They were a married couple of attorneys fresh out of law school. They'd landed a pair of well-paid positions in a prestigious downtown law firm. Still in their early 30s, both were driven by professional ambition. Having a family could wait.
Though skillful in law, they were novices at buying real estate. So they called Tom Early, a broker in their area. The couple told him they wanted to buy in the city, a short walk away from their work, in a building "with all the amenities."
Soon they zeroed in on a 1,200-square foot unit with three bedrooms and an upscale kitchen with taupe granite countertops and high-end appliances. The high rise also had an indoor swimming pool and gym, underground parking and 24-hour concierge service. Though the condo wasn't discounted, the couple was willing to pay what it cost for a seamless lifestyle that let them concentrate on work.
"When they have to sell that apartment someday, they probably won't make a killing. But meanwhile, they'll enjoy incredibly convenient and comfortable living," says Early, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).
As this true story illustrates, some buyers place a premium on lifestyle over potential appreciation. And as a general rule (with major exceptions such as prime New York City and San Francisco markets) urban condo-apartments usually gain value more slowly than do detached, single family houses.
"The issue is that for most city condos, the market is relatively limited compared with the market for family-style houses. Many more people are looking for the classic house with a yard where they can plant flowers and let the dog play," Early says.
As he notes, there are also other potential drawbacks to ownership of a city condo located within a high-rise building. One factor that's hard to predict is whether your neighbors will be likeable or noisy and intrusive.
Despite the possible downsides, an increasing number of young professionals who work in city settings are attracted to a downtown lifestyle, according to Mark Nash, a real estate expert and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home."
"They want to live where the action is," Nash says.
Early says that although the choice of city living is typically a lifestyle decision, the buyers of urban condos should keep resale firmly in mind.
Also, he says it's important to choose a condo building that would let you rent out your unit, should that prove necessary.
"Maybe in a few years, you'll be offered a job in another city and will have to move sooner than expected. In that case you might need to rent out your unit for a period to cover your mortgage payments until you sell," Early says.
Here are a few pointers for city condo buyers:
-- Lean toward a newer building if available.
Some who buy in a city market are drawn to the character and elegance of older buildings. But Early warns that high rises more than 10 years old can be prone to costly maintenance issues.
"Suppose the elevators stop working properly or the air conditioning system fails. In that case, you could be hit with a special assessment above and beyond your regular monthly condo fees," he says.
Another plus for newer buildings is that they typically have more amenities, including fancier gyms, and state-of-the-art security systems.
Nevertheless, Early often recommends against buying in a brand-new condo building.
"You have to be cautious about a large building where the developer may continue to sell units for a lengthy period. That means if you suddenly have to sell, you'll face tough competition from your builder," he says.
-- Investigate any potential property before committing.
Due to the importance of buying with resale in mind, Nash says city condo buyers should do extensive "due diligence" on any urban building they're considering.
As a first step, Nash says you'll want to understand how a condo is situated in a neighborhood.
"Go on a block-by-block property tour. Look at the surroundings of each building and what's available there, including grocery stores and dry cleaners," Nash says.
Once you've identified the best building in your price range, it's time to compare available units within that structure, giving extra points to apartments that have been upgraded.
"Don't overlook subtle differences among units. Which side of the building is the best? Are there any corner units available? Also, track down the best floor plan," Nash says.
-- Strike up conversations with residents of a building you're considering.
Every condo building has its own internal culture, which is heavily influenced by members of its owner-controlled board, as well as the management company the board hires to run the place on a day-to-day basis.
To learn more about the building's culture and whether it would suit you, Nash suggests you talk to people who already live there.
"Let your real estate agent know you want to chat with the residents of any building you like. Make arrangements to sit in the lobby for an hour or two. Then politely strike up conversations with residents entering or exiting the building," Nash says.
-- Make sure the complex you choose has ample parking.
Maybe you're like many young city condo buyers who are attracted to a city lifestyle that doesn't require you to own a car. Even so, as Nash says, you'll probably want to choose a building that reserves at least one parking spot per unit.
Granted, without a car, you may still be able to get to a downtown workplace on foot or with public transportation. But the odds are that many of your friends and relatives will still be car-dependent. In addition, your unit will likely hold its value better if it comes with a parking space.
"These days, a remarkable number of young buyers --including many in the millennial generation -- live in the city, even though their jobs are in the suburbs. So parking is still very important," Nash says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)