Real Estate

Torn between buying a house or a condo?

City living has so many pluses, not the least of which is fun neighborhood shopping, theatre, ballet, music, abundant restaurants, and much more. Most people want to live in a “walk to” neighborhood if they live in the City so they can stroll down the street for brunch, meet a friend for a glass of wine, or go for a walk with the dog. However, all these great amenities come with a price — especially in San Francisco.

That price often affects what you can afford, and it brings up the decision of whether to buy a house or a condominium. Even within the City, the prices vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. So you might be able to afford a house in the inner Sunset near Judah Street shops and Golden Gate Park, but that same amount of money would only buy you a condominium in Cow Hollow, not a house. How do you decide which is best for you?

When I sit down with my buyers, I ask them to make a list of what they “must have” and what they “would like to have but can live without.” This is an important first step in helping the buyer narrow things down. Then we talk about favorite neighborhoods and activities. This also goes into the decision process. And, of course, we talk about budget. Once we have all this in front of us, we can determine which neighborhoods seem the most appropriate for consideration and whether we will be looking at condos or single family homes within those neighborhoods.

Sometimes, if the buyers have a family, they won’t consider a condo unless it has outdoor space and is large enough to accommodate everyone. These are important factors, ideally identified on the “must have” vs. “really want” list. With a family, proximity to schools is often a consideration – whether public vs. private, whether within walking distance or requiring car or bus rides.

Here is another item for consideration: With condominiums your neighbors are “right there.” For some that isn’t a problem, but for others who are noise sensitive, it can be an issue. Of course, as you probably know, in San Francisco most homes are built one right up against another. Depending on construction, you may actually get noise transfer in neighboring single family homes.

Finally, with a condominium you might be asked to be on the homeowner association board — especially if the association is small. This will likely involve some potentially time consuming duties.

So when considering house vs. condo, think about neighborhood, location, privacy, responsibility, maintenance, and budget. Make your lists, look them over, and consider the pros and cons. Then ask your Realtor to come up with some good options for you, properties that fit nicely within the parameters you’ve established.

Happy house hunting!

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Stephanie Saunders Ahlberg has been a real estate agent for over 30 years and joined Hill & Co. in 1983, where she has consistently been among the top 10 salespeople. She can be reached at