Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Condos and Condon'ts in Big Cities

Stacy Berman has sold homes in the Washington, D.C., area since 2002. These days, she’s surprised by how many buyers of all ages are bailing on the suburbs. Instead, many aspire to ownership of a condo in a historic building close to the heart of the nation's capital.

But after they’ve thought through the implications of living in an old building, many of Berman’s city-oriented buyers modify their plans and instead choose a unit in a newish building with a stripped-down “industrial loft” feel and an open floor plan.

“For some people, there are too many everyday trade-offs to life in an old building. For example, many old buildings lack the convenience of a washer-dryer within the unit and are short on garage space,” she says.

Steven Israel, a real estate broker affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org), urges urban condo buyers to consider the cost implications of living in an older building.

“Older buildings can be more expensive to run. You want to be sure the place you buy has been maintained in the past and has a war chest for future improvements,” Israel says.

Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” says whether you buy an older condo or a relatively new one, it’s still possible to get a favorable deal in many gentrifying city neighborhoods.

But he advises against selecting any building where more than 20 percent of the units are “investment properties” occupied by renters.

“I don’t care what great people the renters are. They simply aren’t as motivated to keep the building nice as owners are,” Nash says.

Here are a few pointers for city condo buyers:

-- Seek to avoid a very large condo building.

When Nash shopped for a condo in Chicago some years ago, he had a wide selection of buildings from which to choose. To make sure he selected well, he did a thorough comparison of his choices.

Nash says his analysis convinced him that it’s better to avoid a condo in any building with more than 500 units.

“There can be many cons to living in a really large building. One is that you can confront a lot of red tape when dealing with the management company,” he says.

After several weeks of condo shopping, Nash ultimately chose a unit in a building with just 44 units.

“For me, this is perfect. The residents are friendly, and the building isn’t run like a bureaucracy,” he says.

-- Look for an area with easy transportation access.

One of the attractions of city living -- especially in a vibrant urban community -- is that you can often position yourself within walking distance of many desirable neighborhood amenities.

“People are increasingly interested in living near their work, especially if that area also has good restaurants and other positives. Besides, you can probably count on better appreciation in a neighborhood with close access to a subway or commuter rail system,” Nash says.

When choosing an urban condo, don’t overlook such basic amenities as close access to shopping, especially to a quality supermarket. In addition, Nash recommends you forgo buying a city condo unless you plan to remain in the area for a minimum of three to five years.

-- Seek a building where noise won’t be a problem.

An older building can be elegant and give you more square feet than a newer one for the same money. Yet in the long run, you could find a newer building more commodious. Much depends on the quality of construction and the era in which the property was built. Though generalizations don’t always apply, Nash says structures under about 10 years of age typically provide lifestyle features you can’t obtain in an older building.

“Besides the comfort of a more energy-efficient building with good windows, you usually get better soundproofing in a newly constructed building. The floors are better and the walls are more insulated,” he says.

-- Think through whether your parking access would be sufficient.

Many who hanker for an urban condo imagine a lifestyle more reliant on public transit than cars. But while it’s true that relatively few people residing in New York City own cars, condo owners in most other major U.S. cities want access to a vehicle of their own.

Because of that, Nash says it’s usually unwise to buy a unit in a building that doesn’t allow you at least one parking space. Ideally, the building should also provide parking for your guests or have arrangements in place for valet parking.

“The reality is that, unlike many people around the world, most Americans are still very car-oriented. Even if you don’t care about car ownership, you’ve got to consider where your family and friends will park when they come visit you,” Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)