How It Works
A co-op apartment building is owned by a not-for-profit corporation. People can buy shares of the corporation, which entitles them the right to live in a specific unit of the building and a vote in matters concerning the cooperative as a whole. Generally speaking, the larger the apartment, the more votes the owner has. Cooperatives generally elect or have every member participate in a board of representatives, which handles issues and enforces the bylaws of the co-op. Residents must also pay a monthly fee, which goes towards paying the mortgage for the co-op building and covers maintenance fees, insurance, real estate taxes, some utilities, and the salaries of any building staff.
Many people like the living environment of co-ops, since they tend to have a low turnover of neighbors, all the maintenance and repairs are taken care of by the corporation, and they have a say in many aspects of the building. Additionally, having so many people working together can make it easier to get new services from local governments, or to get discounts on things like utilities or cleaning services. This type of arrangement also eliminates the need for an outside landlord, which can expedite matters like repairs or evictions. Co-op apartments may provide services not found in other living arrangements, like credit unions, food buying clubs, and planned activities. Generally speaking, co-ops are more secure than other types of housing, and have fewer instances of vandalism.
Transferring the membership of a co-op apartment can be easier than selling another type of housing, since, as long as the board approves the sale, the resident just needs to transfer a stock certificate to the new resident. This eliminates the need for paperwork like deeds. Also, some of the monthly fees are tax-deductible in some regions, and because the corporation is usually not-for-profit, the fees don't usually go up unless it's necessary to keep or maintain the building.
One of the primary disadvantages of this type of living arrangement is the process involved in buying into one. All potential members of a co-op apartment must be approved by the board of directors, and the vetting process is usually extensive. It typically includes things like the applicant's credit history, personal background, whether the applicant owns pets or other properties, and whether the applicant would be compatible with existing residents. Boards for co-ops in exclusive areas can be extremely selective. Also, the board has the power to evict residents if they do not comply with the rules of the building, and often does so very quickly if any rules are broken or monthly fees are not paid.
There are also several financial disadvantages to co-ops. Generally speaking, the down payments for shares are higher than other types of housing, and banks may be hesitant to finance loans for shares, since they're not as stable as actual property. This is particularly true in the case of land-lease co-ops, in which the corporation owning the co-op leases, but doesn't own, the physical land that the building is built on. This situation is risky for residents as well, as the co-op and all the residents could have to move if the landowner decides not to renew the lease. Additionally, the monthly fees may be higher in some co-ops than in some condos.
Selling or subletting may be an issue as well. Many boards do not allow residents to sublet their apartments at all, and those that do usually require that the board pre-approves the subletter. In addition, some co-ops control how much apartments can sell for. All of this can make co-ops less attractive as an investment property. On the other hand, many co-ops do not accept applications from people who will not be living in the apartment full-time, so this may not be an issue for owners.
As Compared to Condos
The main difference between a co-op apartment and a condo is the buying process and the ownership. People who want to buy a condo don't have to be approved by a board, and residents there actually own the physical property and space inside the condo, as opposed to shares in a corporation. This means that they can sublease or sell it at will. A condo owner may also have to pay fees to a Homeowners Association (HOA) to take care of maintenance charges and staff salaries, but the HOA is usually not as directly involved with all residents as a co-op's board of directors is. Residents of a condo tend to have less control over what happens in the building, like when common areas get new flooring, or what service is hired to care for the lawn.
Financially speaking, it's usually easier to get a loan or financing to buy a condo than it is for a co-op, since condos are physical property, and thus more stable than co-op shares. Also, there is usually no limitation on how much the owner can sell the property for, making them a better choice for investors than a co-op. Real estate taxes, however, are assessed for each individual unit of a condo, rather than for the whole building as in co-op, which can be costly.