November 4, 2014
Today’s blog post is the third installment in a series on the emerging trend of foreclosure of condominium association liens on private property owners. In a previous article, I discussed a new appellate court decision, Chase Plaza Condominium v. Wachovia Bank, recognizing the right of an association under the D.C. Code to sell a condo unit in foreclosure to satisfy unpaid assessments, thereby extinguishing the much larger bank mortgage. This installment examines how future, similar attempts may be viewed under the Virginia Condominium Act.
Presently, Lenders Have Priority over Association Liens in Virginia:
In 2003, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard a case involving similar facts as in the Chase Plaza case under the corresponding portion of the Virginia Condominium Act. Va. Code Sect. 55-79.84 provides that a properly recorded Condo assessment lien has priority over other encumbrances except for:
- Real Estate Tax Liens;
- Liens Recorded Before the Condominium Declaration;
- First Mortgages or First Deeds of Trusts Recorded Before the Assessment Lien.
That same code section provides for the distribution of the proceeds of the association foreclosure sale, differing materially from the aforesaid lien priorities:
- Reasonable Expenses of the Sale & Attorney’s Fees;
- Lien for Unit Owner’s Assessments;
- Any Remaining Inferior Claims of Record;
- The Unit Owners Themselves.
Since the statute provides for differing priorities for liens and distribution, I’m not surprised that this issue was litigated. At the Virginia Supreme Court, Colchester Towne Condominium Council argued that these provisions permitted foreclosure of a unit for its owner’s failure to pay assessments. This Association asserted that before the bank received anything, the proceeds would first be paid for expenses, taxes or the assessments.
Wachovia Bank argued that it had a priority over the Condominium Association for both the lien and payment. In a narrow 4-3 decision, the majority agreed with the bank. Justice Lawrence Koontz found that the General Assembly intended for the first mortgage to get paid before the association assessment liens. The Court observed that purchase money mortgages are the “primary fuel that drives the development engine in a condominium complex.” Justice Koontz remarked that a contrary result (the D.C. and Nevada cases come to mind as examples) would not adequately protect the lender’s interests.
Justice Elizabeth Lacy wrote for the three justice minority, which included now-incumbent Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser and Chief Justice-elect Donald Lemons. They favored permitting the association to conduct the foreclosure sale and give the unpaid assessments priority over the mortgage. However, they would permit the lender’s lien to survive the foreclosure process, burdening the property purchased at the auction. None of the justices on the Supreme Court at that time published an opinion that would give an Association powers like those found in the Chase Plaza case.
As of the date of this article, the conventional wisdom followed by many owners of distressed condominium properties in Virginia has a legal basis on this 4-3 decision from 11 years ago. I predict that in a matter of months or years, this same issue will resurface in the General Assembly or the Supreme Court. I don’t know to what extent the national sea change will have a ripple effect in Virginia. It is not possible to predict to what extent, if any, associations may acquire greater rights against banks and homeowners. However, local governments rely on associations to pay to maintain certain common areas and services. Cities and counties continue to seek ways to avoid budget shortfalls. New land development brings the prospect of additional tax dollars. These associations have a financial crisis of their own for the reasons I spoke of in my prior post. The financial crisis is greater today than 11 years ago, and so are the challenges to private property rights.
Where Does All This Leave Property Owners and Their Advisors?
For a homeowner, keeping one’s home and paying bills is a more immediate human concern than ending the larger rescission. What do these storm clouds mean to Virginia condominium owners? A few thoughts:
- Escrow Accounts. Courts and pundits suggest bank escrow of HOA dues may be the answer. Writer Megan McArdle points out, a “vast regulatory thicket surrounds mortgage lending.” Throwing association governance and budget issues into that thicket does not seem like an attractive option to owners, who don’t always find themselves aligned with their association’s decisions. Making banks party to disputes between Associations and owners would complicate matters further.
- Banks Shy From Financing Condos. The Wall Street Journal Reports that David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, expects mortgage rates to rise in Nevada. The Mortgage Bankers Association also reports that sometimes HOAs won’t accept payments from them or even tell them the amount due. I expect banks to strengthen due diligence of a condominium association’s governing documents, policies and financials before agreeing to lend on a property subject to its covenants.
- Home Buyer’s Focus on Contingency. In purchasing a condominium or another type of property in an association, a buyer has a window of time to review the association disclosures and either get out of the deal or move forward. If the banks start escrowing association fines, etc., this may become a greater focus in the home-buying process.
- Cash Only Trend Prevails in Condominium Sales. In many condominiums, unit sales are conducted in all cash. The cash only option certainly cuts out the problem of the purchase money-lender. This also cuts most owner-occupants out of the house hunt, and decreases the number of owner-occupants in the association, making the place less attractive to lenders. This does not seem to be a solution.
One option that I haven’t seem discussed elsewhere is this: What if, when unit owners default on their obligations, the property is put up for foreclosure, and the lender, association (or any other investor), could submit competing bids to a trustee? The HOA would get paid, and the lender could get the collateral property. I doubt this would work under the existing statutory framework, but perhaps it would work better than an escrow.
If you own a property that is subject to the covenants of a condominium or homeowners association, and the association has threatened to enforce its lien against your property, contact a qualified real estate attorney to protect your rights. In order to protect your rights, you may need to prepare for a sea change in the balance of powers in home ownership.
If you are considering an opportunity to purchase a property at an association assessment lien foreclosure sale, retain qualified counsel to advise you regarding related risks, and carefully consider purchase of title insurance.
Case opinions discussed: Colchester Towne Condominium Council v. Wachovia Bank, 266 Va. 46, 581 S.E.2d 201 (2003)