- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

If you're a buyer in search of affordable housing for your first purchase, don't overlook condominiums as an alternative to the highly touted three-bedroom, two-bath single-family house.

In most areas, a condominium provides many of the benefits of homeownership without some of the home care hassles. In most condo communities, there's no mowing of grass, repairing of roofs, watching for leaks or sealing the driveway, as all those repairs customarily are provided by the condo owners association.

True, with most condo developments, you won't have the usual space for a backyard barbecue, but you will find the benefits of equity growth, interest, federal tax deductions and the pride of homeownership. My first home was a condominium, followed by a single-family purchase a while later. (Condos also make good rental investments; many condo owners have held onto their first purchases as they have moved into larger homes the second time around.)

Compare the following five large metropolitan areas' average prices of single-family houses and condominiums. The table shows the condo price, followed by the single-family home price and the percent difference between the two.

Although condos in Chicago tend to cost more than single-family homes, other areas demonstrate the usual differentiation between stand-alone structures and condominiums.

Los Angeles: $334,000, $559,000; 40 percent less

The District: $257,022, $655,509; 61 percent less

Chicago: $212,000, $154,500; 37 percent more

Dallas: $145,690, $225,547; 35 percent less

Phoenix: $100,300, $181,164; 45 percent less

The lower prices obviously will translate to smaller down payments and required incomes. However, condos also require condo fees, which usually pay for services such as trash pickup, water and grounds care things you normally would pay for separately in a single-family property. Some financing critics even wonder why mortgage providers still count the condo fee against the owner's debt load, because the services paid for are not counted against borrowerswho are buying non-condo properties. Condo fees can run several hundred dollars per month in most starterhome developments.

As you purchase a condo, you'll need to understand some of the basic differences from a single-family property. First, you're buying only your walls, ceiling and floor. That's it. You own the walkway, parking lot and common grounds only as a member of the condo-minium association.

To have the hallway leading up to your condo recarpeted or painted or to fix any other part of the common areas of your development, you'll have to petition the condo association's board of directors usually operated by volunteer condo owners. Most of the time, however, the board already is taking care of those things, using funds from the condo fees.

The association also will have some very strict rules on what you can and cannot do to your own personal part of the whole. In this way, owning a condo is like living in an apartment, but you make the decisions on the interior. You can paint, carpet, remodel or even gut the whole place if you like, within the guidelines of the condo rules.

As with ownership of a single-family home, however, you also have the responsibilities of homeownership. If thewater heater goes out, it'syour responsibility, notthe landlord's.

The condo lifestyle can get many first-time buyers who have found themselves priced out of a larger piece of the pie at least a starter home. Depending on your location, the price of a condominium can provide more buying power than trying to move into a higher-priced community of single-family homes.

M. Anthony Carr, director of communications for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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