Why would anybody want to buy a condo, rather than a house?
Well, there's the shoveling, the interminable yard work. Laziness aside, the condominium lifestyle seems infinitely more practical for scattered people like my boyfriend, Mischa, and me. He travels a lot for work. And with my busy schedule, I hate the thought of managing a real household on my own.
Plus, we're city folks. We like going to theater and concerts. We like walking to the grocery store. In short, we wanted to live in a dense urban neighborhood with ample storefronts and a hint of the pretty skyline. So last February, we set our sights on a two-bedroom inner-city condo. Mischa was dreaming of sleek, modern high-rises in downtown Minneapolis. I longed for a charming brownstone on a leafy street near one of the lakes, preferably with a balcony, a fireplace and its own washing machine.
We imagined this would be a simple in-and-out procedure, thanks to the bearish housing market we kept hearing about. In our irrational exuberance, or something akin to it, we figured we could easily land something cheap. Our budget was a mere $200,000.
What can I say -- things didn't go exactly as planned. I learned some important lessons along the way.
1. THIS IS NOT A FIRE SALE.
We planned on cramming our Saturday mornings with showings. We'd visit condo after amazing condo. After a few weeks, we'd simply settle on the one we liked best. In practice, we couldn't find enough apartments to fill our first morning of condo hunting. "There's much less to choose from than there was two years ago," says Fritz Kroll, an Edina Realty agent who concentrates on downtown Minneapolis.
2. DON'T MAKE OFFENSIVELY LOW BIDS.
During that first month, we did find a lovely Loring Park condo with an enormous kitchen and views of Target Field. The only problem: the price, which was listed at $259,000. We wanted it so badly we opted for a radical maneuver: We lowballed the price by nearly $50,000. "Call me back when you have $250,000," was the seller's curt reply. He stopped returning our calls after this. Where did we go wrong? "Unless the property is overpriced, it isn't realistic to expect anything more than 10 percent off the asking price," advises Kroll.
3. YES, YOU CAN AFFORD A DECKED-OUT CONDO IN A SCENIC NEIGHBORHOOD. NO, YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO AFFORD THE BREATHTAKING VIEWS.
We liked the Bridgewater Lofts because of their spacious floor plans, reasonable association fees and sweet perch along Washington Avenue S. Early on, I discovered several Bridgewater listings within negotiating distance of our budget, which was gradually creeping north. I was imagining Mississippi River views when I scheduled my appointment. I was shocked, then, to confront a claustrophobic brick wall when I looked out the windows. Similarly, at 5th Avenue Lofts in the North Loop, I found a balcony with an unobstructed view of the communal dumpster. An apartment at International Market Square provided box-seat views of I-394.
4. IT'S A DECENT TIME TO BUY INTO FANCY HISTORIC BUILDINGS, IF YOU DREAM OF A 24-7 DOORMAN. BUT BEWARE THE RESTRICTIONS.
Concentrated in the Loring Park neighborhood are a handful of glorious, old world-style buildings like Loring Green East and 510 Groveland. Sure, the amenities are posh -- think tennis courts, marbled lobbies and other features to channel the Upper East Sider within. Here's the catch: Monthly association dues run upwards of $700. "With exorbitant association dues, sellers have to adjust their price," explains Mike Seebinger, a condo and loft specialist with Downtown Resource Group. If you can swing the fees, you can now land a plum luxury one-bedroom south of $200,000. Caveat: These properties aren't for animal lovers. "Some of these buildings don't even allow cats," says Kroll.
5. LOWERTOWN'S LOFTS ARE CHEAPER THAN THE WAREHOUSE DISTRICT.
For purely practical reasons, Mischa and I decided against the open floor plans of your typical loft apartment. But during our brief flirtation with this lifestyle, we found the most seductive deals in the Lowertown neighborhood of downtown St. Paul, especially at Market House Condos. With adjacency to the St. Paul Farmers Market and a shared roof with Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market, this felt like heaven for foodies like us. The best part? Prices start in the low $100,000s or less. "St. Paul is about 20 percent cheaper [than Minneapolis]," advises Kroll. Bonus: He predicts appreciating values in the capital city, especially in Lowertown, when the Central Corridor light-rail line opens in 2014.
6. SPEAKING OF LIGHT RAIL, ASK YOUR REALTOR.
Dean Court, St. Louis Avenue -- the awesome condos and townhouses lining these Minneapolis streets are mere feet from the idyllic Kenilworth bike trail. In another two years, this very route will probably become a noisy construction site when work begins on the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line. Sure, many a neighborhood resident insists this won't happen -- they predict the route will fall victim to politics. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman suggests otherwise. "Until a couple weeks ago, I certainly couldn't guarantee that Southwest LRT is going to happen," she says. "But then we finally received the green light from the feds. Now I'm much more optimistic."
7. NO, REALLY - DO YOU WANT TO BUY A HOUSE?
Four months into our search, no lovable two-bedroom apartments were in sight for my boyfriend and me. We finally started looking at houses. There was the funky Craftsman near Lake Harriet, the jewel box on Milwaukee Avenue and the Minnehaha Parkway fixer-upper with a glorious rooftop deck, each priced in the ballpark of $250,000. Then I woke up. Or rather, I was house-sitting for some friends when I woke up at 3 a.m. to find a burglar peering at me in the bedroom. Moral of the story: Triple-check that you locked the door. And in my case, resume searching for condos in secure buildings.
