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Knowledge is power

The Downside for Condos in a  

 Downturn

Published: February 6, 2009

 

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Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

 

Related

A Condo Toughens Its Stance and Tightens Its

 Belt (February 8, 2009)

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

WARNING SIGNS Adam D. Finkelstein, a real estate lawyer, says lien filings are rising.

DURING the recent boom, buyers who coveted condos for their sex appeal could also make the case that condos were a smarter choice than co-ops.

In theory, you didn’t have to prostrate yourself, financially and otherwise, before a board for approval, and you could sell or rent pretty much to whomever you chose, should the need, or whim, arise. You could also put down a lot less money than the 20, 25, or even 50 percent of the purchase price customarily demanded by co-ops.

But as the city’s fortunes buckle and heave, these very differences have potentially rendered some of the city’s condo buildings dangerously exposed to the downturn. Then there is a distinction many condo buyers probably dismissed as a boring legality: If a condo unit is the subject of a foreclosure, the bank gets first dibs on the equity. With real estate prices way off their peak, that means some condo buildings will collect nothing but dust from residents who have also failed to pay their common charges, leaving the remaining owners to shoulder the burden of higher costs or reduced services.

Defaults on common charges began to spike last fall, according to lawyers hired by increasingly jittery boards to file liens (the first step toward foreclosure) against owners in arrears.

“We had maybe four or five before October,” said Adam Leitman Bailey, a Manhattan real estate lawyer, referring to the number of liens his firm filed last year against condo owners in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “It really got going this fall. We had 28 filings here and 17 in Brooklyn. These aren’t in the wealthiest or the poorest buildings. It’s the buildings with the younger 30- or 35-year-old professionals buying a $1 million to $2.5 million apartment, who haven’t been working for 20 or 30 years and are relying on their job to pay for it.” Other lien-filing lawyers said the pace had picked up by at least 10 to 25 percent.

“We’re seeing more, especially in the higher-end buildings where you never heard of foreclosures,” said Adam D. Finkelstein, a real estate lawyer with Kagan Lubic Lepper Lewis Gold & Colbert in Manhattan. Starting last quarter, his firm began filing two or three liens a month, up from two or three per year.

According to figures provided by the online research company PropertyShark.com, condo lien filings more than doubled in Brooklyn during the second half of 2008, and the number of filings in Manhattan zigzagged, with 156 in the first quarter, 186 in the second, 154 in the third and 203 in the fourth.

While the aggregate number of liens is still small (47 in Brooklyn and 67 in Manhattan in December, for example), they may be the first sign of trouble: Liens typically lag months behind defaults in common charge payments, and the bottom didn’t truly fall out of the city’s economy until last fall.

Moreover, barring a swift economic renaissance, lawyers, managing agents and condo boards are bracing for things to worsen significantly this year as job losses mount, severances and savings evaporate, and the new reality sets in.

“The world as we’ve been living in it for the last several years has changed seemingly overnight,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “We’re at the very beginning of this.”

While lawyers are reporting a similar rash of defaults among co-op owners, the risk to the building (and by extension to the defaulter’s neighbors) is slight by comparison. That’s because a co-op building is entitled to its share before the bank can claim anything in the event of foreclosure (the ultimate consequence of nonpayment of maintenance charges).

But in condo foreclosures, the debt priorities are reversed. After a foreclosure process that these days can take two years — during which unpaid common charges proliferate — the building gets its due only after the bank is paid in full. And many condo owners have little equity in their apartments.

“I think it’s safe to say that the value of any apartment purchased in the last two years is less than its purchase price,” said David Kuperberg, the president of Cooper Square Realty, a Manhattan property management company. “The simple calculation is that if you bought an apartment a year ago and financed 90 percent of the purchase price, as many did, and now it’s worth 20 percent less, you’re upside-down as an owner.”

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