A Blog for Thanksgiving Week

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The top ten things this dirt lawyer is thankful for professionally…

As a happy United Methodist (by virtue of my marriage 42 years ago to a P.K.* who refused to be baptized again at a Baptist church) I believe an attitude of thankfulness makes life better.

So, from a real estate standpoint, here are the top ten things for which I’ll give thanks this Thursday:

  1. We live and work in a state where closing real estate transactions is the practice of law and where, by hard work and vigilance, we are in a position to protect the interests of our clients.
  2. We help our consumer clients achieve one of their biggest dreams, home ownership.
  3. We help our commercial clients purchase, lease, finance and refinance properties. These activities allow our clients to make money and allow our communities to thrive.
  4. We don’t ignore title problems. We find them, discuss them, cure them, obtain insurance over them, and, hopefully, make them better for the property owner and lender, and for the next lawyer.
  5. If things go well, everyone involved in the closing is “happy”.
  6. We generally, as a community of real estate lawyers, seek to get along with each other. (Don’t make me point out exceptions to this rule!) Older lawyers mentor younger lawyers. Lawyers ask each other for guidance and, generally, that guidance is given with a smile. We train lawyers and paralegals, we serve on committees, we speak at seminars, write papers and books, participate in the Bar’s and the law schools’ mentorship programs and handle pro bono matters. As lawyers, we try to be good citizens.
  7. Those of us who weathered the financial downturn that began in 2007 encourage those of us who have not that there is life on the other side. If we suffer from another downturn in 2023, we will get through it.
  8. Technology has made our lives easier in the last few years, and improvements in technology will continue to make our lives easier. (I know that technology has also led to a great deal of fraud that we must fight every day, but I’m being positive here! Work with me!)
  9. I am thankful for the team of dedicated professionals who worked with me before I retired and who continue to take the best care possible of title insurance agents (dirt lawyers and their staff members.)
  10. I am thankful for the network of attorney agents who ably handle real estate matters throughout the Palmetto State.

I know. I know. Many of you are shaking your heads and pointing out that I no longer work “in the trenches” and don’t see the problems that plague real estate lawyers in the form of the constantly changing environment, changing technologies, difficulties in hiring and retaining staff members, increased competition and encroachment into “our” part of the closing by third parties.  I do see those difficulties, I am sympathetic, and that team of professionals I used to work with are constantly seeking improvements.

But, for Thanksgiving week, let’s pause for just a moment to be thankful!

*I’m guessing most South Carolinians know what a P.K. is, but, just in case you don’t, it’s an acronym for Preacher’s Kid, which I am told means the worst kid in church. My husband tells two stories to demonstrate:  (1) His father once spoke to him from the pulpit and threatened to have him sit with him during the sermon if he didn’t behave; and (2) There are unconfirmed rumors that my husband’s initials have been carved in various church pews across South Carolina.

Fannie Mae will accept attorney opinion letters in lieu of title insurance

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Fannie Mae’s updated Selling Guide now allows attorney opinion letters in lieu of title insurance in some circumstances. This change aligns Fannie Mae with Freddie Mac’s similar announcement. Will the marketplace change dramatically because of these policy announcements. I hope not and I doubt it.

Fannie Mae touts its change as a method to reduce costs for borrowers. I don’t believe South Carolina lawyers will issue title opinions for residential loans that will be less expensive than title insurance. I know I wouldn’t.

The guidance indicates opinion letters will not be accepted where the loan is secured by a condominium, a leasehold estate, or a manufactured home.

According to the guidance, the attorney’s title opinion letter must:

  • be addressed to the lender and all successors in interest of the lender
  • be commonly accepted in the area where the subject property is located
  • provide gap coverage for the duration between the loan closing and recordation of the mortgage
  • list all other liens and state they are subordinate
  • state the title condition of the property is acceptable and the mortgage constitutes a lien of the required priority on a fee simple estate in the property

Do you see any problems with this list? I’ve never issued an opinion letter that provided gap coverage and I don’t recommend that you accept that risk in your transactions. What happens if you update title and discover a mechanic’s lien recorded in the gap? That lien would become your problem as the attorney who agreed to cover the gap as of the date of the opinion letter or the closing date.

Before the general use of title insurance, attorney’s routinely issued opinion letters to lenders and buyers. But title insurance has historically been determined to be the better choice.  Attorneys should not be responsible for title problems that cannot be discovered through a title examination.  A forgery in the chain of title, for example, would be covered by title insurance but should not be covered by an attorney’s opinion. The same may be true for missing heirs, matters that may be apparent from a visit to the property and survey matters.

But it concerns me that lenders who accept attorney’s opinions may perceive those items (and others) to be covered. To ensure your opinion letters are not perceived to cover matters outside the title examination, proper “exceptions” should be added to your letters. To protect you, your law firm and your malpractice carrier, your letters should contain many paragraphs of exceptions!

