Massachusetts condominium attorney

massachusetts condominium super lienRuling Hurts Condominium Associations’ Collection Efforts

The Massachusetts Condominium Act gives condominium associations the ability to file a “super-lien” for unpaid monthly condominium fees, six months of which is given priority over a first mortgage against the unit. The super-lien has proven to be a very effective method for condominiums to collect delinquent fees because lenders will often pay off the super-priority amount so as not to affect their mortgage priority.

But what happens when a unit owner owes more than six month’s worth of condo fees? In that situation, innovative condominium attorneys have developed a practice of filing multiple lien lawsuits to create a “rolling” lien for successive 6 month periods. Unfortunately for condominium associations, the Appeals Court recently put the kibosh on this practice in the case of Drummer Boy Homes Association v. Britton (Nov. 7, 2014).

Rolling Lien Practice

In the Drummer Boy case, the unit owner withheld payment of condo fees in a dispute with the condominium trustees over parking rights and fines. (Note, this is a big “no-no” as the law provides that a disgruntled unit owner must pay fees under protest). The condominium lawyers filed three separate and successive lawsuits asserting a super-lien over 18 months worth of unpaid fees. The lawsuits were all consolidated. A district court judge ruled, however, that the association had a super-priority lien over only the first 6 months before the first lawsuit, not the 18 months’ worth claimed.

Court: Super-lien Limited To 6 Months Of Fees

On appeal, the Appeals Court likewise held that the association’s super-lien only covered the initial 6 month period, not the 18 month period claimed. The Court reasoned that the Mass. Condominium Act was modeled after the Uniform Condominium Act which clearly provided that the maximum amount of a super-priority lien was 6 months worth of fees, and that this was a fair balance between the interests of lenders and condominium associations. Of course, the condominium association is free to collect all of the outstanding fees from the unit owner and sell the unit at auction, but the first mortgage will have priority over all of the fees except for 6 months plus attorneys’ fees, so it’s essentially a Pyrrhic victory.

As the condominium attorneys over at Perkins|Ancil are saying, this ruling may be appealed to the SJC and going forward associations will likely be forced to avail themselves of the remedy of foreclosure sooner rather than later in order to fully protect their financial interests. Failing that, condominium associations will have to lobby the Legislature for a change in the super-priority lien amount over above the 6 month cap. This remains a case to watch!

 

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ma-lowell-hamiltoncanal-2Wyman v. Ayer Properties:  SJC Holds That Economic Loss Doctrine Inapplicable In Condominium Construction Defect Claims

In an important ruling which will make it less difficult for condominium associations and trustees to seek redress for faulty or defective construction, the Supreme Judicial Court has jettisoned the “economic loss doctrine” in the condominium context and affirmed a $300,000 plus judgment against a Lowell based real estate construction company over faulty construction at a condominium. A link to the opinion can be found here.

The economic loss doctrine provides that a claimant must suffer some sort of property damage or personal injury in a negligent construction claim before being able to recover compensatory damages. The strict application of the economic loss doctrine in condominium construction defects was often the “magic bullet” used by insurance companies to defend these claims. Using some much needed common sense, the court held that the doctrine should not apply strictly in the condominium setting due to the peculiar nature of a condominium ownership structure with the association/trustees owning the common areas but with unit owners having contracts with the developer.

Going forward, condominium trustees will likely have more success in recovering their losses for defective construction against developers over common areas. On the flip side, insurance premiums for construction companies may rise due to the increased liability exposure.

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7076759_ac0f_625x1000Do Your Due Diligence!

Condominiums remain hot in the Greater Boston area, often the new starter home for the young professional buyer. I am also seeing quite a lot of two and three family homes in the Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville area being converted into condominiums. While condos are usually a great investment, buying one requires some unique due diligence. You must be satisfied that the condominium project as a whole is financially healthy and that you are not buying into a major “money pit.”

The role of the buyer’s attorney in a condominium purchase is to review the condominium documents including the master deed, declaration of trust/by-laws, budget and meeting minutes, if any. The documents, however, only tell so much of the story. What’s really important is what may be lurking behind those documents. Here are some good questions to ask:

  1. How much money is in the capital reserve account and how much is funded annually? The capital reserve fund is like an insurance policy for the inevitable capital repairs every building requires. As a general rule, the fund should contain at least 10% of the annual revenue budget, and in the case of older projects, even more. If the capital reserve account is poorly funded, there is a higher risk of a special assessment.  Get a copy of the last 2 years budget, the current reserve account funding level and any capital reserve study.
  2. Are there any contemplated or pending special assessments? Special assessments are one time fees for capital improvements payable by every unit owner. Some special assessments can run in the thousands. Others, like theBoston Harbor Towers $75 Million renovation project, in the millions. You need to be aware if you are buying a special assessment along with your unit.  It’s a good idea to ask for the last 2 years of condominium meeting minutes to check what’s been going on with the condomininium.
  3. Is there a professional management company or is the association self-managed? Usually, a professional management company, while an added cost, can add great value to a condominium with well run governance and management of common areas. Self-managed condos tend to have a higher incidence of dysfunction.
  4. Is the condominium involved in any pending legal actions? Legal disputes between owners, with developers or with the association can signal trouble and a poorly run organization. Ask whether there are any pending lawsuits.

