By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Dec 27, 2006 at 5:38 AM
Face it, there comes a point in most peoples' lives where renting is just no longer worth it, and for many young professionals, night lifers and urban dwellers condos are an attractive option, for a plethora of reasons: They're generally closer to all the "action," they offer many perks of home ownership without the responsibility of home maintenance and they can act as a stepping stone to single-family home ownership, should that day come.

But with new developments almost literally springing up in many of Milwaukee's hot neighborhoods -- East Side, Downtown, the Beerline and the Fifth Ward, to name a few -- it's hard to know where to begin and easy to get overwhelmed. If you're a fresh graduate from the renter's world -- or even if you've already been down this road once before -- this is a huge deal and obviously one of the biggest decisions of your life.

With the new Cambridge River North condo project -- located off North Avenue along the Milwaukee River -- underway, Cass Stephens, the owner and developer for Cassidy Realty, had an idea to personally create a guide of sorts that would help people sort through the steps to condo ownership. What resulted is "Milwaukee Condo Shopping 101," parts of which we'll share with you in this guide.

"As realtors, we like to see people enjoy a very educated, smart condo shopping experience, whether they're looking at one of our buildings or another in the city," says Stephens.

To broaden the spectrum, we thought we'd ask a couple other local developers currently creating new condos around town for their input, as well, on how to put the process into perspective.

Tim Gokhman, director of sales and marketing for New Land Enterprises -- who has recently completed The Sterling, 1550 E. Royall Pl., and have in-progress projects in East Town and on Downer Avenue -- gives it to you straight: "Buying a condo is complicated. It's tough to simplify it, and it's not a good idea to try to do so, either."

At the same time, Jonathan Dennis, vice president of development and acquisitions for Tandem Developers -- whose The Edge, 1890 N. Commerce St., opened in the Beerline in early '06 -- reminds you to have fun with it as well: "Enjoy the process of shopping for a condo downtown. It's about choosing a lifestyle."

That being said, we let the experts at Cassidy Realty, New Land Enterprises and Tandem Developers speak for themselves in this condo shopping tutorial.

Phase I -- Planning

Step 1: Know your budget

You cannot enter this world without knowing what you're able to spend. Meet with a lender, get pre-approved and start determining an acceptable price range.

"The low end should be a very comfortable number that would give you a mortgage payment you can easily live with," says Stephens. "The upper part of that range, which you might approach if you decide you need additional amenities, might push you financially but still won't leave you "house-poor."

Dennis adds, "Keep in mind that it's better to purchase in a building that offers something unique like incredible views, a riverfront location, or special interior finishes because when it comes time to re-sell, you'll want your condo to stand out from the crowd."

Step 2: Location, location, location

Chances are if you're from around here, you're familiar enough with the various neighborhoods to have some idea of which areas you'd prefer to live in. But if you're new to the city, this decision can be much tougher. Stephens suggest breaking it down into simple terms to begin: Do you want to live in a very urban area, such as Downtown or the Third Ward? Do you prefer a more residential neighborhood like Downer Avenue? Or does an area that provides a bit of both, such as the North Avenue corridor, seem most appealing?

New Land's Gokhman says that another thing to keep in mind here is to determine if you want new construction or an existing building? Also, whether or not you prefer a low-, medium- or high-rise building might factor into which neighborhood you end up.

Step 3: It's all about the amenities

Stephens suggest making an A-list -- you're ultimate, "desert island," can't live withouts -- and a B-list -- the cool desirables, but things you're willing to be flexible on.

"We encourage every condo buyer to make a list of things that important, including location, size and type of building, but also including amenities that you'd like in your new home," says Stephens.

When compiling your A-list, you might want to consider:
  • Do you want a balcony or terrace?
  • Do you need parking?
  • Do you require a certain number of bedrooms?
  • Does the unit have adequate soundproofing?
Your B-list is then composed of special components and upgrades that will cost more, but that might be worth it:
  • Do you prefer a certain type of hardwood flooring?
  • Do you want other high-end appliances?
  • Do you have your eye on an upgraded finish?
Phase II -- Shopping

Step 1: Request materials

Stephens says that from the time a condo project is first announced, the developer has materials describing every aspect of the future building and its units. Start by visiting the project's Web site, then call the developer or realtor to request the following items:
  • The rendering (if the building hasn't yet been constructed)
  • Floor plans
  • Unit plans
  • Amenities and available upgrades
  • A price sheet
Don't be shy and ask lots of questions:

Cassidy recommends, "Why should I choose this condo over all others out there?"

New Land recommends, "How does the building fit your specific needs and requirements?"

Tandem recommends, "What is exactly included in the price -- which things come standard and which are upgrades?

Step 2: Educate yourself

Square footage: The numbers aren't going to mean anything to you if you don't understand them or can't visualize them. Stephens says a good way to learn what 1,000 sq. ft. looks like vs. 2,000 sq. ft. is by touring showrooms or existing units. Also, figure out the square footage of your current place and use it to compare.

Floor plans: "Keep in mind that the layout of a condo -- placement of walls and rooms, etc., can make a 1,000 sq.-ft. condo feel very large, or a 2,000 sq.-ft. condo feel small," says Stevens. "Picture your furniture layout as well, because the space needs to work for you -- but be willing to adapt."

Dennis says that when comparing condominiums -- especially new construction -- it's important for buyers to ask about the developer's past and current projects, and, if possible, go and visit their completed work.

Step 3: Compare and contrast

"Amenities included in the base package will be a good telltale sign when you compare one building or one unit with another," says Stephens.

You're obviously going to be on the lookout for a place that offers the most amenities for the best price. Here is a list of example base packages:

Cassidy's Cambridge River North:
Granite kitchen countertops
Island range with hood
Stainless steel refrigerator
Gas fireplace
Kohler fixtures
Huge decks

New Land's The Sterling:
Granite kitchen countertops
Solid maple cabinets
GE appliances (including washer/dryer)
Natural woodwork
Whirlpool tubs
Balconies with gas grill hook-ups
Parking spots

Tandem's The Edge:
Granite kitchen countertops
Bamboo or hardwood flooring
Stainless steel appliances
Large windows
9-10' ceilings
Balconies and terraces
Garage Parking

The bottom line is that is all comes down to planning. If you go into it knowing exactly what you want -- or, at least what you don't want -- you're in prime shape for finding something that will make you happy. Good luck to everyone looking for a condo in 2007!
Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”