Congress continues to drag its heels on a federal law that would give some measure of protection to buyers of condominiums anywhere in the country. A number of states have laws of their own - a few of them quite good. (Among the states with good laws are New York, Virginia, California, and Michigan.)
But others have big loopholes. And in some states there's hardly any recourse at all against poor construction, weasling contracts and unethical sales techniques.
Several federal condominium bills were the hopper last year, but none of them got anywhere. The principal opponent was the National Association of Home Builders - but they couldn't have been so effective if Congress had truly understood that many condominium contracts are an outrage crying for remedy. Rep. Joseph Minish (D-N.J.) has reintroduced a bill tis year.So far, the Senate is content to wait and see what happens in the House.
The trouble with condominiums is that so many builders have exploited the consumer interest rather than served it. In a study of the problem last year, the Housing and Urban Development department identified these key problems.
Poor Construction. Buyers are rarely equipped to judge whether the builder's heating and cooling systems are adequate, or whether the building materials are of good qaulity.
Poor Management. Condominiums are a complex cooperative living environment and unit owners often lack the experience to govern them well. Small groups may force changes that the majority doesn't like it. Budget estimates are often inadequate, and insufficient money may be set aside for replacement and repairs. The governing board may be reluctant to enforce the condominium's rules on their friends and neighbors.
Complicated Contracts. The cond documents may run to 100 pages of legalese. Even a real estate lawyer may not understand them, unless condominiums are his special area of expertise.
Insufficient Financing. Many prospective owners have lost their deposits when the builder went bankrupt before the project was complete. In fact, a HUD spokesman told my associate, Anne Colamosca, that this was one of the most troubling problems identified by the study.
"Low Balling." Condominium salesmen often give lower estimates of maintenance fees than will really be required. When people move in, they find they can't afford the cost of the keeping up the building and grounds, so the property gradually falls into disrepair.
Under the Ford administration, HUD endorsed a limited number of disclosure and consumer-protection provisions, but would leave it to the states to decide whether to protect their residents or not. Whether the new administration takes the condominium problem more seriosly remains to be seen.