Will 2023 be a “normal” year in real estate?

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The “Greenville Business Magazine” published an article on January 27 that should interest all dirt lawyers. The article, written by David Caraviello, is entitled, “Leaving the Frenzy Behind: Could 2023 Be a More ‘Normal’ Year in South Carolina’s Real Estate Market?” You can read the article in its entirety here.

The article outlines the frenzy of the 2022 real estate market in South Carolina which culminated in an acute inventory shortage. While industry leaders budgeted for 2023, they wondered whether home prices would plummet because of rising interest rates. The national picture may be bleak because of these factors, but the article points out that experts do not foresee a gloom-and-doom scenario for South Carolina.

I’ve seen several news sources recently, including this one, pointing out that South Carolina is a primary destination for consumers looking for milder winters and following jobs at BMW, Volvo, and other companies. The market does not look dismal for us.

Please take a minute to read the article. To some real estate professionals, it says, the scenario entering 2023 sounds “refreshingly normal,” although we may have forgotten what normal is.

Perhaps 2023 will return to the ordinary seasonal ebbs and flows to which law firms can adapt from a staffing and other cost standpoint. Maybe everyone will be able to take a vacation this year. Let’s hope so! Good luck out there!

MV Realty sued by Florida Attorney General

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This blog has previously discussed MV Realty PBC, LLC. South Carolina title examiners report they 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 quick search revealed hundreds of these unusual documents filed in several South Carolina 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 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 an 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.

In December, Florida’s Attorney General sued the company calling the venture a “deceptive scheme”. The lawsuit seeks an injunction, preventing enforcement of the contracts with consumers, preventing future deceptive and unfair trade practices, and returning funds to consumers.

News sources report that the company is active in 23 states, including South Carolina, and that Attorneys General in several other states are investigating the activities of this company. News sources also report numerous lawsuits against consumers seeking to enforce these contracts. U.S. Senator Sharrod Brown (D-Ohio) has indicated the company could face scrutiny from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Development.

Dirt lawyers, pay attention to this situation. We will certainly see updates.

Second real estate case of the year rejects replacement mortgage doctrine

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SC Supreme Court discards arguments of ALTA and PLTA

Real estate cases can be absent from our Advance Sheets for months, but we have seen two cases already in 2023. In ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union v. Bailey* our Supreme Court was asked to adopt a novel replacement mortgage doctrine, but the Court deflected the question, deferring to the legislature, even though American Land Title Association and Palmetto Land Title Association filed amicus briefs in favor of the doctrine.

This is a real estate mortgage priority dispute between two institutional lenders concerning a residential property in Winnsboro.  Jimmy and Laura Bailey mortgaged their residence at 247 Morninglow Drive to Quicken Loans in the amount of $256,500. The mortgage was recorded on October 20, 2009. One week later, the Baileys closed an equity line of credit with ArrowPoint Federal Credit Union in the amount of $99,500. The second mortgage was recorded on November 4. ArrowPoint had record notice of the Quicken mortgage. On November 23, the Baileys refinanced the Quicken mortgage with Quicken, this time in the amount of $296,000.

In connection with the refinance, the Baileys executed an interesting document entitled “Title Company Client Acknowledgment”, which stated the only outstanding lien on the property was the prior Quicken mortgage. This statement was false. The Court stated that there was no clear explanation as to whether Quicken had the title searched at this point.

The Baileys used $257,459 from the refinance to pay off the first mortgage. On December 15, Quicken released the first mortgage and recorded the refinance mortgage. Quicken assigned the mortgage to U.S. Bank, the petitioner in this case.

(If these facts make you break out into a cold sweat, then you were around doing real estate closings at the break-neck speed we suffered during this time frame.)

The Baileys defaulted on the line of credit, and ArrowPoint filed this action seeking a declaration that its line of credit had priority over the Quicken refinance mortgage. Both lenders moved for summary judgment. U.S. Bank claimed it had priority under the replacement mortgage doctrine. The special referee and Court of Appeals agreed with ArrowPoint, and the Supreme Court affirmed. Both appeals courts concluded that adopting the replacement mortgage doctrine is a question for the General Assembly.

Dirt lawyers are intimately familiar with South Carolina’s race-notice statute (S.C. Code §30-7-10) which prioritizes liens based on notice and the recording date.

