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Legislators try to protect condo owners from law loophole

Palm Harbor, Florida -- Imagine if someone told you they were buying your home for a price they determined and, even if you said you had no interest in selling, the buyer said you had no choice.

It's all because of a little-known law passed when Charlie Crist was governor that was intended to protect condominiums deviated by hurricanes. But, as the 10 News Investigators found out last month, big corporations have found a loophole that is forcing owners out of their homes -- and lawmakers are now taking action.

Desmond Fowles owns a condo at Lansbrook Village in Palm Harbor and said, "I bought it and it's mine."

Fowles said he's never missed a mortgage payment or condo fee, but he's being forced to sell his home whether he wants to or not. According to Fowles, "I thought it cannot be."

Fowles and many others 10 News spoke to in the past few months are becoming victims of a law that allows a corporation to buy up 80 percent of the individual units in a condominium, forcing the remaining owners to sell.

In November, it happened at Madison Oaks in Palm Harbor.

"The condominium that we own at Lansbrook Village is in a similar situation to Madison Oaks," said Fowles.

10 News' investigation has caught the attention of lawmakers, Rep. Carl Zimmerman and Senator Jack Latvala. Zimmerman, a Palm Harbor Democrat, said, "This is personal property ownership that is being taken away from them and it is just wrong."

Zimmerman and Latvala are backing a bill that will prevent this situation from happening to other homeowners.

Latvala, a powerful Republican senator from Clearwater, said, "Homestead is supposed to be one of the most sacred things we have. It's protected in the Constitution, so we really need to look carefully at it."

But, adding insult to injury, the 10 News Investigators discovered in a letter to state officials from Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov that Waterton, the condo-grabbing company gobbling up the Lansbrook condos, is driving down the value of the condos that it's buying.

Here's an example:

The company making the purchase for Waterton gives a condo seller $62,328 for his home, but the recorded sale price with the Property Appraiser is at $44,000, which allows the buyer to claim a difference of almost $20,000. The money is supposed to go for home repairs, however, the seller admits they never were done.

Dubov warns some are calling it a "ploy being used to lower comps, property taxes, or both."

As for Desmond Fowles, he wonders if other people might soon find themselves in the same situation. He said," I'm guessing there are 2-and-a-half, 3 million condos in the state of Florida and they all could be vulnerable."

Meanwhile, the corporate attorney for Waterton wouldn't confirm the company is trying to force out condo owners who don't want to sell. Instead, the attorney said the company owns 73 percent of the units and is in the apartment rental business.

Finally, while lawmakers say they want to change the law to protect condo owners, there is no guarantee it will pass during this year's session.

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