The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a notice on April 5 proposing an Amendment to Regulation X that would require a temporary COVID-19 emergency pre-foreclosure review period until December 31, 2021, for principal residences. This amendment would, in effect, stall foreclosures on principal residences until January of 2022. The press release, which can be read here, requests public comments on the proposal through May 10, 2021.
The press release states nearly three million borrowers are delinquent in mortgage payments and nearly 1.7 million will exit forbearance programs in September and the following months. The rule proposes to give these borrowers a chance to explore ways to resume making payments and to permit servicers to offer streamlined loan modification options to borrowers with COVID-related hardships.
Under current rules, borrowers must be 120 days delinquent before the foreclosure process can begin. Anticipating a wave of new foreclosures, the CFPB seeks to provide borrowers more time for the opportunity to be evaluated for loss mitigation.
Many provisions of the CARES Act apply only to federally backed mortgages, but the CFPB seeks, by this proposed rules change, to set a blanket standard across the mortgage industry.
Job losses during the pandemic have caused many Americans to be behind in their rent, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Monday, March 29, that the federal moratorium on evictions has been extended through June 30. The announcement was made just two days before the moratorium was set to expire.
The theory behind the moratorium is that the pandemic severely threatens individuals in crowded settings like homeless shelters. Keeping those individuals in their homes is a step toward stopping the spread of COVID, according to the theory. The moratorium was initially issued in September of 2020 and has been extended twice previously.
Renters must invoke the protection by completing a form available from the CDC website, by signing the form under penalty of perjury, and by delivering the form to the landlord. The form requires the renters to state that they have been financially affected by COVID-19 and can no longer pay rent. Legal aid attorneys have argued that this process is too difficult and that landlords are able to exploit loopholes. For example, if a lease has expired, a landlord might argue that eviction is not a result of non-payment of rent. Legal aid attorneys prefer that the moratorium be automatic.
Landlord trade groups have been opposed to the moratorium, stating that landlords should have control of their properties.
The CFPB and Federal Trade Commission issued a statement announcing that they will be monitoring and investigating eviction practices considering the extended moratorium. The agencies’ indicated they will not tolerate illegal practices that displace families and expose them and others to grave health risks.
More than $45 billion in rental assistance has also been set aside by Congress. This money will benefit landlords as well as tenants. Renters are now able to apply for federal rental assistance through application portals opened in March.
Golf course redevelopment is clearly a hot topic in the real estate industry, and this is my fourth blog on the topic. The first blog discussed the decade-long litigation surrounding two golf courses in Myrtle Beach that eventually allowed for redevelopment despite strenuous objections of neighbors. The second blog discussed the national trend of neighbors objecting to golf course redevelopment on “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) grounds. This blog discusses a golf course closer to home, in Blythewood, The Golf Club of South Carolina at Crickentree.
An article in The State newspaper by Jeff Wilkinson discussed the bankruptcy, foreclosure and eventual planned redevelopment of Crickentree. The article states that E-Capital, the national investment firm that owns the mortgage on the golf course, announced this bad news by email to the neighboring homeowners. A public meeting followed where an attorney for that firm told neighbors that the intent is to subdivide the golf course into small lots and build 450 homes. Basic math would indicate the planned density will be much greater than that in the surrounding neighborhood.
The property had to be purchased through the bankruptcy proceeding and then rezoned in order to accommodate a residential subdivision on property now zoned for recreational use. And, of course, the neighbors are quite concerned about potentials hits on their property values.
According to Mr. Wilkinson’s article, the Columbia area may suffer from an oversaturation of the market with golf courses. Recently, he said, the former Rawls Creek of Coldstream golf course in Irmo closed, and its owner, the Mungo Homes Co., donated the 116-acre property to the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission. The commission plans to link the 4.5 miles of cart paths to the Three Rivers Greenway river walks in Columbia and Lexington County. Donating golf courses for recreational purposes avoids possible rezoning and litigation issues that neighbors may raise.
