Tag Archives: assessments

Dear Piggy: Should My Condo Association Raise Assessments Every Year?

I’m involved with a local support group for board members of self-managed condo associations, since I am one myself. I generally try to participate from a civilian perspective and only put on the Realtor hat when it’s absolutely necessary. However, one of the members specifically asked me to provide some objective information about best practices for raising assessments on an annual basis. I think she was hoping that I’d dig up an article written by someone else, but I figured I could do a blog about it myself.

What Does an Assessment Pay For?

In Chicago, monthly assessments can cover any number of expenses for the publicly shared parts of a condo development. According to the Illinois Condominium Property Act, they must pay the repair and replacement cost for at least the following items:

  • Structural components
  • Mechanical components
  • Surfaces of the building
  • Common areas
  • Energy systems

… In other words, pretty much all of the areas of the property outside of the individual condos and the other sections of the building assigned to specific owner, such as parking spaces and storage lockers.

Additionally, Chicago assessments tend to cover water and sewer costs, building insurance, maintenance costs for the grounds, and electricity for the common areas. We’ll call these the “basic condo package.”

Other common add-ons for a “deluxe condo package” could include heat, doormen, cable, wifi, trash collection, elevator maintenance, and community benefits like business centers, pools and health clubs. Co-ops will also often include property taxes in the monthly dues. But for today we’ll just look at the “basic” package, since it will apply pretty much citywide.

Why should we increase our assessments?

Costs are rising.

Looking at the “basic condo package,” the cost of every item has increase substantially over the past ten years.

A recent article on NPR stated that homeowner’s insurance premiums were projected to increase by 10% in 2012 due to increased severe weather nationwide.[1] The price of water in Chicago has increased from $9.02 per 1000 ft3 in 2002 to $18.75 per 1000 ft3 in 2012, and costs have been approved to increase further to be $28.52 per 1000 ft3 by 2015. Sewer costs are increasing to match.[2] The cost of electricity increased from $0.1026 per kW/h in 2001 to $0.1599 per kW/h in 2011, an increase that would have been far greater had rates not been frozen from 1995 to 2009.[3]

The cost of something like landscaping or repair services is tougher to determine, but for most services of that nature the primary cost to a company is labor. The Department of Labor can give us the income history for most professions. For landscapers and groundskeepers in Chicago, the average hourly wage has gone from $10.68 in 2001 to $12.73 in 2011.[4] The cost for highly skilled and/or licensed labor, such as electrical work or tuckpointing, is certainly higher. The cost of the materials they use has not lowered, nor is it likely to. One can only presume due to the wailing and gnashing of teeth seen from the small business owners due to rising employee costs that these numbers will only go up in the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that maintenance costs will increase across the board.

While savvy condo associations can negotiate lower costs for bulk electricity, cable or trash pickup, they won’t be able to stem the tide of rising costs forever. Like it or not, you will need more money in 5 years to do the same things you’re doing now.

The IRS says you should.

You have to go to the doctor more as you get older. Your building will need more frequent "checkups" too.

You have to go to the doctor more as you get older. Your building will need more frequent “checkups” too.

It’s commonly accepted that the value of a property decreases as it gets older. The costs required to maintain an old building are far higher than those required in a new one. In fact, when it comes to commercial property, the IRS gives you a number you can use to calculate how much more you’re going to have to spend on your property as it ages. It’s called depreciation.

According to the IRS, a multi-unit apartment building will fully depreciate over 27.5 years. Most condo buildings in Chicago started their lives as apartment buildings, so we can go on the same scale. This means that just to cover the increased demands of aging, you should be increasing your reserves by at least 3.6% each year.

Cutting amenities may lower property values.

Of course, an association can remove services in order to keep assessments at a consistent rate. Many condo residents have voted to scale back on things like doormen and pools in order to keep their monthly bills low. However, the IL Condo Property Act specifically states that assessment costs should take into account both the impact on owners and the impact on market value.

Downgrading your association from a deluxe condo package to a basic one does have an effect on the value of the home. The cost per square foot difference between a full-amenity condo vs a basic one is not just due to location. Besides, these are the common areas we’re talking about. Cutting costs too far can reduce curb appeal and increase the chances that a home inspector will find major structural issues that prevent a new buyer from purchasing in your development.