The Supreme Court recited that it had recognized the equitable subordination doctrine as an exception to the race-notice statute. The Court noted the right of subrogation is essentially a creation of the court of equity, which allows a person who is secondarily liable for a debt, upon paying the debt, to assume by law the place of the creditor whose debt is paid.  Decades later, the Court declined to recognize the doctrine for a lender that refinanced its own mortgage but failed to discover an intervening mortgage. The Court said in the case at hand that it had previously warned lenders of their duty to search titles!**

The Court noted that the replacement mortgage doctrine is another exception to the race-notice statute, and many jurisdictions either recognize the doctrine or follow its logic. Cases from other jurisdictions were cited, and the Restatement (Third) of Property was quoted. According to the Restatement, the replacement mortgage doctrine provides:

  • If a senior mortgage is released of record and, as a part of the same transaction, is replaced with a new mortgage, the latter mortgage retains the same priority as its predecessor, except
  • To the extent that any change in the terms of the mortgage or the obligation it secures is materially prejudicial to the holder of a junior interest in the real estate, or
  • To the extent that one who is protected by the recording act acquires an interest in the real estate at a time that the senior mortgage is not of record.

The Court said that it was required to respect the authority of the legislature on public policy matters and declined to sit as a “superlegislature” to second-guess the General Assembly’s decisions. The Court differentiated the equitable subrogation doctrine from the replacement mortgage doctrine by saying that the “race” begins with the original mortgage in the equitable subrogation situation, and the intervening lender suffers no loss. Under the replacement mortgage doctrine, on the other hand, the original first mortgage is satisfied of record and replaced with a new mortgage that is recorded after the intervening mortgage.

The Court also criticized the replacement mortgage doctrine because it dilutes the importance of title examinations. Lenders who seek to refinance their own mortgages, as Quicken did in this case, can easily search the title to discover the intervening lien. The last words of the case state, “Finally, we emphasize parties must conduct diligent title searches to protect their interests under the race-notice statute.”

I, for one, will not argue with that final statement. It now appears that if ALTA and PLTA want a replacement mortgage doctrine in South Carolina, they need to approach the legislature.

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28129, January 11, 2023.

**All the citations are omitted but are set out in detail in the subject case.  

Happy New Year dirt lawyers

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2023’s first real estate case is both humorous and sexy!

If real estate lawyers weren’t easily amused, our profession might live up to the common misconception that it’s boring. But the first South Carolina real estate case of 2023 is both funny and sexy. I’ll explain the funny part shortly. Sadly, the only thing sexy about this case* is that the property is occupied by two strip clubs. But let’s agree to be entertained where we can.

This is a specific performance case involving property in Charleston County. Clarke owned a strip club located at 2015 Pittsburgh Avenue in Charleston. The defendant’s predecessor in title owned a strip club across the street at 2028 Pittsburgh Avenue. The Supreme Court called the property at 2028 Pittsburgh Avenue the subject property, so we will, too. The subject property includes buildings and a parking lot.

In 1999, Clarke entered into a lease which permitted him to share the parking spaces on the subject property with the property owner. The lease contained the following language: “Right of First Refusal: Lessor grants the Lessee the right of first refusal should it wish to sell.”

Before we discuss what the Supreme Court had to say about this language, let me throw in my two cents. Don’t use the terms “lessor” and “lessee” when you draft leases. Use the terms everyone can understand, “landlord” and “tenant”. And please pay attention to prepositions. In this language, which party is “it”?  A drafter of real estate documents cannot be too precise!

Back to the case. I often read cases by starting with the dissent or concurrence. With complicated cases, the minority opinion often explains the holding quickly. This case isn’t complicated, but Justice Few really cut to the chase in his concurrence. And this is the funny part. Justice Few quips, “This instrument says nothing, does nothing, restrains nothing.” (Remember I admit to being easily amused.)

Justice James’ majority opinion goes into more detail.

When Clarke learned that his landlord had conveyed to subject property to Fine Housing for $150,000, he initiated this action for specific performance. Interestingly, the closing attorney failed to raise the lease and the right of first refusal with the purchaser, but Fine Housing admitted it had record notice of both.

The trial court ruled the right of first refusal is enforceable as to the entire property and ordered Fine Housing to convey title to Clarke upon his payment of $350,000. There is no explanation for this figure. Appraisals must have been involved. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding the right of first refusal is an unreasonable restraint on alienation and is therefore unenforceable.