Many golf communities were built in areas with good schools and work opportunities, making them particularly valuable for residential redevelopment. Developers generally do not want to walk away from that value.
So, what prohibits the development of these properties into residential subdivisions? Zoning is one of the challenges. Many golf courses are zoned for commercial uses to accommodate clubhouses, restaurants, pro shops and bars. Some, like Crickentree, are zoned for recreational purposes. But the main stumbling block may be the NIMBY attitude of neighbors. Residents near golf courses prefer that the properties be turned into parks, open spaces and natural preserves.
In the Deerfield Plantation cases in Myrtle Beach, the golf courses and surrounding residential subdivisions were originally developed beginning in the late 1970’s. The plats contained notes to the effect that the streets were dedicated for public use but the golf courses were to be maintained privately and were specifically not dedicated to public use.
The covenants gave the lot owners no rights, property, contractual, or otherwise, in the golf courses. A Property Report that was delivered to all prospective lot purchasers described the costs of golf memberships, which were not included in lot prices, and stated that to be allowed to use the golf courses, members would be required to pay initial dues and annual dues and fees. The real estate agents made it clear during the sales program that the mere purchase of a lot did not give a lot owner any right or entitlement to use the golf courses. The deeds of the lots did not convey any easements or other interests in the golf courses.
One plaintiff, who was also a real estate agent, testified that he was never told the golf courses would operate in perpetuity and that the real estate agents never told other potential purchasers that the golf courses would always exist on the properties.
What caused the golf courses to fail? When the golf courses opened, there were 30 – 40 golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area. By the time the golf courses closed, there were nearly 125 courses. Property taxes in the golf courses increased from $7,800 per year to $90,000 per year. And then the economy tanked. These three factors have occurred across the country to varying extents.
Now, let’s look at South Carolina law. In one of the Deerfield orders, Thomas J. Wills, Special Referee, examined the law of implied easements in South Carolina. I’m summarizing and eliminating the citations for this brief discussion. The Order states that implied easements are not favored by the courts in South Carolina and must be strictly construed. The intent of the parties controls the existence and scope of implied easements, and the best evidence of that intent is the recorded documents. While case law in South Carolina is clear that lot owners in subdivisions hold easements in streets shown on plats by which their lots are sold, the order states that this rule does not extend beyond access, which is necessary and expected for residential purposes. Finally, the order states that no implied easements in views, breezes, light or air exist in this state.
After many years, these Myrtle Beach golf courses will be redeveloped into new residential subdivisions. It may take many years before the Crickentree property will be in a position to be redeveloped. Will we see more of this litigation in South Carolina? Probably. While the law in South Carolina appears generally to favor redevelopment in these cases, there is no doubt that the facts in some of the situations may give rise to implied easements in adjacent lot owners, even in the face of our law. As long as we have NIMBY attitudes of those who live near defunct golf courses, we will continue to see litigation in this area.
Recently, there has been news that Indian Wells Golf Course in Garden City may be replaced with 488 new homesites in the near future. Founders Group International plans to built 150 duplexes in the area, in addition to single family homes. Stay tuned!
Can and should a consumer buy protection against title theft?
Several years ago, a real estate lawyer asked whether title insurance companies should offer protection against “title theft”…the protection touted by the companies who routinely advertise their services on the radio. This question prompted us to research the services of those companies and analyze whether title insurance companies should offer the same service.
The advertisers who bombard the airwaves with warnings about title theft say thieves can steal homes by forging the names of homeowners on deeds, then reselling or mortgaging the property to hijack the equity. The thieves would purportedly pocket the proceeds, leaving the homeowner without title or with new mortgage payments. The companies promise to monitor title to protect against such devastating losses.
My understanding of the product being offered at that time was that the company would regularly check the land records to see whether the homeowner’s name appeared on any deed or mortgage. The homeowner would be notified of any “hits”. If the homeowner responded to the notification that the instrument in question was, in fact, a forgery, then the company would prepare and file in the land records a document to alert future buyers and lenders of the forgery. I was told that the product did not include attorneys’ fees for clearing titles.
