Big Condo Building Vs. Rowhouse Converted Condos – Which is Better?

DSCN0378, originally uploaded by Prince of Petworth.

I’ve often wondered how people choose their condos. It seems like there are two clear options. One are in the big new buildings and the other option is to purchase one in a converted rowhouse. So for those who have purchased condos how did you make the decision? What are the pros and cons?

Speaking of cons a reader wrote in to suggest I put the topic of condo boards/associations out there. I am intrigued by these condo boards. Specifically the reader would like to know how do people handle unruly members? How are differences solved without any bad blood with people who you have to live with and probably see frequently? What are some complicated matters that have been resolved through compromise? It seems like a very interesting world of politics and alliances and unfortunately sometimes brutal frustrations. Are condo boards easier to work with in the big buildings?

26 Comment

  • Usually a horse’s head in the bed will turn around any unruly board member. They may even kiss your ring at the next meeting.

    One advantage to the row-house condo is access to a yard. Of course that option is negated if (like in so many cases) the developer chops down every bit of greenery in the back to put in a huge concrete parking pad for 3-4 Escalades.

  • row house condos are a nice solution to improving density while keeping the character of the neighborhood, but are very tough on street parking. personally i love having the air rights to my whole 20×80 square foot plat.

  • I always wondered about the “condo associations” in those rowhouse condos. I mean, when it’s just you and two other units, how does the “association” handle large maintenance items etc? These are old buildings.

  • smaller buildings normally have smaller condo fees…

  • I was in NY for Father’s Day, dad said the big local issue is that no one in NY has enough bucks to qualify for coops any more and they are thus looking at condos. Condo boards are nothing — ever seen the strict rules for those nice coops on Lanier? No muddy shoes/bikes in the hallway, workroom in the cellar for waxing your skis or tuning your private jet

  • When my girlfriend and I were looking to buy, we told our Realtor we wanted to find a condo that had 10 or less units. We ended up in one of the converted row house condos and I couldn’t be happier. The new big buildings are obviously really nice but feel like hotels to me and often don’t have much character. With our place, I think I have more privacy, can do what I want with the outside space we have, and it just feels more homey.

    Then again, we don’t have a workout room or pool on the roof, which are pluses with the big buildings.

  • I hate my condo association. They lack vision and budget experience. They have a little money in their pockets so they have to spend it on stupid sh!t. The board members have no budget experience and none of them have an MBA or other type of business degree. Buyers: Do not buy a building that is full of nonprofit workers, teachers, or other “social” type worker. They lack experience in planning, managing, and teambuilding which means your condo fee will be wasted on stupid crap and they lack the capability to make big/small decisions on their own without involving everyone. Do we really need to have a concensus on getting the carpets cleaned??? Really? Three board members can’t make that decision? That’s why it’s important to have business majors on the board. They can make decisions, both big and small.

  • I live in a small (less than 10 units) condo builidng and it feels great not to feel like people are living on top of each other. It’s a great building with a big yard, parking, and storage. The only problem is with some of the other tenants, who have very prickly personalities and very different ideas about personal space, common areas and the like. Any ideas on how to handle difficult neighbors, especially if they’re hold a lot of power – as in they’re your Board President?

  • INMHIIYNTYAH- As one of “those” people you described, I find your comment , in many cases totally true! I have spent most of my career working with these “social type workers” and while wonderful at what they do, leadership and business sense are not *generally* a strength. Sometimes these types drive me crazy, and I’m sure I drive them crazy too with all my crazy fast decision making and limited tolerance for ruling by consensus. But thank God for people like them- they are needed in many capacities… but I can imagine that a condo board full of them could be a frustrating.

    That being said- I don’t think you need to have an MBA or a business degree to be a competent board member. Just have some business sense. And with an attitude like yours, you’re likely never going to make any inroads with them, because you’re probably incredibly intimidating and off-putting to them, and they’ll simply continue to elect people they see as a friends or people who care about them and will act in their best interests (not some “MBA type” who’s going to steamroll them). Even though you might actually be able to do more for them via competent decision making skills. Instead of being the cranky resident who bitches about the board, why not DO something about it? (and when I say DO something, I mean… turn down the bluntness and the “oh my god you people are idiots and I can’t stand you” attitude, put down your dukes, turn up your patience and offer to help.)

