Failure to search title leads to disastrous result

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Fourth Circuit unpublished opinion weighs in on SC tax sale issue

South Carolina appellate courts will overturn tax sales on the flimsiest of technicalities. In a recent unpublished opinion of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a tax sale was not overturned, but the result was almost the same for the tax sale purchaser who failed to search the title.

Remember that an unpublished opinion has no precedential value, but this case is particularly interesting to South Carolina dirt lawyers who understand the necessity of searching titles. Thanks to my friend and real estate litigator extraordinaire Jim Koutrakos who sent this case to me.

Guardian Tax SC, LLC v. Day* involved a Charleston County tax sale. Ralph and Virginia Day bought property in Charleston in 1991. In 2006, the Days mortgaged the property to Bank of New York Mellon. Between 2005 and 2007, the Days failed to pay their federal income taxes, and beginning in 2010, they failed to pay -county taxes.

In 2016, the Day’s title was subject to three interests: (1) the county tax lien; (2) the mortgage; and (3) the federal tax lien. By operation of law (S.C. Code §12-49-10), the county tax lien took priority. The mortgage had a higher priority than the federal tax lien because it was recorded first. Charleston County sold the property to Guardian through a tax sale that year.

The County did not notify the bank or the United States of the tax sale, but it did publish notice in a local newspaper. Guardian’s purchase of the property satisfied the County lien and generated approximately $1.6 million in excess proceeds. The Days owed approximately $3.5 million to the bank and their federal tax liabilities totaled approximately $2.9 million.

After the tax sale, the County searched the title and notified the Days and the bank of their one-year statutory redemption period. The County did not notify the United States nor inform Guardian of the notices it sent to the Days and the bank. Neither the Days nor the bank redeemed the property. At some point after the expiration of the period of redemption, Guardian searched the title and discovered for the first time the interests of the bank and the United States. Guardian filed a quiet title action which was removed to federal court by the United States.

Guardian, the bank, and the United States filed competing motions for summary judgment. Guardian and the bank argued over the excess proceeds, and Guardian argued that the federal tax lien was extinguished by the tax sale or, alternatively, the United States should be awarded a 120 day right of redemption.

The district court agreed with the bank that it was entitled to the proceeds and agreed with the United States that its lien was valid and that a right of redemption was not appropriate. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the tax sale was nonjudicial and that the United States’ lien survived the tax sale because it did not receive the required notice. Further, because of the lack of notice, the redemption period never began to run.

Both courts rejected Guardian’s argument that the federal lien should be extinguished because of South Carolina equitable principles because federal law governs the enforcement of federal tax liens. The Court of Appeals quoted the District Court’s jab that there is “nothing inequitable about the outcome” because Guardian could have avoided the result by engaging in due diligence prior to the tax sale by searching the title, a “minimal burden.”

*United States District Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Unpublished Opinion No. 21-1411 (August 23, 2022)

SC Supreme Court issues one more opinion on the Episcopal church controversy

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….despite the fact that the same Court declared “this case is over” in April

This is the fifth blog about the controversy surrounding the Episcopal Church and its properties in South Carolina. The subject of this post is the case the South Carolina Supreme Court decided on August 17* which follows an opinion in April** that declared definitively “this case is over”. It seems the Court found a reason to disagree with itself. And, once again, the Court declares that there will be no remand and that the case is over.

Church schisms are difficult in many ways, and the real estate issues are particularly thorny. This dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the years that have followed the dissociation. As dirt lawyers, we don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues, but we do have to be concerned with the real estate issues.

As I said in April, my best advice to practicing real estate lawyers is to call your friendly and intelligent title insurance underwriter if you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The current controversy involves whether the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church. The actions taken by each church with respect to the Dennis Cannon have been examined ad nauseum by our Court.

In April, the Court ruled that 14 of the 29 churches would be returned to the national body. The opinion re-filed in August ruled that six more churches are allowed to keep their properties. After this decision, 21 parishes will remain with the local entity and eight will be returned to the national entity.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties according to the April opinion. The statuses of these congregations do not change with the August opinion:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, inc. and Church of the Cross Declaration of Trust, Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eautawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St.Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc. Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The following churches were ordered returned to the National Church by the April opinion but allowed to maintain their properties by the August opinion:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. John, John’s Island
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew, St. Matthews, Fort Motte
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James Church, James Island

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church, according to both opinions.

