What Is a Condo? Should You Buy or Rent?

By Kenny Zhu · January 04, 2024 · 9 minute read

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What Is a Condo? Should You Buy or Rent?

A condo is a privately owned unit in a community of other units, often with shared areas or amenities. If you’re considering whether to buy or rent a condo, you’ll want to think about the costs, benefits, and responsibilities of each option.

Of course, those who are deciding whether or not to rent have much less riding on their choice, but it’s still worth delving into the pros and cons of this kind of property and if it suits your needs.

Here, you’ll learn about the characteristics that define condos, the pros and cons of these units, and what it’s like to rent or buy a condo.

What Is a Condo?

As noted above, a condo is a privately owned unit that is part of a community of other units, whether that means there are a couple of other residences or dozens. Typically, a condo owner only possesses their unit, unlike the situation with a single-family homeowner, who owns the home and the land under it.

You may be familiar with condos that are rented out for income. If you’ve ever rented an apartment in, say, a complex by the beach, with a shared pool and patio, there’s a chance you’ve been in a condo. Real estate investors often buy condos and rent them out in this way.

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Characteristics of a Condo

Individual condo units are owned by private owners, while common areas are owned and maintained by an association or organization. This might be called a condo association (CA) or a homeowners association (HOA). These groups are not identical, but they do manage a multi-unit residential community.

Your ownership rights may be limited to the space within your condominium, as is the case with most condo high-rises, or you may own an entire standalone structure within a larger community. In a condo situation, the CA or HOA owns the land. In a planned unit development, the homeowners own their lot and share the common area.

Maintenance and Finances of Condos

Condos are popular starter homes, thanks to their low maintenance, relatively cheap purchase price, and general convenience. They may also appeal to investors and people who are downsizing.

With detached single-family homes, you’re on the hook for the bill if any repair issues arise, whether it’s a broken water heater, leaky roof, or malfunctioning air conditioner. This generally isn’t the case with condos, as the property management company employed by the CA or HOA maintains common areas and shared amenities.

Convenience comes with a price, though. Condo owners share maintenance costs, and the expense of a master insurance policy, by paying dues monthly or quarterly. It’s important to budget for these costs. HOA fees,for example, have recently been rising 10% per year. Atop those fees, special assessments can be levied if the HOA needs to pay for a major project.

Condos tend to appreciate at a slower rate than traditional single-family homes, but they cost less. So buyers may want to take both realities into consideration when deciding on house vs. condo.

Recommended: First-Time Homebuyers Guide

Types of Condos

Condos vary widely in structure and appearance, ranging from high-rise buildings to communal developments. Take a closer look:

Condo Developments

These are communities of standalone homes where maintenance of both the interior and exterior are carried by the condo owner, but services like the maintenance of common areas and snow removal are typically handled by a property management company.

All properties within a condo development are bound by the rules of the CA or HOA, so it’s similar to a traditional neighborhood with fixed rules and less upkeep.

Condo Buildings

These are high-rise apartments consisting of individual condo units. The maintenance of the structure, shared utilities, and common areas are the responsibility of the property management company.

If you’re looking at buying or renting an apartment in a large metropolitan area, make sure you understand what it means to choose between a condo and a co-op.

High-rise condo buildings are more common in urban areas and may have higher fees in order to cover the greater costs of maintaining an apartment building and often the salaries of full-time maintenance staff members and doormen.

Pros and Cons of Condos

Next, take a look at the pros and cons of a condo.

Pros of Condos

Here are the upsides of condo life:

•   Less maintenance since the CA or HOA is responsible for many aspects of upkeep.

•   Affordability. Since you don’t own the land, the price can be lower.

•   Possible investment opportunity; can use a condo for rental income.

•   Security. Some people appreciate having a condo staff and neighbors nearby.

•   Social life. You’re part of a community and will likely know and connect with your neighbors to some extent.

•   Amenities. There are often such features as gyms, pools, dog run, coworking space, party rooms, and other perks to enjoy.

Cons of Condos

Next, consider the potential downsides of a condo:

•   Association rules. You have to adhere to the guidelines of the community, which may or may not suit you. This can include everything from the appearance of your home’s exterior to when and for how long you may rent your place out.

•   Higher interest rates. If you are shopping for a condo to purchase, you may find that the mortgage rates are somewhat higher than what you’d be quoted if you were buying a single-family home.

•   Investment risk factor. If you are buying a condo, its value could depend to some extent on other residents and how well they maintain their property.

•   Lack of privacy and land. You will have neighbors…so the experience is different from being in your own single-family home on your own land. And you likely won’t have acres of property to plant and use as you wish.

