFH much less be able to afford to purchase (pool, gym, hot tub, BBQ area). As with all real estate investing decide what’s right for you, make smart decisions when you purchase, and don’t let someone else tell you that you can’t make money that way.

    • Ben Leybovich

      Micki – thanks indeed for your post.

      How long have you owned these. The reason I ask is because 1.5% income/value in my experience does not throw off enough CF to sustain returns over a period of time. It may look like it on paper, but it most likely won’t…

      This is as true for 150 units as it is for 1. Unless this is an equity play and most of the returns are driven by the back-end appreciation. If CF is the main driver of returns, 1.5%, and especially 1.2%, will very likely disappoint…

  10. So much insight in this post! A few years ago, I bought a few condos as “investment pieces” to rent out, but I found that between upkeep and association fees, I wasn’t making enough profit to warrant the cost so I sold them. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Rob Randle

    1. Condo’s don’t appreciate as well as SFH’s.
    True. However, they don’t depreciate as much as SFH’s either.
    2. A condo’s cash flow is unpredictable.
    How? If you are referring to special assessments, wouldn’t the total cost of the expense be averaged between all the units in the association which would make it less volatile? Compared to a SFH where the owner takes 100% of the expense.

    You bring some good points up about DTI problems and limiting ability to purchase in the future. And there are definitely premiums to be paid when investing in a condo. But I believe that condos can provide an entry point to invest in nicer neighborhoods which helps increase “return on effort” if managing yourself.

  12. Andrew Syrios

    To me, a condo has to be 1) in a solid overall area, 2) be in a well-maintained complex with low vacancy, 3) have a low HOA, 4) cashflow really well on paper and 5) be dirt cheap in order to consider. There aren’t that many like this, but there are a few and yes, they really need to be looked at for the cash flow and that’s about it.

  13. Aaron Lee

    So yeah … I bought a condo as a primary residence in 2006 at the top of the market and I’ve regretted it every day since. I discovered Biggerpockets last year and learned enough info to make me regret it even more. My HOA fees and the high purchase price make it virtually impossible to get positive cash flow, so I’ll eventually sell it instead of converting it to a rental as I previously considered.

    Would you be equally as cautious with an SFR that was in an HOA community?

  14. Andrey Y.

    Great read, Ben!

    I would be careful in stating things such as “condos are problematic with cash flow” (paraphrasing).
    Condos are a gold mine when it comes to cash flow. Look at the numbers. At least over here, condos can be bought for 60-70 cents on the dollar for equivalent rental income of a SFH. Do you prefer to spend 50 to 60% of rental income on expenses? My experience with condos has been 30-40%, that includes condo fees!!

    There is no outside to take care of, no roof, no (major) plumbing, capex and repairs are naturally lower. I don’t mind you telling the readers that condos suck, I’ll just continue to grab $300-400+ per door while the SFH “rule” of $100-150 per door can continued to be followed religiously 😉

  15. Nilesh Makhija

    All the investors agree that there are good things with condo and have pointed out various facts making condo a good investment. Personally if numbers for me I would go for condo as well, intact I do have a pending contract for a condo currently.

    Ben, you have done a great job in pointing out things what don’t work for condo, but we are looking forward to hear what works for condo.

  16. Julie Vermilyea

    I am a young “snow bird” living in Wisconsin considering purchasing an investment property to be used as a vacation rental in the Scottsdale AZ area. I would be financing it using home equity, conventional financing and relatively little money down. I have a long term plan to relocate and this is my way of “getting my feet wet” in the Arizona market and also using the property occasionally for visits a couple of times a year. I have a realtor in the area, but am in need of advice from the locals and any contacts for vacation property rental management companies in that area. This will be my first investment property and welcome advice! This was a very interesting blog, but didn’t really address the very unique Arizona market for condos… and condo vs. single family vacation rental is my bigger dilemma right now.

    • Drew L.

      Julia you’ve probably long ago decided what to do about condo vs SFR but I thought I’d comment. Owned a FL condo for 20 yrs, sold last fall when we really weren’t getting there often enough and the place needed total update. I hated that HOA fees rose from $80 to $400 a month during those 20 yrs and FL taxes got back to pre-crash level. The problem was that the developments water was paid for by the HOA, so it was not individually metered. Other people’s excess usage plus the phenomenal rise in water costs for Sarasota area cost the HOA a staggering amt of money which they passed along in HOA increases. You should never buy into an HOA without thoroughly vetting the contract terms.
      2nd thing I learned – I was instructed not to buy a building made of wood in FL so I bought a condo where the building was masonry. It would have taken some digging to find out at purchase time but it never occurred to me to ask if ALL THE BUILDINGS were cement. The last building built in my phase was cheaply constructed of wood frame and when an entire side of the building had to be replaced due to termite damage and all the owners relocated for months of repair time – guess who got a bill for $5000?. Same thing happened with the exercise facility. It looks to me like it’s possible to make money on condos but I would look for larger complexes where extra costs can be spread out and amenities are there. I’d plan on shorter holding periods like 3-5 yrs and buy into newer or documented well maintained properties in good neighborhoods. As condos and their owners age they often don’t want to -or don’t have the means to pay for major repairs or put enough into escrow accounts for capital repairs. They vote accordingly in annual meetings, so read the minutes of past meetings to find out what they voted on. I’d be looking for a place that has a high ratio of owner-occupants vs renters. I would look to getting the best quality tenant possible. The inside of a condo can be destroyed just like the inside of a house. last, analyze where the city growth is going so you remain in strong neighborhoods for the duration. Nothing less salable than a condo in a declining neighborhood.

  17. Ben Dickey

    Ben,
    Thanks for your posts. I am learning quite a bit from bigger pockets. I am only in the embryo stage, so all please forgive my ignorance in the subject matter.
    I live in Panama City Beach, FL. and I was looking at the possibly of a condo for my first run at this (after more research of course). In your opinion, do you feel that a touristy beach town is possibly an “exception to the rule” in your book? Thank you in advance for your input!

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