What Is A Condo? A Complete Guide

Deciding on where to live is a big deal. It can be very stressful, and because it feels permanent, you want to get right. You could be a long-time renter who is finally ready to purchase your very own residence. Or maybe you have lived in and owned several different places and are looking for something new. Whatever your current situation, it's critical that you take the time and carefully consider all your options in order to make the best decision possible for you and your family.

Purchasing a condo may have crossed your mind, and that is certainly one of your options. Although this is a common choice among buyers in North America, there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion about what a condo actually is and what you can expect out of purchasing one. So what is a condo?

  • What is a condo: A condo is a privately-held piece of property held within a larger group of private units. This larger group is managed by a third-party management company, often referred to as a condo board, condo manager, or homeowners association. This third-party manager takes ownership over common spaces such as pool, parking, lobby, amongst others. In exchange, condo owners pay a monthly fee.

To help you better understand this housing option and what you can expect from it, we came up with a complete guide.

What is a condo: a definition

A condominium unit is a private residential unit that shares a condominium building or complex with multiple similar units. It is similar in some ways to an apartment community, where residents share common amenities and perks like fitness centers, swimming pools, park space, and landscaping services. However, unlike an apartment community, condo residents own their condos rather than renting them.

Even though many condos share similar characteristics when it comes to their design and construction, the term is actually a legal classification that refers to the type of ownership - and not the structure of the unit itself. So if you imagined all condos are downtown skyscrapers, that is not always true. Of course, very often condos come in a form of a high-rise building, but they can also be townhouses, duplex apartments, even single-family dwellings. This means you may be able to find a wide range of different condos with varying styles and features.

The buying process for a condo is almost identical to that of a single-family residence in many ways, but at the same time, very different. A buyer will agree to terms of a mortgage and sign a deed before moving into the unit. However, unlike with a traditional residential property purchase, the condo buyer does not get the rights to the property in its entirety, but rather to the space within the unit. Residents in a condominium building or complex jointly own the building, the yard and any other common spaces and amenities.

At first glance, this might seem like a bad deal for a homebuyer. After all, what’s the point of purchasing a home if you cannot make changes to it? In actuality, however, this purchasing arrangement may be in the best interest of the buyer.

When that roof begins to wear out, or paint begins to fade, the financial onus is not on you, but rather on a condo association and its board of directors.

Condo vs. townhome vs. single-family home

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As a savvy homebuyer, you may want to fully analyze your choices before deciding as to what kind of property you should purchase. The three primary home types you are likely to encounter are condominiums, townhomes, and single-family dwellings.

There are various differences among these three options, so let’s break them down based on some of the primary factors that will play into your purchasing decision.

Condo ownership

Although you may have your name on the deed to a townhome, condo or single-family residence, there are different levels of ownership of which you should be aware. A single-family dwelling has the most straightforward arrangement, with the property owner having full access and control over the home, its exterior, and any additional land that comes with it. A homeowner can make any changes to any aspect of the property.

With a townhome, the owner is usually responsible for the interior and exterior of the property, including the roof and driveway, but residents share communal areas. As we discussed earlier, as a condo owner, you would share ownership of the physical condominium building and communal spaces, so you have limitations when it comes to making renovations.

Cost

There are two different elements of a home’s cost: upfront price and investment over time. Upfront, you will likely be able to purchase a condo for less than you would a townhome, which will likely cost you less than a single-family home. On top of the price you pay for a townhome or a condo, you will also have to pay monthly fees to a homeowners or a condominium association. These fees go toward regular maintenance, including landscaping. The homeowners' association often uses a portion of the fees for a good insurance policy for the condominium complex. With a single-family home, you are on the hook for any and all maintenance and repair expenses, which can add up significantly over time.

Location

Your lifestyle and desired location may play a role in determining what kind of residence is best suited for your needs. If you want to be within minutes of nightlife and the city center, a condo unit may be a great choice for you. On the other hand, if you are more concerned with having a big yard and space for a growing family, you may be better off investing in a single-family home. That being said, it is true condos exist mostly in the cities, but can sometimes be found outside of the city as well. Take stock of your priorities and think about how different residences will fit with your lifestyle and family needs.

Maintenance

Owners of single-family homes tend to devote a significant amount of time, energy and money to maintenance. Townhome owners also have to handle some maintenance and repair issues. Condo owners, however, generally don’t have to worry about maintenance. If buildings need repairs (like shingle maintenance), the condo board will allocate resources and contract a repair provider.

Neighbors

You should consider the type of social atmosphere you can expect from different types of residences. In a single family home, you may be in a rural area or a tightly knit neighborhood. Interactions with neighbors (or the lack thereof) will change based on the specific area in which you decide to live.

