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Though used to complex deals, some savvy condo buyers say they were duped by AIG

Ray Haarstick is one on the condo owners at Stowe Mountain Lodge who says he was misled about fees. Ray Haarstick is one on the condo owners at Stowe Mountain Lodge who says he was misled about fees. (Caleb Kenna for The Boston Globe)
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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Ray Haarstick is an engineer and businessman who founded a company that makes software for private equity firms. He has zero fear of complex financial deals.

Yet the Waltham businessman said he felt duped after he bought a $1.4 million condo from insurance giant American International Group at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont and began receiving bills totaling $65,000 a year for condo services and fees.

“I’m a finance guy - people hire me to do extraordinary things with spreadsheets and databases,’’ Haarstick said. “I don’t make mistakes with my finances, but we were completely flimflammed on this.’’

Haarstick’s story is perhaps a metaphor for the recent financial crisis in which AIG played a key role: Smart, knowledgeable people were lured into investments they did not completely understand, and got burned. In the run-up to the crisis, AIG sold complex financial instruments that ensnared the global financial system, and almost brought it to the point of collapse.

In this case, the financial instruments were 500-plus page documents that committed owners to pay much higher fees than expected. Many of the homeowners are savvy and sophisticated buyers, including a former Citibank executive, a former senior vice president of the Duane Reade drugstore, and a powerful real estate investor.

The homeowners, led by seven plaintiffs, recently sued Spruce Peak Realty LLC and Stowe Mountain Lodge LLC, both owned by AIG, in federal court in Burlington, Vt., calling the condo agreement an “incomprehensible and ultimately unlawful monstrosity of a development scheme.’’

AIG owns 90 percent of Stowe Mountain Lodge, which owns the resort.

Last week, AIG through lawyers for its subsidiary Chartis asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit calling the claims “flimsy.’’ Describing the plaintiffs as a group of highly educated buyers, AIG said in court documents that if the homeowners disagreed with the terms, they could have refused to sign the agreement or refused to close on the properties. They also could have sought to amend the terms and consulted lawyers.

“What they could not do,’’ AIG said, “is what they are doing now - agree to the document’s terms and then, because of buyer’s remorse, sue three years later claiming a ‘fraud’ on the basis that the document was hard to comprehend before they agreed to it.’’

AIG subsidiaries sold condos at the planned resort in 2005, when the nation’s economy was booming. For decades, Stowe had been a playground for AIG executives, but the new $400 million resort would usher in a new era of excess. At the first four-star resort in Vermont, guests were just steps from ski slopes. The restaurant, nestled amid vaulted hardwood ceilings and a soaring stone fireplace, stocked Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac costing $250 a glass.

At the time, AIG’s profits were taking off because of new and staggeringly complex financial instruments called credit-default swaps. Wall Street banks were snapping up the swaps to insure securities against default, including investments containing bundled mortgages.

David Friend, a Weston physician, said he put a $77,000 deposit on a $385,000 condominium because he liked the resort and had vacationed at the mountain for years.

Friend closed on his condo in 2008, the year the housing market collapsed and caused the value of mortgage-backed securities to plummet. That triggered demands for billions in collateral from AIG to protect investments by pension funds, universities, and even entire nations.

With those investments in jeopardy and AIG unable to pay, the US Treasury undertook the largest bailout of a private entity in US history, saving AIG with $182 billion from taxpayers. But the Stowe condo owners said their problems were just beginning.

Friend and Haarstick said just months before closing, Chartis disclosed changes to various ownership documents, mailing a CD-ROM containing 500-plus pages of documents.

Friend said AIG underplayed changes it made. Like other owners, he said he had waited three years for construction to be completed and did not want to suddenly lose his nonrefundable deposit.

“We were trapped,’’ Friend said. “They’re telling us this is not a big deal, the changes are minor, and we believed them.’’

Chartis said in court papers that it properly disclosed the changes, underlining them in documents.

Condo owners began receiving steep bills for fees and amenities. Fred Leathers of Hingham, who bought a $1.4 million condo at the resort in 2009, said he owed more than $50,000 for condo fees in a single year; he had expected to pay about $20,000.

Leathers, a chief financial officer at a Massachusetts health care company, said he never would have bought the condo if he knew how high the fees were. “Never in my wildest dreams,’’ he said.

Haarstick, the Waltham businessman, said he read the new contract before he and his lawyer closed on the deal, also believing changes were less significant than they were.

For example, Haarstick said, he thought he would pay $123 each night someone used his condo to cover hotel housekeeping.

After changes to the agreement, Haarstick said, the hotel service charges cost him about $1,200 a month - whether or not anyone stayed in his condo.

Haarstick and other condo owners calculated that the contract changes had them paying about 90 percent of the resort’s operating costs.

“You have to know exactly what you’re looking for to figure out who the hell is paying for what,’’ Haarstick said. “It took all of us a year of reading and collaborating and talking to lawyers to figure [it] out.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.