•   Rising costs. Your association payments can rise considerably, and assessments are possible as well. That can throw a wrench in your budget.

Recommended: Most Affordable Places to Live in the US

Buying or Renting a Condo: Which Is Better?

Whether you’re better off buying or renting a condo — or any of the other types of houses, from modular home to manufactured home, tiny house to townhouse — depends as much as your own circumstances as it does the cost of buying vs. renting in an area.

•   Buying: Assuming you’ve decided to settle down in an area for the next three to five years, you might be better off buying a condo if you have a stable income stream and can cover the down payment and closing costs without emptying your emergency fund.

Given how real estate values have risen in the past few years, buying a condo may be a good choice if you’re looking for long-term investment and a chance to build home equity over time.

•   Renting: You may be better off renting if there’s a chance you’ll need to relocate within the next few years, or if any upcoming life events might require you to upsize your residence, like having children.

Here’s a closer look at these scenarios.

Pros of Renting a Condo

Renting a condo gives you all of the benefits of living in a private condo unit without the long-term commitment and upfront costs.

•   Few maintenance responsibilities: If you’re renting a condo unit in an apartment building, the association is responsible for maintenance, or in the case of an individually owned HVAC system, the owner is.

•   More leeway for negotiation: Reliable renters are hard to come by; some condo owners may be more willing to negotiate your monthly rent than professional property managers are.

•   Flexibility to end or extend your lease: As a renter, you can often decide whether to end or continue your lease. This makes it easy to cut ties if needed.

Pros of Buying a Condo

Taking out a mortgage to buy a condo more or less freezes your living costs into the future. This will help you avoid rising rents, though association fees can certainly rise.

•   More affordable than single-family homes: The price of a condo is usually lower than a single-family home in a given area. This makes it attractive to homebuyers on a budget.

•   Freedom to make it your own: Owning a condo gives you more freedom over such features as the appliances and color palette than you’d likely have with a rental.

•   Rental potential: Depending on the rules of your association, you may have the right to rent out your condo to generate income.

Finding a Condo

If you’re ready to go out and shop for a condo, you’ll want to assemble a list of must-haves to narrow your search. This applies whether you’re looking to rent or buy.

Are you looking for a more affordable apartment condo or something with more space like a community development? Browse local listings for condo units that match your requirements.

For those seeking to buy a condo, it’s a good idea to find a real estate agent who’s well versed in condo sales. They know the area and can obtain vital info regarding association rules and financials. It’s important to review the rules and fees, and check for any special assessments and their frequency over the years.

Condo Tips

A few more suggestions as you start your hunt:

•   If you are planning to buy, it’s also a good idea to thoroughly understand mortgage basics and have financing lined up with a mortgage company so you’re ready to make a bid on a property.

•   Know your budget. A mortgage calculator is an excellent tool for helping you figure out your costs.

•   Consider checking this HUD site for FHA-approved condos as your primary residence if you are seeking financing with an FHA loan.

💡 Quick Tip: Keep in mind that FHA home loans are available for your primary residence only. Investment properties and vacation homes are not eligible.1

The Takeaway

What is a condo? A condo is a privately owned unit within a community that can be a good starter home or a place to downsize. Or it might be a wise investment property that can bring in rental income. If you’re able to rent a condo, it’s much like renting an apartment, except your landlord may be the owner.

If you’re interested in buying a condo, realize that condo buyers are able to access the same kinds of loans available to buyers of single-family homes, though rates may be slightly higher.

Looking for an affordable option for a home mortgage loan? SoFi can help: We offer low down payments (as little as 3% - 5%*) with our competitive and flexible home mortgage loans. Plus, applying is extra convenient: It's online, with access to one-on-one help.

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What’s the difference between an apartment and a condo?

A condo can be a kind of apartment, which is a residential unit that’s part of a larger building. An apartment can be owned or rented, as can a condo. However, a condo is a specific kind of unit ownership in which there are communal facilities and shared maintenance charges.

What is the difference between a condo and a townhouse?

With a condo, you own your unit but not the land under and around it. You pay for your unit (rent or mortgage). Association charges cover maintenance and repairs, and property taxes apply to owners. With a townhouse, the property includes the residence and the land it sits on and that surrounds it. You will pay your rent or mortgage and real estate taxes, but may not be part of an association or obligated to pay those fees.

Is a condo the same as a flat?

Many people use the terms condo, apartment, and flat interchangeably. While an apartment and a flat are the same thing, a condo refers to a style of ownership of a dwelling unit that’s part of a community. It may be an apartment, but the way it’s bought or rented can differ.

Photo Credit: iStock/Edwin Tan

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