There it was, stuck on the door to my co-op apartment with chewing gum — a court summons. “Notice of petition to recover real property non-payment,” it said.
This had to be a mistake. Yes, I had gotten three months behind on my management fees — business was bad last year, and I hit bottom in February. But then my income picked up, and for five months I’d been sending the management company extra big checks to catch up. My last check, sent several days before, had paid off the entire previous balance, so that I owed only for the current month.
I went to my computer and checked my bank account. The check hadn’t cleared. Maybe it had been lost in the mail. I could just give them another check and clear this up.
Then I checked my mail. There was my check, for $1,609.55, returned uncashed by the management company. I was not to mail them checks, it said. I could send only certified checks to the co-op board’s lawyers.
This made no sense. My checks don’t bounce. The management company had been accepting my checks until then, and they’d all cleared the bank. Why were they being difficult?
I read the court summons. The lawyers had tacked hundreds of dollars of fines to what I owed. The debt I had thought I had whittled down to about $1,000 had suddenly blossomed up to nearly $4,000.
The next day I met with a lawyer. [Note: The guy has a long-established practice specializing in real estate law.] His fee for representing me in court would eat most of the $1,609.55, which was all I could pay for the month. But I felt helpless, surrounded by sharks. I couldn’t understand why the co-op board wouldn’t let me just pay off the debt, especially when I was so close. These people are crazy, I told the lawyer. I don’t want to deal with them.
We talked about options, including bankruptcy. It seemed extreme, because I am not that far into debt, but I had to save my home. Do you have more than $50,000 in equity, he asked. For reasons I don’t understand, he recommended bankruptcy only if I had less than $50,000 in equity. I will check, I said.
So I went online to find out what apartments are going for in the neighborhood these days. I knew prices had dropped, and I had no idea how far. But I’m carrying a mortgage of only $50,000, and in Westchester County, New York, an unheated garage is worth at least that much. Sales are slow, but units are selling.
I learned there is a 2-bedroom apartment in my co-op complex on the market for $222,500. I have a two-bedroom apartment. A 1-bedroom apartment is on the market for $189,000. The cheapest unit available in the neighborhood — in one of the rattier complexes — is a 1-bedroom fixer-upper, on the market for $130,000. So, I certainly have more than $50,000 in equity. More like $150,000, probably.
Finally, a light dawned. No wonder the co-op board is trying to keep me from paying off the debt. If they can “recover” my apartment, that equity goes to the corporation.
I wasn’t able to go to the court hearing; as I had come down with the flu. [Note: The lawyer was there on my behalf and said I didn't have to be there, so I didn't miss the hearing..] The lawyer’s office called and said the case had been “adjourned.” I was to be given more time to pay the debt, but how much time I do not know. Apparently I still have to pay the hundreds of dollars in fines. And I have no assurance the co-op board will not continue to tack on more fines and haul me into court a few more times. I had been paying them every penny I could scrape together, and it wasn’t good enough. I sent a formal complaint to the state attorney general’s office, but I have not heard back from them.
And note that tapping into the equity is not an option, for other reasons that would take time to explain.
Here’s my situation: I had seen a light at the end of the tunnel. Now the tunnel is ten miles longer, and growing. I think the only way I can keep my home is to pay off the debt in one lump, so they can’t keep adding fines. So I’m rattling the tin cup, so to speak, and asking for donations (see tip jar). Please help me keep my home.