But is “title theft” a thing? Does a forged deed convey real estate? No! Does a forged mortgage require the true owner of the real estate to make payments? No! But can a forger wreak havoc for a property owner? Yes, indeed!
I’ll never forget the name, Matthew Cox or the telephone call that tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation here in Columbia. Long before the housing bubble popped beginning in late 2007, an attorney called to let us know what was going on that day in the Richland County ROD office. 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.
The crimes perpetuated by Cox and Hauck were made easier by the housing bubble itself. Housing values were inflated and appraisals were hard to nail down. And closings were occurring at a lightening pace. The title companies who had issued commitments and closing protection letters for the lenders were definitely “on the hook”. And the important thing about title insurance is that coverage includes attorneys’ fees for defending titles. I don’t believe the property owners in this case had any coverage but clearing the mortgage issues eventually cleared their title problems.
Would the title theft products have been valuable to the homeowners in this situation? The companies may have notified the owners of the forged deeds and may have filed some kind of notice of the forgery in the land records, but that is all they would have done. Nothing would have prevented the forged mortgages. I am now informed that, under some circumstances, attorneys’ fees to clear title may be included with the title theft products, so perhaps today, the owners would have some protection with a title theft product. These products require “subscriptions” and periodic payments.
A far better alternative is the coverage provided by the ALTA Homeowners Policy of Title Insurance which requires a one-time payment at closing. This is the policy we commonly call “enhanced” coverage. The cost of this policy is twenty percent higher than the traditional owner’s policy, but it includes protection for several events that may occur post-closing. Forgery is one of those events. And, again, title insurance coverage includes attorneys’ fees.
Dirt lawyers who are asked about the title theft products should advise their clients that they can check the land records, most of which are online, to discover whether anyone has “stolen” their titles. And, better yet, they can buy title insurance coverage for peace of mind.
Early in my legal career, I searched a title prior to contentious litigation surrounding a commercial tract in Horry County. I was eight months pregnant with my son at the time. Title examiners as old as I am will remember we used to pull huge books down from high shelves to search titles in South Carolina. I remember this project so well not because of the difficult work in my puffy condition, but because of the time it took to resolve the litigation. When we finally received the final order, my son was in the second grade.
That timing may not hold a candle to the case decided last year in The United States District Court for South Carolina surrounding a tract in Dorchester County. Dudek v. Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company* is the culmination (I hope) of what the court calls a “long- standing and enduring legal battle” over an eight-acre tract that was divided into two parcels of six and two acres, respectively.
Summarizing the almost undisputed facts as briefly as possible, plaintiffs Stephen Dudek and Doreen Cross entered into a contract to purchase the six-acre tract in 2012. A third party, Molly Morphew, entered into a back-up contract with the sellers to purchase the property in the event the plaintiffs’ purchase fell through. Both parties ultimately sued the seller for specific performance, and the plaintiffs in this case prevailed.
Dudek and Cross purchased the property in 2017 and obtained a title insurance policy from Commonwealth. The litigation with Morphew continued with two subsequent suits, the first alleging fraud and abuse of process in the purchase, and the second seeking to enforce a contract provision setting up a water and sewer easement in favor of the two-acre tract, which by this time had been purchased by Morphew. Dudek and Cross filed a title insurance claim on the easement issue, and Commonwealth denied the claim relying on an exception for easements and the exclusion for risks created by or known to the insured prior the policy date.
The Court held Commonwealth had no duty to defend the insured property owners, relying on the fact that they knew about the easement before they closed. Simple enough, right?
The more convoluted and interesting discussion revolves around the treatment of the policy of the easement issue. The covered risk in question in the policy was that “someone has an easement on the Land”. The policy contained two exceptions, however, one for unrecorded easements and one for recorded easements. The court stated that the policy simultaneously extended and eliminated coverage for easements, rendering the policy provision meaningless and illusory.
