Vrbo and Airbnb are two go-to websites to find interesting short-term rentals in vacation locations. Sometimes a cabin or house seems much more appropriate and fun than a hotel room for a family get-away. Having a kitchen and room for dining is often a plus. And I love a hot tub with a view!
But I’ve seen a couple of news articles about South Carolina cities questioning whether these types of short-term rentals are appropriate in residential subdivisions, and I understand the concern.
The article quotes a man who said he and his wife operate nine Airbnb locations and have been put out of business by the resolution. The article quotes the resolution: “the homes are mainly in their older neighborhoods and these transient tenants have a negative effect on the peace and perceived safety of those neighborhoods.”
The city attorney in Spartanburg is quoted as saying that city’s “permissive” zoning ordinance does not address short-term rentals and that any use that is not specifically allowed is prohibited. He admitted, however, that there are “plenty” of short-term rentals—about 120 on Airbnb alone.
One councilman in Spartanburg was quoted as arguing in favor of creating rules to keep “bad actors” from causing trouble in neighborhoods.
Rules vary greatly in the cabins and houses we’ve rented, but a common theme seems to be that parties are not allowed. I’ve also seen limits on the number of cars that can be accommodated and, of course, the number of people permitted. Pets may or may not be allowed.
What do you think? Would you be comfortable with short-term rentals in your neighborhood? Could rules about groups, parties and parking make a difference?
We may see other cities in The Palmetto State considering whether to limit short-term rentals through zoning or permitting. It’s an interesting question!
But apparently not when the claimant has no interest in the property
South Carolina courts don’t respect tax sales!
For that reason, tax sales have always been problematic for title examiners and real estate closing attorneys. Any concern about service of process or naming proper parties can result in the return the property to the owner of record. Historically, we would simply not close in the face of a tax sale in the chain of title.
In recent years, title insurance companies and real estate lawyers have attempted to take a more liberal approach. A rule of thumb might be that a tax sale that is at least ten years old where one person or entity has held title for a ten-year period since the tax sale may not result in an aborted closing. The title may not be marketable, but it may be insurable.
A recent Court of Appeals case* made me laugh. (Remember I am an easily amused title nerd.) The plaintiff, Scott, was “renting to own” the property in question under a 1998 oral agreement with her uncle, McAlister. Scott took possession of the property after making an initial down payment of $4,000 and agreeing to pay the remaining $31,000 purchase price in monthly installments of $300. That’s her story, at least. McAlister testified that Scott agreed to obtain a loan to make a second payment of $31,000.
After Scott failed to make the $31,000 payment, McAlister told Scott that her monthly payments would be considered rent only, and the parties agreed to reduce the monthly payment to $200. In 2007, McAlister began eviction proceedings, but the circuit court vacated the order of ejectment when Scott asserted that she occupied the property under a land purchase agreement. McAlister moved and changed the mailing address for tax purposes. The taxes for 2011 were never paid, and the property was sold in a tax sale in 2012.
Scott claimed she was unaware of the mailing address change, the delinquent taxes, the tax sale or the opportunity to redeem the property until the purchaser’s surveyor showed up! In 2015, Scott filed a complaint alleging that tax sale technicalities were not followed because notices were never posted on the property. The tax collector claimed her office posted the property notice on the property in August of 2012.
The circuit court granted summary judgment after it determined Scott lacked standing and that the tax authorities owed her no duties because she was not the record taxpayer, property owner or grantee. The Court of Appeals cited cases for the proposition that a tax execution is issued against the defaulting taxpayer, not against the property. The summary judgment decision was upheld on the theory that while due process is owed to a property owner, it is not owed to a person who whose only interest is based on an oral agreement.
I love it when our appeals courts answer real estate questions correctly. Overturning this tax sale would have resulted in serious consequences for title examiners and closing attorneys!
*Scott v. McAlister, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5897 (March 9, 2022)
The Oregon legislature believes they should, but a Federal Court issued an injunction
Late last year, my son and daughter-in-law decided to buy a new house, mainly to move into the school district where their children attend school and to be closer to their children’s friends. My daughter-in-law is an elementary school teacher who had enrolled her children in the school where she teaches. She’s a great teacher, by the way, as evidenced by being named Richland One teacher of the year several years ago. I’m not just bragging about her, although I am very proud of her. Being a great teacher is part of the story.
