Distressed Condos: Great Buys or Sucker Bets?

The housing meltdown has caught up with many condo complexes. Will they turn aro

Distressed Condos: Great Buys or Sucker Bets?

 The housing meltdown has caught up with many condo complexes. Will they turn around or go under?

 

Across the country, there are literally millions of distressed condos with seriously reduced selling prices but before buying know this: you are climbing into deep waters with lots of sharks.

Can a distressed condo be a good deal? You bet. Said Arthur Cantor, with William Raveis Real Estate in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "Many properties that are in crisis and distress are often a good investment," he said. "However, properties in crisis can also be a money pit, a bad investment and not worth the trouble."

Understand this: we are not talking about a neglected condo unit. What we are talking about is a unit - that may be in terrific condition - that is in a complex that is imploding, usually in a delayed reaction to the housing crisis and foreclosure wave of eight or so years ago.

But as the association sinks, so goes your unit - even if the mortgage is paid up and so are its condo association dues. Said Sally Balson, owner of Condominium Business Management in Wisconsin: "When you are buying a condo you are becoming a shareholder of a corporation." That's every bit as true for buyers in cooperatives that are common in the Northeast.

Many financial fates are linked together. And around the country a lot of condominium complexes are crapping out. The signs - frequently - are plain. The grounds are overgrown. The pool is not filled and even if water is in it, it's definitely unheated. The roof needs repair. Matters may be so bad that lights in common areas such as hallways are off because the electric bill has not been paid by the association.

A recent Washington Post report documented many condo communities around the District - even in Virginia and Maryland suburbs - that are near implosion as bad luck multiplies.

It unfolds like this: a unit owner loses his/her job, can't pay the mortgage and of course not the condo association fee. Multiply that across enough units and suddenly that complex is in a mess. Unit prices fall. More default. More dues go unpaid. Soon the complex can't pay its bills.

Question: is now the time to buy?

Know that in Florida, lawyers Barry Lapides and Jeffrey Margolis with Berger Singerman told TheStreet that they have worked multiple deals with developers who buy out an entire condo complex and turn it into rental apartments.

That's an end game. A lot of misery comes before that resolution. But know that for some condo complexes a kind of suicide is the only option.

Most of the complexes in dire straits are older - think 40+ and generally without architectural significance. Most were built to give the lower middle and middle class a path to homeownership - meaning they lack luxe amenities that appeal to today's condo buyers.

In some parts of the country, you won't find complexes in this mess, mainly because of robust real estate prices. In New York, for instance, Larry Link, president of Level Group, an New York-based residential and commercial brokerage, said that there essentially are none in the five boroughs. "Rising equity values help you out of the problem."

Ditto for San Francisco.

But look in just about all the rest of the nation and there are plenty of condo victims.

When units go up for sale, however, the price can be very right. Tempted?

Word of warning: if a unit is available only for all cash buyers that may be a sign that the complex is in terminal distress. That's because when an association's books get too filled with red ink, mainline lenders stop issuing mortgages.

Another red flag that says don't buy here: if more than 50% of the units are rentals. Most lenders also won't write mortgages on units in such complexes.

A simple step will keep you from going into a condo deal without knowing the financial reality of the complex: ask for and read the financial documents that the seller should make available on request, said Heather McRae, a senior loan officer with Chicago Financial Services.

Do buyers actually look at these docs - which should detail the financial status of the association, including its cash reserves for dealing with emergencies? "Less than 5% do," said Balson.

Be in that 5%. Read the docs. Look for warnings such as the number of units in arrears on dues (when it hits 15%, run for cover). Also ask what the association's plans are for dealing with deferred maintenance. Are assessments for repairs - which often can be upwards of $10,000 per unit - in the offing?

Bottomline: carefully go over the numbers and, just maybe, you found that dream condo in a town where you thought you'd never afford to live.

Or maybe you are looking at your personal financial Waterloo, and it's time to keep your checkbook closed.

That's your call. Just make it knowing all the relevant numbers.

Oct 15, 2016 1:20 PM EDT