Friday, May 23, 2014

What's a Non-Conforming Coop?

You're searching the Internet for your new home to buy.  You find a property - a coop unit - that looks really, really good. You read through the description and you are loving the way it sounds. The photos look great too. Then you see at the bottom of the listing "Non-conforming building - cash offers only (or preferred)." Huh. What does that mean?

You Google the term "nonconforming building". The returns define it to be a building that doesn't conform to existing zoning laws. But in New York City, it's more likely to mean that the building's financials and/or owner occupancy do not conform to guidelines set by Fannie Mae (FNMA) and her compatriot, Freddie Mac (FHLMC), the two entities that purchase loans on the secondary market from the banks that originate them.

So you Google "nonconforming loans".  This search just gives you a lot of information about jumbo loans, which are a type of nonconforming loan, because the amount of the loan is higher than Fannie Mae conforming limits.

But this property is asking less than the published conforming loan limits. Are there other issues that can put a property into nonconforming territory?

Answer: yes there are. One of the big ones is owner occupancy. This refers to the number of units in the coop that have been sold by the sponsor to individual owners and are occupied by those owners and their families. Units that are owned by individuals but sublet to renters do not count, but individually-owned vacant units do. Sponsor-owned units also are not considered owner-occupied (a sponsor unit is one that continues to be owned by the original landlord of the building who created the coop, or their successor).

FNMA/FHLMC requires 51% of cooperative units to be "owner occupied". Not 50%, but 51%. This was a big issue back in the 1980s and 1990s when sponsors owned more than 50% of units in many coops that had just been converted. The sponsor ownership is less of a problem these days, but smaller coops (under 40 units) can still slip into this nonconforming status if they have a significant percentage of sponsor ownership (ie, 25-40%) and if the coop allows too many owners to sublet in addition. When that happens, the coop falls into non-conforming status.

In the olden days, it was possible to get something called a "waiver" on nonconforming buildings. This literally meant that the owner occupancy issue could be waived, and a bank could get you a conforming loan. Since 2008, however, that is practically impossible, according to mortgage lenders that I have considered. Whereas waivers were practically a given before the mortgage crisis (for a small fee), now each application for a waiver is scrutinized and takes weeks to process. Few are granted.

So that leaves us back to this beautiful coop in your price range. You don't have cash, but you see it's a bargain. What can be done?

First, realize that while many mortgage programs are not going to be available for that particular unit, some loans might be. These loans are called portfolio loans, and they may be given by banks or mortgage lenders.  A portfolio loan is a loan that a bank cannot sell to FNMA/FHLMC. The bank has limited choices - either the loan must be held and collected by the bank until the end of the term, or the loan can be sold to an investor who will deal in nonconforming loans.

Unfortunately, that translates to a slightly higher interest rate for the borrower.
But such a property may present an opportunity. Remember, every coop is different. Some may be primarily investor-owned, while others may simply be one unit from conforming.  Ask your agent what the situation is.  If the situation is just one unit, then you might have an opportunity to get a little pop in value when that one unit does finally turn the owner occupancy ratio over 51%. You have the option of refinancing into a conforming loan once the building is conforming as well.

So, all in all, don't leave those gems in the dust. Nonconforming coops can present an opportunity to the person looking for a below market opportunity for a long term primary residence.