  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the holy Cross, Spartanburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach

We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 28095 (Re-filed August 17, 2022)

**The Episcopal church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion NO. 28095 (April 20, 2022).

Easements don’t typically lead to criminal contempt charges

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These horrible commercial neighbors have fought (and litigated) for years!

Our Advance Sheet from August 10 contained two Court of Appeals easement cases involving adjoining commercial properties in Murrells Inlet. Last week’s blog discussed the first of the two cases, which involved an award of attorneys’ fees*. This week, we’ll take up the second case. A footnote in the first case indicates the parties were heading to trial again immediately after oral arguments. These neighbors are obviously not getting along!

The litigation involves a restaurant property owned by Gulfstream Café, Inc. and an adjoining property containing a marina, a store and a parking lot owned by Palmetto Industrial Development, LLC. Palmetto’s predecessor in title granted four non-exclusive easements in 1986 and 1990 to Gulfstream. The easements allowed for ingress and egress and vehicular parking. It was anticipated that the marina property would use the parking primarily in the daytime and the restaurant property would use the parking primarily in the evening.

The easements included general warranties, the same language that appears in our normal general warranty deeds: “(A) does hereby bind itself and its successors and assigns, to warrant and forever defend, all and singular, the said easement unto (B), its successors and assigns, against itself and its successors and assigns, and all others whomsoever lawfully claiming, or to claim the same or any part thereof.” This language is consistent with South Carolina Code §27-7-10.

This case actually involves a criminal contempt finding in the Circuit Court for parking a golf cart in front of the easement holder’s delivery gate! The golf cart was parked there on multiple occasions in a normal parking spot. But Gulfstream couldn’t orchestrate efficient deliveries while the golf cart blocked its delivery gate. The parties are obviously horrible neighbors.

The second case reveals an interesting fact. The property owner of the burdened property intended to demolish its building and rebuild a larger building on stilts and extending over the parking lot. The owner of the easement was having none of that!

In 2017, the Circuit Court found criminal contempt and ordered a fine of $3,000 or thirty days in jail. In 2018, the parties proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Gulfstream $1,000 for interference with the easement. The Circuit Court entered a permanent injunction: “(Appellants) are enjoined from preventing (Gulfstream) from enjoying the right(s) granted to it in the recorded nonexclusive joint easement. (Appellants) are restrained and may not expand the outside boundaries of any new building beyond those previously used. The (c)ourt is specifically not talking about height, only the outside boundaries.”

The parties fought on, seeking to clarify the easement, and seeking another criminal contempt finding. The Court amended the injunction for clarification. The Appellants moved again to clarify the injunction and argued that an injunction should not have been granted because the jury awarded monetary relief. Other arguments related to the building’s construction and that the injunction enlarged the easement. The Circuit Court denied the motions and issued a finding that the Appellants “engaged in criminal contempt of court by deliberate and intentional acts by placement of a golf cart which interfered with the proper use of the non-exclusive easement in this matter and was in direct violation of the (c)ourt’s previous order.” Appellants were fined $5,000.

Skipping a little of the very long procedural history, let’s move on to the appeal. To make a very long story shorter, the Court of Appeals held that the Circuit Court did not abuse its discretion in finding Appellants in criminal contempt. You should read these two entertaining cases. Real estate lawyers don’t often have the pleasure of being entertained by published opinions!

*The Gulfstream Café, Inc. v. Palmetto Industrial Development, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5935 (August 20, 2022).

** The Gulfstream Café, Inc., vs Lawhon, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5936 (August 20, 2022).

Murrells Inlet commercial neighbors embroiled in litigation

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Our Advance Sheet from August 10 contained two Court of Appeals easement cases involving adjoining commercial properties in Murrells Inlet. This blog will discuss the first of the two cases*. Next week, we’ll take up the second case. A footnote in the first case indicates the parties were heading to trial again immediately after oral arguments. These neighbors are obviously not getting along!

The litigation involves a restaurant property owned by Gulfstream Café, Inc. and an adjoining property containing a marina, a store and a parking lot owned by Palmetto Industrial Development, LLC. Palmetto’s predecessor in title granted four non-exclusive easements in 1986 and 1990 to Gulfstream. The easements allowed for ingress and egress and vehicular parking. It was anticipated that the marina property would use the parking primarily in the daytime and the restaurant property would use the parking primarily in the evening.