Everybody Else is Doing It.

The most popular condos have no fear of raising assessments. How do we know they’re popular? Because people bought them. No article of this nature on StrawStickStone would be complete without a trip to the MLS for some sales stats. True to form, I went and checked on the monthly assessments for 2 and 3 bedroom condos in smaller associations that sold successfully in the past 10 years. Since the question in this case came from a Lincoln Square property owner, I based my search in Lincoln Square.

The chart below shows the median monthly condo assessments.

The chart shows the median, which went from $133 at its lowest to $203.5 in 2012. The maximum went from $300 to $470 in the same timeframe.

They went up! In fact, they went up by quite a bit. And I should note, the sample size for each year was anywhere from 175 to 430 units, so this is not a small bit of fluky data.

Increases are built into the Illinois Condo Property Act

While the ILCPA doesn’t give a condo board totally free rein over the monthly costs, annual increases up to 14.99% are permitted without allowing the owners at large any means of fighting it. If you increase more than 15% the owners can petition the board for a vote on the hike, but anything below that and you’ve got clear sailing as far as the state law is concerned.

Other sources of income have gotten scarce.

The ILCPA also suggests that associations consider bank account interest and the ability to borrow money as considerations when setting monthly costs. Both of these alternate source of income have seen decreasing yields over the past 10 years.

It used to be that an association could reliably make a decent buck from interest payments on their reserves. Back in 2000 an association could get over 6% interest by stowing their funds in a 6 month CD. However, with rates currently at 0.32% on that same 6 month CD, this source of alternate income is not an option that will keep pace with rising costs.

As for obtaining loans, any home buyer or developer will tell you that the money for large scale property matters is not plentiful these days. While the interest rates for payback are as low as they’ll ever be right now, the hurdles required to get a lender to work with you have multiplied since the housing crash.

If you were living anywhere else, your costs would increase too.

The monthly payment on a 30 year fixed rate mortgage doesn’t increase over the life of the loan. That’s a real nice, but it’s the only part of your monthly expenses that stays consistent. If you were living in a single family home your costs would increase regularly. If you were renting an apartment, your rent would most likely increase every year. There is no reason why you should be exempt just because you’re living in a condo association.

Is there a limit to how high we can go?

Yes. There is a limit. Not a firm one set by law, but a limit of credibility and viability for the owners of the property. Of course the ILCPA has that 15% break point after which the owners can officially challenge an increase, but even below that there’s issues to consider.

A board who raises assessments too high will risk more than dirty looks from their neighbors. An owner who cannot afford rising monthly payments is likely to stop paying altogether. If a condo development has over 15% delinquency on assessments, no lender will touch it with a 10 foot pole. If the association has to evict someone for non-payment, that means court costs and time spent, not to mention the risks and higher insurance premiums that come with having renters in the building. Oh, and recent eviction lawsuits may have the same effect as delinquency when it comes to how lenders look at your HOA.

When I was doing the MLS study above, I took a look at maximum assessment costs as well. None of the sold condos in the area have gone above $471 in the past 10 years. Now, this is a far cry from some of the lakefront full-amenity high rises, where the monthly dues for a 2 bed condo exceed $600 on a regular basis. The point is, you need to scale your increases to fit the income brackets in your building.

Yes, people notice high condo assessments. (via Curbed Chicago x2 plus Redfin forums)

Cutting amenities may hurt your property values, but people also notice when assessments get too high. (via Curbed Chicago x2 plus Redfin forums)

Recommendations

It’s tempting to set a consistent amount to increase assessments each year. However, associations are incorporated as not-for-profit entities. A big surplus means refunds at the end of the year, which makes it tough to turn around and ask for more money later. The better approach is to increase annually so that people get used to the idea, but for only the amount that you need.

Here’s how I do it. Two months before your annual meeting, I contact our vendors and obtain estimates for the coming year. This lets me run the actual numbers and still get the new budget into the hands of the association the requisite 30 days ahead of time. I also take into consideration how expenses have increased from year to year historically, but there’s nothing like actual estimates to prove your point. When presenting your increase to the board, make sure you can back up all of your numbers with evidence. This will make it a lot easier to swallow.