Purchase and Sale Agreement Tips

Regardless of the answers you receive, my practice is to insert a comprehensive condominium verification provision in the purchase and sale agreement. This will make the seller go on the record as to some important aspects of the condominium financial’s health and should go a long way to ensure that the buyer is not stepping into a huge special assessment or other major financial catastrophe. If issues arise prior to the closing, this provision will give the buyer an “out” to terminate the deal and return the deposits.

Condominium Verification Information.  The Seller represents that, to the best of his/her knowledge, the following information is true and accurate as of the date of this Agreement  and shall remain true as of the date of closing:

    1. The condominium documents provided to the Buyer and/or available for downloading on the ____ County Registry of Deeds are true, accurate and complete copies of all documents recorded with the Registry of Deeds as of the date hereof and that no other documents and/or amendments which adversely impact the Unit being purchased will be recorded which have not been presented to the Buyer.
    2. The current condominium monthly fees are $_____ per month.
    3. Seller has not received any notice of nor is Seller aware of any special assessments for the Unit, whether or not assessments are due now or in the future, and Seller is aware of no immediate pending improvements, repairs or replacements or plans therefore which would likely result in a supplemental assessment or significant increase in the monthly common expenses for the Unit.
    4. In the event there are any supplemental assessments owed with respect to the Unit on the closing date, Seller shall be obligated to pay such assessments in full prior to closing notwithstanding any agreement by the organization of unit owners to allow such payments to be made in installments but only to the extend Seller’s lender agrees to allow said payment on the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Otherwise, Buyer may either agree to accept the obligation to pay said assessment or terminate the agreement by written notice to Seller within 5 days of receipt of notice of said assessment.
    5. The master insurance policy for the unit conforms with the requirements of the Condominium Documents.
    6. There is presently no litigation threatened or pending by or against the Seller, or the Condominium Association, which would cause the Condominium to not be in compliance with current secondary mortgage market guidelines.

The Seller shall promptly notify the Buyer of any change in facts which arise prior to the closing which would make any such representation untrue if such state of facts had existed on the date of execution of this Agreement.  The provisions of this paragraph shall survive delivery of the deed.

If you have any questions about purchasing a Massachusetts condominium unit, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Case Law Report:  Wyman v. Ayer Properties, LLC (Massachusetts Appeals Court, December 12, 2012).

ma-lowell-hamiltoncanal

Condo Construction Defect Claims Now Easier To Bring

In an important opinion which will make it easier for condominium associations to seek redress for faulty or defective construction, the Appeals Court has entered a $300,000 plus judgment against a Lowell based real estate developer. A link to the opinion can be found here.

Ayer Properties rehabilitated a vacant mill building on Market Street in Lowell, converting it into condominiums in the mid 2000’s. After the units were sold out, the new board of trustees discovered several aspects of faulty construction, including defective windows, deteriorating exterior brick masonry façade, and a leaky roof.  At the end of an 11-day jury-waived trial, a Superior Court trial judge awarded compensatory damages of $140,000, but eliminated well over $100,000 of the association’s claimed damages based on a legal defense called the economic loss doctrine.

The economic loss doctrine provides that a claimant must suffer some sort of property damage or personal injury in a negligent construction claim before being able to recover compensatory damages. The strict application of the economic loss doctrine in condominium construction defects can be quite harsh, often eviscerating thousands of dollars in damages simply because of the peculiarity of condominium ownership – the legal division and separation between common element property and individual unit owner property.

Justice Mitchell Sikora of the Appeals Court used some much-needed common sense and dispensed with the economic loss doctrine in the condominium construction defect setting:

We therefore hold that a condominium unit owners’ association may recover damages in tort from a responsible builder-vendor for negligent design or construction of common area property in circumstances in which damages are reasonably determinable, in which the association would otherwise lack a remedy, and in which the association acts within the time allowed by the applicable statute of limitations or statute of repose.

The impact of this decision will make it less difficult for condominium associations and trustees to sue and recover all damages against developers for construction defects. We could also see an increase in construction defect claims over faulty construction in the future.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced condominium and construction litigation attorney. Please contact him at 508-620-5352 or rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Old Colony Village Condominium v. Preu, Massachusetts Appeals Court No. 10-P-875 (Oct. 31, 2011). Click here for link to full text of case.

I love when constitutional law intersects with real estate law. It’s rare, and full of drama. A recent decision by the Appeals Court considered a condominium unit owner’s unalienable right to complain, moan and kvetch about condominium management. The First Amendment and the unit owner won this battle.

Doggy Doodie Bags, The Bird & Signs

The case is right out of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad, Morty, is embroiled in a condo trustee election battle at the “Del Boca Vista” condominium project in Florida. Mr. Preu and the condominium management had a history of, shall we say, bad blood between them. Mr. Preu ultimately went on a rampage, placing in the common area bags containing dog feces and labeled with the name of board president Gerard Ritzinger, apparently in response to Preu’s belief that Ritzinger had allowed his dog to defecate in an area in which it was forbidden. He gave the middle finger to condo trustees walking through the hall and to security cameras. He wrote nasty memos on his condo fee checks. He also obstructed common area fire doors. Lastly, he posted signs in the common area and a note on a unit owner’s door about the cleanliness of the condominium.

