How to Search for a Condo

It’s common to feel overwhelmed the first few times that you go to an open house. There are a lot of moving parts – there’s your realtor, the listing agent, the price of the condo, the building size, the parking situation, the association reserves, and so on. And you’re expected to take this all in and decide whether you’re interested – usually in the space for ten minutes or so. So what to do? Here are some basic tips:

open houseSee several places of different styles and in different neighborhoods before you even think of buying. The goal is to get used to the process, to identify what you like and to understand what a good value is. Think of your first few outings as reconnaissance – and don’t buy anything. Ask your realtor a ton of questions so you get a lay of the land. After a few weekends on the hunt, you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to tell whether a condo is “worth” its list price – and why. Once you do this, you’ll start to feel more confident – and you’ll be able to really figure out what you want.

Once you understand what you’re doing, identify a few key aspects that you won’t compromise on – and then be flexible with the rest. Unless you can custom-build your own condo, you won’t get everything you want. But, getting your top three or four wants? It’s totally do-able. You just need patience and perseverance. Let’s say you’re in the market for a two-bedroom condo. Your main four criteria are 1) within a ten-minute walk of public transit 2) located in one of your top two favorite neighborhoods 3) filled with plenty of natural light and 4) comes with private outdoor space. If something doesn’t provide these things, it’s out – no questions asked.

Don’t be swayed by the taste of the seller. If you don’t like their Nepalese rugs and Birkenstock aesthetic, don’t let it sour you on the whole place. Remember, you’ll get to decorate. So focus more on the size and shape of the rooms, the number and location of the windows, and the quality and type of the more permanent aspects of the unit, like its walls, floors, countertops, light fixtures, bathroom tiles – and, most of all, just focus on how you like the space and whether it has what you need.

Redoing a few aspects of a unit is reasonable – redoing everything is not. Unless you’re looking at a fixer-upper, you’re not going to gut the whole place. So, maybe, yes, you’ll redo the kitchen counter and stain the hardwood floors, and you’ll almost certainly paint… but you’re probably not going to have the time (or money) to also redo the bathrooms, buy all new appliances, install new lighting, and upgrade your central heating system. Or, at the very least, doing all these things will take a year of sustained effort and a lot of money.

If you’re serious about a place, visit it several times, at different times of day. In the evenings, you’ll see what it sounds like when your potential upstairs neighbors are home and walking around. During rush hour, you’ll hear what the traffic from the nearby freeway sounds like. During midday, you’ll see how much light the place gets on lazy Sunday afternoons. All of these things are important – and you can’t get a full sense of them from just one visit.

If you don’t love it, don’t buy it. You should know pretty quickly that, “Yes, this is what I want!” If you find yourself talking yourself into a place without being truly excited, then keep looking. You shouldn’t settle– not when you’re forking over as much money as you are. But also be realistic with what you can get in your price range.

Keep in mind financial issues unrelated to the actual unit. In other words, have a list of financial problems that you won’t accept. For example, if the association has no reserves, that can be a no-no for you. Or, if there’s a lawsuit within the building, stay clear. Or, if several units in the building are in foreclosure, something might be up. And if a unit is at the very top of your budget, can you really afford it if you get in a bidding war? In other words, aside from your falling in love with the unit itself, the financial and practical fundamentals must also be there.

Consider the place as an investment. While your primary concern should be whether it’s comfortable for you and whether you can afford it, remember that eventually you’ll want to sell. While you may not mind the lack of parking, or the crummy neighborhood, or the abandoned building across the street, or the fact that it’s a fifth floor walk-up, some of these things may make your condo a real hard sell when the time comes to move. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s worth thinking about before you buy.

While everyone has their own method for making decisions – and their own wants and needs – follow these basic guidelines, and you’ll be well on your way to making a successful condo purchase.

Author My First Apartment
Alex Starace

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Alex Starace and his wife own a condo in Chicago. Alex enjoys basketball, biking and jazz. His writing also appears regularly in My First Apartment, South Florida Opulence and TriQuarterly.

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