Title insurance agents routinely add specific exceptions to title insurance policies to limit coverage. This case cautions against adding exceptions that operate to prevent all coverage from a covered risk. We will all need to be careful about this holding as time progresses.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has extended COVID-19 foreclosure and forbearance moratoriums through June 30, 2021. It also extended the deadline for the first legal action and the reasonable diligence time frame to 180 days.
COVID-19 forbearance was also extended to allow up to two forbearance extensions of up to three months each for homeowners who requested a forbearance on or before June 30, 2020. These extensions are intended to provide relief to homeowners who will be nearing the end of their maximum 12-month forbearance period and have not yet stabilized their financial situation.
FHA’s streamlined COVID-19 loss mitigation home retention and home disposition options were extended to all homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments by at least 90 days.
Diana Hoffman, Corporate Escrow Administrator with Fidelity recently wrote an excellent article about mortgage forbearance that I previously shared on this blog and am now sharing again with South Carolina closing attorneys in its entirety:
“Forbearance does not erase what the borrower owes. The borrower will have to repay any missed or reduced payments in the future. Borrowers able to keep up with their payments should continue to make payments. The types of forbearance available varies by loan type.
At the end of the forbearance, the borrower’s options can include paying their missed payments:
At one time
Spread out over a period of months
Added as additional payments, or
Added as a lump sum at the end of their mortgage
The CARES Act requires servicers to grant forbearance up to 180 days, with a one–time extension of 180 days for borrowers experiencing a hardship due to COVID–19 issues, such as, loss of income, unemployment, illness or caring for a sick relative.*
The CARES Act also provides protection against derogatory marks against the borrower’s credit. However, the servicer can report notes to the credit bureau that can be seen by any future creditor that could prevent the borrower from obtaining any type of new financing for a 12–month period.
When the Federal Housing Finance Agency reports servicers who collect payments on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they will only be required to cover four months of missed payments on loans in forbearance.
The big question is what happens when that four–month period is over? As it turns out, the Government Sponsored Entities (GSEs) themselves are preparing to cover any remaining advances for as long as those loans remain in forbearance.
What does this mean to the title industry? To prevent payoff losses due to deferred payments, settlement agents should:
Ask borrowers if they have entered into a forbearance or loan modification agreement with their lender at the opening of the transaction
Review the preliminary report or commitment for title insurance for junior liens, securing the deferred payments
Ensure the payoff request includes the following language:
Please furnish to us a statement of the amount necessary to pay in full including any amounts deferred due to a forbearance or modification agreement. If the borrower entered into a forbearance agreement and you are not the entity servicing any deferred amounts, please provide the contact information for the entity who is.
Review the payoff statement for deferred principal balance amounts
The last item is important. If the deferred amounts are not contained in the payoff statements, it is likely the amounts are being serviced by another loan servicer and a separate payoff statement will need to be requested”
*See above in the main article. Two extensions are now allowed.
Real estate cases involving property in Hilton Head Island are almost always interesting, and this one* is no exception. I’m sure my friend, Dick Unger, will be discussing it fully in his upcoming revised treatise on easements for the South Carolina Bar. In the meantime, here’s enough of a description to get this case on your radar.
The case involves a welcome center, a gas station and a shopping complex on Palmetto Bay Road near Sea Pines Circle. Enmark owns the gas station which is adjacent to the welcome center. The shopping complex is located behind the gas station and adjacent to the welcome center. The roadway in question covers a portion of the welcome center property and connects the station to the parking lot on the shopping center property.
The roadway initially forked around a small vegetative island located on the shopping center property and had two connections to the parking lot. The shopping center removed the island and placed a trash dumpster in its place. (That doesn’t sound like something that would have been well received in Hilton Head!) The station’s customers use the roadway as an alternative entrance and exit for the station, and the general public uses it to bypass Sea Pines Circle and access the shopping center.
The case outlines the chains of title for the welcome center and gas station properties. When a dispute about the roadway arose, the property owners entered into a tolling agreement in mid-2013, in which they agreed the owner of the welcome center would file a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment to determine each party’s rights as to the roadway.