The easements included general warranties, the same language that appears in our normal general warranty deeds: “(A) does hereby bind itself and its successors and assigns, to warrant and forever defend, all and singular, the said easement unto (B), its successors and assigns, against itself and its successors and assigns, and all others whomsoever lawfully claiming, or to claim the same or any part thereof.” This language is consistent with South Carolina Code §27-7-10.

The question in this case is whether the easement holder (the grantee) is entitled to attorneys’ fees in connection with litigation against the easement grantor’s successor in title based on the easement. In many deed warranty cases, the grantee sues the grantor when a third party asserts an interest in the real estate. In this case, the only parties are the owners of the adjoining properties.

The relationship between the parties began to sour in 2016 when Palmetto demolished and started to rebuild its building. Gulfstream brought suit for interference with its easement and received a temporary injunction. Palmetto was subsequently held in criminal contempt for willfully violating the injunction.

In 2018, Gulfstream filed a complaint against Palmetto seeking a declaratory judgment based on interference with the easement and a finding that Palmetto breached its warranty.  This case sought attorneys’ fees and costs. Later in 2018, a jury found for Gulfstream on its claim for interference in the 2016 case.

Both parties moved for summary judgment in the 2018 case. Gulfstream argued that the plain language of the warranties provided for Palmetto’s obligation to defend Gulfstream. Palmetto relied on the language of the warranty provision and a 2004 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Black v. Patel**.

In analyzing the arguments, the Court of Appeals began with the proposition that in South Carolina, the authority to award attorneys’ fees can only come from statute or contract. Next, the Court stated that a warranty of title is a contract on the part of the grantor to pay damages in the event of a failure of title. Generally, when a grantor refuses to defend the title against a third party claiming title, the grantee is allowed attorneys’ fees. The general rule for cases in this context, according to the Court, is that only ‘lawful”—that is successful—claims asserted against title justify an award of attorneys’ fees where the grantor fails to defend the title.

A footnote in the Black case set out an exception to the general rule. The grantor would also be responsible for attorneys’ fees where its wrongful act causes the grantee to be in litigation with a third party.

The question in this case became whether the warranty provision in Gulfstream’s easements provide that Gulfstream is entitled to attorneys’ fees from Palmetto. The Court held that the answer is “no” because Gulfstream’s title is not in issued. Palmetto did not dispute the Gulfstream has easements over Palmetto’s property, rather, Palmetto, at worst, has been infringing upon Gulfstream’s rights. Gulfstream’s actual title was not challenged and there is not a third party involved as contemplated in Black.

The Court did not that its decision does not prevent Gulfstream from seeking attorneys’ fees in future contempt actions as a sanction if Palmetto continues to infringe upon Gulfstream’s rights. In other words, the Court seems confident that litigation between these parties will continue.

I’m going to have to go eat seafood in Murrells Inlet to check out these properties!

*The Gulfstream Café’, Inc. v. Palmetto Industrial Development, LLC., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5935 (August 10, 2022).

**357 S.C. 466, 594 S.E.2d 162 (2004).

Updates on dangerous high-rise condo projects

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I have recommended previously that all South Carolina dirt lawyers subscribe to the DIRT listserv run by Professor Dale Whitman of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School. I emphasize that recommendation today and have two updates from that service to share with you. Both updates relate to the collapsed Surfside project in south Florida.

First, a 50-unit condominium building in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Horizon West, has been ordered to be demolished by the Waukesha City Council. Professor Whitman reports that the building’s steel structure has been compromised by water infiltration, much like the Surfside project, and is considered a risk for collapsing.

The residents don’t have the funds to pay for the demolition, and the insurance company is taking the position that the building should be repaired, not demolished. The cost of the demolition has skyrocketed because of the presence of asbestos.

The units were valued at $90,000 to $140,000 according to Zillow, prior to the discovery of the defects. During the current high-priced housing market, it is not likely that the property owners will be able to replace their housing even if they receive their full replacement costs from insurance. It is a very sad situation, but, of course, not as sad as an actual collapse resulting in the loss of lives.

