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Pardonnez-moi?! 10 surprises for international buyers

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Buying a co-op or condo in New York City is complicated enough for natives.  If you’re an international buyer, count on an even steeper learning curve. 

Here are 10 things peculiar to the NYC real estate experience that are likely to catch you by surprise:

1. Despite the fact that condo boards only have the right of first refusal (meaning if they don’t want you to buy, they have to buy the apartment instead), their applications have become almost as invasive and intrusive as a co-op boards. They want all of your financial information, reference letters, possible translation of all of your financial information, background checks, and more.  

2. U.S. mortgage banks typically won’t lend to non-U.S. citizens, unless:

(a) you are a private banking customer overseas, or

(b) you are in business here and the bank wants your business account, or it wants accounts overseas that it doesn’t currently have, or

(c) rather than a traditional 30-year mortgage, you take out an interest-only ‘commercial’-type loan with a balloon payment due at a specified time in the future, or one that requires you to keep a certain amount of money in the bank as a minimum balance during the term of your loan.

It’s up to you to ask detailed questions.

3. Most building with management companies will require you to pay for a translator approved by the board to translate any overseas documents into English, such as marriage certificates, identification, and banking documents.

4. It's a good idea to focus your search on condos, as there is almost no chance that you will be approved by more restrictive co-op boards. They know how hard it is to sue a non-U.S. citizen who has no nexus with the U.S. 

Having said that, I do have clients from overseas who are living and working here and have green cards who are approved by flexible co-op boards.  If you're set on buying a co-op, ask your broker to find co-op buildings that might welcome you as a resident, not an investor.

5. The co-op/condo board can and probably will demand that you put one to two years of common charges into an escrow account in case you default on your common charge payments.

6. Depending on the amount of time you spend in the U.S., you may be subject to taxes on income you earn abroad, in addition to income earned in the U.S.  You must speak to a tax expert--such as an accountant or tax attorney--to determine your situation.  

7. You will probably need to sign a document that, if need be, allows the board to sue you in New York, and you will need to appoint someone in NYC that will accept ‘notice of process.’

8. You can’t rent out your apartment as you wish.  Though condos have fewer rental restrictions than co-ops, there is often a minimum term of one year, with fees, and there may be a time when the apartment is empty between tenants simply because the board is requesting further information on your next prospective renter in an application process that is as cumbersome as it would be for a buyer.  

The approval time varies a great deal from building to building, and you should check this out in advance if you are contemplating using your apartment as an investment property.

9. You need to put carpet down on 80% of your floors.

10. Renovations require the approval of the board and management company. You will also need to provide proof of insurance.


Karen S. Sonn is a New York City transactional real estate attorney with over 20 years experience.

More by Karen Sonn:

A NYC real estate lawyer reveals the 14 biggest surprises for first-time buyers

Here are 7 things your lawyer should do for you when you buy a co-op or condo

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