The trial judge found that the bag of doggy doo-doo and messing with fire doors violated the condo rules, but that the posting of signs, flipping the Bird, and the nasty memos were protected speech under the First Amendment. The Appeals Court only considered the free speech issue.

Check Your Free Speech Rights At The Door?

The Court held that condominium unit owners do not check their First Amendment rights at the condominium door. “A condominium association does not have as free a hand in restricting the speech of unit owners in the common areas in which those owners share an undivided property interest as another property owner might in dealing with a stranger on his or her property,” the court held. Accordingly, the court ruled that Preu’s posting of signs, flipping the middle finger and nasty memos — although not the most civil of behaviors — were protected First Amendment speech which could not be punished under condominium by-laws and rules.

Lessons to be Learned…

So what’s the take-away from this case?

For prospective condo buyers, know what you are getting yourself into before buying a condominium unit. Ask for the condo meeting minutes going 3 years back to see whether there are a history of internal dysfunction and disputes like the Old Colony Village Condo.

For condominium trustees and management, the lesson is a bit tougher. While you don’t want to put up with a lot of over-the-top cr*p from unit owners, think twice about starting World War III litigation like this case. The only person in this dispute who made out well is the condo board attorney, as this dispute easily ran over $25,000 in legal fees through a trial and an appeal. Was that a solid investment of condo funds by the board? Over dog poop? Probably not.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Condominium Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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images-7Unpaid condo fees and special assessments can be a real thorn in any condominium’s side, especially smaller condos. Not only do unpaid condo fees threaten the financial health of a condominium, but a high delinquency rate can run afoul of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and FHA condominium lending guidelines, thereby hindering the sale of a unit.

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Condominium Act, General Laws Chapter 183A, provides condominium trustees and managers with a fair amount of ammunition to recover those unpaid condo fees and special assessments. The law provides that condominium common expense assessments (monthly condo fees) are a lien against condominium units from the date each assessment becomes due, and that unit owners are personally liable for their share of condominium common expenses, including late charges, fines, penalties, interest, and all costs of collection. Ultimately, the condominium trust can foreclose its lien and sell the unit at foreclosure auction.

Massachusetts Super-priority Condo Lien

The real teeth of the Condominium Act is the “super-lien” provision. A properly filed condo lien has “super-priority” over the first mortgage on a unit for up to 6 months worth of unpaid condo fees, plus all attorneys’ fees and collection costs. Required 60 and 30 day statutory notices must be sent to the mortgage lender and unit owner prior to filing the lien. Typically, the mortgage lender will not want to allow a condo lien to negatively affect the priority of its mortgage, so it will pay the unpaid condo fees and other charges, then charge them back to the borrower/unit owner. Even in the case of foreclosure of a unit, the super-lien will continue to roll-over (up to 6 months worth).

6d Certificate

For all sales of Massachusetts condominiums, Mass. General Laws Ch. 183A, sec. 6(d) requires that the condo trustees sign a certificate verifying the outstanding condo fees assessed against the unit, if any. The term “6d” certificate refers to that statutory section of the Condominium Act, section 6(d). Lenders and their closing attorneys will require a “clean” 6d which states there are no unpaid fees. The recording of a clean 6d certificate will prevent the association from ever filing a lien against that unit.

No Right to Withhold

Another favorable aspect of the lien law is that a unit owner is not allowed to withhold payment even if he disputes the charges. There is no right to set-off. If the unit owner is unhappy or disputes the validity of the assessment, that’s too bad. He must pay the fees under protest, and file a suit challenging the legality of the assessment.

Collection Against Tenants

Another helpful remedy in the case of absentee unit owners is that the condo trust has a right to collect rents from tenants of non-paying unit owners. The condominium association will notify the tenants in writing that they are required to forward all future rent payments to the condo trust until the unpaid balance is satisfied. This typically gets the prompt attention of the unit owner.

Here is a sample 6d certificate.

Massachusetts 6d certificate sample

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Condominium Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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images-12I’ve been getting a fair amount of calls these days regarding what I like to term dysfunctional condominium management. Usually these are smaller, self-managed condominiums, converted multi-family homes, etc. Sometimes, however, the problem of dysfunctional condominium management can plague larger condominiums.

As I often tell clients, condominiums often bring out the worst in people. Professionalism and respect get thrown out the door, and childish behavior rules.

The problems can range from poor to no financial management, unpaid monthly condominium fees, problems with the transition from the original developer to the association of unit owners, power hungry condo trustees, special assessments, and disputes over costly repairs and capital improvements. Here’s some advice for would-be condominium buyers and condo unit owners to prevent and deal with dysfunctional condominium management problems.

Dealing With A Dysfunctional Condominium Board of Trustees or Association

A. Financial Mismanagement

A condominium is supposed to run like a democracy with trustees being elected by the majority of unit owners, and subject to being voted out of office when they do a poor job. The procedures for elections and removal should be set forth in the condominium declaration of trust/by-laws. In the case of financial mismanagement, unit owners often may have difficulty enforcing the internal governance rules. At minimum, disgruntled unit owners should call a special meeting and attempt to removal or vote out trustees who are causing problems. If the internal governance doesn’t work, unit owners may seek legal action for “breach of fiduciary duty” against the trustees in the Superior Court. In egregious cases, the court can grant preliminary injunctions and other remedies to protect the unit owners from financial harm.