Oh, and no matter how much you cut corners, make sure you’re allotting at least 10% of your budget to reserves each year, and make sure it’s a line item in the budget. A reserve study performed by experienced engineers will let you know exactly how much you should be saving, but regardless of the outcome of the study, at least 10% is required so that new owners can get mortgages when they buy into your building.

So yes, increase every year, but not by an arbitrary amount. As is the case with every article here, a little research and a little math will tell you how to proceed.

  1. [1]Homeowners Insurance Rates Rising in 2012, NPR.org
  2. [2]Know My Water and Sewer Rates, CityofChicago.org
  3. [3]ComEd Historical Residential Rate Monthly Averages, Info-Trex
  4. [4]Department of Occupational Employment Statistics, US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Six Homes, One Payment

It’s been a while since I’ve gone and done some real math for you guys. Let’s fix that. It’s easy to look at the sale price of a home and have that be the deciding factor on what sort of house you buy. However, your monthly payment is what will dictate if you can stay in that house once its yours. Today we’re going to calculate the average affordable monthly payment for a Chicago homeowner, and look at six different types of homes they could afford with wildly different purchase prices.

Step 1: Establish the monthly payment.

We’ve used the American Housing Survey (AHS) data from 2009 before. It’s a little dated at this point but it’s the only trustworthy survey that has numbers for the City of Chicago. Within that survey we discover that the median income for a Chicago Homeowner’s Household was $56,200 per month. Divide that by twelve months and you get a monthly income of $4683.

Many lenders use 33% as the percentage of your income that should go towards housing costs. For today, we’ll consider those housing costs to include your mortgage, your property taxes, your homeowner’s insurance, assessments, and utility bills. 33 percent of $4683 is just over $1545, which is the number we’ll shoot for.

Step 2: Determine some scenarios.

For this exercise I wanted six different scenarios, all for the same monthly payment. I chose three single family home options and three condo/co-op options.

  • A 5 bedroom single family home in Austin
  • A 3 bedroom single family home in Lakeview
  • A 3 bedroom LEED-certified single family home in North Center
  • A 1 bedroom condo in a high rise building with doorman & pool in the Gold Coast
  • A 2 bedroom condo in a vintage courtyard building in Lincoln Park
  • A 2 bedroom condo in a small co-op in Lakeview

Step 3: Source some utility, insurance and property tax rates.

For utility rates I went back to the same AHS data. I discovered that on the low end a homeowner would pay about $115. The median was about $350 and the high end would be way up around $700 per month for a big drafty house with a deluxe cable package and super fat internet bandwidth.

For the monthly insurance I used a ballpark figure that insurance would be the sale price divided by 3500.

Property tax numbers were sourced from actual listed 2011 taxes for properties similar to the ones I’m describing that have sold within the past four months in Chicago.

For all purchases I’m assuming an interest rate of 3.5% (the current national average on BankRate.com) except for the co-op, as those tend to be tougher to fund. For the co-op I’m using an interest rate of 3.625%. I’m also assuming a down payment of 20% of the purchase price. If you’d like to play with the interest rate, down payment and other financing aspects, you can check out the mortgage scenario calculator I wrote a few months ago.

The monthly homeownership cost consists of many smaller pieces.

Step 4: I do math for you.

The first scenario is the big single family home in Austin. This area has low property taxes but high insurance rates. Since it’s a big, old house the utility usage is about as high as it can possibly get.

5 bedroom Single Family Home in Austin
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $125.00
Monthly Homeowner’s Insurance Premium $80.87
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Water, Cable) $700.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $636.29
Total Monthly Payment  $1,542.16
Initial Loan Balance  $139,521.58
Maximum Home Price  $174,401.98

The next scenario is for a smaller single family home in Lakeview. Property taxes are much higher here than they are out in Austin, as are list prices. However, the insurance premiums would be a little lower here and for the smaller house it would cost much less in terms of utility bills.

