Image of the front porches on a row of condominiums in historic downtown Durango, Colorado.  Behind the homes, the cliff of Smelter mountain can be seem.  The many repeating identical homes are typical row homes.

Living in a condo community has many benefits, but you should also consider that there are rules about what you can do with your residence. (Getty Images)

If you're a first-time homebuyer, you may be wondering whether owning a condominium is more advantageous than buying a town house or a conventional home with a driveway and a big backyard. Maybe you've heard condo living offers added convenience and flexibility, since the upkeep of common areas is accounted for with quarterly or monthly condo association fees. Or perhaps you're attracted to a condo rather than a town home thanks to added affordability, upscale facilities and high-tech security systems.

While there are plenty of pros and cons of condo living, before you decide whether an apartment, house or condo is the best residence choice for you, first consider these rules, restrictions and key differences.

[See: 10 Ways Millennials Are Changing Homebuying.]

What Is a condo?

A condominium is a private residence within a group of housing units owned by a family, an individual or a community. Typically, condo dwellings are adjacent to one another, or situated above or below other units, similar to apartment complexes.

How to Compare Condos, Apartments and Town Homes

The main difference between living in a condo versus an apartment is that condominiums are owned properties, while apartments are rented spaces. A condo may also be part of a smaller structure with multiple living spaces, such as a duplex or triplex. Condos can often resemble town homes and offer similar aspects of town house living, but with distinct ownership structures. For instance, many town home dwellers own the inside and exterior of their residences, while condo owners generally own only the inside of their units.

Should You Buy a Condo?

"For many people, perks like underground parking and no yardwork combined with building amenities like on-site gyms and social gatherings can be very appealing," says Kris Lindahl, a broker and owner of Kris Lindahl Real Estate in Blaine, Minnesota.

While living in a community comes with a variety of benefits, keep in mind that there are rules about what you can do with your residence. For example, while you can paint the walls inside your condo unit, the exterior is another story altogether. The condo association's rules may prevent you from painting the outside of your home, among other restrictions. On the plus side, the condo association will pay for exterior maintenance tasks, including painting, mowing the lawn and replacing broken windows or roofing.

[See: 8 Potential Headaches to Be Aware of Before Becoming a Homeowner.]

"But those conveniences do come with a cost," Lindahl says. "Association dues often run hundreds of dollars a month, or more, on top of your mortgage and taxes. You also need to be aware that associations can and do levy assessments for building upgrades and other expenses, which can run thousands of dollars."

That said, if you prioritize perks and amenities, including having all routine maintenance tasks (think: trash collection) accounted for in your association dues, you may not view the fees as a major drawback. Lindahl suggests carefully reviewing association documents, which may disclose budget reserves and upcoming assessments, prior to closing the deal on a condo.



Common Misconceptions and Limitations of Condos

Before you commit to a condo, you'll also want to factor in common rules and restrictions into the decision-making process. Keep these limitations and disadvantages in mind:

There are strict pet rules. If you're thinking of getting a dog, remember there may be limitations set by your residential community. "Many associations have size, weight and number limits for pets, or even breed restrictions," Lindahl says. He also recommends taking note of the condo's soundproofing in place before you commit. "You may love dogs, but hearing your neighbor's bark at night can be very frustrating. And if it's your dog that gets anxious when you're away and barks, you can end up with fines or even be forced to find him a new home if the neighbors complain too often."

Multiple pets could be problematic occasionally. "I had a client who had to get a special letter permitting an extra cat to live in the apartment as the house rules stated that only one four-legged animal may reside in the apartment," says Alex Lavrenov, an agent with Warburg Realty in New York City. He adds that sometimes a condo association will even ask for updated vet records and registrations.

You'll need to pay for homeowners insurance. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you won't need homeowners insurance as a condo owner. "The (condo) building maintains its own insurance, but it doesn't cover what's in the unit. You have to maintain insurance for damage to your unit's contents and certain fixtures. You are also responsible if your unit is the cause of damage to another unit," says Michael Xylas, a co-partner in charge of the residential and banking real estate departments at Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson, LLP, a law firm in New York City.

You can expect taxes to rise. "Another thing that must be considered is the real estate tax status of the condo unit," Xylas says. "Some have enjoyed the benefits of tax exemptions and abatements that artificially lowered the unit owner's tax bill."

If that happens, the taxes are kept low for 10 or 15 years, and then they escalate over time, Xylas says. Stay prepared by reading the fine print and factoring in higher future taxes into your purchasing decision.

[See: 7 Things First-Time Homebuyers Wish They'd Known.]

You'll need to deal with neighbors. A lack of privacy can be an issue as a condo dweller, Lavrenov says. With many condos, "all that really separates the individual owners are walls and doors."

As Lindahl puts it, "Some condo owners love the social aspect of living close to your neighbors, but sharing common spaces like hallways, elevators and community rooms can be challenging if you don't get along."


The Best Apps for House Hunting

Browse for homes – and maybe even close a deal.

Woman on smartphone

(Getty Images)

The days of picking up a real estate book at your local grocery store are long gone, and house hunting apps are growing in number and sophistication. As the online real estate marketing industry becomes increasingly competitive, mobile tools are getting better at helping consumers find accurate housing information. Check out some of the most popular and helpful apps to use when searching for your next house.

Updated on Dec. 12, 2018: This slideshow was originally published on Dec. 9, 2015, and has been updated with new information.

