EAO Opinion 22-04 gives real estate lawyers guidance on non-negotiated checks

Standard
How we did it back in the day

Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-04 addresses a trust accounting question from a real estate practitioner.

The underlying facts are: “Due to the nature of a residential real estate practice, Lawyer frequently issues relatively small dollar amount checks from Lawyer’s trust account to both clients and third parties. A number of these checks are not timely negotiated, resulting in ongoing trust accounting maintenance costs, including labor costs, stop-payment fees and mailing fees for uncashed trust account checks that require stop payments and/or reissuance and re-mailing to the payee.”

This is an age-old concern. When I was in private practice (150 years ago or so), our law firm’s excellent bookkeeper chastised me monthly about the $5.00 check issued for mortgage satisfactions that never seemed to get cashed.

The lawyer poses the following question to the Ethics Advisory Committee: “May Lawyer charge an amount to cover administrative costs associated with stop-payment fees and trust account check reissuance and re-mailing fees for checks that remain outstanding for more than thirty (30) days after issuance?”

Thankfully, the Committee responded affirmatively.

The opinion states that a lawyer may charge a check recipient an amount to cover administrative measures undertaken to resolve the outstanding check, which includes expenses incurred such as stop payment fees and postage fees, provided the amount charged is not unreasonable.

Comment 1 to Rule 1.5 provides, “A lawyer may seek reimbursement for the cost of services performed in-house…by charging an amount that reasonably reflects the cost incurred by the lawyer.” The Committee opined that the lawyer may charge an amount against the recipient’s check to obtain reimbursement for the same, provided the amount charged is not unreasonable. To collect on the amount charged, Lawyer may deduct the amount to be charged from funds that remain in trust after adequate steps have been taken to cancel, void, or otherwise nullify the previously issued check…”

The Committee imposed one limitation by stating that the amount to be charged is limited to the total amount of funds that were paid by the outstanding check.

This opinion may provide a small amount of assistance, but the administrative nightmare remains. Small checks that fail to be negotiated will remain a monthly quagmire. But this opinion may allow law firms to at least recoup a portion of the cost.

Here’s a new wrinkle in real estate marketing: “Homeowner Benefit Program”

Standard

South Carolina title examiners are discovering “Homeowner Benefit Agreements” or “Exclusive Listing Agreements” filed in the public records as mortgages or memoranda of agreement. The duration of the agreements purport to be forty years, and a quick search revealed hundreds of these unusual documents filed in Georgetown, Horry, Charleston, and Berkeley Counties. The documents indicate that they create liens against the real estate in question.

The company behind these documents is MV Realty PBC, LLC which appears to be doing business in the Palmetto State as MV Realty of South Carolina, LLC. The company’s website indicates the company will pay a homeowner between $300 and $5,000 in connection with its Homeowner Benefit Program. In return for the payment, the homeowner agrees to use the company’s services as listing agent if the decision is made to sell the property during the term of the agreement. The agreements typically provide that the homeowner may elect to pay an early termination fee to avoid listing the property in question with MV Realty.

In response to numerous underwriting questions on the topic, Chicago Title sent an underwriting memorandum to its agents dated June 8 entitled “Exclusive Listing Agreements”. Chicago Title’s position on the topic was set out in its memorandum as follows: “Pending further guidance, Chicago Title requires that you treat recordings of this kind like any other lien or mortgage. You should obtain a release or satisfaction of the recording as part of the closing or take a exception to the recorded document in your commitments and final policies.”

Googling MV Realty results in a great deal of information. Real estate lawyers should familiarize themselves with this company and its program to advise clients who may question whether the program makes sense from a financial and legal perspective.

Updates on dangerous high-rise condo projects

Standard

I have recommended previously that all South Carolina dirt lawyers subscribe to the DIRT listserv run by Professor Dale Whitman of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School. I emphasize that recommendation today and have two updates from that service to share with you. Both updates relate to the collapsed Surfside project in south Florida.

First, a 50-unit condominium building in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Horizon West, has been ordered to be demolished by the Waukesha City Council. Professor Whitman reports that the building’s steel structure has been compromised by water infiltration, much like the Surfside project, and is considered a risk for collapsing.

The residents don’t have the funds to pay for the demolition, and the insurance company is taking the position that the building should be repaired, not demolished. The cost of the demolition has skyrocketed because of the presence of asbestos.