Second, Florida’s legislature has passed a law that requires regular building inspections and requires homeowners’ associations to maintain reserves. The act was unanimously passed by both houses, and Governor DeSantis signed the bill into law on May 26th.

Under the new law, inspections are required when a condominium building reaches 30 years of age and every ten years thereafter. For buildings within three miles of the coast, the first inspection is required at 25 years of age.

In addition, mandatory structural integrity reserve studies are required every ten years under the new law, and reserves are required to be maintained based on the studies. The power of the HOA to waive reserves was removed, effective December 31, 2024.

This legislation is encouraging and should be considered in South Carolina, particularly because of the existence of our numerous high-rise coastal condominium projects.

The only downside I see about such legislation is that it will make condominium living more expensive and may price some retirees and lower-income individuals out of the market entirely. But, logically, the cost of maintenance should be factored into every residential property purchase. The ability of an owners’ association to waive reserves and thereby kick the maintenance can down the road is a dangerous proposition.

** Please note that the new inspection and reserve Florida legislation applies only to condominium and cooperative buildings of 3 stories and higher above ground. See more details from Florida attorney, Michael Gefland.

Florida condo collapse class action lawsuit reaches settlement

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This blog has previously discussed the June 24, 2021 collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South condominium project in Surfside, Florida and Fannie Mae’s response by issuing Lender Letter (LL-2021-14) which directs lenders to gather information from owners’ associations about potential unsafe conditions.

As we near the anniversary of the disaster, a $997 million settlement has been reached for the wrongful death victims and survivors. The settlement was announced in the Miami-Dade Circuit Courtroom of Judge Michael Hanzman on May 11. The settlement includes insurance companies, developers of the project next door, engineers, architects, a law firm, and the owners’ association. 

The building has now been demolished, and the settlement does not include the potential sale of the underlying real estate, which will be auctioned later this month. The opening bid is $120 million. A prior settlement of $83 million was reached for economic losses.

Judge Hanzman will oversee the division of the settlement funds among the victims. He has announced that he would like to have the process completed by September.

South Carolina has many aging condominium projects, particularly along our coast. And we have an earthquake fault line to consider. Do our local homeowners’ association boards face expensive repair and reserve dangers like those in Florida? Should condominium purchasers consider the financial impact of possible major assessments to address delayed repairs? Should legislation be proposed to address these issues?

I’ve previously recommended Episode 8 of the podcast “Collapse: Disaster in Surfside” produced by Treefort Media and the Miami Herald for an excellent discussion of the legal and financial issues surrounding aging condominium projects.

Once these huge projects are completed, there is no legislative requirement for future inspections. The county in Florida where Champlain Towers South was located has a requirement to inspect tower projects after forty years. Forty years is a long time! Champlain Towers’ forty-year inspection had found the potential problems, but there were no “teeth” requiring the repairs to be made. The property owners of Champlain Towers were aware of the need for expensive repairs, but they continued to kick the can down the road to avoid the expense.

After the collapse, Florida’s legislature considered an act which would have required reserves and inspections, but the legislative effort failed because of the fear of chilling South Florida’s development frenzy. My guess is that South Carolina would face a similar roadblock.

Some condominium projects have served as affordable housing in certain geographic locations and as affordable second homes and rentals in resort areas. The podcast suggests that tacking on the annual cost of reasonable reserves may threaten this affordability. Think about elderly individuals who live in their dream coastal condominiums. Taken to a logical conclusion, these projects, properly run, may become available only to the wealthiest among us.

Residential sellers must disclose sea level rise risk in Hawaii

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Like South Carolina, Hawaii has a mandatory seller disclosure form that must be completed by sellers of residential properties. Unlike South Carolina, Hawaii updated its legislation in 2021 to become the first state to require the disclosure of the risk of sea level rise to the property based on the 3.2-feet Sea Level Rise Exposure Area. The legislation went into effect on May 1 of this year.

Hawaii has developed a sea level rise viewer which you can check out here. To identify a property location relative to a sea level rise exposure, the street address or tax map key of the property must be entered into the viewer. The viewer is intended to provide map data depicting projections for future hazard exposure and assessing economic and other vulnerabilities resulting from rising sea levels.

The viewer was developed by the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) at the University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. Mapping is based on an upper-end projection of 3.2 feet of sea level rise by the year 2100.