With a townhome or a condo, you can expect to be much closer with your neighbors, both physically and relationally. Because condo and townhome communities share common areas, you will likely get to know your neighbors while you’re enjoying the swimming pool or fitness center. In many cases, condo and townhome communities will also host resident events like movie nights, pool parties, or holiday get-togethers. But don’t worry, those are not compulsory.

What you need to know about condo living

The concept that most people have a difficult time getting used to when they move into a condo is the presence of a condo board and/or homeowners' association (HOA). The condo board is an organization of members who act as a governing body for a given community. When you purchase a condo, you are automatically opted into HOA membership, and you must adhere to the rules and regulations set out by the board and pay monthly membership dues.

Aside from the ownership structure of a condo community, you will also have to adapt to the limitations that it poses. Those who enjoy renovating their homes may feel like they are overly restricted when living in a condo. On the other hand, this may be a positive thing for individuals who don’t like handling their own maintenance or those first-time buyers that are already accustomed to these kinds of limitations while renting.

One of the upsides of condo living is the availability of amenities and features that you might not be able to otherwise afford. You may have access to a swimming pool, an onsite fitness center, event spaces and professional landscaping service all included with your monthly fees. This offers an amazing opportunity to many homebuyers who have limited budgets, but still want to enjoy top-notch features where they live.

Typical Condo Amenities

What types of amenities can you expect at your condo community? The answer varies, but there are some staple amenities that most properties offer. You should make sure to ask about the particular amenities that a condo complex offers before buying so that you know exactly what your membership fees will get you.

Below are some of the most common amenities:

Security services

In many condominium complexes, various safety measures are put in place for the security of residents. In some communities, there is a security gate with a security guard, or one that opens with a member key card or a key code. In others, condos have built-in security systems to prevent break-ins and theft.

Most communities are well-lit, which can mitigate break-ins. Often, the condo board will also organize a neighborhood watch to monitor suspicious activity and alert residents and local law enforcement of any concerns.

Parking resources

Parking, especially if you live in a busy downtown area, can be challenging to find. Thankfully, condo complexes usually offer parking for their residents. Condo owners may get a parking pass and a reserved street parking space, or they may have access to a secure parking garage. Other condo properties have carports or garages to provide increased convenience and security.

Green space

Lots of condo complexes have their own parks, pet areas and nature trails for residents to enjoy. These green spaces are usually kept in pristine condition due to regular landscaping services. This outdoor space is especially appealing to families who want to spend time together without leaving the neighborhood.

A condo complex may also have a playground so that kids can enjoy some time outside within close proximity to their homes. You can enjoy all of the benefits of well-manicured landscaping, including vibrant lawns and flourishing trees and flowers, without any of the work.

Events

Condo boards often organize events and gatherings for residents. This is a great way for homeowners to get to know their neighbors and become involved with the governing board members who are making decisions on behalf of condo residents.

Condo communities may host everything from a family game night to a couple’s movie screening, with various events taking place throughout the year. If you value socialization, look for a community that has active members who frequently get together for planned and unplanned events.

Pools and spas

One of the most attractive amenities for any prospective condo buyer is a swimming pool. Condos with outdoor swimming pools usually open them up from late May through early September. Communities that have indoor pools may keep them open year-round, which means that you can take a dip whether it’s a sweltering summer afternoon or a nippy Canadian winter morning.

As an added bonus, communities with pools often offer hot tubs and saunas. The best part is that you can take advantage of these amenities without doing any of the maintenance work on your own.

Fitness centers

For people who want to get in a workout without driving to a gym across town, condo complexes with fitness centers offer the perfect solution. The size of the fitness center is usually dependant on the number of residents in a complex. A smaller community will likely have a small fitness room with just a few pieces of equipment, while a large complex may have a fitness center that’s bigger than some gyms.

Condo Fees

The fees you must pay to be a part of a condo association will depend on the area you live in and the quality of the complex itself. Higher-end buildings and amenities usually warrant higher membership fees. Generally speaking, members of a condo community will pay between $200 and $500 per month toward the maintenance and upkeep of buildings and communal spaces.  

Condo Boards and HOAs

A homeowners' association has a board of directors responsible for making key decisions, stewarding membership fees and allocating funds toward various maintenance projects and events. Although every member of a condo community also gains membership in the HOA upon signing the deed to his or her new home, there are usually a few people who act on a condo board as representatives of condo residents.

There are two basic bodies that govern the homeowners' association: the board of directors and the officers of the condominium association. The board of directors makes decisions, puts rules and regulations in place and manages the maintenance and upkeep of the community, while the officers are responsible for actually implementing these policies.

