There are three primary housing situations available—buying a condo, buying a house, or renting an apartment. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. Let’s take a look at the advantages of each—which are also usually the disadvantages of the others.
Warning: There’s no one-size-fits-all here. What you’re going to find is each housing situation is designed to meet the needs and preferences of the occupant. And that’s a good thing.
Be open to all three at different times in your life.
Why a condo is a good idea—maybe better than a house
Condos are less expensive than houses
According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the median existing house price was $241,700, as of January, 2018. The NAR also reported the median existing condo price was $231,600, also as of January, 2018. That’s a difference of only $10,000, but the gap is much wider in a lot of markets.
A lower price means a lower down payment and a lower monthly payment.
No repairs and maintenance, at least on the exterior
This is one of the primary advantages of living in a condo. While homeowners are busy mowing their lawns, painting the house, trimming hedges, cleaning gutters, pruning trees, raking leaves, and shoveling snow, condo owners are busy hanging out at the pool, taking weekend trips, or simply relaxing at home.
The exterior of a condo is both owned and maintained by the homeowner’s association (HOA). The owner is responsible only for the interior. But everything outside the front door is none of their concern. That frees up time (and money) for other pursuits.
Because condos are smaller, and more densely packed, they’re often located closer to amenities. This is particularly true of downtown areas with their large number of cultural activities, shopping, entertainment and job opportunities. Condo owners frequently have shorter commutes than homeowners, who more typically live in distant suburbs and exurban areas.
Larger condominium neighborhoods are often packed with shared amenities. These can include swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasiums, golf courses, park areas, pet parks, and jogging trails. Most of those who live in houses have to commute to public facilities to get those amenities. The condo owner has them without even leaving the property.
Neighborhoods of detached single-family homes tend to create distance between neighbors. Condos are much closer to apartments in this regard. Your home is literally surrounded by other units, and you may have others living above or below your unit. There’s also the density factor. Where there may be one home per acre in a detached home neighborhood, there can be 20 or 30 units per acre in a condominium.
This creates a level of intimacy that doesn’t exist in large subdivisions. And since condos tend to attract people of similar backgrounds and interests, there’s a greater likelihood of co-mingling socially. Activities are even more pronounced when there are common recreational amenities to congregate around, like swimming pools and gymnasiums.
Why a house is a better idea than a condo
Having some land
Technically speaking, owning real estate entails land. Condos don’t have it, by definition. Detached houses do. It’s one of the primary advantages of owning a house. Yes, the property needs to be maintained. But you can build a private pool in your backyard, create a garden, host backyard parties, or even play touch football games. And that’s to say nothing of the advantage of having a private, fenced-in backyard where your kids can play safely.
Greater self-determination and self-expression
One of the inherent disadvantages of a condo is uniformity. Since you don’t own the exterior of the home, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with it. A house is a different story entirely. You can paint it any color you like, build a playhouse in the backyard for your kids, or put flowerbeds all over the property. A house can easily be customized, in a way a condo never can.
Room to grow
This is closely related to the land factor. As a family grows, you can also grow your house. You can knock down walls, and add an addition. You can build a deck in the backyard. In some less suburban areas, you can even build a guest house on the property. You can’t do any of that with a condo, and certainly not an apartment.
A house better accommodates life changes
Among all the aspects of life controlled by an HOA, they can even control what you do for a living and who you live with. For example, if you want to start a plumbing business, you can often do it out of a house. You can never do it out of a condo or apartment.
The same is true with living arrangements. Condos have specific limits on who and how many people can live in a unit. If your sister and brother-in-law, and their two kids, need a place to live for a while, you can have can have them live in your house. A condo or apartment is likely to have restrictions that would prevent that arrangement.
A house is generally easier to sell than a condo
Literally speaking, a condo can be a tough sell in a bad housing market. That’s because, for the most part, a condo is a substitute house. They’re the kind of property people buy only in the most robust markets. But detached houses on privately owned lots tend to be more liquid in all kinds of markets.
There’s also the individuality factor. Each house is unique, particularly after it’s been customized by its owners. There’s a greater likelihood it will appeal to specific buyers. Condos on the other hand, are uniform. They’re so similar that one unit doesn’t necessarily stand out from the rest. If there are a lot of units for sale in a condo neighborhood, it could take a year or more to sell your unit. This is a major reason why condos are often converted to rentals.
Why you might be better off renting
Simply put, renting is typically the least expensive housing option. That’s in part because apartments are generally smaller than houses and condos, but also because rents are generally lower than typical house payments in most markets.
There’s a third factor, and that’s repair and maintenance costs. An apartment occupant doesn’t have those expenses. They don’t have to pay a $300 per month HOA fee in a condo or $7,000 to have the roof of the house replaced.
A tenant has the ability to move on short notice. The owner of a house or a condo generally needs to sell the property in order to move. Sure, there are leases that typically run for one year. But leases usually contain an exit clause. In most cases, the occupant will need to pay two or three month’s rent as a penalty, then they’re free to go.
More convenient location
Because apartments are more tightly packed than houses, and even condos, they often have very convenient locations. In addition to downtown areas, they can be found around major shopping malls, popular recreational amenities, and major highway interchanges. For this reason, a tenant usually has more location options than a homeowner or condo owner.
No sunk capital
Whether you’re buying a house or condo, you’ll have to make a down payment. This can be anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, or more. Once the down payment is made, you won’t have access to that capital. You can’t spend it, and you can’t invest it.
The apartment tenant, by contrast, has no sunk capital, and therefore complete control over their money. Now, it’s also a fact that many tenants won’t take advantage of this huge benefit. But, if you can invest your money while renting an apartment, you can get the same kind of equity build-up that homeowners and condo owners enjoy. Only you’ll have more direct control over the money, as well as the ability to diversify your investments in a way that the property owner can’t.
Even less maintenance than a condo
This is both a convenience and a financial benefit. Like a condo owner, the apartment tenant has no responsibility for exterior repairs and maintenance. But unlike a condo owner, an apartment tenant has no responsibility for the interior either. For example, if a plumbing fixture starts leaking, it’s the responsibility of the owner or manager to fix it, not the tenant.
Final thoughts on condo vs. house vs. renting
As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each housing type. What’s great is that you can choose whichever works best for you. Even more specifically, you may find that each provides special benefits at different times in your life. For example, early in your life when you’re single or married without children, you may prefer renting an apartment. When you have children, owning a house may be the best option. But when you’re older, and the kids are grown and gone, a condo may provide the best lifestyle.
So, the answer is neither of the three housing types is necessarily better than the others. It really comes down to where you are in life, and what your preferences are.