Today, four out of five real estate sales are in condominium or homeowners association communities. There are lots of great communities out there, but you need to know that there are some very real horror stories, too. A big shocker: Most homeowner associations are run by unpaid, untrained volunteers who are managing their share of an annual $90-billion industry. That’s your real-estate investment and your money!
Co-authors, Sara E. Benson and Don DeBat, have made real estate the focus of their professional lives. Both are veteran condo owners and residents, and it is their own experiences with the underbelly of condo living that led them to write Escaping Condo Jail.
This book provides valuable in-depth financial discussions, governance instructions, and a 35-point checklist to bulletproof your association's most valuable asset: The money!
Whether you’re a condominium property owner now, or considering a purchase, you need Escaping Condo Jail to help you protect yourself and your real estate investment as you learn about the myths and the truths of how condominium and homeowner associations work. And sometimes don’t.
This is far and away the best book I've seen on this subject -- and something that could save you tens of thousands of dollars. The authors have great authority -- one was a highly respected journalist; the other is known as a real estate wizard in Chicago with the reputation of fighting for the little guy. Anyone who is thinking of buying real estate needs this book. It's smart, to the point, easy to follow.
Rus Bradburd, October 25, 2014 Author: "Make It, Take It" and Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson
This book isn't just a must read for anyone who is thinking of buying a condo, but also a must-have reference book for anyone who wants to get involved in real estate in any way. I am a property manager with 50+ years in the business, but there were scams and pitfalls described in that book (and a lot of them) that I never dreamed possible. Anywhere where wealth is concentrated is blood in the water for the sharks and parasites that abound in the realm of real estate, and the condo business must be their most favored target these days.
But apathy, ignorance and politics can also enter into the mix, and the problems that arise from them in every category of the condo experience is in this book. As the authors point out in one example, condos are run by an association of the owners themselves, and most people haven't been trained in the use of the democratic process and do not understand it. Benson and DeBat do an invaluable service by including information on Home Owner's Association meetings, including a very necessary reference to the venerable, but unsurpassed, "Robert's Rules of Order" as a primer for running a truly democratic meeting.
In spite of its length (500+) pages, Benson and DeBat have structured the book into short, interesting chapters that provide the reader with entertaining anecdotes, illustrations, and then very specific information describing the literally hundreds of ways to err, from the blind leading the blind to the unscrupulous cleaning out the unwary in the condo-real estate game.
Information on every aspect of condo involvement can be found here easily, as it is indexed like a reference book. But I would recommend reading it all over time, since its structure allows the reader to read just a chapter or two at a sitting. I ended up reading several hundred pages at a sitting, just because the shock of the foolish, venal, and underhanded behavior of the various characters and entities in this business kept me wide-eyed. But make no mistake, there are so many ways you can get into serious trouble that are exposed here that the totality of the text should be reviewed, just to keep in mind the categories of possible craziness and crime. Once made aware of the possibilities, the reader can easily find it again in the index and then go back to the specific chapter to review the facts of what to do in a given situation.
This real estate bible isn't just for the potential condo purchaser, however, but for absolutely anyone involved in the condo business in any capacity. Since the book also covers what the local laws require in many situations, even real estate agents stand to benefit from an understanding of the sometimes fine lines that divide legal and illegal transactions.
I found the discussion of dual agency particularly interesting because of the many instances where a conflict of interest can occur with condo boards, real estate agents, and others who insert themselves as a representative of both parties in a transaction and then tailor the deal for their own personal gain.
So I heartily endorse this book, and you literally should not leave home to buy a another home without it.
Lionel Bottari, November 29, 2014
What a great book! Could not put it down.
In summary: the condo model is broken. What was once a homeowner's dream is now to many a nightmare. Problem is, the situation is a thousand-headed hydra. Condos are multi-faceted living breathing animals, that bite! And that regrettably puts most owners in denial. And for those intrepid enough to address the situation, it makes their job difficult to near impossible, often dangerous.
This book tackles the beast and lays it flat out. "Escaping Condo Jail" is rich tome of a book, broad in its ambition and comprehensive in its delivery. Weighing in at 600-odd pages, it's lengthy, but worth every word. It's exceedingly well written, accessible and actually quite entertaining. It breaks down the key issues, offers historical context, offers intensely investigated situational examples, and then gives sound advise.
Bottom line: ECJ is a reference piece. For anyone who owns a condo, it's a must read.
Brian Connolly, October 24, 2014
What a great book. I purchased a copy as a gift for a family member but couldn't help reading most of it before the wrapping went on. Besides the content, which is huge, it is written so well that it practically reads itself. It's not every day that an author's work reads this easily. I truly could not put the book down once I began reading. Great purchase.
Dr. David G. Wood, MD, December 1, 2014
I am deeply impressed. "Escaping Condo Jail" is a contribution of highest purpose and profound mission. Both of you have brought to the forefront a level of awareness, which, under the circumstances, cannot be ignored...that must be addressed. I can see this book not only as a "required reading" in the University classrooms of our U.S.A--and other countries--but as an instrument for the improvement of peoples' lives all over the world.
Your vision is admirable. We congratulate you and we thank you for the care you have demonstrated.
Mary Mikros, Ph.D. November 30, 2014
'Escaping Condo Jail': Comprehensive Book Explores Pitfalls of Condominium, Home Owner Association Real Estate with Research, Wit
If you have your heart set on buying a condo, cooperative apartment or a single-famiy house in a planned development, you should read "Escaping Condo Jail: The Keys to Navigating Risk & Surviving Perils of the 'Carefree' Community Lifestyle" by Don DeBat and Sara E. Benson before signing on the dotted line.