B. Unpaid Condominium Fees

With the down economy, unpaid condo fees have become a real problem, especially for smaller condos who rely on the monthly income to pay common area expenses. Fortunately, we have a strong Massachusetts condominium lien law with some teeth, called the “Super Lien Law.” Condominium associations can file a lien for unpaid condo fees against the delinquent owner, and the first 6 months of unpaid fees will have “super-priority” status over and above the mortgage(s) on the unit. The association can then foreclose on the lien and sell the unit at auction. Attorneys’ fees and collection costs can also be pursued. The condominium may even require that a unit owner’s tenant pay the association rent to pay down the unpaid fees. These are a very valuable enforcement mechanisms to ensure that condominiums get their condo fees paid. Often the mortgage lender will pay the condo fees on behalf of the borrower to avoid the super-priority lien.

C. Transition Issues

For new construction condominiums, the developer desires to have control over the condo management during the majority of the sell out process. This, however, can create conflicts with unit owners who have bought units. Typically, the condo documents will give the developer control over the association until 75% of the units are sold out or 3 years after the master deed is recorded, whichever is earlier. But what if the developer isn’t managing the finances properly or isn’t doing much of anything? Often the only viable remedy in this type of situation is a Superior Court lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty against the developer-trustees.

Questions To Ask Before You Buy Into A Dysfunctional Condominium

  1. What are the condominium by-laws, rules & regulations? You or your attorney must read these condominium documents and make it a condition of your offer. Condominium by-laws and rules are supposed to provide a structure for good decision making. Make sure you carefully review the rules and regulations before buying.
  2. What is the monthly condominium fee and what does it pay for? The monthly condominium fee can range quite dramatically from condominium to condominium. The fee is a by-product of the number of units, the annual expenses to maintain the common area, whether the condo is professionally managed or self-managed, the age and condition of the project, and other variables such as litigation. For budgeting and financing you need to know the monthly fee and exactly what you are getting for it.
  3. How much money is in the capital reserve account and how much is funded annually? The capital reserve fund is like an insurance policy for the inevitable capital repairs every building requires. As a general rule, the fund should contain at least 10% of the annual revenue budget, and in the case of older projects, even more. If the capital reserve account is poorly funded, there is a higher risk of a special assessment.  Get a copy of the last 2 years budget, the current reserve account funding level and any capital reserve study.
  4. Are there any contemplated or pending special assessments? Special assessments are one time fees for capital improvements payable by every unit owner. Some special assessments can run in the thousands, others like the Boston Harbor Towers $75 Million renovation project, in the millions. You need to be aware if you are buying a special assessment along with your unit.  It’s a good idea to ask for the last 2 years of condominium meeting minutes to check what’s been going on with the condomininium.
  5. Is there a professional management company or is the association self-managed? Usually, a professional management company, while an added cost, can add great value to a condominium with well run governance and management of common areas. Self-managed condos tend to have a higher incidence of dysfunction.
  6. Is the condominium involved in any pending legal actions? Legal disputes between owners, with developers or with the association can signal trouble and a poorly run organization. Ask whether there are any pending lawsuits.
  7. How many units are owner occupied? A large percentage of renters can create unwanted noise and neighbor issues, and result in a higher incidence of dysfunction. It can also raise re-sale and financing  issues with the new Fannie Mae and FHA condominium regulations which limit owner-occupancy rates.
  8. What is the condominium fee delinquency rate? Again, a signal of financial trouble. Plus lending guidelines want to see the rate at 15% or less.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Condominium Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Litigation Over Condominium Construction Can Derail Financing

It’s always humbling to be quoted in a major real estate publication such as Inman News. Last summer, I wrote about the nasty effect of the newer pending litigation Fannie Mae condo rules. Steve Bergsman, from Inman, was gracious enough to retell a story about how these rules left my client with a denial of his financing just days before his condo closing, leaving him living in a motel for weeks. (Another attorney represented him in the transaction, who I believe bordered on committing malpractice by not following my guidelines, below).

My legal advice for Realtors and condo buyers is to:

  1. Have the condominium association disclose whether it is involved in any type of pending litigation which could trigger the Fannie Mae guidelines.
  2. Get this information as early as possible, because it’s a deal killer.
  3. I always put a provision in my purchase and sale agreement rider in which the seller represents there is no pending litigation involving the condo.

Here is the Inman story, entitled New Rules Make Condos Harder To Sell (March 18, 2011):

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.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, “After the Fall: Opportunities and Strategies for Real Estate Investing in the Coming Decade,” has been ranked as a top-selling real estate investment book for the Amazon Kindle e-reader.

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If the condominium project that you are buying into is involved in any pending litigation over construction or its common areas, chances are you will not be able to obtain a conventional loan under newer, strict Fannie Mae condominium lending guidelines. This is not good for condominium buyers, lenders, unit owners desiring to sell and condominium associations.

Fannie Mae underwrites the vast majority of mortgages in the United States today. Reacting to the condominium market meltdown, Fannie Mae (FNMA) substantially overhauled their condo underwriting rules, effective Jan. 1, 2009. The new rules require a 70% sell out threshold for new construction project, tough rules governing condominium finances, and new insurance requirements, among other tighter standards. The net effect is that condominium lending has gotten substantially more difficult to obtain, and the real estate industry and some lawmakers aren’t happy about it.

