Does real estate “wholesaling” work in our market?

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Maybe, but real estate practitioners should be careful!

A recent discussion on South Carolina Bar’s real estate section listserv surrounded whether and how to close “double closings” vs. “assignments of contracts”.  This is not a novel topic in our market. In the very hot market that preceded the crash beginning in 2007, one of the biggest traps for real estate attorneys was closing flip transactions. Title insurance lawyers fielded questions involving flips on an hourly basis!

Flips have never been illegal per se. Buying low and selling high or buying low and making substantial improvements before selling high are great ways to make substantial profits in real estate.  

Back in the day, we suggested that in situations where there were two contracts, the ultimate buyer and lender had to know the property was closing twice and the first closing had to stand on its own as to funding. In other words, the money from the second closing could not be used to fund the first closing. (Think: informed consent confirmed in writing!)

Where assignments of contracts were used, we suggested that the closing statements clearly reflect the cost and payee of the assignment.

The term real estate investors are using these days to define buying low and selling high is “wholesaling”.  A quick Google search reveals many sites defining and educating (for a price, of course) the process of wholesaling. This is a paraphrase of a telling quote I found from one site:

If you’re looking for a simple way to get started in real estate without a lot of money, real estate wholesaling could be a viable option. Real estate wholesaling involves finding discounted properties and putting the properties under contract for a third-party buyer. Before closing, the wholesaler sells their interest in the property to a real estate investor or cash buyer.

One of the smart lawyers on our listserv, Ladson H. Beach, Jr., suggested that there does not appear to be a consensus among practitioners about how to close these transactions. He suggested reviewing several ethics cases* that set out fact-specific scenarios that may result in ethical issues for closing attorneys.

In addition to the ethics issues, Mr. Beach suggested there may be a licensing issue where an assignor is not a licensed broker or agent. A newsletter from South Carolina Real Estate Commission dated May 2022 which you can read in its entirety here addresses this issue. The article, entitled “License Law Spotlight: Wholesaling and License Law” begins:

“The practice of individuals or companies entering into assignable contracts to purchase a home from an owner, then marketing the contract for the purchase of the home to the public has become a hot topic, nationwide in the real estate industry in recent years. This is usually referred to as ‘wholesaling’. The question is often, “is wholesaling legal?’ The answer depends upon the specific laws of the state in which the marketing is occurring. In South Carolina, the practice may require licensure and compliance with South Carolina’s real estate licensing law.”

The article suggests that the Real Estate Commission has interpreted that the advertising of real property belonging to another with the expectation of compensation falls under the statutory definition of “broker” in S.C. Code §40-57-30(3) and requires licensure. Further, the newsletter suggests S.C. Code §40-57-240(1) sets up an exception; licensing is not required if an unlicensed owner is selling that owner’s property. The Commission has interpreted, according to this article, that having an equitable interest is not equivalent to a legal interest for the purpose of licensing. In other words, a person having an equitable interest acquired by a contract is not the property’s owner and has no legal interest in the property for the purposes of this licensing exemption.

So real estate practitioners have several concerns about closing transactions of this type. Be very careful out there and consult your friendly title insurance underwriter and perhaps your friendly ethics lawyer if you have concerns as these situations arise in your practice.

*In re Barbare (2004), In re Fayssoux (2009), In re Brown (2004) and In re Newton (2007)

New fraud warning from Chicago Title

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It goes without saying that one of the most important partnerships for a real estate lawyer is a great title insurance company. I am biased, but in my opinion, there is no better title insurance company doing business in South Carolina than Chicago Title.

This week, a warning was issued from Chicago Title about a new and very specific fraud scheme that I want to share with all South Carolina practitioners.

Chicago Title received two reports last week of fraudsters apparently operating out of Houston. The fraudsters posed as owners of South Carolina properties and listed the properties for sale on Zillow. Mail away cash closings were scheduled with local real estate lawyers. In both cases, the fraudsters provided presumably fake identification and deeds to closing attorneys.

In the first case, the closing attorney very astutely foiled the scheme when he determined the signatures on the deed appeared suspicious. He contacted the New York notary who purportedly notarized the deed. She reported her seal had been stolen and used in at least one successful fraudulent scheme. The lawyer also learned from Federal Express that the deed had been sent from Houston rather than New York, where the seller was purportedly located. The transaction was stopped.

Unfortunately, the second transaction was not stopped.  This seller package also originated in Houston. The fraudster’s telephone number appears on Zillow listing for properties in multiple states. Houston law enforcement has been notified and is opening an investigation.

Any mail away closings should be particularly scrutinized. If you conduct a closing with an unfamiliar seller, you should be especially vigilant in confirming the identities of the parties. Use more than one set of eyes in your office! Anything that appears unusual should be examined carefully. Give your staff the flexibility to slow down and carefully examine each document. Tell them to bring any unusual document to you. Check behind your staff! A great real estate paralegal is invaluable, but we spent three years in law school learning to spot issues. Use those issue-spotting skills to foil these fraudsters!

Be careful and good luck out there!

Should “love letters” in the real estate market be banned?

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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)

Charleston ROD litigation reaches temporary resolution

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This blog has previously discussed (here and here) the excellent lawsuit brought by The Finkel Law Firm against the Charleston County Register of Deeds seeking a writ of mandamus requiring the ROD (1) to immediately file all documents delivered to the ROD within one month of delivery; (2) to mark the documents as having been recorded on the date of delivery; and (3) to record all future documents in the order of the time delivery regardless of whether they were delivered in person or by the U.S. mail or parcel post.

