Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

 If you have your heart set on buying a condo, cooperative apartment or a single-famiy house in a planned development, you should read "Escaping Condo Jail: The Keys to Navigating Risk & Surviving Perils of the 'Carefree' Community Lifestyle" by Don DeBat and Sara E. Benson (Sarandon Publishing, 624 pages, $24.95, appendixes, index, illustrations by John Michael Downs) before signing on the dotted line. 

Both DeBat, a former real estate editor for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times, and Benson, a real estate agent, have personal experience owning condos. In fact, DeBat emailed me that some of the experiences related in the chapters on "Bully Boards" and thefts by association board members were inspired by Benson's personal experiences with one of her condos.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Escaping Condo Jail': Comprehensive Book Explores Pitfalls of Condominium, Home Owner Association Real Estate with Research, Wit

In the subtitle, "carefree" is in quotes. What was billed when the  modern form of condominium ownership was born about 50 years ago as  carefree, chic and glamorous isn’t really carefree at all. Steep maintenance fees, restrictions on day-to-day living and limited personal freedoms are three very real costs prospective condominium owners might not have considered. This applies to the many community developments, often gated, that feature single-family houses or town houses. The technical name for such developments is Planned Unit Developments or PUDs. The authors provide a very useful glossary of terms at the end of the book.

DeBat and Benson spent four years researching this book -- which is unlike anything I've seen in 44 years of covering real estate -- and it shows. The book includes personal stories of people experiencing the worst of community living.  Many of the problems arise from the lack of regulation of condominium on the federal level, the authors write.  On page 493, they tell how condos are the riskiest form of real estate investment when it comes to achieving the American dream of homeownership. Lenders charge a higher rate of interest for condo mortgage loans because of this risk factor. Condos are much more likely to go into foreclosure than single-family detached houses and many condos are underwater -- the mortgage is bigger than the market value of the property.

The book includes a critical 10-point buyer-awareness advice list, and a 35-point checklist on “How to Bulletproof Your Association’s Biggest Asset: The Money,” and features 22 original illustrations drawn by long-time Chicago Daily News artist John Michael Downs. Instantly, Downs became the Charles Addams of condo illustrators to me! I didn't realize that anybody who worked for the late, lamented Daily News -- my favorite newspaper when I lived in Chicago in the early 1960s -- was still alive.

If you think condo/community association living affects a small minority of Americans, think again: Today, one in five Americans—more than 63 million residents—resides in a condominium, a co-operative apartment or in housing regulated by a homeowner association (HOA).

Despite the huge growth in ownership, most condo homeowner associations are run by volunteer directors who are unpaid, untrained, and often unqualified. Some board officers even struggle with balancing their own check books. Yet they are in charge of managing their share of an industry with budgets estimated at $90 billion a year—more than five times the federal government spends to run NASA.

In 2010, a survey by the Community Associations Institute (CAI) -- the trade group for planned development associations -- found that more than half of the nation’s HOAs were facing “serious financial problems.” And more recently, Association Reserves, a California company that helps associations with budget and operational issues, noted that 72 percent of association-governed communities were underfunded in 2013, up from 12.5 percent only a decade ago.

One of the biggest lures of shared-community ownership is the so-called “carefree living” aspect. There are no yards to maintain, grass to cut, snow to shovel, windows to wash, decks to stain or roofs to repair. All an owner has to do is sit back and pay a monthly condo assessment which is levied according to their percentage of ownership.

 “Investors also find condominiums attractive because they can be profitable rental properties that are easily managed with the condo association handling the headaches,” said Benson. 

“And, condo ownership also can be the perfect lifestyle choice for singles—especially single women seeking security—retirees and smaller families not in need of larger spaces.”

Yet another bonus for condo living is the lucrative federal and state tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes handed to owners. Uncle Sam not only allows tax deductions for mortgage interest, but also allows home and condo owners to deduct the cost of real estate taxes.

DeBat and Benson discuss the conversion of existing apartment buildings to condominium ownership and the problems that arise from such conversions. Recently a new twist on this has sprung up, especially in Florida, the authors write: Condominums converting to rental projects. The owners sell their units to a developer and -- many of them -- become  tenants in units they formerly owned. Or they move to another development.

The book does not condemn all condominium, cooperative apartment and homeowner associations. Ownership in a multi-family housing development began as an extremely noble and creative idea. Condos introduced home ownership to millions that would ordinarily never be able to afford it.

Developers have long argued that condos help stabilize inner-city neighborhoods, while giving owners a permanent stake in his or her community. DeBat emailed me that the purpose of the book was not to condemn developers, but to expose the problems that often arise when the developer turns over the project to the condo association, made of up of inexperienced people who suddenly are running a business.

When you gotta go, you gotta bust out  and  the authors offer fifteen “Exit Strategies” on how to get out of condo jail. These strategies make up a  treasure trove of little-known action plans. They include everything from how to benefit from a “naked mortgage” to negotiating “cash for keys.”  And when all these are found wanting, there's always a little brown envelope containing the keys to the condo sent to the lender -- "Jingle Mail" in real estate parlance.

Summing up: This is far and away the best book I've seen in my years of covering real estate on the subject of condos, co-ops and community associations. Don't even think about buying into community real estate -- a condominum, a co-op apartment or a PUD --  before reading this book. "Eyes wide open" trumps "eyes wide shut" every time! And speaking of "Trump," yes, on Pages 134-135 the book discusses the Trump Tower luxury project built on the site of the former Chicago Sun-Times building. The anecdotes DeBat and Benson provide are not only informative -- they're entertaining in the "Hot Property" sense.

“Escaping Condo Jail” is now available in paperback via Digital Kindle copies of the book also are available on Amazon and the hardback will be published in early December. For more information, or to buy a paperback edition, follow this link: For the Kindle Edition the link is: 


Sara E. Benson, Don DeBat
Sara E. Benson, Don DeBat

About the authors

Sara E. Benson is a Realtor and consultant to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) . She has built a reputation for being a staunch consumer advocate.

Don DeBat  covered real estate for decades for two Chicago newspapers: Real estate editor of the Chicago Daily News (1976-1978) and real estate editor of the Chicago Sun-Times (1978-1994).  He won the NAREE Best Section Award four times. NAREE is the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the professional association for real estate editors and writers.  He has run DeBat Media, a media consulting firm, with his daughter, Aimee DeBat, since 1995. He writes a weekly real estate column published by Inside Publications, including the Skyline, Booster and News-Star newspapers with readership of more than 100,000 along Chicago's lakefront.

He lives in Chicago.