Pending Litigation Involving Safety, Structural Soundness or Habitability

The new guidelines exclude condominium financing for “projects in litigation, arbitration and mediation that arises out of a dispute as to safety, structural soundness or habitability.” Fannie Mae underwriters now look closely at any pending litigation involving the condominium, especially concerning its construction and common areas. I’ve seen several loans denied and canceled recently over pending condo litigation, regardless of the merits of the lawsuit. According to the Fannie Mae FAQ, if the litigation is minor and covered by insurance, lenders can ask Fannie for a waiver or exception.

So how can buyers and realtors protect themselves here?

  • First, prior to signing the purchase and sale agreement, make sure you ask the seller and the listing broker (preferably in writing to create a record) whether there is any pending litigation involving the condominium. Realtors should follow up with the board of trustees or management company. Attorneys can obtain access to the state trial court database to search for pending litigation.
  • If there is pending litigation, borrowers need to inform their lender, and get an answer whether this will affect the financing.
  • If you cannot get an answer by the signing of the purchase and sale agreement, use a clause in the agreement where the seller certifies there is no pending litigation (and assessments) affecting the condominium.
  • Buyers’ attorneys should also use a catch-all Fannie Mae contingency clause which gives the buyer an out if the condominium ultimately is Fannie non-compliant. This should give some additional protection to the buyer, especially where these issues often arise on the eve of closing and after the loan commitment deadline.

The Pendulum Has Swung The Other Way

What’s troubling about the new rules is that many condominiums are involved in litigation, some of which is meritless or frivolous unit owner suits. A lot of lawsuits are covered by the condominium master insurance policy so there is little risk of real loss. That Fannie Mae would summarily deny financing to these condominiums is disturbing to say the least. Overall, I believe that the pendulum has swung way too far. I wrote about this back when the rules were first implemented (still our most popular post), and it’s still true. But it’s the reality. Buyers and their advisers need to be aware of the situation.

Helpful Links:

Fannie Mae Condominium Review FAQ

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“Walls In” Condo Unit Coverage Required By Many Lenders

A HO-6 policy is like a regular homeowner’s policy, but for a condominium unit, and with a lot more extras. HO-6 insurance policies cover the interior of the unit and personal property inside–commonly known as “studs in” or “walls in” coverage.

HO-6 Now Required By Lenders

Under the new Fannie Mae (FNMA) and FHA overhaul of condominium lending guidelines, lenders are now requiring HO-6 policies for new condo unit purchases. Sounds like common sense, but HO-6 policies weren’t always required by lenders, and many condominium unit owners were under the mistaken impression that the master condominium insurance policy covered all damage to the interior of their unit as well as damage to furniture, appliances, etc. That isn’t so. In most cases, that master insurance policy covers common areas such as the hallways, roof, basement, elevator, boiler, and common walkways, for both liability and physical damage–but not the inside of units.

Coverages

HO-6 policy benefits include:

  • Coverage for damage to personal property such as furniture, computer equipment and clothing
  • Fill in the gaps of the master insurance policy and cover losses under master policy deductibles
  • Personal liability coverage
  • Interior walls and floor coverings coverage
  • Coverage for improvements or upgrades (most master insurance policies only cover the original condition and value of the unit).
  • Usually has small deductible and fairly inexpensive

Under the new lending rules, an HO-6 insurance policy must provide coverage for no less than 20% of the condominium unit’s appraised value.

High Deductible Protection

Another benefit of obtaining an HO-6 policy is that in certain situations, it will provide gap coverage caused by the often high deductibles on a master insurance policy. These days, condominium associations have been cutting costs by increasing their deductibles, anywhere from $10,000 to even $50,000. What’s more, condominium documents often provide that the unit owner is responsible for losses falling below the deductible. A well-tailored HO-6 policy will protect you in this situation. Here is a good article about the tug-of-war on deductibles.

Loss Assessments

HO-6 policies can also provide coverage for assessments applied an individual unit due to a direct loss to the condominium. The loss must be a “peril” covered under the unit owner’s individual policy, not be levied by a governmental agency, and not be related to earthquake damage. A standard condo policy typically includes up to $1,000 in loss assessment coverage. Additional coverage can be covered for a nominal amount.

The HO-6 policy is a must have for every condominium owner!

If you need an HO-6 policy, please contact my good friend, Kate Kissane at Morrill Insurance in Sudbury, MA. Email: k.kissane@morillinsurance.com or tel: 978-443-9912. 

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brownstone1.jpgBuying a condominium unit can be more involved than buying a single family home. This is because you have to worry about both the unit itself and the condominium project as a whole.

10 Questions You Must Ask Before Purchasing A Condominium Unit

To borrow from a famous phrase, not all condominiums are created equally. Some condominiums are very well run; some are quite poorly run and underfunded. Buyers interested in purchasing a condominium unit must do their homework:  not only about the condition of the individual unit they are interested in purchasing, but on the financial health and governance of the condominium as a whole. Remember, you are buying into the entire project as much as you are the unit, and your decision will impact your daily living and your ability to re-sell.

