WASHINGTON — If you own or plan to buy a condominium, an ominous new phase of the mortgage credit squeeze could be looming on your horizon.
As a result of underwriting changes by giant investors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, plus severe new restrictions by private mortgage insurers, getting a loan on a condo unit — or even refinancing one you already own — could prove tougher than you imagined.
For example, starting May 1, AIG United Guaranty, a major private mortgage insurer, no longer will write coverage on condominiums in hundreds of ZIP codes across the country that it designates as having "declining" market conditions. The ban is irrespective of applicants' credit scores, assets or equity stakes.
Even in the healthiest real estate markets, United Guaranty will require at least a 10 percent down payment, and will reject applications on units in condo projects where more than 30 percent of the owners are investors.
Piles of paperwork
Buyers with down payments of 20 percent or larger are not affected by the private mortgage insurance cutbacks. Some mortgage insurers continue to accept applications on condos in declining markets, but require down payments of at least 10 percent.
Fannie Mae, a dominant financing source for condominium projects, has rolled out new procedures that some lenders and mortgage brokers say could tighten up the availability of loans to condo purchasers in the coming months. Freddie Mac has issued similar new guidelines.
Under Fannie Mae's changes, most of the due-diligence research on condominium projects' key characteristics must now be performed upfront by loan officers: legal documentation, the adequacy of condo association operating budgets, percentage of unit owners who are late on association-fee payments, percentage of space allocated to commercial use, and percentage of units owned by investors.
Not only is this time-consuming and costly, but under the new procedures, Fannie Mae expects the lender to warrant the accuracy of its research. Some condo project legal documents run into the hundreds of pages of text, yet lenders are supposed to take legal and financial responsibility for their accuracy.
No wiggle room
"It's ridiculous," said Phil Sutcliffe, principal of Project Support Services of Lansdale, Pa, who helps put together condominium project financings for developers. Not only does this shift huge paperwork and time burdens on lenders and brokers, who may not have staff resources to handle the extra work, but also forces them to make "absolute judgments on things that are not absolute."
Sutcliffe said the new Fannie guidance requires loan officers to insure that at least 10 percent of a condominium project's current operating budget is reserved for "capital expenditures and deferred maintenance." Sutcliffe, who has analyzed condo project budgets for two decades, says there are no provisions in the guidance for "compensating factors," such as when part of the line-item reserves are for nonphysical expenditures such as insurance.
Some loan officers will simply look at the "reserves" item and, if it's below the 10 percent mark, might reject the whole building and refuse to take loan applications on individual condo units, according to Sutcliffe.
Fannie Mae spokeswoman Marilyn Kornfeld said the new procedures are designed to "protect borrowers and manage increased credit risk in the market." Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German acknowledged that the changes would make condo unit loans "more labor- and paper-intensive for the lender," but said weak sales, growing numbers of financially troubled projects, and declining property values made them necessary.
Jeff Lipes, president of Connecticut-based Family Choice Mortgage Corp., said the Fannie Mae changes combined with other retrenchments battering the condo market mean that when potential applicants inquire about getting a loan on a condo unit, "we really can't give them a definite answer" because it takes research to determine whether their building qualifies.
Project over person
"Even if you had an 800 FICO score and 50 percent equity," said Lipes, "you still might not be able to get a condo loan" under certain circumstances. It all depends on whether the underlying project can pass the highly restrictive underwriting tests, whether it is in a declining market, and whether there is a lender "concentration" limit on it. Some large private mortgage lenders refuse to finance more than a set percentage of units in a single condo project to limit their exposure to possible losses.
Bruce A. Calabrese, president of Equitable Mortgage Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, said he owns two condo units — one in Florida, another in Myrtle Beach, S.C. — and even though he is in the mortgage industry, "I don't think I could refinance either of them right now if I tried."
E-mail Kenneth R. Harney at firstname.lastname@example.org.