Here are my first-hand experience tips on buying a condo (keeping in mind that I'm no real estate expert):
1. Take a good look at the outer property. Are the building and grounds well-maintained? When we went to check out our townhouse, we saw gardeners cleaning up the grounds and caring for the trees and plants. The pool looked clean. And the neighbors' front doors looked neat as well. Contrast that to a friend's condo, where getting repairs done was like pulling teeth and the pool was practically unusable.
2. Ask for all of the homeowner's association (HOA) documents available. Are the fees accounted for? Is there a budget? Are the minutes detailed or sketchy, and do they involve legitimate issues or the meowing of a neighbor's cat at noon? It was reassuring to us to see that there were projected and actual budgets for the current and previous years. The amounts seemed reasonable, and there were funds set aside for future maintenance and repairs. Everything about the minutes indicated that the HOA was run by competent people who weren't wasting everyone's time and money.
3. Have a competent real estate agent and/or mortgage broker. I loved our real estate agent and have recommended him without reservation to friends. He knew the business well, was straightforward with us, and never once got pushy. When he told us the list price of a condo, he also always told us the HOA fee. If there had been anything fishy going on, I'm confident he would have caught on and alerted us to it.
4. Ask lots of questions. Our real estate agent and mortgage broker got used to hearing my voice a lot during the 30-day escrow period. I was always nice, of course, but I was persistent. I insisted on all of the HOA documents, and I remember there was some trouble getting all of them. Ask anything you can think of: what your exact monthly payment will be, the amount of the HOA fee, whether there will be a prepayment penalty, etc.
5. Read everything you sign. It's tempting to skip over all those
6. Get good insurance. As soon as we closed on our townhouse, we got an insurance policy that covers up to $50,000 in HOA assessments. HOAs can levy substantial assessments to cover repairs (I believe it was common after the 1994 Northridge earthquake), so we pay approximately $500 a year for a policy we hope we'll never need but will be very glad to have if we do. (Isn't that the case with all insurance, anyway?)
Image via FreeDigitalPhotos.net by Stuart Miles.