Lofts are springing up in many nifty urban neighborhoods. Although trendier than condos, most lofts are created with a condominium form of ownership.
A unique set of considerations come into play when you buy a condo or loft. With a single-family residence, you are the sole property owner. As a condo owner, you are the sole owner of the interior of your dwelling unit, but ownership is shared for the common area: the grounds, walkways, hallways, staircases, elevators, recreation room, pool, etc.
The condo you buy will be governed by Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs). The CC&Rs will restrict what you can do with your condo. For instance, you may not be able to remodel at will or paint the exterior of your unit your favorite color. Large pets may not be allowed, or the number might be limited.
Ask to see a copy of the CC&Rs. Ideally, you should find out if the CC&Rs include any restrictions you can’t live with before you make an offer.
As a condo owner, you become a member of a homeowner’s association (HOA). The association collects dues to take care of such things as association management and routine common-area maintenance.
In addition to finding out the amount of the dues, find out precisely what the HOA dues cover. This varies widely from one association to the next. For example, some HOA dues cover all exterior maintenance, including exterior paint and roof replacement, while others don’t.
The association dues usually cover liability insurance for the common areas. The HOA may also carry fire or other insurance for the individual units in the complex. But this will vary from one complex to the next.
Find out how often the dues have been increased over the years and by how much. In new complexes, the dues may be set unrealistically low. If so, you should anticipate increases.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: A portion of HOA dues usually goes to fund a reserve account that can be used to repair or replace faulty equipment. The size of the reserve fund is important: the bigger, the better. If the account is insufficient to handle future expenses, individual owners will be assessed to cover the shortfall.
For example, following the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, the homeowners in the Watergate condominium complex in Emeryville had to pay an assessment in addition to their HOA dues to cover the cost of repairing earthquake damage. The HOA didn’t carry earthquake insurance, so individual homeowners were responsible for the amount not covered by the reserve fund. A studio-sized condo owner paid approximately $1,100. Owners of larger units paid proportionately more.
The minutes from past homeowner association and board of directors meetings, as well as any special meetings, can be particularly informative regarding condo issues. Read the minutes covering the last year or so carefully. Are there any unresolved issues that could be problematic going forward?
Other issues to investigate: Are there any lawsuits against the contractor for faulty construction? Is the litigation resolved or ongoing? Are there any lawsuits against the homeowner’s association? How many owners are delinquent in the HOA dues, and what remedies do other owners have? How many parking spaces are included? Is there extra storage space?
Also find out what percentage of the units are tenant-occupied? A high ratio of owner-occupants to tenants is desirable. Some lenders won’t lend in condo projects with a high ratio of tenants to owner occupants
In larger complexes, the property management company can be a good source of information. Otherwise, talk to one of the officers of the HOA.
THE CLOSING: It’s also a good idea to talk to several condo owners to find out what they like most and least about living there.
Dian Hymer is author of “House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide,” Chronicle Books.