The units were valued at $90,000 to $140,000 according to Zillow, prior to the discovery of the defects. During the current high-priced housing market, it is not likely that the property owners will be able to replace their housing even if they receive their full replacement costs from insurance. It is a very sad situation, but, of course, not as sad as an actual collapse resulting in the loss of lives.

Second, Florida’s legislature has passed a law that requires regular building inspections and requires homeowners’ associations to maintain reserves. The act was unanimously passed by both houses, and Governor DeSantis signed the bill into law on May 26th.

Under the new law, inspections are required when a condominium building reaches 30 years of age and every ten years thereafter. For buildings within three miles of the coast, the first inspection is required at 25 years of age.

In addition, mandatory structural integrity reserve studies are required every ten years under the new law, and reserves are required to be maintained based on the studies. The power of the HOA to waive reserves was removed, effective December 31, 2024.

This legislation is encouraging and should be considered in South Carolina, particularly because of the existence of our numerous high-rise coastal condominium projects.

The only downside I see about such legislation is that it will make condominium living more expensive and may price some retirees and lower-income individuals out of the market entirely. But, logically, the cost of maintenance should be factored into every residential property purchase. The ability of an owners’ association to waive reserves and thereby kick the maintenance can down the road is a dangerous proposition.

** Please note that the new inspection and reserve Florida legislation applies only to condominium and cooperative buildings of 3 stories and higher above ground. See more details from Florida attorney, Michael Gefland.

Charlotte TV station reports on Fort Mill HOA “service fee”

Standard

Charlotte television station WSOCTV (Channel 9) published a story on May 23 delving into an HOA fee from Baxter Village in Fort Mill. The story, entitled “South Carolina HOAs can charge substantial fee to leave neighborhood”, focuses on a residential seller who was shocked to find a more than $1,700 charge from her owners’ association on her closing statement.

The line item read “HOA Service Fee to Baxter”, and the fee was almost double the annual regular assessment of $950. According to the story, the covenants provide that the sale of a home will result in a fee which shall not exceed the greater of $500 or .25% of the gross sales price. The reporter interviewed a spokesman for the subdivision’s management company who said the fee has been in place since 1998. The sales price for the home highlighted in the story was $685,000.

The reporter interviewed a lawyer familiar with homeowners’ association issues in North Carolina as well as South Carolina. He said that North Carolina’s legislature had passed a Planned Community Act in 2010 that banned exit fees except in a few specific cases. South Carolina, of course, does not have similar legislation.

As with every residential purchase, the buyer should be advised by the attorney of the existence of covenants and should be encouraged to read them in their entirety to avoid surprises.

What do you think, dirt lawyers? Should we pass similar legislation in South Carolina?

Florida condo collapse class action lawsuit reaches settlement

Standard

This blog has previously discussed the June 24, 2021 collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South condominium project in Surfside, Florida and Fannie Mae’s response by issuing Lender Letter (LL-2021-14) which directs lenders to gather information from owners’ associations about potential unsafe conditions.

As we near the anniversary of the disaster, a $997 million settlement has been reached for the wrongful death victims and survivors. The settlement was announced in the Miami-Dade Circuit Courtroom of Judge Michael Hanzman on May 11. The settlement includes insurance companies, developers of the project next door, engineers, architects, a law firm, and the owners’ association. 

The building has now been demolished, and the settlement does not include the potential sale of the underlying real estate, which will be auctioned later this month. The opening bid is $120 million. A prior settlement of $83 million was reached for economic losses.

Judge Hanzman will oversee the division of the settlement funds among the victims. He has announced that he would like to have the process completed by September.

South Carolina has many aging condominium projects, particularly along our coast. And we have an earthquake fault line to consider. Do our local homeowners’ association boards face expensive repair and reserve dangers like those in Florida? Should condominium purchasers consider the financial impact of possible major assessments to address delayed repairs? Should legislation be proposed to address these issues?

I’ve previously recommended Episode 8 of the podcast “Collapse: Disaster in Surfside” produced by Treefort Media and the Miami Herald for an excellent discussion of the legal and financial issues surrounding aging condominium projects.

Once these huge projects are completed, there is no legislative requirement for future inspections. The county in Florida where Champlain Towers South was located has a requirement to inspect tower projects after forty years. Forty years is a long time! Champlain Towers’ forty-year inspection had found the potential problems, but there were no “teeth” requiring the repairs to be made. The property owners of Champlain Towers were aware of the need for expensive repairs, but they continued to kick the can down the road to avoid the expense.