3 bedroom Single Family Home in Lakeview
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $750.00
Monthly Homeowner’s Insurance Premium $32.88
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Water, Cable) $350.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $405.00
Total Monthly Payment $1537.88
Initial Loan Balance $90,191.47
Maximum Home Price $112,739.34

So, moving in from Austin to Lakeview means you can afford $61,000 less house if you want to keep your monthly payment consistent. Now, what if we scaled back our neighborhood choice to something nice but not outrageous in terms of property tax, and cut back those utility bills with a LEED-certified Green home?

3 bedroom LEED Certified Single Family Home in North Center
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $350.00
Monthly Homeowner’s Insurance Premium $80.57
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Water, Cable) $115.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $992.43
Total Monthly Payment $1538.00
Initial Loan Balance $220,982.46
Maximum Home Price $276,228.08

So moving just a few blocks north from Lakeview to NorthCenter and focusing your search on green homes can more than double how far your monthly budget will stretch for the same size house. Pretty cool.

Now what about condos and co-ops? Our first condo is a little one bedroom in a building full of amenities. Let’s figure that the building has a full-time doorman, an exercise room, party room, roof deck, elevators, business center, receiving room and a dry-cleaners on site. These buildings tend to include most of your utilities, and the insurance premiums are really low. The assessments, however can be quite pricey. The number I’ve chosen for assessments in this case is far from the lowest in the Gold Coast area, but leaves at least a little room for a mortgage payment on top.

1 bedroom Condo in Amenity High Rise, Gold Coast
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $183.33
Monthly Homeowner’s Insurance Premium $25.78
Monthly Utilities (Power, Cable) $115.00
Monthly Condo Assessment $900.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $320.89
Total Monthly Payment $1,541.61
Initial Loan Balance $70,705.66
Maximum Home Price $88,382.08

Wow. What a difference those assessments made. But not all condo buildings have ridiculously expensive monthly dues. In fact, the median condo assessment in Chicago according to the AHS was $325. A big condo in a smaller development will have higher property taxes, but much lower condo fees.

2 bedroom condo in small development in Lincoln Park
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $487.38
Monthly Homeowner’s Insurance Premium $41.33
Monthly Utilities (Heat, Power, Stove, Cable) $350.00
Monthly Condo Assessment $150.00
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $517.03
Total Monthly Payment $1545.75
Initial Loan Balance $113,371.02
Maximum Home Price $141,713.78

So. Suddenly another $50k to spend. Kinda neat, don’t you think?

Now, I’ve been neglecting co-ops and one of my clients yelled at me for doing so lately, so I’m going to make a point to include them more. So, our last option is a co-op. Because the co-op pays taxes as a single entity, your property taxes in this case would be rolled into your monthly payment. However, since many major lenders won’t finance purchases in co-ops you’d have to settle for a higher interest rate than normal on your loan. Your insurance premiums would also be higher, as many insurers avoid writing policies on co-ops. In this case I’ve chosen a real co-op that includes heat, water and cable in the monthly membership fee. I should note though that the listed amount of $548.80 is on the lower end for a co-op monthly payment.

2 bedroom in Modestly Priced Lakeview Co-Op
Monthly Property Tax Escrow $0.00
Monthly Homeowner’s Insurance Premium $80.57
Monthly Utilities (Power, Stove Gas) $115.00
Monthly Co-op Membership, Incl. Taxes & Remaining Utilities $548.80
Monthly Mortgage Principal & Interest $781.00
Total Monthly Payment $1527.47
Initial Loan Balance $171,252.66
Maximum Home Price $214,065.83

So Why Do We Focus on Price?

So with six wildly different prices all leading to the same monthly payment, why do we talk about price at all? Well, while there’s a massive gap between the low end and the high end of buying power outlined above, we do need to consider what’s realistic in the areas I specified. While the last two condo prices are within range of a short sale, the other four are pretty much non-existent in the neighborhoods I chose unless you’re a cash buyer working the foreclosure market. You can muck about with the assorted components of the monthly payment all you like, but if you can’t afford to purchase the property in the first place it’s all academic.