8. CONSIDER THE BUILDING'S CHEMISTRY.
How might a Realtor define insanity? Ours started wondering about our mental faculties when we kept asking for showings in buildings we had previously rejected. I knew I disliked the balcony views at 5th Avenue Lofts, for example, yet the building's sparkly photos kept appearing in the real estate listings, almost like a mirage. What's more, we made repeat visits to Groveland Terrace, a 1960s building in the midst of a conversion, even though the ceilings were uncomfortably low for my 6-foot-5 boyfriend. According to Seebinger, picky people like us shouldn't return to properties they dislike. "Move on. There's plenty of other options," he says.
9. SUSS OUT CONDO ASSOCIATIONS.
Here in the Twin Cities, there is many a glorious brownstone in desperate need of a new roof, a new boiler system -- and $100,000 worth of tuckpointing to boot. Does the condo association have enough money to cover these projects? Or will it rely upon special assessments? Good questions. Even if you have a purchase agreement, "in the state of Minnesota you have 10 days to rescind your offer after reviewing the building's condo documents." What to look for: Is there a pet policy? Are there rules against renting the apartment? Does the association have a healthy reserve fund? What's the history of special assessments? Is there a five- or even 10-year maintenance plan?
10. DON'T LET "THE ONE" GET AWAY.
"Yes, there are deals out there, but they tend to go quickly," says Seebinger. When, finally, another excellent condo materialized, I made like a wild cat and got aggressive. This charming East Isles brownstone had been on the market for one month when I showed up, solo, because Mischa was traveling for work (again). Sure, the unit seemed overpriced at $325,000. Then again, we had gradually revised our budget upwards, ultimately to $300,000. So I worked with our Realtor to estimate the unit's true value, and made a strategic offer the next day. Within the week, all parties agreed to a price of $295,000. Hallelujah, our six-month search was finally over! And my boyfriend still hadn't seen the place.
10 developments to watch
Not even the brick, stucco and concrete exterior could protect this sturdy development from the economy's huffing and puffing. Now the award-winning 2004 building has several one- and two-bedroom units for sale at mid-range prices, starting at $279,000.
- Midtown Greenway between Bryant & Colfax Avs. S., Mpls.
Currently under renovation, this 1967 building compensates for low ceilings with city views, a swimming pool, even a courtyard crowned by modernist art. The unsold units are unfinished -- so the buyer chooses the fixtures, from the flooring to the cabinetry, whatever flatters the property's vague sense of grooviness. Starting at $139,9000.
- 48-52 Groveland Terrace, Mpls.
Market House Condos
These well-priced lofts in the heart of Lowertown are perfect for foodies and art lovers. With creaky floorboards and other rough-hewn qualities, they may be less perfect for the sensitive listener -- he who hears his upstairs neighbor's every footstep.
- 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul
It sure isn't pretty. Many of the building's units require major cosmetic surgery. On the upside, this 1979 development boasts reasonable association fees and a minimal history of special assessments, plus well-kept commons and friendly doormen. It's the best-managed building in Loring Park.
- 210 W. Grant St., Mpls.
The North Loop neighborhood is peppered with loft developments that opened just in time for the housing bust. While there's no shortage of supply in these buildings, there seems a dearth of good taste -- especially concerning the cheaply furnished commons. 212 Lofts looks classy in comparison with its artful fixtures and glorious rooftop deck. Prices start at $275,000.
- 212 N. 1st St., Mpls.
River Park Lofts
Another victim of the recession, this 119-unit building has more than a dozen units currently for sale. Virtues include the prime location (next to Mears Park) and affordability, with bare-bones one-bedrooms starting at $134,900. There's even something for fancy people -- rows of two-tiered mezzanine constructions on the uppermost floors, starting at $189,900.
- 406 Wacouta St., St. Paul
The sassy Realtor repping this building across the street from the Guthrie Theater says the developer refuses to slash prices, period. So the costs are steep (upwards of $279,000) but the units are stunning, thanks to Ikea-free cabinetry, fashionable fixtures and windows galore.
- 901 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
See lesson No. 6. For the tirelessly pro-light-rail, check out this grain elevator-turned-high-rise. This unusual development was all the rage when it hit the market in 1983. Today it boasts totally tubular (i.e. silo-like) layouts and vestiges of the original "Miami Vice" aesthetic. Roomy three-bedrooms start at $269,900.
- Dean Court, Mpls.
Let's face it, the neighborhood sucks -- no nearby restaurants, adjacency to noisy I-35 ramps. But for urban pioneers, this brand-new high-rise offers fashionable finishes and private balconies, starting at $159,900.
- 929 Portland Av. S., Mpls.
Maybe it's the steep association fees or the lack of parking amenities. Whatever the reason, observers have noticed an uptick in listings at this classic address. For the price, you won't find better balcony views in Minneapolis, though the units often require updates. Rooms with magnificent river views start at $234,900.
- 708 N. 1st St., Mpls.