The welcome center owner then involved the Town of Hilton Head, which wrote a letter stating the roadway violated Hilton Head’s Land Management Ordinances. The town ordered the road to be removed and replaced with a vegetative buffer. The gas station owner informed the Hilton Head official about the existence of the tolling agreement and of the importance of the roadway to its business and the public. The town stated that its letter was premature and subsequently decided the roadway was grandfathered into the Land Management Ordinances.
The welcome center owner filed a complaint in August of 2013 seeking an order that the gas station owner had neither an express nor a prescriptive easement. The Master-In-Equity found the existence of a prescriptive easement, and this appeal followed.
The Court of Appeals first eliminated the involvement of the town as a determinative factor in its decision, holding that the 2013 letter was not a final decision.
The Court next outlined the elements of a prescriptive easement: (1) continued and uninterrupted use or enjoyment of the right for a period of twenty years; (2) the identity of the thing enjoyed; and (3) the use or enjoyment which is either adverse or under claim of right.
Citing an earlier case, the Court of Appeals said our Supreme Court had clarified the third element, holding “adverse” and “claim of right” are in effect the same thing. The Supreme Court had simplified the elements stating the claimant must identify the thing enjoyed and show his use has been open, notorious, continuous, uninterrupted, and contrary to the burdened property owner’s rights for a period of twenty years.
The welcome center owner argued that the identity of the thing enjoyed was not established because the roadway is an “easement to nowhere”, not terminating on a public road. The Court held that termination on a public road was not required.
Continuous use was established through tacking the periods of use by prior owners in the gas station’s chain of title. The welcome center argued the use was interrupted by three threatening letters (dated 1994, 2008 and 2012, respectively), plus the placement by the shopping center of the garbage bin. The Court held that the letters were too late to interrupt the required twenty-year period, and the placement of the garbage bin was irrelevant because it was not placed by the owner of the burdened estate.
The owner of the welcome center raised multiple arguments as to the lack of adverse use, but it conceded in its post-trial brief that the existence of the easement would not be presumed “only if the use of the (roadway) during the entire prescriptive period was uninterrupted”, an issue upon which the Court had previously ruled.
I give you this case as an interesting discussion of prescriptive easement law in South Carolina and wait with you to hear Dick Unger’s words of wisdom!
*Carolina Center Building Corp. v. Enmark Stations, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5804 (February 10, 2021).
Almost every commercial transaction requires an ALTA/NSPS survey, so commercial practitioners are familiar with the most recent 2016 guidelines. Those guidelines are reviewed every five years, and a new version will be in effect beginning February 23, 2021.
You can review the new standards in their entirety, including a red-lined version, here.
The changes were made primarily to make the standards easier to understand and to correct a few inconsistencies. One change was made as a result of the 1995 U.S. Supreme Court case, Gutierrez de Martinez v.Lamagno, which held the word “shall” is a false imperative that actually means “may”. As a result, the word “shall” in the standards was changed to the word “must” to indicate an obligation or imperative.
Section 5.E was revised to clarify that the surveyor must only note observed evidence of easements, servitudes and other uses which are “on or across” the surveyed property instead of those which affect the surveyed property. This section also changes the necessity to locate utility poles within ten feet of the surveyed property from the prior requirement of five feet.
A change to Section 6.C states that if the surveyor becomes aware of a recorded easement not listed in the title evidence, the surveyor must advise the title company (in our case, the closing attorney) of the easement. If evidence of the easement isn’t provided to the surveyor, the easement must be shown or explained. This section was also revised to allow the surveyor to omit matters of record that are not survey related from the summary of title matters.
The introductory paragraph of Table A optional items has been revised to clarify that the wording of a Table A item may be negotiated. Item 6 of Table A was modified to clarify that zoning information must be provided to the surveyor. Item 11 regarding underground utilities has been simplified to two choices: (a) plans and/or reports provided by the client; or (b) markings coordinated by the surveyor pursuant to a private utility request. Item 18 (wetlands) was deleted. If a wetlands delineation is required, it must now be negotiated as an additional Table A, item 20. Item 19 was revised to allow for off-site easements appurtenant to be surveyed in their entirety.
