Rampant foreclosures leave condo owners stuck with fees

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Susan Taylor Martin

Published May 16, 2010

To most people, Brittany's Place in Largo looked no different than the hundreds of other blandly attractive apartment complexes built in Florida in the 1970s and '80s.

To four Miami men, it looked like gold.

As the condominium boom neared a frenzied peak in 2005, they hit on a plan: buy the 96-unit complex, spend a few thousand dollars per apartment on showy upgrades, then sell the units as condos at a tidy profit. It seemed like a fine idea, one that had enraptured developers all over the state.

Now, five years later, buyers like Peggy Bodine have discovered just how wrong a condo conversion can go.

So many units are in foreclosure that Bodine is one of the few owners still paying maintenance fees. There is no money in the budget to repaint the outside walls, to repair the cracked pool deck, to pay the insurance premium due this month. The clubhouse has been stripped of most of its furnishings.

Worst of all, Bodine says, "they dumped the association on us.''

On April 30, the developers washed their hands of Brittany's Place. They transferred control to a condo association board made up of owners like Bodine, a math teacher who acknowledges she knows little about condo law or the duties of a condo board.

Resident Peggy Bodine sits at a hot tub turned into a planter. The condo’s budget shows reserves of less than $200.


What she does know is that the burden of maintaining Brittany's Place is falling on her and a few other owners.

"We're going to have a special assessment because there's no money for anything,'' Bodine says. "If there's only 12 people who are paying their association dues that means 12 units will be assessed for 96 units. The special assessment is going to be so excessive that the 12 of us will end up losing our units and we haven't done anything wrong.''

Developers converting apartments to condos must file detailed reports with the state on the age of the buildings, their condition and the costs to replace areas that the condo association is responsible for, such as plumbing, roofing and air conditioning.

"Usually the problem we have with conversions are where people have purchased a condo only to find out the roof wasn't in very good shape,'' says Michael Cochran, director of the state's Division of Florida Condominiums, Time Shares and Mobile Homes.

Brittany's Place, off Ulmerton Road, was nearly 20 years old in January 2006 when its Canadian owners sold it for $7.95 million — about $83,000 per unit — to Joel Campo and his partners.

After submitting the required paperwork to the state, the developers upgraded the units with granite countertops, new cabinets, stainless steel appliances and Italianate lavatories. In September 2006, the Brittany's Place Condominiums went on sale at prices ranging from about $122,000 to about $185,000.

Records show that many of the buyers were from Miami, and several were related to the developers. Few, if any, ever occupied the units they bought.

By 2008, Florida's condo market was in free fall. The developers were stuck with almost a fourth of the units while others were sliding toward foreclosure.

By last summer prices had dropped low enough — but the complex still looked good enough — that Bodine bought a two-bedroom unit for $63,000.

"The price was good and it had a really nice kitchen update,'' she says. "I had my Realtor check it out — there was $50,000 in reserves (in the condo budget) at that time so I went ahead and moved in."

Bodine's first hint of trouble came a few months later when she got a notice that Pinellas County was going to shut off water to the complex because the bill hadn't been paid.

Last winter, when Bodine's mortgage company asked for a copy of the complex's hazard insurance, she was stunned to learn it had expired in November — "while it was still hurricane season!'' she says.

Bodine said she confronted Campo, the lead developer, last month as she watched men carting off refrigerators, stoves and office furniture. She says Campo assured her that he would pay thousands of dollars in delinquent fees for the developer-owned condos. He also promised to attend the April 30 meeting of the condo association board.

Instead, Campo sent his lawyer, who "got really huffy,'' Bodine says, and pressured her and others into signing documents transferring control of the complex to a board made up of a few inexperienced condo owners.

"There's a mechanic, a retired postal worker, a teacher and none of us know anything about any legalities,'' Bodine says. "But I figure it's better being on the board to kind of know what's going on than not knowing anything at all.''

Bodine got a copy of the budget from the property management company hired by the developers. The budget showed that Brittany's Place has $162 in reserves and anticipated expenses this year of $182,783.

The company also turned over partial records, showing that many owners are late on their maintenance fees, one by 867 days. Though at least 33 of the 96 units have gone into foreclosure, lenders aren't responsible for the fees until they take title to the property.

"In Building 3, two of the 16 are paying,'' Bodine says, unfurling a hand-drawn diagram on which she has marked the owner, payment and occupancy status of each unit. "In Building 5, two out 12 are paying and three are stripped (of appliances). In Building 4, one of 12 is paying and occupied.''

The St. Petersburg Times was unable to contact Campo, his attorney or any of his partners.

Bodine filed a complaint with the state, alleging that the developers misrepresented the complex's financial condition. Officials say they are investigating.

As for Bodine, "I'm freaking out.''