Condos: Investigate before you buy

When Sheila Rappaport moved into her new condominium, she was surprised to find there was only one outlet in the kitchen, not enough for the number of appliances she planned to use.

She immediately called an electrician, expecting he would be able to install two new outlets in a few hours. Two days and $1,800 later, she had three new outlets in her kitchen and a shower light in the master bedroom.

The task was time-consuming and costly because the electrician could not drill up through the ceiling or down through the floor to run wire. Of course: there were people above and below.

Making costly changes 
He had to run wire from the electrical box in the master bedroom through two walls to get to the kitchen. Then the walls had to be repaired and painted.

It wasn’t Sheila’s first condo living lesson. When she considered having hardwood flooring laid before moving in, she discovered there were certain restrictions governing renovations. The installation of hardwood floors was one of them. The specifications outlined by the board didn’t fit into her budget.

Fit not right
After his wife of 30 years died,ilton Lambert took his daughter’s advice and moved into a trendy loft-type condominium at a busy uptown Toronto intersection. She thought he would enjoy the proximity to the subway, good restaurants and upscale shopping facilities.

Two months after moving, Lambert put the condo up for sale. He found the design did not accommodate most of the oversized traditional furniture he had brought from his sprawling ranch-style home. In fact, his furniture looked out of place.

As well, at 64, he was the only senior in a building full of young singles, and he found the commotion of traffic and late-night bars and theatres disturbing and distracting.

What he thought was to be 24-hour security turned out to be two eight-hour shifts that ended at midnight and no guards at all on weekends. The final straw for Lamb was when a door-to-door salesman came to his apartment one Saturday at 10 p.m.

Condo living adjustments
Both Rappaport and Lambert chose a condominium because they wanted to shed the responsibilities that come with owning a home: lawns to cut, snow to shovel, repairs to make and the constant upkeep.

They were also both looking forward to living in an environment where security was key and certain amenities, such as shopping and transit, were nearby.

However, they weren’t prepared for some of the adjustments they had to make.

Next page: Board makes decisions

Board makes decisions
Condos can be living-made-in-heaven for those who want freedom from maintenance and repairs. They’re ideal for globetrotters and snowbirds. There’s no worry about snow caving in your roof, a leaky basement or mail piling up at the front door.

But there are compromises.

Purchasing a condominium means buying a single unit in a multi-unit project while agreeing to share in the costs of maintaining the common areas and facilities.

A condominium board, made up of unit owners, hires a property management firm to maintain the property and enforce the regulations of the project. 

Restrictions, long waits
As Rappaport discovered, condominiums are not designed for those who intend to make design changes and like to do major renovations on an ongoing basis. There are restrictions, lengthy procedures and building codes.

As a single unit owner, she found the board makes decisions that are best for everyone and not necessarily ones with which she may agree.

So either make sure you’re generally happy with the layout and design of the unit you’re about to purchase or make sure you’re prepared for long delays in board approval for structural changes.

Investigate fees 
When shopping for a condominium, consider what the fees are, what they cover and whether you’ll ever use any of the amenities you’ll be paying for.

The fees charged for common areas maintained by the property management firm vary from project to project. They usually include upkeep of elevators, hallways, common rooms, storage areas, landscaping, driveways and parking areas as well as salaries for the superintendent, concierge or property manager and insurance premiums on common areas.

Check out the facility carefully and decide what bang you want for your maintenance buck.
The more amenities offered, such as pool, sauna, fitness centre and billiard room, the more the monthly fees will be.

The kind of amenities a project offers will tell you a lot about the age and lifestyle of the people living there, too. Ask yourself “What facilities will I never use, and how much will they cost me?” Pour over the building’s latest financial statements to give yourself comfort.

Upkeep costs
A portion of the monthly fees also goes into a special fund to pay for major repairs or upkeep.

Check out the age and condition of the building, especially underground parking.

It’s important to determine if there is a healthy surplus in the fund for major repairs down the road. Otherwise, unitholders may be hit with extra costs to make up for a shortfall or a catastrophe.

Taxes are collected on a condominium unit just as they are on a single-family home. Your unit will be assessed along with your share of the land and common facilities to determine your tax bill.

Insurance for the contents of your unit as well as personal liability are also costs for which you are responsible.

Check out one of the many condo insurance packages available. But make sure your irreplaceable objects are on a separate rider.

Next page: Check out location

Check out location
The location, construction and design of a condominium are crucial when choosing one to fit your lifestyle.

How important is it to be close to public transportation? How far is the nearest grocery store, drugstore, hospital?

Check out the age of the condo and the reputation of the builder.

As Milton Lamb found out, the fit and feel are everything. Loft units, unless they’re huge, tend to be airy and bright, but there’s a lot of wasted space with a two-storey atrium. They may suit a young single starting out with little furniture, but not an older individual who has accumulated a lifetime of knick-knacks, tables and lamps.

Even so, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself to downsize and sell or give away some of your large furniture. After all, one of the reasons for moving to a condo is to “simplify” your life.

Neighbours, pets
Besides the location and design of the condominium project, you might want to check out who lives there and how you will fit in, especially if you’re looking for a chance to meet new friends in your own age group.

While it’s illegal under the Human Rights Code to restrict ownership of a condominium based on age, if the building is more geared to singles in their twenties, it may not be for you.

And speaking of friends, is your four-footed one welcome in your new home?

Is there visitor parking, entertaining rooms, guest suites for friends and family when they visit? And find out if bylaws permit subletting.

Do your homework
Besides researching the location, investigating the builder and meeting with the property manager, consider the following before signing an offer:

  • Use a realtor and a lawyer who specialize in condo sales.
  • Ask your lawyer to investigate how the condo association is organized.
  • Research the management company. What is their track record? Ask for references.
  • How are the condo fees allocated? Ask for the financials and compare them to similar projects.
  • Find out how much money is in the reserve fund for long-term or unexpected repairs.
  • Read the constitution and bylaws carefully. Are they protective or restrictive?
  • Consider the building’s age and condition.
  • Make a professional inspection a condition of your offer.
  • Introduce yourself to as many current residents as possible — and get their positives and negatives.