The board itself is similar in structure to other planning and governing boards, with different positions that hold specific responsibilities. Below is an outline of a common structure:

  • President: The president of an HOA’s board of directors is responsible for presiding over all meetings and takes responsibility for the day-to-day administration of HOA policies and bylaws. If needed, the president of a board may enact specific measures to enforce community policies. Because the president serves at the will of the HOA board, board members have the authority to vote out a president for any reason, typically by a majority vote.

  • Vice President: A condo board’s vice president has the responsibility to act in the role of president in the absence of an association president. This means vice presidents must have all the necessary knowledge and capacity to handle tasks that are generally completed by the president.

  • Treasurer: Because the board of directors is responsible for managing the fees collected from condo owners within a complex, it is important that a treasurer is appointed to oversee community funds and determine the common expenses. A treasurer must ensure that the board has full and complete financial records. He or she plays a key role in the development and implementation of an annual budget. In addition, a treasurer might determine the amount of extra fees an HOA needs for a special expense, such as repaving a parking garage or repainting buildings.

  • Secretary: Secretaries coordinate the creation and distribution of meeting minutes. Even if they ask a different individual to keep minutes during a meeting, they are responsible for making sure that the minutes are distributed to members of the board and other HOA members upon request.

Should I Buy a Condo?

With so many different condominium communities out there, buying a condo is a good option for just about anyone. Still, it’s important to weigh the benefits with the potential drawbacks of condo ownership. If you are a first-time homebuyer, after years of renting, a condo might be the perfect transition into ownership.

Like an apartment, you will not have to worry about any maintenance or repair work, and you can enjoy close neighbors and various community amenities that can be difficult to find with a conventional single-family home.

Older adults and retirees often choose condos as their residence of choice because of the maintenance provided by the condo association. As people get older, they may find it challenging or even impossible to keep up on all of the demands of maintaining and landscaping a single-family home.

At a condo community, you don’t have to worry about these chores and can focus on enjoying your living space. Older adults can also derive a great deal of fulfillment out of being an active community member—or even serving on a board of directors.

The fees that accompany a condo purchase often faze prospective buyers, but lots of condo owners consider them to be well worth it when considering the access to amenities and maintenance services.

When you are trying to determine whether these monthly fees are feasible for you, it might be helpful to write out your expected annual fees, along with how much you will save annually on maintenance and repair costs. You should also calculate the insurance cost, and your own owner's policy. This cost-benefit analysis might help you rationalize some of these fees and identify their value to you as a homeowner.

Every individual and family is different, and so it’s important for you to think about your personal preferences and needs. Even the best home likely won’t check off all of the items on your wish list. Therefore, you should focus on finding a residence that meets your top priorities, and avoid stressing about the small details.

What is a condo: FAQs

The following are some answers to some of the most frequently asked questions of potential condo owners in Canada:

When should I buy a condo?

The best time to buy a condo is dependent on many different factors. First, you will need to determine whether you re going to buy a pre-construction condo or an existing condo. When it comes to pre-construction, the time of year really doesn’t have much of a bearing on the price that you pay. Do some market research and pick the right condominium project, one that best suits your needs.  

You should remember that construction timelines often change. Even if you’re promised a completion date that’s just a few months away, prepare for the possibility that you might need to wait a while longer to actually move in.

For an existing condo, be sure to watch the market carefully for changes and good purchasing opportunities. In many cases, spring is a good time to buy. Regardless of what type of condo you are buying, avoid rushing into the decision.

Can I choose custom features for my condo?

Even though you won’t have very much freedom when it comes to making changes to your individual unit, you may have the ability to select custom features if you purchase a pre-construction unit. You can select finishes, colors and other features, like granite counter-tops or hardwood flooring, to make your new home as appealing as possible to you. These custom features can also set your condo apart if and when you choose to sell it down the road.

How can I avoid excessive fees?

In a lot of cases, a homebuyer will purchase a condo and the association will immediately ask for extra fees for an improvement in the complex. Before you buy, ask about the age of the roofs and observe the condition of common areas. If any major maintenance projects come up in the near future, you may need to pitch for special assessments. You should avoid buying in a community that appears to have several major maintenance needs.

Should I invest in extra upgrades?

Some condo communities offer upgrades like parking spaces and storage space for homeowners. If you have a car and you live in a downtown area where parking tends to be sparse, it may be a good idea to pay a little extra for a reserved parking spot or carport.

Should I ask to meet board members?

The board of directors is responsible for the operation of a condo community, and it’s a good idea for you to get to know the people who are serving in these administrative roles. You don’t want to live in a community that is run by unapproachable or unreasonable board members, so make sure you feel comfortable with these individuals.