Rightsizing your space for your needs is so important. We have worried we didn’t have quite enough off and on. Without plans to have children, however, a large two bedroom apartment is really a great size. It’s forced us to change our packrat mindsets and get rid of stuff we don’t need, which is great.
In 2017, this condo cost just shy of $15,000 in housing expenses (mortgage interest but not principal, condo fees including special assessments, property taxes, condo insurance, electricity, and repairs). Despite minimal income from me in 2017, our housing expenses are still quite low compared to our income for the year. That’s the pro side of buying a reasonably priced place when your income is lower. We are currently budgeting about $2,000/month for our 10 year mortgage payment, condo fees, property taxes, and condo insurance, which includes a parking spot, in-unit laundry and a storage unit and sees about $800/month going to principal of the mortgage payment. For a similar rental apartment nearby, we would pay at least $3,000/month before even getting a parking spot. Purchasing this condo when I did was an incredible financial decision and has substantially influenced the wealth that we now have.
Although we didn’t meet my original five year payoff plan, we have made substantial progress on the mortgage over the years. The balance has dropped by $30,715.48 since I last made an extra payment in December 2014. We have now paid off 60.7% of the original mortgage. We refinanced to a 10 year amortization, which means we have at most 10 years left on this mortgage. We have a new plan to pay it off within 5 years from now and should see the balance drop to five figures sometime in early 2019. We also have enough in cash to pay off the current mortgage balance due to our cash holding preferences.
When you’re buying a condo, you read through so many documents. You get access to condo association meeting minutes for the last while, budgets, and nest egg (this is not the technical term, but the technical term seems to vary regionally) information. You do due diligence then. You have to keep doing that due diligence even after you’ve bought. Every year, you should get a budget, updated fee schedule, and nest egg information. You need to ask questions.
People complain about condo fees being “high”. Take a look at what your condo fees cover. Condo associations do need to pay for items that you don’t have to pay for when you own a house, such as filing a tax return and other fees, licenses and permits related to being a non-profit association, management fees, ridiculous costs of photocopying and postage, regular studies on the building’s nest egg, elevators, fire systems, and a phone line for the callbox. Never buy a house with an elevator – they’re expensive as all hell. The condo budget also covers building insurance (why our condo owners policy is so cheap), water, sewer, garbage, cable TV, cleaning of the common areas, outdoor landscaping, roof maintenance, plenty of plumbing, electrical, and repairs of many structures including windows. Those fees aren’t a waste of money, though they surely feel high when it’s one single chunk coming out each month instead of small dribbles.
I remember when I was looking at condos, everyone talked about how special assessments are bad, without much discussion of why they are bad or how they happen. In my experience, they happen when the people running the board don’t plan for the future, but also, when unexpected events arise. Our condo building is now older and needs a fair amount of work done in the next several years. The board in the past had chosen to never save money for future maintenance issues and to only raise money from homeowners each year for the maintenance that they planned to do that year. That turns into a problem when you need to replace the elevator, windows, roof, decks,and siding all at the same time, to the tune of a five figure amount per homeowner (about $25,000 at the maximum).
Thanks to some turnover, this year, the board in our building chose to raise our monthly condo fees by a bit more than 50% to start saving money for the future. They also did a small special assessment (< $1,000 for our portion), though presumably a larger one will be coming in 2019 or 2020 as we still have a low five figure amount to pay according to the last nest egg analysis.
The money part is a smaller portion of the issue to us – coming up with a low five figure sum to pay the special assessment when we've been spending so little on housing the last several years isn't a huge deal. The more frustrating part to us is realizing how much maintenance has been deferred (roof, elevator, windows, siding, as well as ongoing pipe issues – basically all of the major projects), how out of the loop homeowners not on the board have been kept, how little control we have over the general maintenance level of the building, and how much random power the board thinks they have. I spent 2017 on the Board, which increased our knowledge of what was going on, bringing with it, the stress of how chaotic the board was and how no one on the board really agreed with each other other than that all maintenance should be future owners' problems and not current owners' problems. The Board has, on multiple occasions, done work that affected our unit without notifying us or shown up at our door without notice to do work, both of which are against the actual policies the building has.
Well, that future is now. The maintenance is the current owners' problems because it needs to be taken care of.
All of this led us to open houses of small-ish single family homes. You can't, however, find a single family house as centrally located as we are. And then instead of being frustrated with the condo board not doing the maintenance, we would need to take care of it all. A house is a substantial lifestyle change from our current situation. A house that meets all of the requirements we laid out would end up moving us to a new neighborhood, increasing commutes, not necessarily come with a garage, be further from lovely walking trails, and its purchase price would be somewhat more than what we estimate we could sell the condo for at the moment. All to avoid being in a condo association. Is that worth it?
So in the end, which compromises do we want to make about our housing situation?
For now, we concluded that we should work on improving our cash position over the next few years to get ourselves in a position that we could buy without selling stocks, if we wanted to. The financial plan that I drew shows that we could save a 20-30% down payment on our ideal house's price over the next two years, depending on how much we choose to invest and how much income I add to the pot. Our current idea is to invest 1/3 of our available money for savings and save the other 2/3 for a house, which we can adjust depending on how we are feeling as the plan goes along. We'll also likely stick to our new five year mortgage payoff plan as a hedge of staying, it has a small impact on our overall cash flow, and we would roll any condo equity into a house.
Would I have still bought this place if I went back in time? Probably. I would have done more research into state law on condos though and more due diligence each year.
Readers, how have you decided to move in the past?