They immediately sold their house in our very hot seller’s market and were looking at the daunting process of having to move twice. They got lucky when their real estate agent found the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. The real estate agent advised them to make an offer at full price, which they did, but apparently several other real estate agents gave the same advice to their customers.
My son and daughter-in-law got lucky again when they learned that she had taught the seller’s children. She wrote a letter to the sellers to make that connection and to express how much they loved the house. They are happily living in that house today.
I learned just this week that the real estate industry has dubbed such attempts to influence sellers “love letters”. And an article published in the oregonlive.com on March 6 entitled “Federal judge blocks Oregon’s first-in-nation ban on homebuyer ‘love letters’” tells the tale of the Oregon legislature attempting to ban these letters. The news story points to a preliminary injunction* issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.
The opinion defined “love letters” as “notes, letters, and pictures that buyers may submit along with their offer to purchase in order to create an emotional connection between sellers and buyers – especially when significant competition exists on a given property.” A practicing real estate agent who is also an Oregon legislator introduced legislation to ban these letters because they “perpetuate systemic issues of bias in real estate transactions.”
The legislation, which passed in 2021, amended a statute that enumerates the duties and obligations owed by a seller’s agent and reads:
In order to help a seller avoid selecting a buyer based on the buyer’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, married status or familial status as prohibited by the Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. 3601 et seq.), a seller’s agent shall reject any communication other than customary documents in a real estate transaction, including photographs, provided by a buyer.
The statute does not define “customary documents”, but Oregon’s Real Estate Commissioner offered guidance: “the Agency interprets (customary documents) to mean disclosure forms, sales agreements, counter offer(s), addenda, and reports. Love letters would not be considered customary documents.”
The plaintiff, a real estate agency, sought a preliminary injunction against Oregon’s real estate commissioner and attorney general against enforcing the statute. The Court said the purpose of the legislation is laudable, to stop discrimination in home ownership based on protected class status, but agreed to issue the preliminary injunction because the legislation “unquestionably” interferes with free speech.
The defendants presented evidence of the history and prevalence of housing discrimination in Oregon, and the Court agreed that considerable racial disparities persist in home ownership. The defendant’s expert opined that the vast majority of “love letters” disclosed the buyer’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, familial status, or disability. He said about half the letters used as evidence in the case included photographs that revealed some information about race, color, sex, and other characteristics. He opined that love letters enable intentional and unintentional discrimination in housing.
The evidence indicated love letters are powerful documents! The opinion cites a study conducted by the real estate company Redfin that found 40% of offers include love letters and that love letters increase the likelihood of having an offer accepted by 52%. A real estate agent testified that love letters allow her clients to compete with higher offers, including those submitted by investors. The evidence also indicates that real estate agents play a significant role in drafting love letters, including providing templates to their clients.
The plaintiff suggested alternatives to the legislation: (1) greater enforcement of existing fair housing laws; (2) requirement that agents redact client love letters, (3) prohibition on the inclusion of photos; (4) fair housing disclosure requirement in real estate transactions; (5) increased fair housing training for real estate agents; (6) increase the stock of affordable housing; or (7) do nothing and allow individual real estate agents to advise their clients to not send love letters.
The Court indicated the last two alternatives do not merit serious consideration. The other alternatives, however, show that the defendants’ objectives could be achieved in a manner that places less of a burden on otherwise lawful speech.
I am confident we will see more “love letter” legislation and litigation in future.
*Total Real Estate Group, LLC v. Strode, 22 WL 633670, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38653 (D. Or., March 3, 2022)
Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-02 fielded two marketing questions from a lawyer concerning a website, Expertise.com. This website finds and reviews service professionals and states that it researches businesses by using customer referrals, public records, accreditations and licenses and mystery shoppers.
Some law firms are listed on the site without the knowledge of the lawyers through the site’s unilateral research and screening. The site states that it lists businesses alphabetically, but it allows law firms to submit to be reviewed and included at no cost. The site indicates this process takes approximately one year to complete. A law firm can also purchase a “featured placement” to take advantage of being seen first on the website page and to include links to the law firm’s social media.