Here are the 10 questions buyers should ask when deciding to purchase a condominium unit:

  1. What is the monthly condominium fee and what does it pay for? The monthly condominium fee can range quite dramatically from condominium to condominium. The fee is a by-product of the number of units, the annual expenses to maintain the common area, whether the condo is professionally managed or self-managed, the age and condition of the project, and other variables such as litigation. For budgeting and financing you need to know the monthly fee and exactly what you are getting for it.
  2. What are the condominium rules & regulations? Condominium rules can prohibit pets, your ability to rent out the unit, and perform renovations. Make sure you carefully review the rules and regulations before buying.  Needless to say, the buyer’s attorney should review and approval all condominium documents, including the master deed, declaration of trust/by-laws, covenants, unit deed and floor plans to ensure compliance with state condominium laws as well as Fannie Mae and FHA guidelines, as necessary.
  3. How much money is in the capital reserve account and how much is funded annually? The capital reserve fund is like an insurance policy for the inevitable capital repairs every building requires. As a general rule, the fund should contain at least 10% of the annual revenue budget, and in the case of older projects, even more. If the capital reserve account is poorly funded, there is a higher risk of a special assessment.  Get a copy of the last 2 years budget, the current reserve account funding level and any capital reserve study.
  4. Are there any contemplated or pending special assessments? Special assessments are one time fees for capital improvements payable by every unit owner. Some special assessments can run in the thousands, others like the Boston Harbor Towers $75 Million renovation project, in the millions. You need to be aware if you are buying a special assessment along with your unit.  It’s a good idea to ask for the last 2 years of condominium meeting minutes to check what’s been going on with the condomininium.
  5. Is there a professional management company or is the association self-managed? Usually, a professional management company, while an added cost, can add great value to a condominium with well run governance and management of common areas. But for smaller condominiums, self-management works just fine.
  6. Is the condominium involved in any pending legal actions? Legal disputes between owners, with developers or with the association can signal trouble and a poorly run organization. Legal action equals attorneys’ fees which are payable out of the condominium budget and could result in a special assessment.  In some states, you can run a search of the condominium association in the court database to check if they’ve been involved in recent lawsuits.
  7. How many units are owner occupied? A large percentage of renters can create unwanted noise and neighbor issues. It can also raise re-sale and financing  issues with the new Fannie Mae and FHA condominium regulations which limit owner-occupancy rates. If your buyer is using conventional financing, check if it is a Fannie Mae approved condo. If FHA financing, check if it’s an FHA approved condo. (Thanks mortgage specialist Lou Corcoran for the links)
  8. What is the condominium fee delinquency rate? Again, a signal of financial trouble, and Fannie Mae and FHA want to see the rate at 15% or less.
  9. Do unit owners have exclusive easements or right to use certain common areas such as porches, decks, storage spaces and parking spaces? Condominiums differ as to how they structure the “ownership” of certain amenities such as roof decks, porches, storage spaces and parking spaces. Sometimes, they are truly “deeded” with the unit, so the unit owner has sole responsibility for maintenance and repairs. Sometimes, they are common areas in which the unit owner has the exclusive right to use, but the maintenance and repair is left with the association.  Review the Master Deed and Unit Deed on this one.
  10. What Does The Master Insurance Policy Cover? The condominium should have up to $1M or more in coverage under their master condominium policy. For buyer’s own protection, they should always buy an individual HO-6 policy covering the interior and contents of the unit, because the master policy and condo by-laws may not cover all damage to their personal possessions and interior damage in case of a roof leak, water pipe burst or other problem arising from a common area element. Ask for a copy of the master insurance policy and don’t forget to check the fine print of the by-laws. Sometimes, there’s language that would hurt a unit owner in case of a common area casualty. Condominiums over 20 units should also have fidelity insurance to protect against embezzlement.

I posted this list on the Realtor ActiveRain website and it was the featured post, generating a slew of great comments from real estate brokers around the country.

Of course, a good real estate attorney will help buyers and their realtors with this “due diligence.” As part of our standard condominium representation, we will review the following condominium documents and issues:

  • Master Deed and amendments
  • Declaration of Trust/By-Laws, Rules & Regulations
  • HOA Covenants/Restrictions
  • Unit Deed and Floor Plans
  • Condominium Budget and Capital Reserve Fund
  • Fannie Mae/FHA Compliance Provisions
  • Condominium Annual and Special Meeting Minutes
  • Pending or Contemplated Special Assessments or Litigation

We will also build in provisions into your purchase and sale agreement to protect you in case there are unanticipated or undisclosed issues with the condominium which affect your willingness to move forward with the transaction. Happy condo hunting!

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After several revisions and delays, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has finally issued major changes to its revised guidelines on mortgage insurance requirements for condominium projects. FHA first proposed the revisions back in June (under Mortgagee Letter 2009-19). The new guidelines are effective December 7, 2009; however, some of the requirements are phased in through January 31, 2010.

There has been a considerable amount of controversy involving HUD/FHA’s proposed requirements for obtaining FHA mortgage insurance for condominiums. The newest guideline revisions are in response to the strong reaction from condominium associations and mortgage industry representatives who saw many of the FHA requirements as counter-productive and burdensome to condominium associations and owners.