My best advice is to resist this proposed change in the marketplace. I believe title insurance provides the best coverage for owners and lenders, and it indirectly provides protection for closing attorneys. We can be encouraged that Freddie Mac’s similar announcement two years ago has not greatly impacted our industry. Let’s hope Fannie Mae’s announcement will have a similar reaction.

Renaissance Tower condo owners file federal lawsuit

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Renaissance Tower (left), Myrtle Beach, SC

This blog previously discussed the evacuation of Renaissance Tower condominium project in Myrtle Beach on October 7 because the building was deemed unsafe. The concern was reported to be the structural foundation of the 22-story building which is located just north of Ocean Lakes Campground.

The Sun News reported on October 14 that Horry County Code Enforcement posted a sign outside the resort that the building is unsafe, and occupancy has been prohibited. The paper also reported that residents received an evacuation letter from the management company stating that the steel frame within the foundation is in substantially worse condition than previously believed. The damage was apparently discovered during a repair project that had just begun.

A proposed federal class action lawsuit has now been filed by condo owners alleging the board of directors of the homeowners’ association and the management company of the project knew for years about steadily worsening damage to structural steel components supporting the building but failed to further inspect and repair the damage. These failures allowed the damage to worsen, according to the 34-page complaint.

The complaint further alleges that the building management company had known since 2016 that the foundation of the building was corroding. In 2016, an engineer was hired to perform an inspection and reported that the foundation was in “bad shape” and needed to be repaired or replaced. The complaint alleges that no repairs were made in response to this report.

After the collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida in June of 2021, according to the complaint, the HOA board asked the engineer to return and present repair options. The engineer determined that the conditions had worsened. On October 7 of this year, contractors determined that the steel was so corroded that the building was not structurally sound. Thus, the evacuation was ordered.

The complaint alleges that despite being left homeless, stuck paying for temporary housing, or deprived of income from a tenant, Renaissance owners now face more than $2 million assessment for repairs to the building’s structural steel as well as an unknown additional assessment for temporary shoring to make the building safe.

Like the Surfside, Florida building that collapsed, the Renaissance tower is an ocean-front project that is structurally supported by steel and concrete. The building remains unoccupied. The complaint alleges that some owners are homeless, and others are living in tents. Sales of units have also been stalled.

I would not be surprised to see additional inspections and lawsuits involving ocean-front projects.

Columbia house purportedly sold as an NFT

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149 Cottage Lake Way – one of the first NFT-based residential home sales for the US

When bizarre topics are discussed in my family, we often employ the famous quote by actor Chris Tucker from the funny movie Rush Hour: “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” I’m not sure I understand the words I am typing here, so we’ll add links below for you to read for yourself.

A company called Roofstock onChain claims to have sold a house located in Columbia, South Carolina using NFT technology. The address of the house is revealed: 149 Cottage Lake Way, and it’s located in my zip code. If you Google that address, you’ll see lots of pictures of the house and articles about this transaction.

I had to start with the basics to attempt to get a handle on this topic. An NFT is a non-fungible token, a digital asset that can come in the form of art, music, in-game items, videos, and other assets. They are bought and sold online using cryptocurrency. The NFT allows the buyer to own the original item. NFTs have been described as physical collector’s items, only digital. Instead of receiving an actual painting, the buyer gets a digital file that represents exclusive ownership.

To trade in NFTs, the buyer must first have a digital wallet that allows storage of cryptocurrency and NFTs. The wallet must be funded with cryptocurrency. After that step, there are apparently several NFT marketplaces to explore.

So how did this house purchase take place? An LLC was created for the ownership of the three-bedroom recently renovated home. (And here are the words that I don’t understand.) Several of the articles say something along the lines of: The house was sold on the Roofstock onChain NFT marketplace by transferring the home identity to an Ethereum address owned by the buyer.

Dirt lawyers, I ask you, do you see any problems with this transaction? Did anyone search the title? Was there a physical inspection of the home? Was there a survey? Were the taxes prorated?  Did a South Carolina licensed attorney close the transaction?  I have more questions, but I bet you can come up with a list of your own.

I’ll continue to read about this topic and attempt to keep readers informed. In the meantime, here are some links for your education:

The future is now? Columbia becomes blockchain testing ground with house bought as an NFT

Blockchain Makes Deeper Inroads Into Real Estate As Roofstock Announces Its First NFT Home Sale

Are NFTs the future of home ownership?

How NFTs Could Change Real Estate

Blockchain Facts: What it is, how it works, and how it can be used

Roofstock onChain https://onchain.roofstock.com/

Welcome to Ethereum https://ethereum.org/en/