Attorney Richard Vetstein told me this story: A client was going to buy a unit in a condominium development and thought he had it all wrapped up; he had an agreement in hand, deposit down and was two days away from closing.
Then he got a call from his lender, who said there were issues. "Issues?" the client asked. Essentially, his lender said there was active litigation involving the condominium building, and the loan would not be approved by underwriters.
Vetstein, of the eponymous Vetstein Law Group in Framingham, Mass., has done a considerable amount of legal work in the always colorful condominium world. Of the client in the story, he said, "Luckily, I was able to negotiate his deposit back, but he lost the deal, and since he had sold his prior residence, for awhile he was living in a motel. It just ruined his life for a couple of months."
The episode didn’t make the seller of the condo unit any happier, either. Buyers these days are extremely hard to come by.
So what happened?
Recent changes to the Fannie Mae Selling Guide, including some alterations that went into effect March 1, make that afternoon leisure time on your personal veranda with the ice tea in your tumbler and a Robert Patterson paperback in your hand more chilling than comforting.
Condo watchdogs generally are focusing on two changes that could affect your pocketbook, either as a homeowner or home seller. The first has to do with newly converted, non-gut rehabilitation condo projects, while the second, which affected Vetstein’s client, has to do with the collateral damage of an ongoing litigation.
Fannie Mae now declares mortgage loans in progress on a condo involved in any type of litigation, other than minor litigation (i.e., disputes over rights of quiet enjoyment), ineligible for delivery, said Orest Tomaselli, CEO of White Plains, N.Y.-based National Condo Advisors LLC.
"There are different types of litigation, from slip-and-fall cases to structural issues, so Fannie split it all up and any project where the HOA is named as a party defending litigation that relates to safety, structure (or) soundness of functional use (is) ineligible," Tomaselli said. "These projects will not be able to enjoy Fannie Mae project approval nor the financing that results from it."
The Fannie Mae guidelines read: "Any project (condo, co-op, or planned unit development) for which the homeowners association or co-op corporation is named as a party to pending litigation, or for which the project sponsor or developer is named as a party to pending litigation that relates to safety, structural soundness, habitability or functional use of the project, remains ineligible."
What this means is, if your neighbor has some personal beef with the homeowners association or developer because his plumbing doesn’t work or the front door of the building has a bad lock and sues, well, that can affect you because a potential buyer can not get a Fannie Mae loan. Sure, the buyer can go to a bank and get a different loan, but that would just be more expensive.
What happened with Vetstein’s client was that a crazy, litigious unit owner was suing the condo association and prior builder for minor leaks.
"It was something that really should have been resolved by the trustees, builder or even insurer," Vetstein explained. "It didn’t involve a lot of money, but the lawsuit was out there, pending and not resolved. There was no waiver because the litigation fell within these parameters of structural soundness and safety. Fannie Mae said, ‘Sorry, there’s no gray area here.’ "
The changes present a conundrum for HOAs. It’s not uncommon in cold-weather states to experience poorly worked roofs resulting in water penetration of condominium units. Condo owners get upset, the HOA gets upset, and everyone wants to sue the builder or roofer. Unfortunately, this triggers a Fannie Mae issue.
"There is nothing the condo association can do about someone suing over defective conditions, but it certainly does have control over who they sue," Vetstein said. "The HOA needs to know a lawsuit will have a ripple effect."
The other problem for condo owners is specifically for those who live in developments that essentially have been converted from rentals into ownership units, or as Fannie Mae officially labels them, newly converted, non-gut-rehabilitation condo projects.
Those developments have to go through a Project Eligibility Review Service, or PERS.
The Fannie Mae Selling Guide updates read: "Many buildings are converted to condominiums without the replacement of major components resulting in eventual increased costs to unit owners for maintenance and major repairs. In order to mitigate the additional risk that newly converted, non-gut-rehabilitation projects pose, all newly converted, non-gut-rehabilitation condo projects must be submitted to PERS for review and approval."
The problem is the cost to the HOA. Fannie Mae charges $1,200 for the review, plus $30 for every unit in the buildings, said Tomaselli. So, if you’re looking at 200-unit building, that’s $7,200 that has to paid out.
In addition, the newly converted non-guts have to undergo a reserve study to determine over a 30-year period of time what the repair costs are going to be in regard to such items as elevators, roofs, mechanical and structural systems, and the exterior.
"The current guidelines require that only 10 percent of the budget be set aside for reserve. Once the reserve study is done, an accurate number is given on what the reserve should be — and those numbers can be tremendous," Tomaselli said.
The main goal of a reserve study is accuracy. "This guideline requiring reserve studies for new non-gut-rehab condominiums will ensure accurate reserve funding enforcement that will eliminate special assessments in most cases," said Tomaselli.
It’s not a bad thing for Fannie Mae because it is making sure homeowners are protected — but for developments, increased maintenance can loom large.