Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Downtown Condos and Condon'ts

A young lawyer and his wife were living in the two-bedroom condo they bought in a downtown area right after their wedding. Now the proud parents of a baby girl, they plan to keep the condo at least until their daughter enters kindergarten.

Urban condo ownership works well for the couple in several ways. Living downtown lets the lawyer walk to work -- thereby sparing him a traffic-ridden commute from the suburbs. Weeknights, he can keep a late appointment with clients and still get home for dinner. Weekends, the couple can walk to dinner or a movie with friends who also live in the city.

An increasing preference for city living is one reason downtown ownership rates are inching higher in some popular metro areas.

“In some metros, you can now own a city condo as cheaply as renting, and maybe even more so,” says Tom Early, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

As Early says, construction of new condo buildings has outpaced demand in some city centers, keeping prices in check. But he cautions there are many potential pitfalls to the selection of an ideal city condo.

In particular, avoid any building with high condo fees for amenities you’ll rarely use.

“For example, who would want to pay for the upkeep on a big indoor pool if you don’t even like to swim,” Early says.

Here are a few pointers on making the right city condo choice:

-- Pick a downtown neighborhood where you feel at ease.

Suppose you work for a bank or an insurance company and are considering a condo in the financial district. If so, that might only be a good bet if you’re moving to a part of the city with at least as many residential as commercial buildings, says Fred Meyer, a veteran real estate broker and appraiser.

“A neighborhood that’s mostly office buildings can seem like a cold, uncomfortable place once those buildings clear out at night,” Meyer says.

He urges you to visit a neighborhood you’re considering at various daytime, evening and weekend hours and to trust your instincts on whether it feels right to you.

“It’s a good idea to walk the streets and stop at nearby shops and eateries. Then ask yourself how you like the area,” Meyer says.

-- Compare buildings in the area of your choice.

Eileen Brennan, a real estate broker affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (, says condo buildings vary widely in terms of their internal culture.

“A new building could be a good choice, but so could an older building that’s well-maintained. Either way, you’re usually better off living in a purely residential building rather than one that also has offices and retail shops,” she says.

How can you tell if the building you like has a friendly atmosphere? Brennan suggests you talk to residents you meet in the hallways or chat with building staff, like a doorman or concierge working at the front desk.

-- Show extra sensitivity to potential noise problems.

If you’ve lived most of your life in a house, you may be unaware of how troublesome noise can be in a condo building. A building with poor soundproofing can hamper your quality of life.

“Imagine living next door to a guy who pounds his fists against your wall when he thinks you’ve got the TV on too loud,” Early says.

In the design and construction of new condo buildings, extra attention is often given to soundproofing. However, a condo in an older building could be good in this respect.

“Units in old buildings with massive walls can be surprisingly quiet,” Early says.

-- Check out key documents to learn more about a condo building.

Condo owners live in close quarters and must adhere to homeowner association rules. That’s why Early encourages potential buyers to obtain a copy of these rules before purchasing a unit.

“Ask yourself, for example, if you’d be happy in a place where you can’t have a dog or hang a towel on the balcony,” Early says.

Before you bid on any unit, he says you should ask your real estate agent for a copy of the homeowner’s association rule book. Also, ask to see the association’s financial statements to ensure that the building has sufficient reserves to meet its repair bills without imposing a “special assessment” on residents.

-- Track local market trends before submitting a bid.

As Meyer says, you’ll want to do plenty of homework to determine the current market value of any condo before making a contract offer.

To do this, ask your agent to find data on sales of comparable units that have closed within the last six months or longer, Meyer says.

“Find sales in the same building for units roughly like the one you want. This should help keep you from overpaying,” he says.

-- Don’t skip the professional inspection.

Some buyers believe a professional inspection isn’t necessary for those buying a condo. But Early says all condo buyers should hire a skilled inspector prior to finalizing a purchase.

Beside your apartment, “he should also check out the building as a whole -- including its plumbing, electrical and fire suppression systems. Otherwise you could be in for some nasty surprises after moving in,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at