The short answer is probably not, but maybe… you know, it kind of depends.
There certainly can be times when it makes sense to buy a condo or co-op.* For example, we recently bought a package of 17, which was a very good deal. But there are a lot of things that you need to be careful about when investing in condos or co-ops. We’ll start with flipping.
Flipping a Condo
The biggest concern I would have with flipping a condo regards the market you live in. If you are in a dense, urban area like Manhattan or San Francisco, then there isn’t much of a problem with flipping a condo. But in some more sprawled out areas, condos tend to be less liquid. In other words, they can be harder to sell. For example, here are days on market (DOM) for active listings in Kansas City, MO:
Houses DOM Condos DOM
As you can see, in August of 2018, the average actively listed house had been on the market for 23 days and averaged about 30 or so days since the beginning of 2016. On the other hand, active condos had been on the market for 50 days and had averaged about 70 days since January of 2016. This is more than twice as long!
Nationwide, according to the National Association of Realtors, condos and co-ops have a slightly longer number of months of inventory than houses (4.5 to 4.3), and that has been slightly higher for the last few years. (“Months of inventory” denotes how many months it would take for all the currently listed properties to sell given the number of sales there were that month.) While that discrepancy is much smaller than Kansas City, it must again be stressed that this depends on the market you are in. In a densely-populated city with a large number of condos, there shouldn’t be much of a problem with liquidity. But in a city that is more spread out (like Kansas City), it can present a bit of a challenge.
The reason for this is rather simple: Most people looking to buy a home are looking to buy a house. A survey from Zillow, for example, showed that 83 percent of those surveyed preferred to buy a single-family home. Part of this is because some condos don’t allow pets, and Americans love their pets. In addition, Americans love barbecues. (Although the lack of lawn maintenance that condos provide is nice.)
Related: How We Purchased Our Easiest (& Weirdest) Deal Yet: A Package of 17 Condos
The other problem with flipping condos is related to the first; the HOA (Homeowner’s Association) fee. Each condo or co-op has an HOA, and each HOA charges a monthly fee. While these HOAs do provide some services (to be discussed below), what they mean for the flipper is primarily that your holding costs will be higher. Each month you fail to sell that condo is another month you rack up HOA fees. These may be relatively minor on a more expensive flip, but they may eat into your precious profit margins on a cheaper one.
Again, I am by no means saying that flipping a condo doesn’t work. You just need to know what kind of market you are in and build in a bigger margin for higher holding costs.
Holding a Condo
Far and away, the biggest problem with holding a condo or co-op is the HOA fee. Now, HOAs do valuable things, so they are by no means useless. They will usually do all exterior maintenance and repairs, as well as pool maintenance if there is a pool. They will almost always pay for trash removal as well. HOA’s provide insurance on the exterior of the building (you will need insurance on the interior of your unit of course). Sometimes, they provide maintenance and replacement of the HVAC and electrical systems. Sometimes they pay for water and sewer. Sometimes they pay for a doorman. It all depends on the HOA in question.
But these services are usually things you could have done cheaper or don’t need in the first place.
Most of the time, I’ve found that the HOA eats up any profit margin I was hoping to have when analyzing a condo. For example, here’s a condo with a $300/month HOA and a market rent of $895 (something I’ve seen quite a bit in Kansas City):
OK, so you make $270/month, which isn’t bad. But what if you want to finance this condo? A condo with these types of numbers could go for around $100,000 in many parts of Kansas City. So, if you got a 75% loan at 5% interest with a 30-year amortization (which is very hard to get on a condo bought as an investment in the Midwest), the monthly payment would be $402.62 ($4,831.44 annually). In other words, you would be losing about $132/month or just shy of $1,600/year.
But if these numbers were for a house and you could get rid of that pesky $250/month HOA, all of a sudden you would be making $118/month. (Of course, your maintenance and recurring CapEx would go up some, so it would be more like $50-75/month).
That being said, we’ve found condos that work, but even the ones that work are tighter on the cash flow. In Kansas City at least, condos that make sense as investments almost always have an HOA of $200/month or less. (This is for condos whose prices range from $50,000-150,000.)
Another thing you have to be very careful about is the bylaws. Always request a copy while doing your due diligence and review them carefully. We had one condo we almost had to back out of (or flip) because the bylaws said we couldn’t rent the unit until we had owned it for three years. Luckily, the HOA had relaxed that rule.
In one of my less brilliant moments (of which, admittedly, there have been a few), I got a condo in Overland Park under contract. We requested the HOA bylaws, but never received them, and then I just forgot about it. Once we started to try and rent the unit, though, we realized that condo owners in this complex were prohibited from renting out their units. So we decided to sell. This wasn’t the end of the world because we had equity, right? Well, unfortunately we ran into the problem noted above, and it took a good long while to get the unit under contract. Then, the buyer had to lower their offer because of something to do with the loan they were getting (long story), and I decided to accept it because that HOA fee just kept eating away at our equity. In the end, our profit came to $2,498. Not a disaster by any means. But also not the typical real estate success story you’ll hear from whatever guru on a late night infomercial.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Investing in Condos and Townhomes
Regardless, though, you need to carefully read these bylaws and make sure they don’t contain anything objectionable. In some areas (particularly those expensive, dense cities that are usually the best place to buy condos and co-ops), the bylaws give the HOA a lot of power over who an owner can rent or even sell to. Indeed, these boards can reject leases. I’ve even heard of them rejecting refinances! But there are other questions you need answered as well. Are pets allowed? What does the HOA pay for? Do you have a parking spot attached to your unit? Etc., etc., etc.
Management Quality and Special Assessments
One of the other things I really don’t like about owning a condo is that I become dependent on the HOA to make sure the complex doesn’t go to the birds. In fact, we backed out of one condo recently because the HOA was out of money, the complex needed serious repairs, and there appeared to be a high level of vacancy. As the owner of only one out of many condos, you just won’t have the power to turn such a complex around. And if it starts to fall apart, there’s not much you can do but cut your losses and sell (unless, of course, you want to run for HOA president and spend your precious time squabbling with the rest of the board and other angry condo-owners).
In this same vein, you have to keep in mind the specter of the “special assessment.” If the HOA needs to do a large repair and doesn’t have the money in the bank, it will have to issue a special assessment to all of the condo owners. This is just an additional fee that is over-and-above the normal HOA fee. In some instances, they can be quite high. Therefore, if you are looking to buy a condo, ask to see the HOA’s financials to make sure they have some money in reserve. And take a look at the building as well. Ask yourself (and the HOA manager) if there are any major repairs the complex will soon need and if a special assessment may be coming down the line.
In summary, condos and co-ops usually make for difficult investments. But they are by no means impossible. A small percentage of our portfolio is made up of condos, and I’ve seen plenty of people successfully flip them. Indeed, if you consider a $2,498 profit to be a successful flip, then I have one of those under my belt as well!
Typically, condos and co-ops make more sense to pursue as a flip than as a hold and also make more sense in densely-packed cities. But they can be a good investment anywhere. I would just be very careful with them and probably avoid them as a beginner.
*The difference between a condo and a co-op is that with a condo, you own your unit and a percentage of the common elements. In a co-op, you are a shareholder who owns a percentage of the entity (typically a corporation) that owns the complex. Condos are generally a bit more desirable and usually sell for more than co-ops.
Would you invest in condos? Why or why not?