Zillow: Houses for Sale & Rent

Zillow: Houses for Sale & Rent

(Courtesy of Zillow)

The most downloaded real estate app for both Apple and Android phones, Zillow’s app includes an interactive map and home value estimate that are signature features offered by the brand. With more than 100 million homes in its database, Zillow's app is the most popular method by far. In fact, Zillow reports that more than two-thirds of its usage takes place on a mobile device, jumping to more than three-quarters of traffic on weekends.

Pro: The app’s dashboard includes a Your Home tab that allows you to store your property’s information and see how its value estimate changes over time.

Con: As much as you may want it to be, the Zillow Zestimate isn’t a guarantee of what your home will sell for.

Realtor.com Real Estate Search

Realtor.com Real Estate Search

(Courtesy of Realtor.com)

Filters on the search function in the Realtor.com app allow you to include some of the more specific details on your must-have list, such as multiple floors, fireplace, central air and even community swimming pools or security features.

Pro: With the Sign Snap feature, you can take a photo of a real estate sign you see in a neighborhood and get details about the property right away.

Con: The more specific filters rely on listing agents using all the right keywords, so if you’re struggling to find everything you want in a house, you may have to widen your search and keep an eye out for the details you want in listing photos.

Trulia

Trulia

(Courtesy of Trulia)

Another of the most downloaded offerings, Trulia's app gives users the desktop site experience in a mobile platform, with a focus on design that makes it easy to use for everyone.

Pros: On each property profile, Trulia lists local legal protections, noting whether there is legislation in the area to protect against discrimination for gender identity or sexual orientation in employment, housing or public accommodations.

Cons: On any property profile, you’re prompted to call or email an agent about the property. While this is convenient if you’re serious about buying but don’t have an agent, it can get in the way if you’re just browsing.

Redfin Real Estate

Redfin Real Estate

Stock image of someone holding a smart phone.

(Getty Images)

Since Redfin utilizes an out-of-the-box business model with agents and professionals specializing in different steps of the process, the company's app serves as a way for users and Redfin agents to communicate. In addition to indicating which properties are listed by Redfin or another broker, the map feature will also note homes that are likely to sell fast through its Hot Homes feature.

Pro: You can schedule a tour with a Redfin agent directly through the app. The app even lists the next available tour time, so if you’re crunched for time, you know what’s available.

Con: If you don’t live in one of the 80 markets Redfin has agents located in, the app simply serves as available listing information.

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

Homesnap Real Estate & Rentals

(Courtesy of Homesnap)

Homesnap gives house hunters the reins on its app, especially with its signature feature where you can take a photo of a home and the app will identify the property and provide details about it from the local multiple listing service or public records.

Pro: The start of each property profile includes a property history, including previous sale prices and when it last went on market.

Con: The property details come in list form, which you can expand to see everything from the architectural style to number of bathrooms to homeowners association fees. The amount of information is helpful, but the long list can make it easy to lose focus and miss key criteria you’re looking for.

Homes.com For Sale & Rent

Homes.com For Sale & Rent

(Courtesy of Homes.com)

Through the Homes.com app, you have multiple options for searching based on your needs and desires, including buying versus renting, home value information for properties on the market and what neighborhoods work based on your preferred commute time.

Pro: Sometimes you just want to see what houses are for sale in a completely different city – and Homes.com gets that. When you open the app, it asks where you want to search, with the option to search based on your location, where the weather is nice or even a random destination.

Con: While the app offers property profiles with ads to get prequalified for a mortgage, which may be helpful to some, mortgages are best shopped for separately.

Estately Real Estate

Estately Real Estate

Upscale modern house for sale

(Getty Images)

Estately markets itself as a service that's focused on connecting consumers with the right local real estate agent, and its app follows that mission with multiple ways to get in touch with agents, whether it’s scheduling a showing or reaching out to Estately-affiliated agents listed at the bottom of property information.

Pro: The app has icons on the property profiles for information on taxes, utilities, appliances, schools and more regarding the property, making it easy to look at the details you consider most important without having to scroll.

Con: Estately only covers markets in 39 states, and while the most populous places are taken care of, residents looking for homes in Iowa, Kentucky or Maine, among others, are out of luck.

Century 21 Local

Century 21 Local

(Courtesy of Century 21)

As a longstanding national brokerage, Century 21 is in the app game by providing consumers with access to home listing information pulled from local multiple listing services. The tool can particularly come in handy if you plan to use a Century 21 agent, as that’s who you’re put in touch with if you would like to inquire more about a property.

Pro: If you start searching for homes in a different city, information about the local Century 21 brokerage you should contact changes accordingly.

Con: Photos and property information load slower than many other house hunting apps.

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Tags: real estate, housing market, new home sales, pending home sales, existing home sales, home prices


Geoff Williams has been a contributor to U.S. News and World Report since 2013, writing about a variety of personal finance topics, from insurance and spending strategies to small business and tax-filing tips.

Williams got his start working in entertainment reporting in 1993, as an associate editor at "BOP," a teen entertainment magazine, and freelancing for publications, including Entertainment Weekly. He later moved to Ohio and worked for several years as a part-time features reporter at The Cincinnati Post and continued freelancing. His articles have been featured in outlets such as Life magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cincinnati Magazine and Ohio Magazine.

For the past 15 years, Williams has specialized in personal finance and small business issues. His articles on personal finance and business have appeared in CNNMoney.com, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes.com and American Express OPEN Forum. Williams is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever" and "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America"

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Williams lives in Loveland, Ohio, with his two teenage daughters and is a graduate of Indiana University. To learn more about Geoff Williams, you can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow his Twitter page.

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