The lawyer’s questions were:
If an attorney or law firm pays for a featured placement on Expertise.com, does that attorney violate Rule 7.4(b) by holding the law firm and its attorneys out as experts by virtue of the website’s name?
2. Does paying for a featured placement on Expertise.com violate Rule 7.2(c)?
The Ethics Advisory Committee responded definitely: “Lawyer may not participate in any way in marketing via Expertise.com.” Actively participating in an online business listing at a website whose stock language violates the advertising rules is itself a violation of the advertising rules, according to the Committee.
The Committee referred to an earlier EAO: 09-10 which opined that a lawyer who adopts, endorses, or claims an online directory listing takes responsibility under the Rules for all content of the listing and general content of the directory itself, regardless of who created the material. While the prior opinion focused on comparative language contained in client testimonials and endorsements submitted to the website, the reasoning applies to content created by the host that violates some other rule, like 7.4(b), according to the current EAO.
Regardless of the creator of the offending content and regardless of which rule it violates, the Committee’s view is that a lawyer may not adopt, endorse, claim, or contribute to any online listing that contains language or other material that would violate the Rules if created and disseminated directly by the lawyer.
Paying for a featured placement within a business directory website is not itself a violation of Rule 7.2(c) if the payment obligation or amount is not tied to the referral of business as a quid pro quo, according to the EAO. In the Committee’s view, if a featured placement is the only benefit received in exchange, the payment would be a “reasonable cost of advertisement” under the 7.2(c)(1) exception.
However, the Committee believes a lawyer may not pay Expertise.com for a featured placement because that step would be prohibited by Rule 7.4(b).
My preacher has suffered several email hacking schemes that prey on church members with kind hearts.
He has sent out a written notification and has announced from the pulpit more than once that church members have reported to him that they sent money because of his very touching email requests about persons in need…email requests that he never made. He assured his congregation that if he needs specific funds for specific needs, he will make phone calls. He shared that preacher friends of his have reported similar schemes. The fake emails always report that he is unavailable to take phone calls but that the need is urgent and immediate.
Phone calls may be the key to fraud prevention!
A lawyer friend of mine called me this week to ask an opinion on a potential client’s case. Help me answer the question: Does a closing attorney have a duty to make a telephone call to clients who may need to wire funds in connection with a closing to warn about the dangers of wire fraud and how to prevent the loss of closing funds?
I don’t know the answer to that question. My gut reaction is that the standard in our communities in South Carolina is that lawyers should provide very specific instructions on wiring instructions and engagement letters to prevent this type of fraud. I’ve seen several excellent examples of red-letter, bolded warnings.
Chicago Title in South Carolina continues to see a rise in the amount of fraud and attempted fraud in connection with real estate closings. The most recent memorandum was sent out to agents on February 2. Most of these incidents involve hacked emails where a party to the transaction fails to maintain strong computer or email security.
Unfortunately, law firms with significant security measures in place have also been victims of these schemes. The hackers typically submit altered payoff letters or wiring instructions to divert the funds. Like the emails that have plagued my preacher, the forged emails, wiring instructions and payoff letters look very similar to legitimate documents.
Here is the current advice on preventing these disasters in your law firms:
Obtain payoff information and wiring instructions early in the transaction so that there is ample time to review them and confirm their authenticity.
Review every payoff and wiring instruction to determine whether it appears authentic on its face. Many fraudsters are excellent at spoofing letterheads and logos, but sometimes, you may see tell-tale signs.
Compare each payoff letter and wiring instruction to prior instructions to determine whether account numbers have been changed.
If the wire is going to an entity to which you have previously sent wires, compare the new information with the prior transaction. If you save wiring instructions in your systems, make sure that repository is secure and cannot be easily shared.
Verify every wiring instruction verbally using a known and trusted telephone number. Do not use telephone numbers provided in the instructions themselves unless you can verify its validity.
If you cannot verify the instructions verbally or have doubts about the transaction, consider mailing, overnighting or even hand delivering a check to a confirmed address instead of using a wire.