  • sometimes a company that specializes in condo managemet can be a great help.

  • I lived in a building with about 50 units in Adams Morgan before I bought my house…and served on the board. We had to deal with a lot of expensive repairs (and I’m glad we had 50 units to spread the costs over)…and we had neverending problems with some residents. The main problem was people who didn’t want to spend on anything — we were getting letters from tenants pleading to make our building a 5-story walk-up because they were afraid of the expense of repairing the elevator. We finally got the interior of the building painted for the first time in 17 years. We just wanted to do basic maintenance. I’d hate to see what these people would do to a rowhouse. I recently heard that the building now has $300,000 in reserves ($30K when I moved in in 2001), and have finally decided they can afford to fix things!

    On the plus side though, there were a lot of great people in the building, too, and a fantastic roofdeck (which they are now renovating). It was a very social building and I made a lot of great friends while living there. You just have to be prepared for a lot of togetherness, especially in a co-op. Overall, I really liked it but, I think it would drive some people crazy.

  • INMHIIYNTYAH, I feel ya. It sucks every time you watch the board make a “small” or “stupid” decision is about as cool as watching 3 monkeys’ f-ing a football. And, you would be correct that most board members of small operations do not have MBAs or the like to correctly count all the beans (as well as you see fit). But, that being said, sometimes paying dues members that are not on the board make a big stink about everything, so it creates a petty and trivial board that must hold hands on every decision. There are also legal issues at stake if the board makes a decision without going through an open session.

    As far as having bad blood, or dealing with members that you may or may not like, that’s your own bag baby. If you love and adore everyone in your building, consider yourself lucky. I’ll go puke in the corner.

  • I would think a small, converted row house would be a better option in regards to fees. I currently rent a condo in a big high rise that I would never buy. The fees here are silly and the current sale prices are way to high.

    If you own a condo, you are at the mercy of the board which often times has idiots. You will have to pay up when the board gets sued for being stupid (ie. not following their own rules). Far too much risk, buy a row house in stead. I’ve lived in neighborhoods that have HOAs, very similar to condo boards. Trust me, there’s always one “Board Nazi” who is stupid, ignorant of the rules, and power mad (usually a bored housewife). Run away!

  • I don’t attend any meetings or deal with the board what-so-ever. I know, I know you are all going to tell me to “pitch in” and a bunch of other wish-washy BS. But I have found not participating to be the best approach for the last 2+ years I have lived there. Without me, my building has went through 4 different boards. I don’t complain. I play the innocent by-stander. However, I do keep track of our funds on a monthly basis. I retain copies of bank statements and what not.
    This has taught me one thing though: I will never live in another condo again. Especially with people who think they are “young professionals”. That pretty much translates to inexperience and douche-baggery.

  • The biggest problem with the rowhouse condos are typically the reserves—the fees are so small, that when, for example, the roof finally gives out, you get special assessed for the amount that it takes to repair the roof. Certainly makes you wonder whether you made the wise move on going for a lower condo fee when you are hit with a multi-thousand dollar bill to repair something that needs fixing _now_. Then again, its a bit like gambling, maybe you’ll never be special assessed (and it’s not unheard of to get special assessed in a big condo building, it’s just that if they have been around a while they typically have sufficient reserves built up, and cost is spread around more people).

    My experience with condo boards is that they are typically filled with middle-management people that have never had any real “final say” power on anything, so they rule like frickin’ a**holes. Kind of like ANC commissioners (I suggest you read Marc Fisher’s wash post blog about the ANC meeting regarding Comet pizza…ridiculous!).

  • We have two board Nazis… a man and a woman. One has an online degree from Phoenix and the other is a self-proclaimed architect. God, when I first moved in she complained about every freaking construction detail. What a b*tch! I think the bigger condo buildings give you anonymity. Maybe I would have liked living in my small building better if I did an analysis of the demographics and psychographics first before I bought. Silly me that I thought people with college degrees would have some common business sense.

