Q: Recently, I found a condominium unit that met all of my needs - financial, esthetic and social. After expressing my interest to the sales agent, I was given a large package of papers they called condominium documents and was told that I must make a $1,500 deposit and sign the contract immediately. When I objected that I wanted an opportunity to carefully review these documents (following your advice), I was told that since there is a 15-day cooling-off period, if I was not satisfied with the documents, I could get my money back - with interest.
Should I sign these documents without reading them? Can I be forced to do so?
A: I was taught one basic lesson in law school: Don't sign anything unless you have carefully read the document - and fully understood it.
It is true that many condominium developers, faced with a seller's market, are putting severe pressure on potential purchasers to sign up early for a condominium unit - even at the expense of not having the opportunity to read the condominium instruments.
Many developers justify this practice by telling the potential purchaser that since the law gives the purchaser a 15-day "cooling-off" period, the purchaser is fully protected and has the absolute right to back out of the deal if they are not satisfied.
There is no question that this is the law in this area. (In Virginia it is 10 days.) But, in my opinion, there is a major difference between having a cooling-off period after the documents are signed and having an initial opportunity to fully comprehend what is in the documents, prior to signature.
Let us look at the kinds of documents presented to the potential purchaser. A lengthy, and indeed highly complex document (known as a public offering statement) must be given to the purchaser.
Legal requirements are somewhat different in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. But generally speaking, the orginal developer of a condominium project must disclose the makeup of the condominium association, when control will pass from the developer to the unit owners, the kind of warranty provided, if any, and a statement as to what will and what will not be built. The latter includes tennis courts, swimming pools, parking spaces, etc.
Although this public offering statement should be written in simple English, my own experience leads me to believe that these documents really are unintelligible to many purchasers.
Recently, a clever lawyer in Florida drafted a public offering statement and added a "translation" to its legal requirements. For example, where it read, "The developer will submit the fee-simple title to the condominium property to condominium ownership," the translation said: "This means that we're in the business of selling stuff rather than renting it."
If a lawyer in Florida feels compelled to provide a translation, one begins to understand the complexity of this problem.
Yet, you are asked to sign a condominium document, committing yourself possibly to one of the largest purchases in your lifetime, and you are not given an opportunity to read and understand what you are signing.
It is not enough that you have 10 or 15 days in which to cancel this contract. After you have signed the document, in reality it is an "all or nothing" situation. You must take the documents as is, or get out from the contract and get your money back.
But what if you want to negotiate a little? You certainly have the right to try - even though the seller may not be agreeable. What if you want to pay extra for additional items, such as a better quality rug, a double-duty washing machine, etc. Certainly, you should have the right to add provisions to the printed contract presented by the developer.
If the developer does not allow you an opportunity to read before you sign your condominium documents, I suggest that you file a complaint with the local condominium office. I cannot believe that anyone, especially the developer's lawyers, could publicly justify a position denying you an opportunity to read what you are signing. It should be pointed out that the cooling off period applies only when you are buying from the developer. There are different rules on resale of a condominium unit.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington attorney. Write him in care of the real estate section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington 20071.