We have a couple of weeks to become fully familiar with the new standards.
South Carolina real estate practitioners, if you thought 2020 was outrageously busy, there was an excellent reason for that. In the middle of a global pandemic, our state had a record year in home sales.
South Carolina REALTORS® (SCR) recently issued a press release reflecting the market data as of the close of 2020, stating that the number of sales closed in South Carolina in 2020 was 101,500, representing a 20% increase in closed sales, an increase in median price sales of 13% and a decrease in inventory of 40%.
SCR’s press release touted its efforts in fighting for real estate to be deemed an “essential service”. We want you to be aware that Chicago Title fought for that designation, too.
Despite these phenomenal numbers, it was clear that inventory was an issue through 2020 and remains an issue in early 2021. SCR’s press release states that as of the end of December, there were only 16,480 active home listings in our entire state, compared to 118,667 at the end of 2019.
And we all know that home prices were up. It was indeed a seller’s market! SCR reports that the overall median sales price increased in South Carolina by 12% to $245,000, and that sellers received, on average, 98% of their original list price. This represents a year-over-year improvement of 0.6%.
As we prepare for 2021, it appears to us that the trends of low inventory and higher prices in housing will continue at least through mid-year.
We’re hoping for continued good news in our marketplace as our population gets vaccinated and we are all able to move around more freely.
Here’s wishing for each of you a healthy, happy and prosperous 2021. And here’s wishing for the end of COVID for all of us sooner rather than later!
South Carolina real estate lawyers who represent developers or clients who sell land to developers deal with the issue of rollback taxes routinely. But lawyers who don’t deal with this issue on a regular basis should be aware of it to avoid stepping into what can amount to a very expensive trap.
Rollback taxes are assessed when the use of property that has been taxed as agricultural rate changes. Under prior law, rollback taxes were accessed for a five-year period. South Carolina Code Section 12-43-220 was amended in this year’s shortened legislative session to reduce the lookback period to three years. The amendment is effective January 1, 2021. In the year the use of the property changes, the difference between the tax paid under the agricultural use classification and the amount that would have been paid (typically under a commercial designation) is charged at full fair market value.
How expensive can the difference be? Agricultural use valuation is based upon crop yield and was frozen in 1991. For coastal and many other counties the difference between the agricultural use fair market value and the commercial fair market value can be enormous. In addition, many, but not all, agricultural use properties are taxed at a four percent assessment ratio versus the commercial designation’s six percent assessment ratio, and the millage is different. This alone can contribute to a large rollback tax. Rollback taxes can easily amount to thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.
When agricultural property is sold, the rollback tax issue comes into play. There is no norm in South Carolina as to who pays the rollback taxes. If the parties and their lawyers are aware of the issue, payment of the additional tax should be covered by contract. I’ve seen the issue arise for the first time at closing, however, and the typical tax proration contract provisions just don’t do the job to cover this issue. The buyer will argue that the decision to change the use of the property was not the buyer’s concern, and the seller will argue that the buyer had the advantage of the lower tax rate. Negotiations can get heated quickly.
When agricultural property is sold, the purchaser is required to sign an affidavit within thirty days of the sale stating under penalties or perjury that the property continues to qualify as agricultural. If that affidavit is not filed, the assessor will automatically apply rollback taxes. Note that if the issue is not handled at closing, the purchaser will have the ultimate responsibility, and you do not want to be the lawyer who failed to notify your purchaser client of this trap.
Fee-in-lieu completely eliminates rollback taxes and this should be a consideration for any large commercial project. A minimum investment of $2.5 million is required for a fee-in-lieu but many urban counties will not approve a fee-in-lieu for the statutory minimum. As always, contact a tax expert for assistance with these sticky matters.