After the collapse, Florida’s legislature considered an act which would have required reserves and inspections, but the legislative effort failed because of the fear of chilling South Florida’s development frenzy. My guess is that South Carolina would face a similar roadblock.

Some condominium projects have served as affordable housing in certain geographic locations and as affordable second homes and rentals in resort areas. The podcast suggests that tacking on the annual cost of reasonable reserves may threaten this affordability. Think about elderly individuals who live in their dream coastal condominiums. Taken to a logical conclusion, these projects, properly run, may become available only to the wealthiest among us.

Beaufort County offers fraud alert for property owners

Standard
Allstate’s “Mayhem”

Do you know the name Dean Gerard Winters? He’s the actor who plays the character “Mayhem” in Allstate commercials. The character acts out cringe-worthy scenes involving car accidents, fires, falls and other calamities and advises us to buy insurance to protect against “Mayhem like me”.

I’ll never forget the name of a character who created mayhem in the midlands title world several years ago. That name is Matthew Cox.

A telephone call tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation in Columbia. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so-called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

How do you protect against Mayhem like Matthew Cox? Beaufort County has found a way. My friend and excellent dirt lawyer, Sarah Robertson, who practices with Burr Forman in Bluffton recently sent out an article to her clients advising that Beaufort County has set up a program to allow property owners to register at no charge to receive alerts from the ROD regarding possible fraudulent activity involving their properties. Sarah’s article indicates some other counties are beginning to offer this service.

This is a great service for clients that could be championed by real estate lawyers in other locations to protect against Mayhem like Matthew Cox!

Residential sellers must disclose sea level rise risk in Hawaii

Standard

Like South Carolina, Hawaii has a mandatory seller disclosure form that must be completed by sellers of residential properties. Unlike South Carolina, Hawaii updated its legislation in 2021 to become the first state to require the disclosure of the risk of sea level rise to the property based on the 3.2-feet Sea Level Rise Exposure Area. The legislation went into effect on May 1 of this year.

Hawaii has developed a sea level rise viewer which you can check out here. To identify a property location relative to a sea level rise exposure, the street address or tax map key of the property must be entered into the viewer. The viewer is intended to provide map data depicting projections for future hazard exposure and assessing economic and other vulnerabilities resulting from rising sea levels.

The viewer was developed by the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) at the University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. Mapping is based on an upper-end projection of 3.2 feet of sea level rise by the year 2100.

Like the existing flood zone disclosure requirement, the sea level risk disclosure is intended to help home buyers better understand how the sea level risk will impact their properties. The disclosure requirement applies to oceanfront and near-oceanfront properties as well as properties near streams and other areas likely to flood in times of heavy rainfall.

Will we see similar legislation in South Carolina and other coastal states? My guess is that we probably will.

“Collapse” podcast focuses on legal issues of aging condominiums

Standard

This blog has previously discussed the June 24, 2021 collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South  project in Surfside, Florida and Fannie Mae’s response by issuing Lender Letter (LL-2021-14) which directs lenders to gather information from owners’ associations about potential unsafe conditions.

South Carolina has many aging condominium projects, particularly along our coast. And we have an earthquake fault line to consider. Do our local homeowners’ association boards face expensive repair and reserve dangers like those in Florida? Should condominium purchasers consider the financial impact of possible major assessments to address delayed repairs? Should legislation be proposed to address these issues?

My husband and I have considered downsizing to a condominium in Columbia, but after spending some time with this repair and reserve issue, I would have to spend extensive time with the financials of any project that might interest us. And the high-rise projects at the coast face more difficult repair issues than those in the midlands because of salt, sand, water, and wind.

I’d like to recommend a podcast episode to lawyers who may be interested in this topic. And I believe all dirt lawyers who represent owners’ associations and even condominium purchasers should be aware of the legal and financial concerns that were clearly brought to the surface by this tragedy.

The podcast is entitled “Collapse: Disaster in Surfside” produced by Treefort Media and the Miami Herald. The podcast series discusses the collapse, the personal experiences of escape and failure to escape, the media coverage, the legal maneuvers, the insurance issues, and many other matters. The heart wrenching conflict between the victims who lost family members and those who lost their homes was difficult to absorb. I won’t ask you to listen to all of that.

But Episode 8 summarizes the legal and financial issues, and I highly recommend that episode.

