Before making a loan to a would-be buyer, lenders comb through the building's financial statements to see if too many condos remain unsold, or if units are mostly rentals instead of owner-occupied. Lenders also look to see if the building's cash reserves, which help cover maintenance costs, are too low.
These factors which have nothing to do with a potential buyer's finances can put a choke hold on a loan.
A lot of condo buildings don't make the grade. At national lender EverBank, for instance, roughly 30% of condo mortgage applicants encounter a roadblock due to the building's finances. "A perfect borrower can't fix a bad project," says Tom Wind, executive vice president of residential and consumer lending at EverBank.
Shaky condos have been popping up more frequently over the past two to three years, even in luxury buildings, says Zeke Morris, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors. Real-estate agents say they're also prevalent in other markets, including Houston and Miami.
In general, lenders say they view condos as riskier purchases than other homes. Much of that stems from condo-association fees. If existing owners are behind on those payments or many units remain unsold, monthly fees are likely to rise to help cover costs.
At some point, lenders argue, those expenses could rise to a level where an owner can no longer afford to pay the fees and walks away from the property, leaving the lender with the outstanding mortgage. That's why, currently, it is almost impossible to get a mortgage regardless of your wealth if more than 15% of condos in a building are behind on dues, says Jeff Gennarelli, president of Bridgeview Bank Mortgage Co., based in Lombard, Ill.
But luxury buyers have alternatives besides paying all cash for the condo. One is private mortgages, loans that lenders hold on their books rather than sell to the government. They tend to be larger than traditional loans, require larger down payments and are often offered only as adjustable-rate mortgages. Rates are also generally higher than traditional mortgages.
Private loans are sometimes the only source of financing for condos sold in luxury hotels and in buildings where more than 20% or 25% of the units consist of commercial space, like restaurants and shopping malls. They're also common for a condo in a new building where a certain percentage of the units are still owned by the developer.
To find such a loan, borrowers should consider a community bank or other local lending institution where they have a lot of assets or where they have been banking for years, though an existing relationship isn't always required. Or they can ask mortgage brokers who may know a lender willing to fund such a loan.
The opportunity for profit is partly why these lenders take on the risk when others won't. Whatever leniency they offer on a building's finances they often make up for by imposing strict lending requirements, including high credit scores, says Eddie Hoskins, president of First Florida Financial Group, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based mortgage broker that arranges such loans.
Some points to consider when applying for a condo loan:
Get an early start: Buyers should ask lenders for the list of criteria the building will need to meet; then real-estate agents can provide those answers when potential buyers shop for properties.
The type of building: Some condo buildings have a greater risk of not being approved for financing. Jonathan Cherry, senior mortgage banker at Wyndham Capital Mortgage based in Charlotte, N.C., says buyers who want to avoid financing complications might want to stick to mid- to larger-size buildings that are mostly owner-occupied.
Large down payments: With a private mortgage, borrowers often need to make at least a 20% to 30% down payment if it's a primary residence. If it's a second home, they could need to put down at least 40%. For investment purposes, cash is among the few options, since a mortgage may be impossible to get.
Rising costs: With adjustable-rate mortgages, rates could be low now but rise in a few years, thereby increasing the monthly mortgage payment. And borrowers could still end up with rising condo dues if the other owners in the building hit hard times.