Question: Why would anybody waste hundreds of dollars each month on condo fees?
Answer: Most people associate paying condo fees with throwing money down the drain, but the truth is that most people aren’t looking at condo fees the right way; they even offer some advantages over a single-family home or townhouse.
What Do Condo Fees Pay For?
For those who haven’t spent much time studying condo budgets, some of the main expenses in a condo budget include:
- Reserves: a building’s savings account for large major repair or replacement of things like the roof, façade, elevators, etc
- Property Management/Staff: contracts for a property manager, front desk, janitorial services, and engineer
- Maintenance and Utilities: general upkeep of the building including lawn service, basic repairs, power washing, window cleaning, snow removal, and utilities like water, sewer, and trash (some buildings also include gas, electric, and/or tv and internet)
- Master Insurance: this policy usually protects everything except your personal items and improvements within each unit
One of the most beneficial, yet underappreciated, advantages of condo fees is that they give homeowners a very predictable, flat expense structure. Taking care of a single-family home might mean months or years with very low maintenance expenses and then a run of tens of thousands of dollars in expenses (e.g. a storm damages your deck and deck and your basement floods).
In a condo, your biggest financial exposure is usually HVAC and appliances, all of which are under $10,000 and have somewhat predictable expirations. Many of the other normal home maintenance and replacement costs tend to fall under the purview of the Association.
For younger buyers with less savings and retired homeowners on a fixed income, the benefits of stable, predictable condo expenses makes financial planning/management easier and also require less of an emergency savings fund so more cash can be deployed into investments or to enjoy.
Home Maintenance Cost > Condo Fees
When you own a condo, you’re only responsible for what’s inside the walls of your home (appliances, water heater, flooring, walls, plumbing fixtures, etc) and, if you have one, an outdoor HVAC compressor. Of course with a single-family home or townhouse, you are responsible for a lot more without anybody to share those costs with.
Over the last 12 months, the average condo fee in Arlington was $583/mon (~$7k/year) representing about 1.4% of the average condo market value. Estimates for annual (single-family) home maintenance range from about 1-2% (Wells Fargo) to 1-4% (State Farm) of your home’s value in annual maintenance expenses.
Many homeowners will spend more in the long-run maintaining a single-family home than they will on condo fees, plus condo fees include more than just maintenance and repair.
Lower Utility, Insurance Bills
Condo living will help you save money on other expenses including utilities and homeowners insurance. It’s usually much easier to keep your unit comfortably heated and cooled because you benefit from the ambient temperatures from the units and hallway around you. And because of the existing Master Insurance policy for the building, your own homeowners insurance policy tends to be less expensive than a comparable policy for a single-family home or townhouse.
Many buildings have amenities that can either save you money (e.g. a gym that saves you from paying a separate gym membership fee or grilling area to save you on a grill and propane) or enhance your living (e.g. pool, rooftop terrace, 24hr front desk security).
Life is Easier
One of the main reasons retirees sell the home they’ve lived and invested in for decades to move into a condo is to relieve themselves of the time and hassle of maintenance and repairs. While you can debate whether you’ll pay more on maintenance in a condo vs single-family home, there’s no denying that you’ll spend a lot less TIME on maintenance in a condo, and your time is certainly worth a lot. Even if you are not doing any of the maintenance work yourself in a single-family, you will spend time contacting, meeting with, and managing contractors and vendors who do the work.
This goes for landlords/investors too – the effort of maintaining an investment property that is a condo is much lower than one that is a single-family home.
But What About Evil Condo Boards?
Another concern I hear about condos is that the evil condo boards/management will increase fees or levy special assessments (one-time fee levied against all owners, on top of their condo fee) on a whim just to screw owners over for thousands of dollars. This simply is not accurate.
First and foremost, the Board members are also owners and pay the same fee increases and special assessments as the rest of the owners so they should have a shared interest interest in keeping costs down. Second, most Boards try to limit fee increases to 2-3% annually to keep pace with inflation (yes, fee increases have been higher the last two years while we deal with high US inflation). Finally, special assessments are generally a measure of last resort and uncommon.
If you are concerned about fee increases and/or special assessments, I strongly encourage you to attend Board meetings, participate on the Financial or Building Committees, or become a Board member to personally oversee your investment.
Just because this column is pro-condo does not mean it is anti-single-family home/townhouse, but somebody has to stand-up to for the oft-bullied condo fee! I do hope this message reaches buyers and investors who are a good fit for condos, but hesitant to consider them because of a misunderstanding about condo fees.
If you’d like to discuss buying, selling, investing, or renting, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.
If you’d like a question answered in my weekly column or to discuss buying, selling, renting, or investing, please send an email to Eli@EliResidential.com. To read any of my older posts, visit the blog section of my website at EliResidential.com. Call me directly at (703) 539-2529.
Video summaries of some articles can be found on YouTube on the Eli Residential channel.
Eli Tucker is a licensed Realtor in Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland with RLAH @properties, 4040 N Fairfax Dr #10C Arlington VA 22203. (703) 390-9460.