Smile Politely

American dream?

Back in the winter of 2008, I was not “living the dream”. I had two roommates and one of them was an alcoholic. Two Pembroke Welsh corgis would follow the toper around, licking up the Beam and Coke that he spilled, so they were borderline alcoholics as well. Every night was the same: he would come home from work, pour a twenty-four to thirty-two ounce glass of booze, sit in the garage and chain-smoke cigarettes while his girlfriend begged him to eat dinner with her. The corgis were poorly trained and unruly, but at least they didn’t get as drunk as he did, nor did they try to force radical opinions down my throat. Needless to say, living in an environment like that was not healthy.

I started looking at my options. With the looming economic downturn, first-time buyer incentives were leading me to contemplate homeownership. I met with a mortgage officer, established a price range and then I contacted a realtor. At first I thought that I would want my own house with a yard, but after realizing how much I hate mowing, and seeing that I have virtually no idea how to maintain property, I decided that maybe owning a condo would be a better idea for me.

I did a little research into condo associations and everything seemed feasible to me. From what I learned, when you own a condo, you are part of a collective group and each individual unit pays monthly dues to take care of waste removal and basic landscaping. Some associations have higher dues, around $300, to cover the cost of electrical, gas, and water utilities. Others even take care of maintenance that is needed outside of the residential walls. No condo association is alike. It all depends on the number of units and what the association decides to cover in regards to upkeep.

I found a very reasonable unit in Urbana, just off Cunningham. The association had about 75 units and they only charged $75 a month in dues. The place was small, but definitely affordable. I made an offer, only to find out that another offer was made and accepted just hours before I submitted mine. I was a little disappointed, but I figured that it wasn’t meant to be (this is something I tell myself all the time even though I barely believe it; it’s just a coping mechanism).

I met with my realtor again, to go back to a unit I had previously viewed near the Champaign County Fairgrounds. I liked the unit, primarily because it had a private courtyard that reminded me of the East Asian setting in Kill Bill Vol. 1, especially the last fight scene when Uma Thurman slices off the top of Lucy Liu’s head. Of course I didn’t tell my realtor this, but that is what I imagined when I first saw it. The inside of the unit was nice too. It had Pergo floors, a large master bedroom, a fireplace and a walk-in closet. I knew that it needed some work, so had my mom visit to give me a free interior design consultation. She loved the idea of fixing the place up, so we discussed the next steps with the realtor.

My realtor suggested that I try to speak with some of the members of the association, especially the units that were attached to my driveway. The association only had nine units divided into three separate sections by driveways. I went to the unit that was closest to the one I was interested in and I knocked on the door. Two cars were parked outside, but no one answered, even though I knocked three times. I went to the third unit and knocked on the door. A man similar to Hunter S. Thompson opened the door. My first reaction was to run, but he seemed eager to talk to me, even though he had on a bathrobe. He told me he was just a renter, but that the tenants were nice and everything seemed peaceful. He told me that he was moving out soon and he wasn’t sure who was taking the place over.

At the time, I was too eager to get out of my current situation. Hindsight always being 20/20, I shouldn’t have let my anxiety get the best of me. Purchasing a home is not a decision that should be rushed. From the very beginning, I should have thought twice about the property, since one of the units was a rental. Renters generally aren’t as invested and sentimental towards the units that they occupy. They aren’t investing in the property, so they generally don’t maintain it in the same manner as the property owner. I also should not have only knocked on two doors. I should have gone to each unit to gauge the general opinion of all the occupants. I also should have requested to see an annual budget, or asked to meet with a board member. Unfortunately, my realtor didn’t push me to do more than to sign a few papers. She had a good heart, but I don’t think she sold many condos.

Well, for those of you interested in owning a condo, let me tell you this: proceed with caution, do your research, meet with a lawyer and ask to see financial records for the association.

