Considerations When Buying (or Renting) a Multifamily Unit

The only constant with our cities is change. Major urban centers have been filling in what was emptied out in the 70’s and 80’s. Like during the shortage of new housing stock as a result of the Depression and World War II, there is now pent up demand due to the economy. Because of uncertainty and/or lack of jobs, young people are living at home longer and putting off buying cars and houses. In our neighborhood of Capitol Hill/First Hill just east of downtown Seattle, developers of multiple new large apartment buildings are banking on this pent up demand releasing and young people moving out on their own.

Quality multifamily living at Jackson Place Cohousing in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle

Quality multifamily living at Jackson Place Cohousing in the Central District neighborhood of Seattle

The American Dream of having a piece of dirt to call ones own may be out of reach for many in desirable urban centers. Multifamily living may not be what many had envisioned for their home, but it may be the only way to get the best location.

There are considerations for buying multifamily that are similar to single family: the location, neighborhood, Walkscore, schools, etc. How far away is the grocery store? Can I get to work without driving? These things can be figured out if you buy a pre-sale before the building is built, as we did with our condo. There are specific considerations that you should think about that apply to multifamily buildings.

  • Neighborhood noise and safety: I would recommend spending time around the building at night and on the weekends, depending on when serenity is most important to you. We live across the street from an industrial laundry that employs three shifts, therefore, every weekend morning everyone is outside on the sidewalk talking at 7am.  If you like to sleep in on weekends, this could be an issue for you.
  • Which floor?: Of course, the top floor is best to avoid footsteps above you. Street noise, however, will be amplified on the 2nd and immediately higher floors, depending on the height and setback of neighboring buildings. According to the classic urban planning book “A Pattern Language,” the fourth floor is considered the last floor from which you have engagement with the street. Also consider: What would you do if the elevator breaks? Are you physically able to get to an upper floor? If you have no elevator, is there a way for older or disabled friends or family to visit, if you have such visitors frequently?
  • Building noise: Duplexes are not required to have double walls between, and some townhouses can get by without them. If in doubt, ask about the construction (most will have double wall construction, the purpose of which is fire prevention but is very effective at side by side unit noise control). I would recommend having your Realtor go to the unit above you and to adjacent areas of concern: the trash room, stairs, hallways. Have them bound down the stairs, run through the halls or slam the dumpster lid. If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke, look for ways it could affect you when the windows are open (for instance, if your main windows open to a sidewalk outside of a restaurant, or if you see adjacent neighbors smoking on the terrace). These are small considerations, but can be seriously detrimental to your quality of life later if you seek peace and quiet in the midst of your urban jungle.
  • Visitors: Most likely, if you are in the city, there will only be parking for one or two cars. How do most of your friends and family travel? If they usually drive, is street parking available? Is the parking permit restricted and if so, are guest passes available? If your crew are frequent transit users, how are the routes around you? If being able to host book clubs, dinners or parties is important to you, this could be a major consideration.
  • Outdoor activities: How do you use outdoor space? Will you want to grill, sunbathe, garden, store your bikes, have an area for your dog? A townhouse with a yard space may be ideal, or maybe you just need a balcony for container gardening. Be sure to ask about the Home Owners Association’s policies on using the yard: even the space right outside of your door could still be considered common space and you may not be able to garden there due to landscaping care or other rules. Amenities for pets may be found in unexpected places: during low traffic hours, our parking lot serves as an ideal place for dogs to play (even though them being off leash is *technically* against the rules, as is the case with most HOA’s).
  • HOA rules: Consider other things that may be regulated by a homeowners association. These could range from the size and type of your pet, signs you can hang from your windows, plants or holiday decorations. Keep in mind that these may not only apply to multifamily buildings: most new single family master planned developments may also have similar regulations.

I hope that this list doesn’t scare anyone away from the many advantages of multifamily living: affordability, manageable size, increased energy efficiency due to shared walls and floors, predictable maintenance costs (HOA dues), no yard or exterior maintenance, proximity in and to great urban neighborhoods, and the community that can form with your neighbors.  Not all items on the list will be important to all people, but each should merit at least a small bit of consideration.