Is an apartment a home?

When thinking about first houses, New Zealanders sometimes confused what they want with what they need.

Too many of us overextend our finances to reach a property dream we have been told is achievable: three bedrooms, a renovated kitchen and bathroom, and some sort of outdoor grassy area if not an actual backyard.

The reality is people – especially a couple with no kids, or who are only beginning to plan a small family – don't need this much space. A two-bedroom apartment of 60-80 square metres would be ideal for a family of three if Kiwis could adopt a more European mentality about urban living.

Apartments in all major New Zealand centres of this size are still priced between $400,000 and $650,000 – what we've considered to be an “acceptable” amount to pay for a first home in the last five or so years.

An apartment can be a stepping stone to a larger suburban house, or give you a newer, leaner, city lifestyle that enables you to say goodbye to your daily commute, obliterate weekly maintenance time, and rent out easily for short-term stays (e.g. AirBnb) when you're not there and want to top up your mortgage payments easily.

What should you do before buying an apartment in New Zealand?

You need to research the property developer first and foremost. It's important to look at their past projects and ensure they complete large apartment complexes to a high-quality standard and haven't run into serious financial issues like bankruptcy. This is absolutely vital when buying off plans before something is built.

You should also weigh up the monthly/annual body corporate (BC) costs in addition to the purchase price of the property. It's inadvisable to buy an apartment that isn't up to earthquake code, as some properties tag fundraising on for this to BC fees now, even though work won't even begin for 10 or more years (and you might never benefit from it). The New Building Standard (NBS) rating will give you the information you need to know.

The apartment layout should maximise the available space with smart communal zone configurations, multi-purpose joinery and storage solutions, and the limiting of “dead” zones (like hallways) that can't be used yet take up your square meterage.

In order to get a real grasp on the building itself (if already existing), get a copy of the Annual General Meeting (AGM) minutes. This will tell you a lot of information about the age of the building and what maintenance is required in the upcoming years, you'll learn about any problem tenants and rules (e.g. concerning pets), parking, laundry, and other considerations you might not learn otherwise until it's too late.

Consider community amenities too. As the European model shows, living in an apartment doesn't mean not knowing your neighbours. In fact, it can mean even more communication with them via shared pools, gyms, tennis courts, courtyards, and shops.

It's also worth visiting the site at different times of the day to assess the sunlight an individual apartment will get, and also look at your potential view. Then ask yourself, will I be happy looking at this every single morning when I wake up? If you're buying an apartment with the intention of doing repairs or upgrading, you should engage with a quantity surveyor for a feasibility study first, to make sure what you want to achieve is possible and within your budget.

Finally, talk to a quantity surveyor to get an accurate sum insured value for insurance purposes; don't let your insurance company or bank tell you what they think an apartment is worth based on an online calculator. Unlike freestanding houses, you can't rebuild an apartment on your own after a disaster. Ensuring your payout is accurate is paramount.