When I first moved into my place, my parents came up and helped me redecorate and make minor improvements. I kid you not, on the second night of my house warming, an altercation broke out in my driveway. One of the renters was actually attacked with a sharp object. It wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson either. As it turns out,  Hunter didn’t even live there. Another guy lived there and I’m not going to disclose his name. I found out who he was after speaking with the Urbana police. The actual renter was a well-known drug dealer and habitual offender. They told me to be cautious and to speak with the board about the tenant. I immediately did and they contacted the owner, who acted shocked when he heard the guy had felony convictions. The owner didn’t even do a basic background check on the guy, which was very irresponsible. It took some time to evict the tenant, but that eventually happened and life seemed ok.

Well, I was wrong. I finally met my other neighbor, whose name I will also protect. She is still my neighbor today. <additional identifying information deleted — ed.> I feel sorry for her. She is mentally ill, yet relatively harmless. She [has a background in contemporary dance, and she — ed.] still dances to this day, but she makes no sense and has no idea what privacy means. She used to knock on my door late in the evening to argue about checks that were stolen off her dinner table. She even once went off about Roger Ebert being a shithead, which was quite humorous, since it had nothing to do with me. I don’t know how she knows Roger, and maybe she doesn’t, but I do know this much: he is a fucking shithead and his friends are fucking assholes too, according to my neighbor.

I finally got her to stop bothering me after I caught her looking through my window one night. I had to meet with the police just to get her to stop harassing me. I know that she is just lonely and highly confused, especially when she doesn’t take her medication, but I still have a right to my privacy. We’re on good terms now and she recently asked me if I would like to watch her perform her interpretive dance entitled Franz Kafka and the Amazing Whirlwind Ensemble, or some variation of it. I have requested that the dance be scheduled for a later date. I’ve heard she has performed it for another tenant and he was quite dismayed by the dance. I can’t wait for my turn.

Just when things couldn’t get worse, this last spring, our treasurer started to have serious medical problems. Since most of the other owners live out of state and rent their places, the treasurer and president asked me to take over as treasurer. I met with the man in the retirement home and he sadly disclosed that the association was in a financial mess. I was given all of the financial records and I tried to make sense of the mess. After two painstaking weeks of trying to track all charges and dues paid, along with formatting Excel sheets to electronically keep all of these records, I discovered that three units are past due on their accounts. The total owed is about $10,000. I felt like crying, because I didn’t know what to do to recover this money.

Since discovering this problem, I have spent many hours worrying about this situation. I have met with an attorney and I even contacted a property management group. Since the president actually owes almost $6,000, I had to contact all the members to have her voted off the board. She has chosen to resign instead. So now, where am I with all of this?

I’ve scheduled a special meeting that will take place in two weeks. I am spearheading all of this. The board has to be established, we might need a property management company to take over and we have to figure out how to recover the money that is owed to us. Chances are we will have to put liens on the properties and possibly sue the owners. I am not looking forward to this. Needless to say, I am stressed out. I have a full time job and my association role is like a part time job without pay. It is also a thankless job that gives me no satisfaction, only heartburn.

I am hoping that all the members will work together to solve our problems. From those I’ve contacted, they all support me and they all had no clue about our financial situation. They are all shocked and concerned, so that is actually a good sign for me. For months now I have been carrying this burden, because the former treasurer was slowly passing away, and he respectfully asked me not to make major changes until he was no longer with us. I respected the man and I honored his request. It wasn’t easy to have all of this stress weighing me down each day, but I suffered through it. He is now gone and I am finally able to reach out to make the necessary changes. Hopefully we will hire a property management company, so that a professional agency can steer our association in the right direction. I will know more after our special meeting.

In conclusion, I would like you all to know that if you are thinking about purchasing a home, especially since mortgage rates are at an all-time low, a condo is a great investment, but you have to do your homework. I learned this the hard way. While I’m optimistic that things will improve, if I had known what I know now, I would have never bought my place. I am grateful for the hard life lesson, but damn me for not taking a little bit longer to make this decision. I’m going on two and a half years of living here. It has been a wild ride. At first I felt like I was living in Scarface, now I feel like I’m in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and maybe one day I will feel like I’m in Cocoon. Actually, screw that. There’s no way I’m living here for the rest of my life. I’d rather live in purgatory.

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