The Court appointed Howard Yates, one of the most experienced real estate lawyers of the Charleston Bar, as Court Monitor. Mr. Yates issued a report dated January 31, 2022, the parties signed a Consent Order on February 10, and the Court issued a separate Order, also dated February 10. Please read all three documents here.

Mr. Yates has made numerous recommendations involving, among other matters, increasing office hours, increasing work hours for staff, and hiring employees from other ROD offices to reduce the backlog by working weekends.

The Court will maintain jurisdiction and will require frequent reports on progress. We can all applaud the efforts of The Finkel Law Firm and Howard Yates in bringing this matter to satisfactory conclusion, at least temporarily.

Lawyer publicly reprimanded for closing irregularity

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Most South Carolina dirt lawyers were disappointed with the result of the 2017 Quicken Loan case which did not hold, as many had hoped, that a South Carolina licensed lawyer must be at the center of each residential real estate closing, overseeing each step, and ensuring that the consumer client’s interests are protected in each step. That case blessed a scenario where an out-of-state entity oversaw the closing process and divvied up the required lawyer functions among various functions.

A disciplinary case* from August of 2021 demonstrates just one way the scenario approved by Quicken can go awry.

The lawyer was hired by Superior Closing and Title Services, LLC to serve as closing attorney for a home purchase for an attorney’s fee of $200. That fee is our first clue about the type of closing that is the subject of this case.  The Court refers to the purchaser as “C.W.” The lender was 1st Choice Mortgage, and the loan was assigned to Wells Fargo.

Almost two years after the closing, Wells Fargo demanded 1st Choice repurchase the loan because of a discrepancy with the title. The Court states “it was discovered” that C.W. was a straw purchaser who never made a payment on the loan.  The lawyer argued, and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel did not dispute, that the lawyer was unaware of the straw purchase. The closing statement showed a payment by C.W. of $11,598.16. At the closing, a copy of a $12,000 cashier’s check made payable to Superior Closing was shown to the lawyer and to 1st Choice Mortgage as the source of the down payment.

The lawyer signed the normal certification at closing representing that the settlement statement was a true and accurate account of the transaction.

The $12,000 check was never negotiated, and 1st Choice never received the funds. 1st Choice paid over $39,000 to settle the claim with Wells Fargo.

1st Choice sued Superior Closing and the lawyer. The lawyer represented that Superior Closing prepared the closing statement and acknowledged that he failed to properly supervise the preparation of the settlement statement and the disbursement of funds. As a result of the lawsuit, a $39,739 judgment was filed against the lawyer and Superior Closing. The judgment has been satisfied.

We all know how challenging it is to supervise the disbursement of a residential closing where the funds do not flow through the closing attorney’s trust account. This disciplinary case demonstrates the danger of skipping that problematic but necessary step.

*In the Matter of Ebener, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 28047 (August 11, 2021)

Florida town accidentally sells its water tower

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I hope no dirt lawyer was involved in this transaction!

Two sources, The Tampa Bay Times and The Hill, have reported on a faulty legal description resulting in the accidental sale by the town of Brooksville, Florida, of its water tower. Brooksville is a picturesque town west of Orlando and north of Tampa.

According to the reports, the purchaser, Bobby Head, sought to buy a small building with a garage at the water tower’s base for redevelopment as a gym. The building had previously been used as storage for the city. The inquiry about buying the property led to discussions among and action by city leaders declaring the building surplus and subdividing the land. The City approved the transaction at a meeting on April 19. The sales price was set at $55,000, and the closing took place on May 5.

On the day of the closing, the purchaser told city officials that he thought the legal description included more property, but the deed was signed and delivered anyway. (I think I would have taken a breath and checked out the legal description!)

Several days later, Head went to Hernando County Assessor’s office to get an address for his new business location. He was told then that the property he bought included the city’s entire water tower site.

Head agreed to sign a deed to return the water tower to the city, and that deed was recorded on May 14. Once council member said to The Tampa Bay Times that he was not happy that mistakes had been made and he also believed the city had lost needed parking.

One official joked on Facebook, “Last month we accidentally sold the water tower. What should we do today?” The newspaper reports that the redevelopment agency director resigned. The Mayor joked, according to the paper, “We just need to be darn sure this doesn’t happen again.” The papers report that the incident caused quite a community uproar, as we can all imagine.

Thankfully, the purchaser was an honorable person who returned the property within a few days. As we can all attest, not all mistakes in real estate transactions are corrected so easily. I’m sending good vibes from South Carolina and hoping no real estate lawyer was involved in preparing the legal description!

Lexington County suspends new subdivision applications

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The State Newspaper reported on April 13 that Lexington County Council plans to suspend subdivision developments for the next six months. The proposed ordinance had its first reading that day, and The State, in an article written by Bristow Marchant, reported that County Council invoked a “pending ordinance rule”, which will require staff to refrain from accepting applications immediately.

County Council indicated it plans to review its standards during the six-month moratorium. The State reports that the ordinance will affect applications to develop ten or more lots for new housing, subdivisions with lots of less than half an acre, and developments with some “attached land use activities.”

Completed applications will continue to move through the system.

We have seen other counties and municipalities impose similar freezes. Notably York County and Hilton Head Island have taken similar action in the past.

We are in the middle of a “sellers’ market”, with inventory in housing being a major impediment to residential sales. This moratorium is likely to exacerbate that situation in the midlands.

Is “title theft” a thing?

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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.

ALTA/NSPS Survey Standards have been revised

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Changes will take effect February 23, 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 REALTORS® announces record year

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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!