(Benjamin C. Tankersley FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Whether you are looking at a condominium as an affordable first home or as a perfect place to downsize, do not forget to check the condo fees. As you start to search for condos in the Washington area or around the country, you will soon realize the amount you will pay to a condo association varies wildly from one development to another.

When you are financing your condo purchase, your lender will include that condo fee in your debt-to-income ratio, which compares your gross monthly income with the minimum payment on all recurring debt. The condo fee — along with your principal, interest, property taxes and homeowner’s insurance — will be part of your housing payment. Some condo buildings are approved for FHA (Federal Housing Administration) financing, and others are not. This is something home buyers, particularly first-time ones, must consider when condo shopping.

Even if you are paying cash for your condo, you will need to keep in mind that unlike other debts, your condo fee will never be paid down to zero. Not only will you always be obligated to pay it while you own the condo, the fee could also increase over time to keep up with inflation, to pay for ongoing community maintenance and to bolster the condo association reserve fund.

 What condo fees cover

Among the reasons condo fees vary from one community to another are the size and age of the development as well as the amenities and features covered by the fee.

Large developments that pay a management company can have higher fees than a small self-managed building. However, splitting costs between just four or six units can mean condo fees are a bit higher than a building with 10 or 15 units.

Older condos often have higher fees than newer buildings because they need to factor in repair and replacement of common-area heating and air conditioning systems, an elevator or a surface parking lot.

When examining condo fees, it is important to realize you are not making a dollar-for-dollar comparison. While condo association fees typically cover a reserve fund for major repairs, a master insurance policy for the community, maintenance of the development and trash and snow removal, various other things may or may not be covered.

For example, some condo fees include utilities such as water, cable service, gas and electricity. Others cover some or none of those utilities. You need to know which services are covered and which you will pay for, as well as an estimate of those utility bills.

Keep in mind the condo master insurance policy covers exterior and common elements of the property, but you will still need to buy personal condo insurance to cover your belongings and to provide liability insurance.

Condos with an elevator, a swimming pool and a fitness center tend to have higher fees because of liability issues and additional maintenance costs. Then again, this could save you money on a gym or pool membership.

Buildings with a doorman and concierge services or with an on-site engineer and manager typically have higher fees than buildings without those amenities.

What is an appropriate condo fee?

When comparing condos, you will need to evaluate your budget and determine how much you can afford to pay in fees. Next, you will need to determine whether a low or high condo fee is justified by the condo’s condition and amenities.

A low fee may look good to you, but if it covers very little and is an older condo with deferred maintenance, you can expect to pay a higher fee or even a special assessment in the future. A high fee may seem unappealing, but if it pays for a lot of amenities and/or your utilities, it may be more affordable that you think.

Condo buyers have a review period between the time they make an offer and the contract goes into effect when they can read all condo documents. The documents can clue you in on the financial health of the association and the common areas as well as whether large capital improvements will need to be made soon.

Condo buyers cannot negotiate condo fees. If you choose to buy a condo you can always attend condo association meetings and join the condo association board to influence future decisions that will affect the community’s fees.

Jon Coile, chairman of Rockville-based multiple-listing service Bright MLS (formerly MRIS) and president of Champion Realty in Annapolis, Md., writes occasional commentary on the Washington area housing market.