The point of all of this isn’t to say that the price should be totally neglected. Rather, it hopefully will serve to give you an understanding of how lifestyle choices can affect your buying power. After all, if you knew that your choice to live in a high rise was going to knock $125.6k off of your price point, would you still want all of those amenities? If going for a new, green home could more than double the amount of house you can afford, would you still want that lovely old Victorian?

On the other hand, if you’re comparing the monthly cost of owning a home with the cost of renting, it is worthwhile to consider the whole scenario. The monthly rent for most of these properties would be between $1800 and $2400 per month and you’d still have to pay utilities on top.

This Friday we’ll have a guest post for the landlords. I’ll see you guys Monday.

The Average Chicago Condominium

We’ve done average apartments. How about average condos?

Second verse, same as the first.

A few weeks ago I did a little overview of what the average Chicago apartment looked like. It was pretty popular. But my office is on me for material that they can promote from their new social media campaign, and they’re not so pleased with all the rentals that I do. (They are a residential sales brokerage, after all. They want me selling stuff, not renting it. Hint hint.) So, we’re going to do the same thing with condos today as I did with rentals before – find the profile of the average condo and then pick out a few from the recent sales bin to show you what they look like.

What’s the point? Well, if these are all hovering around the median price point for recent sales, then you can reasonably expect to find something comparable at or around this price in the immediate future somewhere in Chicago. Prices have started to tick upward, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, so we may not see this as the average for much longer. More importantly, this serves as a historical snapshot of what the average Chicago home buyer could afford to purchase in 2012. (more…)

Weekend Links: August 18, 2012

No themes or schemes for this installment of the weekend links.

The Green Roof on Chicago’s City Hall. [via CityofChicago.org]

It’s not easy being green. WBEZ looks into the success rate of Chicago’s Green roof programs and the future for this environmentally-friendly innovation in a market with minimal development. (“A green roofs check-in, Anthony Martinez, WBEZ.org)

…But the city may be able to help. Would you like a free programmable thermostat for your home? How about free low-flow showerheads, CFL lamps, energy audits or tax-break incentives towards green upgrades? The Retrofit Chicago program has been expanded to include the Residential sector, with a focus on older buildings. (“Residential Phase of Retrofit Chicago Launched,” CityofChicago.org Press Release)

1952 called, it wants its racism back. Seriously guys, I thought we were past all of this nonsense by now. A father in Cincinnati has sued his landlord for posting a “whites only” sign at the building’s swimming pool. (“Father: ‘White Only’ pool sign caused suffering,” AP via HeraldExtra.com)

Condo assessments now optional, says Illinois court. In a ruling that has attorneys and condo associations nationwide looking on in horror, an Illinois court has deemed that owners are entitled to withhold their assessment payments if the association is not sufficiently maintaining the common areas of the property. Can anyone else see the potential for disaster in this? (“Ruling could change course of collection proceedings,” Pamela Dittmer McKuen, Chicago Tribune.)

Reuters is all up in our business. A recent Reuters article about whether condos are a viable alternative to college dorms has a very familiar ring to it. I may be kind of biased, but I like our take on the situation better. (“Condos for college kids? Do the math first,” John Wasik, Reuters.)

Eviction(s) of the week. I talked about passive-aggressive tenants, but these guys are just plain aggressive. Of course, you’ve probably heard already that Colorado gunman James Holmes was evicted from his apartment in Aurora. Booby-trapping his apartment and murdering multiple people are cited as the causes for the eviction, although Holmes has not yet officially been convicted of the killings. Meanwhile, an officer in Texas was killed by a tenant while he was in the process of serving eviction papers. Be careful out there, guys. (“Holmes officially evicted from Aurora Home,” CBS News. “Eviction’s deadly turn no surprise to law officers,” James Pinkerton, Chron.com)

Agents, you be careful too. Local Chicago wholesale real estate agent RJ Cit tells us the story of working with an unstable veteran in the process of selling the distressed and badly underwater home of the vet’s deceased father. Stalking, threatening phone calls, and assorted other hijinks ensue. Part I and Part II. (“Wholesaling Real Estate – Worst Seller Ever,” RJ Cit, ChicagoCashFlowProperties.com)