The Supreme Court affirmed, stating that whether a right of first refusal is enforceable turns on whether the right unreasonably restrains alienation. The Court agreed with The Restatement (Third) of Property: Servitudes §3.4 and held that the factors to be considered include: (1) the legitimacy of the purpose of the right; (2) the price at which the right may be exercised; and (3) the procedures for exercising the right. The Court further held that these factors are not exclusive, and in this case, agreed to address another point raised by Fine Housing—the lack of clarity as to what real property the right encumbers.

Clarke argued that the lease provides the right applies to all the property, the price should be determined by the seller, and South Carolina law requires that the right should be exercised within a reasonable time.

Fine Housing argued that the lease merely identifies the location of the leased parking spaces, and the remaining language does not provide the clarity needed to identify the property intended to be encumbered by the right. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the uncertainty as to what property is encumbered supports the conclusion that the right is an unreasonable restraint on alienation.

The Court also agreed with Fine Housing that the failure of the right to determine a price and the procedures for its exercise also created an unreasonable restraint on alienation.

The bottom line is that the Court held the language to be so imprecise as to be unenforceable. While real estate lawyers are always interested in obtaining the best deal for clients, the second most important aim of drafting real estate documents should be clarity.

Always keep in mind how Justice Few dismissed the language that says nothing, does nothing and restrains nothing! You never want language you draft to be dismissed so easily!

*Clarke v. Fine Housing, Inc., South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28126 (January 4, 2023)

Fifth Circuit addresses short-term rental challenge

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This blog has previously discussed challenges by various cities, including cities in South Carolina, to short-term rentals in residential areas.

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.

Arguments against such rentals often focus on noise and parking problems in otherwise quiet residential subdivisions.

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.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed such a challenge in Hignell-Stark v. City of New Orleans, 46 F. 4th 317 (August 22, 2022). Thanks to Professor Dale Whitman of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School via the Dirt Listserv for information on this case.

An ordinance in the City of New Orleans required an owner to be a resident of the city to obtain a license to become a landlord allowing short-term rentals. When the plaintiffs challenged this ordinance using a “takings” theory, the Fifth Circuit held that theory to be inapplicable because permission to make short-term rentals of a residential unit is not a property interest. It is instead, according to the Court, a privilege.

The plaintiffs also argued that the ordinance was an undue burden on interstate commerce, and the Court agreed, stating that an ordinance that discriminates against interstate commerce is per se invalid unless there are no available alternative methods for enforcing the city’s legitimate policy goals. The ordinance in question was a blanket prohibition against out-of-state property owners’ participation in the short-term rental market. The Court pointed out that the ordinance doesn’t just make it more difficult for non-residents to compete in the market for short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods; it forbids them from participating altogether.

The Court pointed to alternative methods for achieving the city’s legitimate goals of preventing nuisances, promoting affordable housing, and protecting neighborhoods’ residential character. More aggressive enforcement of nuisance laws, increased penalties for nuisance violations, increased taxes on short-term rentals, requiring an operator remain on the property during night hours, and capping the number of short-term rentals licenses in particular zoning district might be alternatives.

The ordinance was held unconstitutional and void because the city’s objectives could be addressed in other ways that did not burden interstate commerce.

What do you think? Would you be comfortable with short-term rentals in your neighborhood?

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/

Congressional method for funding CFPB held unconstitutional

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A three-judge panel of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on October 19 that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s funding structure is unconstitutional. *

Rather than receiving its funding through periodic Congressional appropriations, the CFPB is funded directly from the Federal Reserve, which is funded through bank assessments. This funding method was intended to remove some congressional influence on the bureau.

Most federal agencies receive annual appropriations from Congress that are determined each year through legislative negotiations. Many agencies have separate funding sources like fees and assessments collected from the entities they regulate. The arrangement, like CFPB’s, which provides for a continuous funding source, is common among financial regulatory agencies like the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Many commentators have suggested that this opinion will not stand because nothing in the Constitution prevents Congress from funding agencies in a variety of ways. The case is expected to be appealed to the full Fifth Circuit and after that to the Supreme Court. But while this holding stands, it renders all CFPB actions from its inception vulnerable to challenge.

*Community Financial Services Association of America, Ltd. v. CFPB