  • i’m leaning toward the dead horses head…i’d be happy if the 3 other units would just agree to do yearly maintenace….a small amont of money well spent to avoid very expensive repair costs in the future… it’s like living in a poorly managed rental property at this point….

  • Board Nazis, yes, I’ve seen many. But bored housewife??? Come on! Where does that come from? I don’t think in all my condo living I’ve come across a woman who didn’t have a job, let lone one that could be called a “bored housewife.” hmm.

  • The “bored housewives” comment comes from living in Ashburn, Va. There are A LOT of them out there. I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys the city (DC) would even be remotely happy there (like myself).

  • Here’s issues with the converted rowhouse not mentioned yet — when one unit doesn’t pay its fees, the other can’t hide behind the safety in numbers of a condo board in raising the issue because the condo board is two people and one is the problem. When one unit NEVER does anything in a common area (sweep, shovel snow), the other one gets angry and frustrated. When one never takes out its trash, the other one suffers. I will NEVER again buy one of these.

  • I did the Co-op lifestyle in North Arlington / Courthouse Neighborhood for 6 years. The 1950’s building with 28 units was falling apart, the Sr Citizen residents banded together on Shareholder Votes to insure that any improvements got nixed. That place is an accident waiting to happen. Board meetings were often contentious, some owners attended smelling like a distilery to add their .02 worth. It was a Zoo. I learned from that experience and will NEVER EVER buy or own a Condo or Co-op again!

  • I’m right with you Roger.

  • After three years of trying to get the condo board and management company of a condo I own in Northern Virginia to fix problems with common elements (drainpipe and exterior wall) that affect only my unit, I am preparing to file suit against them. I can’t rent or sell the condo in its current condition, and they have repeatedly blown me off since April 2005. The irony is that if I win, it will impact my own condo fee. Luckily, I’m not asking for much by way of damages. I wouldn’t be eager to buy another condo.

  • As President of my Coop here are my opinions:

    Unruly Board members: nothing you can do about them. Its usually pretty hard to kick them off (belive me I have tried).

    Small Vs. Large: I wouldnt trust a small converted building. Anonymous hit the nail on the head, you get smaller monthly fees over the short term, then something goes wrong and you have to have a big assesment. My guess would be that if you averaged out the maintenance costs of a large building vs. a small over a really long time, large would be more cost effective because they do a better job of avoiding the disasterous situations.

    INMHIIYNTYAH: You are soooo right, boards need more business minded people and less activists (the group of people you described). I have personally tried to recruit more business minded people but its a catch 22. The business minded people typically work more hours and have less time to dedicate to the board. They value their time and dont want to commit any of it for something that is essentially a part time job. Also, board members typically dont get paid, so business minded people tend to think in terms of dollars and cents (what do I gain by being at these meetings) whereas the “activists” tend to love to volunteer their time for free.

    This results in a large pool of activists types wanting to help out but not knowing what to do, and few business types knowing what to do but not wanting to give their personal time.

  • Crestwood:

    I would suggest the following before going the lawsuit route. First write a letter, and read it at a meeting. Whenever I have a difficult time getting my board members to approve something, i get one of the residents to come with a sob story and they are shamed into voting on it. Works most of the time.

    If that doesnt work, try getting onto the board. If you make your issue known at every meeting and draw up plans to get it fixed, its a lot easier to get it done. A lot of times its not that the people in charge dont care about your issue, its just that they dont have the experience or go getter attitude to get it done.

    Lawyers typically make things worse than they already are. Unless the apartment is unliveable, I would try the first two methods before a lawsuit

  • Just J, thanks for those thoughts, but we’ve already been through those steps, including bringing the technical expert to the board meeting and having the board actually come to the condo to look at the problems firsthand. The apartment is unliveable in its current condition. The board’s modus operandi is to rubber-stamp whatever the property management company’s rep tells them. What I don’t understand is why he (the rep) is so reluctant to fix major structural problems that will affect the entire building eventually. Anyhow, filing suit is not the way I wanted to go, but they’ve left me no alternative. I do appreciate your suggestions, nonetheless.

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