Both DeBat, a former real estate editor for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times, and Benson, a real estate agent, have personal experience owning condos. In fact, DeBat emailed me that some of the experiences related in the chapters on "Bully Boards" and thefts by association board members were inspired by Benson's personal experiences with one of her condos.
In the subtitle, "carefree" is in quotes. What was billed when the modern form of condominium ownership was born about 50 years ago as carefree, chic and glamorous isn’t really carefree at all. Steep maintenance fees, restrictions on day-to-day living and limited personal freedoms are three very real costs prospective condominium owners might not have considered. This applies to the many community developments, often gated, that feature single-family houses or town houses. The technical name for such developments is Planned Unit Developments or PUDs. The authors provide a very useful glossary of terms at the end of the book.
DeBat and Benson spent four years researching this book -- which is unlike anything I've seen in 44 years of covering real estate -- and it shows. The book includes personal stories of people experiencing the worst of community living. Many of the problems arise from the lack of regulation of condominium on the federal level, the authors write. On page 493, they tell how condos are the riskiest form of real estate investment when it comes to achieving the American dream of homeownership. Lenders charge a higher rate of interest for condo mortgage loans because of this risk factor. Condos are much more likely to go into foreclosure than single-family detached houses and many condos are underwater -- the mortgage is bigger than the market value of the property.
The book includes a critical 10-point buyer-awareness advice list, and a 35-point checklist on “How to Bulletproof Your Association’s Biggest Asset: The Money,” and features 22 original illustrations drawn by long-time Chicago Daily News artist John Michael Downs. Instantly, Downs became the Charles Addams of condo illustrators to me! I didn't realize that anybody who worked for the late, lamented Daily News -- my favorite newspaper when I lived in Chicago in the early 1960s -- was still alive.
If you think condo/community association living affects a small minority of Americans, think again: Today, one in five Americans—more than 63 million residents—resides in a condominium, a co-operative apartment or in housing regulated by a homeowner association (HOA).
Despite the huge growth in ownership, most condo homeowner associations are run by volunteer directors who are unpaid, untrained, and often unqualified. Some board officers even struggle with balancing their own check books. Yet they are in charge of managing their share of an industry with budgets estimated at $90 billion a year—more than five times the federal government spends to run NASA.
In 2010, a survey by the Community Associations Institute (CAI) -- the trade group for planned development associations -- found that more than half of the nation’s HOAs were facing “serious financial problems.” And more recently, Association Reserves, a California company that helps associations with budget and operational issues, noted that 72 percent of association-governed communities were underfunded in 2013, up from 12.5 percent only a decade ago.
One of the biggest lures of shared-community ownership is the so-called “carefree living” aspect. There are no yards to maintain, grass to cut, snow to shovel, windows to wash, decks to stain or roofs to repair. All an owner has to do is sit back and pay a monthly condo assessment which is levied according to their percentage of ownership.
“Investors also find condominiums attractive because they can be profitable rental properties that are easily managed with the condo association handling the headaches,” said Benson.
“And, condo ownership also can be the perfect lifestyle choice for singles—especially single women seeking security—retirees and smaller families not in need of larger spaces.”
Yet another bonus for condo living is the lucrative federal and state tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes handed to owners. Uncle Sam not only allows tax deductions for mortgage interest, but also allows home and condo owners to deduct the cost of real estate taxes.
DeBat and Benson discuss the conversion of existing apartment buildings to condominium ownership and the problems that arise from such conversions. Recently a new twist on this has sprung up, especially in Florida, the authors write: Condominums converting to rental projects. The owners sell their units to a developer and -- many of them -- become tenants in units they formerly owned. Or they move to another development.
The book does not condemn all condominium, cooperative apartment and homeowner associations. Ownership in a multi-family housing development began as an extremely noble and creative idea. Condos introduced home ownership to millions that would ordinarily never be able to afford it.
Developers have long argued that condos help stabilize inner-city neighborhoods, while giving owners a permanent stake in his or her community. DeBat emailed me that the purpose of the book was not to condemn developers, but to expose the problems that often arise when the developer turns over the project to the condo association, made of up of inexperienced people who suddenly are running a business.
When you gotta go, you gotta bust out and the authors offer fifteen “Exit Strategies” on how to get out of condo jail. These strategies make up a treasure trove of little-known action plans. They include everything from how to benefit from a “naked mortgage” to negotiating “cash for keys.” And when all these are found wanting, there's always a little brown envelope containing the keys to the condo sent to the lender -- "Jingle Mail" in real estate parlance.
Summing up: This is far and away the best book I've seen in my years of covering real estate on the subject of condos, co-ops and community associations. Don't even think about buying into community real estate -- a condominum, a co-op apartment or a PUD -- before reading this book. "Eyes wide open" trumps "eyes wide shut" every time! And speaking of "Trump," yes, on Pages 134-135 the book discusses the Trump Tower luxury project built on the site of the former Chicago Sun-Times building. The anecdotes DeBat and Benson provide are not only informative -- they're entertaining in the "Hot Property" sense.
“Escaping Condo Jail” is now available in paperback via www.Amazon.com. Digital Kindle copies of the book also are available on Amazon and the hardback will be published in early December. For more information, or to buy a paperback edition, follow this link: http://tinyurl.com/lxm567t For the Kindle Edition the link is: http://tinyurl.com/q5k4gvk
“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”
Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014