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RISMEDIA, January 21, 2010—(MCT)—In hopes of reviving one of the nation’s hardest-hit condominium markets, the giant mortgage backer Fannie Mae is making it easier for people to buy Florida condos that may not have met previous lending standards.

Fannie Mae has started giving certain condo complexes in the state “special approval” designations, a sort of stamp of approval, even when the properties don’t meet one or more of the established rules relating to delinquent fees, financial reserves and percentage of owner-occupied units.

Florida is the only state getting the special reviews, which are a first for Fannie Mae, officials with the government-backed corporation recently said.

Teams are already reviewing complexes and granting the special approvals—which are a green light for mortgage lenders—in cases where the projects are considered stable even though they might violate a Fannie Mae lending standard. For example, under current rules, a project doesn’t qualify for Fannie Mae-backed mortgages if more than 15% of the unit owners are behind on their association fees—but a review team might decide to waive that rule, opening that complex to a much larger pool or prospective buyers.

“This new initiative is geared toward providing maximum support for Florida’s distressed condo market as we continue to provide liquidity to the housing market more broadly,” said Karen Pallotta, executive vice president for the secondary-mortgage giant.

The new reviews were prompted by the fact that home buyers, lenders and real-estate agents have been avoiding condos because many of the complexes do not meet existing lending criteria. With little or no financing available, condo prices have crashed, with units attracting mostly cash buyers. Fannie Mae had already been granting exceptions to its condominium guidelines, but only on a case-by-case basis, when requested by lenders.

Even though Miami’s condo prices have not fallen as sharply as those in Orlando, condo complexes in South Florida appear to be getting most of the new program’s early attention. Fannie Mae has given its approval stamp for mortgages on more than 50 condo complexes, all of them in the Miami area. Miami real estate agent Maurice Veissi, first vice president of the National Association of Realtors, said that the real estate organization was key in educating Fannie Mae about Florida’s collapsing condo prices. “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recognize that south Florida, and southeast Florida in particular, have been uniquely hit,” Veissi said. “Any time you get some relaxation of what were some stringent rules and regulations, that will affect the market to some extent.”

Condo prices have fallen more in Orlando than in most U.S. metro areas. The median price for a unit in the four-county Orlando area in November 2009 was $55,000, down 21% from a year earlier. In comparison, Miami’s median condo price was $149,000, down 14%.

Fannie Mae officials said they will be adding more complexes to their list of approved projects, which can viewed at under “frequently searched pages,” as six employees review properties across the state. They will be taking into consideration the quality of each project’s construction and maintenance as well as the financial health of the owners association.

Whether loosening lending criteria for condominiums is the right thing to do now is a valid question, said Craig E. Polejes, president of Florida Bank of Commerce. “The question is: If they’re looking to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, what are the parameters of the exceptions?” Polejes asked. He said he was skeptical of any move to finance mortgages for condo units in complexes that had been converted from apartments. The overriding issues, Polejes added, should be the quality of the building and the creditworthiness of the buyer.

A board member of one Winter Park, Fla.-area condominium project that converted from apartments several years ago said only one-fourth of the residents were paying their fees, forcing the owners association to increase the fees to make mandatory insurance payments. The board member, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of a pending foreclosure action, said he hoped something could be done to help revive the local condo market.

Polejes said qualified buyers should not continue to be precluded from purchasing units in viable condominium complexes simply because the property doesn’t meet every single standard to allow financing. But he added: “If they start relaxing down payments, incomes, credit scores—that’s problematic.”

(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.