The latest guidelines are described in two separate HUD/FHA documents:

  • Mortgagee Letter 2009-46B (the revised guidelines for FHA approval of residential condominium projects)
  • Mortgagee Letter 2009-46A (temporary guidance for condominium approvals).

Under the Temporary Guidance:

  • The “Spot Loan” approval process will continue through February 1, 2010, after which it will be replaced by the new Direct Endorsement Lender Review & Approval Process (DELRAP); and
  • The 30% cap on FHA loans per condo project will be expanded to 50% until December 31, 2010. Concentrations may be increased to 100% if certain additional conditions are met. After January 1, 2011, the cap reverts back to 30%.

The highlights of the New Guidelines are as follows:

  • Condominium project approval is not required for condominiums comprised of single-family totally detached dwellings (no shared garages or any other attached buildings).
  • Until December 31, 2010, at least 30% pre-sale level must be reached before any FHA mortgage can be granted on any unit. After 12/31/10, 50% pre-sale level must be reached.
  • 50% owner occupancy rate for the entire project.
  • No more than 15% of unit owners can be delinquent (over 30 days late) on their condominium fees.
  • Capital reserve funding:  The reserve study requirement has been eliminated, along with the requirement of at least 60% of the fully funded reserves. The new requirement requires merely that at least 10% of the association’s annual budget be set aside for reserves.
  • Budget review:  Lenders must review the condominium budget to determine that the budget is adequate and: (i) includes allocations/line items to ensure sufficient funds are available to maintain and preserve all amenities and features unique to the condominium project; (ii) provides for the funding of replacement reserves for capital expenditures and deferred maintenance in an account representing at least 10% of the budget; and (iii) provides adequate funding for insurance coverage and deductibles.
  • No more than 25% of space allocated to commercial use.
  • No more than 10% of units held by a single investor.
  • The 1-year waiting period for conversion condominiums is eliminated.
  • Unit owners must obtain individual HO-6 insurance policies if the master policy doesn’t cover unit interiors.
  • Fidelity insurance must be obtained for 20+ unit projects.
  • Re-certification required every 2 years.

Transition Strategy:

  • FHA will move all currently approved condominium projects to the new approval list and FHA Connection database.
  • Projects that received approval prior to October 1, 2008, will require recertification on or before December 7, 2009.
  • Projects that received approval between October 1, 2008 and December 7, 2009, will be “grandfathered” and will have to follow the new guidelines’ recertification process (recertification required every two years).

couple-homeAnalysis:

Although the condominium association and mortgage lobby were successful in watering down some the more onerous requirements, the new revised guidelines will still represent a major change in how lenders underwrite condominium mortgages. Lenders will have to perform much more extensive due diligence on condominium projects than before.

The new guidelines will also force existing condominium associations to really get their acts together, especially with their unpaid condominium fees, budgets, insurance and capital reserve accounts. FHA mortgage programs are becoming the first choice for first time home buyers, and condominium units are particularly suitable for first timers. I have already seen situations where condominium trustees feel no obligation to comply with FHA (and Fannie Mae) guidelines in connection with a proposal sale of a unit, and it is not a good situation. Condominium trustees and association can certainly open themselves up to liability if they don’t cooperate and maintain the marketability of the units which they govern. Trustees owe unit owners a fiduciary obligation to get their associations in compliance with all new FHA/FNMA guidelines, in my opinion.

For condominium associations, the Community Associations Institute has published this helpful “Head’s Up” and FAQ.

As always, contact Richard Vetstein with any questions.

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Rona Fischman, a buyer’s agent and co-author of Boston.com’s Real Estate Now Blog asked me to answer a couple of questions regarding condominiums on her Boston.com blog which I’ve reprinted here:

Is an individual unit owner liable if someone gets hurt in the condominium’s common areas?

The answer is most likely not. This is good lead in to the concept of “common areas.” When someone buys a condominium unit, they also obtain an undivided share of the condominium’s common areas and facilities. Common areas typically include obvious things such as building entrances and exits, lobbies, interior stairways, pools and workout rooms. They also include not so obvious areas such as the space between adjoining units, telecommunication wires, and the roof. As outlined in the “master deed,” each unit owner “owns” an undivided share (expressed as a percentage) of all the common areas. But the condominium association has responsibility over managing and maintaining the common areas. Recognizing that unit owners have very little control over common areas, the Massachusetts Condominium Act provides that only the condominium association can be sued for claims related to common areas. The condominium association should have a master liability insurance policy in place in case anyone gets injured on common area property. If however, the claim is so substantial that all common funds, property and insurance proceeds have been exhausted to pay the claim, individual unit owners could be held liable for the balance due, if any, but only up to their respective percentage interest in the condominium. Now, if your unit has a private deck or porch (which is not a common area) with a faulty railing, you could be held responsible if someone fell. For all these reasons, unit owners should absolutely obtain an “HO-6″ policy for their own liability and an umbrella policy on top of that.

I own a condominium unit and rent it out to students. Am I responsible for my tenant’s noise and disturbance problems?

