I’ve been thinking a lot lately about condominium governance and how things might be improved.
If you own a condominium, you pay a monthly maintenance fee. Let’s say, for example, you own a 833 square foot condo and your maintenance fee is $500 per month. That works out to be $0.60 per square foot.
For a lot of people, this fee probably feels like a bit of a black hole. The money goes out every month and that’s the end of it.
But as I explained here, a portion of that fee goes into the condo’s reserve fund to cover future capital expenditures. This is basically an investment you are making for the future benefit of the building.
As an example, if you’re paying $500 per month, somewhere around 25% could be going towards your condo corporation’s reserve fund. That’s $125 per month. $1,500 per year. $7,500 over a 5 year period. And $15,000 over a 10 year period.
Now this is an investment that you’re obliged to make, but one that you might not be around to directly benefit from if you decide to sell before capital expenditures are made using the money you’ve invested.
Of course, if you’re a savvy buyer, you’re going to scrutinize the reserve fund and the corporation’s overall financials before you buy into a building. And sometimes the unit valuations do get deeply depressed by out of control maintenance fees and/or special assessments. So you could maybe argue (as an owner) that your reserve fund investment ends up getting recaptured in an eventual sale.
But what I wonder is to what extent a properly funded reserve gets accurately reflected in the valuation of the individual units. I suspect not that well. And as far as I know, there isn’t great data on this metric. (If you know of anything, please share it in the comments.)
It’s certainly important information to have and consider. Again, when you buy a condo unit you’re not only buying the unit itself, you’re also buying the future investments (and liabilities) that others have left before you.
So what I really want to know: Why aren’t reserve fund balances and building studies made publicly available? This is not easy information to get today.
But imagine what would happen if the market had full transparency. Imagine if you could see a map of every condo building in your city and sort by age and reserve fund balance. In theory, unit pricing would become more accurate. But even more than that, there would be significant opportunities for collective intelligence.
Now all of a sudden buildings would be able to benchmark themselves against other buildings to see if their reserve fund is sufficient, as well as learn from other buildings with respect to their history of capital expenditures. It would also hold the building’s management more accountable and allow owners to easily see if the contracts in place are competitive with the overall market.
I know that a lot of people get nervous when it comes to sharing information like this. I mean, what would happen if your building is underfunded relative to its peers? Would that pull down property values? It certainly could. But if you’re underfunded and you get stuck with a special assessment in 5 years, then your property values are going to drop regardless.
So I would love to see a lot more condo information made available to the public for free. In my view the benefits outweigh the potential negatives, particularly if this were to be done at scale. Condo corporations are also non-profit entities, so it’s not as if their balance sheets and income statements are filled with sensitive trade secrets.
But what do you think? Would you feel comfortable if your condo’s reserve fund balance was made available online to the public? Do you even know off the top of your head what the balance is for your own building? I would be curious to know.