Our horizontal property regime legislation is deficient at best. Reserves for repairs are discussed in our  HPR legislation but not required.

Once these huge, often high-rise projects are completed, there is no legislative future inspection requirement. The county in South Florida where Champlain Towers was located has a requirement to inspect tower projects after forty years. Forty years is a long time! Champlain Towers’ forty-year inspection had found the potential problems, but there were no “teeth” requiring the repairs to be made. The property owners of Champlain Towers were aware of the need for extensive repairs, but they continued to kick the can down the road to avoid the expense.

After the collapse, Florida’s legislature considered an act which would have required reserves and inspections, but the effort failed because of the fear of chilling South Florida’s development frenzy. My guess is that South Carolina would face a similar roadblock.

Some condominium projects have served as affordable housing in certain geographic locations and as affordable second homes and rentals in resort areas. The podcast suggests that tacking on the annual cost of reasonable reserves may threaten this affordability. Think about elderly individuals who live in their dream coastal condominium. Taken to a logical conclusion, these projects, properly run, may become available only to the wealthiest among us.

South Carolina Supreme Court issues final decision on Episcopal church real estate

Standard

“This case is over” according to the court

Church schisms are tough in many ways, and the real estate issues are no exception. This week, the South Carolina Supreme Court filed an opinion* that it says finally resolves the real estate issues. In other words, the Court has decided who owns the real estate of the churches in dispute.

The dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the twelve years that have followed the dissociation. I am glad that I don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues. The real estate issues are thorny enough.

My best advice to practicing real estate lawyers: when you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property, call your intelligent and friendly title insurance underwriter. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The Court based its decision on which of the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church.  The actions taken by each church with regard to the Dennis Cannon were examined.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, Inc., Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eutawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc., Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St John’s, John’s Island
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew (St. Matthews, Fort Motte)
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James’ Church, James Island

I feel for all the parties involved. I am a United Methodist, and our international church authorities have been examining similar issues in recent years. We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28095 (April 20, 2022).

Should closing attorneys issue opinion letters instead of title insurance?

Standard

Fannie Mae just announced it will accept attorney’s opinion letters in lieu of title insurance policies to reduce closing costs. Is this good news for closing attorneys and their clients? Let’s discuss that issue.

When I was an associate in a law firm in the 1980’s, I was taught by the very smart lawyers who owned the firm that title insurance should be less expensive than attorneys’ opinion letters.  In other words, title insurance would protect everyone, the lender, the buyer, the seller, and even the closing attorney at a relatively nominal cost. The price of an attorney’s opinion (my opinion) would have to be commiserate with the liability directly assumed by the law firm through that letter. The very clear lesson was that I should issue title insurance, not opinion letters. And when a title opinion was demanded, I should charge a hefty fee for it.

I’ve taught law students and others that title insurance is the best choice for several reasons. First, attorneys are only responsible for their negligence, not hidden defects and mistakes in the public records. For example, I heard about a deed recorded in Greenville County where one person forged the signatures of eight individuals, including the witnesses and notary. Forgery is rarely evident on the face of the forged document. An attorney’s opinion of title would not cover that defect. Title insurance would. An attorney’s opinion would not cover a deed, mortgage, or set of restrictive covenants missed in a title examination because of mistaken indexing by a county employee. Title insurance would.

Second, attorneys die, move, are underinsured, allow their malpractice to expire and otherwise become unavailable when a title problem arises. Finally, statutes of limitations may come into play. Title insurance does not expire as long as the lender or owner has an interest in the property, including an interest arising from deed warranties. Title insurance shifts the risk of title defects from the property owner and lender, and, in a manner of speaking, from the closing attorney to a financially sound insurer.

Fannie Mae’s announcement said that acceptable opinion letters must come from properly licensed attorneys with malpractice insurance in an amount “commonly prevailing in the jurisdiction.” The letters must provide gap coverage. Every South Carolina title opinion I’ve seen takes a clear exception to matters arising after the date of the opinion. Fannie Mae will also require the letters to “state the title condition of the property is acceptable.” I’m not sure what that statement means, but I don’t believe I would give that unqualified opinion.

This news from Fannie May could be what politicians are calling a “nothing burger”. Freddie Mac issued a similar announcement two years ago, but that announcement has not had a major impact on the way lawyers and title insurers do business.

Let’s wait and see what happens. But, in the meantime, I don’t advise my friends who close real estate transactions to start issuing title opinions instead of title insurance.