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Condo Living - The Good and the Bad

By - March 8, 2013

When my wife and I moved from our home in Colorado to Naples, Florida, we chose to buy a condo. The primary reason was price. There were no houses in our $65,000 to $95,000 price, range, or at least none where we wanted to live. But there were plenty of nice condominiums that were selling inexpensively. In fact, as we looked at previous sales we found numerous examples of units that had sold for close to $300,000 at the top of the market in 2005 to 2006, and now were selling for under $100,000.

Although we liked the prices most of all, there were other things about condos that appealed to us. I loved the fact that I would never have to mow a lawn or pull weeds again, since all the landscaping and exterior care was included in the association dues. We both liked the fact that we could have a swimming pool that was also cared for by someone else. We would never take on the expense and trouble of a pool if we had a house.

Those are a couple of the good things about condo living. The biggest negative about owning a condominium, in general, is the loss of control. Most people have heard a few stories about the rules and the association board members who choose to enforce them. Yes, it is true that if the weight limit for a dog is 25 pounds and your 25-pound puppy gains a few ounces you could be asked to either get rid of your beloved pet or move. But if you take the rules into account when you look for a place (find a complex that allows 50-pound dogs and you can let Spot get fat), there shouldn't be too many issues.

Our big issue was our two cats. It is amazing how many places wrote their rules to allow just one pet, without regard for the fact that a noisy dog leaving messes on the grass is far more of a potential problem than two indoor cats that will only be seen occasionally by other residents, and then only through a window. Our cats are our babies, so we had to rule out 90% of the places in town. But we did eventually buy a unit in a great location--one which allows only cats as pets.

We do love the pool, which we use several times weekly (it's almost directly in front of our place). I watch the lawn care crew come on Tuesdays and do their thing, and I like not having to do the work myself. We walk to stores and restaurants, and have even walked to the beach.

But we know now that we would prefer a house. What we have learned is that the lack of control which comes with condo living shows up in unexpected ways. For example, the dues increased from $320 per month to $340 recently. We voted for the increase, but we did not know it would be necessary when we purchased our place.

Part of the reason for the increase, and the $600 special assessment we also had to pay, is because a bureaucrat somewhere drew a new line on the flood maps, and our 80-unit complex was designated as being at higher risk of flooding the next time a hurricane hits. That caused our insurance rates to go up by about $45,000 per year. Now, if we owned a house and our insurance was going to double due to something like this, we would simply drop the flood coverage (you can do that if you do not have a mortgage), or we would raise the deductible. An association has very limited options though. They cannot choose to drop coverage, or they would immediately put every owner with a mortgage in technical default, and at risk of losing their homes. I believe the law specifies that they maintain coverage in any case.

Then there are all the little things that can add up to a lot of money. The process of voting is the fairest way to make decisions in an association perhaps, but democracy is never too satisfying when the vote doesn't go your way. Should we keep the fountain and so have the associated expenses of operating and repairing it, or should we get rid of it in favor of some easier to maintain landscaping? Should we gamble a few thousand dollars on legal fees in an attempt to get the flood map ruling reversed? If we win we save $45,000 per year--almost $600 per owner. If we lose we just spent the money for nothing.

Pickup trucks are not allowed here, by the way. If relatives or friends want to visit with their trucks they will have to park elsewhere. I have no idea where, or why an old van is okay but a shiny new truck is not. I think the residents here would not complain in any case. They are very reasonable. But if just one wants to enforce the rule, he or she has the right to do so.

We really do love it here. The grounds are kept beautiful, the pool is wonderful, and there are more than a dozen restaurants within walking distance. But the ongoing costs are more than we would like, and less in our control than we would like. The future is less certain when it is going to be decided by 79 other owners. That's the nature of condo life. Now if we can just find a nice house for under $100,000 in one of the richest towns in the country...

We might be here a while.

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