The answer is yes. While a precise response would depend on the provisions of the condominium’s bylaws, typically, a unit owner is responsible for the actions of tenants. Most often, a condominium’s bylaws and house rules are binding on unit owners, resident family members and tenants. If a tenant violates a house rule — by making excessive noise — the unit owner is responsible for all consequences. The condominium association can require the unit owner to evict the tenant; if the unit owner fails or refuses, the condominium association may be able to take separate legal action against the owner and levy stiff fines. If the bylaws provide, the unit owner may be responsible for reimbursing the condo for legal fees and other expenses incurred in connection with his tenant’s eviction. Disgruntled unit owners can also pursue “nuisance” claims against unit owners who rent to noisy tenants. This is a tricky issue with an absentee unit owner who cannot verify the nature of the complaints. Surely, however, renting to noisy tenants will earn you no favors with your fellow unit owners.

Condominium Living 101

My advice to folks considering purchasing a condominium is to recognize that you are buying into a rather unique form of ownership and community. You will be giving up certain rights taken for granted in del bocasingle family dwelling life — the right to absolute silence, privacy, and control over all aspects of the property — in exchange for perhaps more amenities, convenience, less maintenance, and better location and price. In some cases, you will also be entering into the uniquely democratic (or in some condos, totalitarian) form of governance, rife with politics, fighting and name-calling–think that Seinfeld episode down at the Del Boca Vista Condos. But seriously, the majority of condominiums are well run. But before you buy, it’s imperative that you and your real estate attorney thoroughly review the condominium documents and budget to ensure you’re not buying into a Seinfeld-esque nightmare.

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Recent Fannie Mae (FNMA) condominium lending regulations are beginning to live up to the hype as having an onerous impact on condominium sales and project development. The changes, made in January 2009, were part of an effort by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to limit risky lending in a segment of the housing market particularly hard hit by foreclosures in recent years.

Here is a brief overview of the Fannie Mae condo guideline changes:

  • For new construction and newly converted condominium developments, 70% of the units must be pre-sold (closed or under contract). This guideline is being increased from 51%.  This is the real Catch-22.  Fannie Mae won’t approve condominium mortgages unless 70% of the units are sold, but a developer cannot sell 70% of the units without buyers being able to obtain conventional Fannie Mae compliant mortgages. Buyers who run into problems here are being forced to get loans from small local banks who hold their own mortgages and are not bound by the FNMA guidelines.
  • No more than 15% of condominium units within a single project can be more than 30 days delinquent on condo fees. This is an existing guideline that is now being applied to new condominium projects. The requirement was also changed from being 15% of the total fee payments to 15% of total units.
  • Fidelity insurance will be required for condominiums with 20 or more units, ensuring that homeowner association funds are protected. Presently, this requirement applies to new projects and is now being extended to include established condominiums.
  • Borrowers must now obtain an HO-6 condominium unit owners insurance policy unless the condominium master policy provides interior unit coverage; coverage may not be less than 20% of the assessed value. A condominium owners policy, known as an HO-6 policy, typically covers personal property, personal liability, and the physical unit from the studs and in. Many policies also include special assessment coverage or the option to include a special assessment coverage rider. Click here for a more extensive post on HO-6 policies.
  • No more than 10% of a project can be owned by a single entity. Apparently, this was to keep the so-called “vulture buyers” from taking over project.
  • No more than 20% of a project can consist of non-residential space. The new guidelines therefore severely impact most mixed commercial-residential use projects, a highly popular development scheme.
  • The condominium/homeowners association must have at least 10% of its budgeted income designated in a capital reserve fund for replacement reserves and adequate funds budgeted for the insurance deductible. Many older condominium associations keep woefully inadequate reserves and operating budgets, so they are non-compliant.
  • No pending litigation involving the structural soundness, safety or habitability of the condominium project. Fannie Mae underwriters will reject financing if the condominium association is involved in litigation over the construction of the project. I’ve written about this more extensively here. Borrowers may ask for a waiver if they can establish adequate insurance coverage for the litigation or otherwise little or no risk of loss to the association.
  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also boosted fees on mortgages for condominium units. Buyers without a minimum 25% down payment have to pay closing-cost fees equal to 0.75% of their loan, regardless of their credit score, under new rules that took effect in April. Fannie Mae has said it will drop that fee in August for cooperative apartments and detached condos.

According to a Fannie Mae, the guidelines can be modified for condominium projects on a case-by-case basis.  Therefore, these guidelines may not apply to all condo projects.

Click here for the guidelines.

What’s the impact of the changes?FNMA condominium guidelines

Certainly, the revised guidelines are negatively affecting condominium buyers’ ability to obtain conventional loans for either a new or established condominium if the project does not conform. Most notably, the changes are dramatically affecting new developments, especially in hard hit areas such as Florida and California.

Fannie Mae has already approved a number of projects. Click here for the full list of FNMA approved projects.

Through discussions with some fellow Massachusetts real estate professionals, the impact here in the Bay State is not as bad as some of the harder hit states, but it’s proving to be a major thorn in many transactions. Real estate attorneys on both sides of the table are working hard to get existing condominium developments in compliance with the new regulations.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who ironically spent the last year lambasting Fannie Mae for its questionable lending practices, is now calling for Fannie Mae to relax these guidelines. We’ll see what happens in D.C., and keep you posted on any changes coming down the pipeline.

Update:  Since I posted this article, I’ve been retained several times to issue attorney opinion letters certifying to a lender that a particular condominium project is in compliance with the new FNMA regulations. If you are in need of such an opinion letter, please contact Richard Vetstein at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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