Like the existing flood zone disclosure requirement, the sea level risk disclosure is intended to help home buyers better understand how the sea level risk will impact their properties. The disclosure requirement applies to oceanfront and near-oceanfront properties as well as properties near streams and other areas likely to flood in times of heavy rainfall.

Will we see similar legislation in South Carolina and other coastal states? My guess is that we probably will.

South Carolina Supreme Court issues final decision on Episcopal church real estate

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“This case is over” according to the court

Church schisms are tough in many ways, and the real estate issues are no exception. This week, the South Carolina Supreme Court filed an opinion* that it says finally resolves the real estate issues. In other words, the Court has decided who owns the real estate of the churches in dispute.

The dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the twelve years that have followed the dissociation. I am glad that I don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues. The real estate issues are thorny enough.

My best advice to practicing real estate lawyers: when you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property, call your intelligent and friendly title insurance underwriter. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The Court based its decision on which of the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church.  The actions taken by each church with regard to the Dennis Cannon were examined.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, Inc., Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eutawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc., Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St John’s, John’s Island
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew (St. Matthews, Fort Motte)
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James’ Church, James Island

I feel for all the parties involved. I am a United Methodist, and our international church authorities have been examining similar issues in recent years. We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28095 (April 20, 2022).

Short-term rentals questioned in South Carolina cities

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Vrbo and Airbnb are two go-to websites to find interesting short-term rentals in vacation locations. Sometimes a cabin or house seems much more appropriate and fun than a hotel room for a family get-away. Having a kitchen and room for dining is often a plus. And I love a hot tub with a view!

But I’ve seen a couple of news articles about South Carolina cities questioning whether these types of short-term rentals are appropriate in residential subdivisions, and I understand the concern.

WLTX posted an article on March 16 entitled, “Renters frustrated after South Carolina city pauses short-term rentals for 6 months.” The article reports that Rock Hill is halting new and renewal permits for short-term rentals for at least the next six months.

The article quotes a man who said he and his wife operate nine Airbnb locations and have been put out of business by the resolution. The article quotes the resolution: “the homes are mainly in their older neighborhoods and these transient tenants have a negative effect on the peace and perceived safety of those neighborhoods.”

An article posted on March 17 by South Carolina Public Radio entitled “Upstate cities ponder the fate of short-term rentals” discusses the Rock Hill moratorium as well as similar discussions by city officials in Spartanburg.

The city attorney in Spartanburg is quoted as saying that city’s “permissive” zoning ordinance does not address short-term rentals and that any use that is not specifically allowed is prohibited. He admitted, however, that there are “plenty” of short-term rentals—about 120 on Airbnb alone.

One councilman in Spartanburg was quoted as arguing in favor of creating rules to keep “bad actors” from causing trouble in neighborhoods.

Rules vary greatly in the cabins and houses we’ve rented, but a common theme seems to be that parties are not allowed. I’ve also seen limits on the number of cars that can be accommodated and, of course, the number of people permitted. Pets may or may not be allowed.

What do you think? Would you be comfortable with short-term rentals in your neighborhood? Could rules about groups, parties and parking make a difference?

We may see other cities in The Palmetto State considering whether to limit short-term rentals through zoning or permitting. It’s an interesting question!

SC courts will overturn tax sales on the flimsiest of technicalities

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But apparently not when the claimant has no interest in the property

South Carolina courts don’t respect tax sales!

For that reason, tax sales have always been problematic for title examiners and real estate closing attorneys. Any concern about service of process or naming proper parties can result in the return the property to the owner of record. Historically, we would simply not close in the face of a tax sale in the chain of title.

In recent years, title insurance companies and real estate lawyers have attempted to take a more liberal approach. A rule of thumb might be that a tax sale that is at least ten years old where one person or entity has held title for a ten-year period since the tax sale may not result in an aborted closing. The title may not be marketable, but it may be insurable.

A recent Court of Appeals case* made me laugh. (Remember I am an easily amused title nerd.) The plaintiff, Scott, was “renting to own” the property in question under a 1998 oral agreement with her uncle, McAlister. Scott took possession of the property after making an initial down payment of $4,000 and agreeing to pay the remaining $31,000 purchase price in monthly installments of $300. That’s her story, at least. McAlister testified that Scott agreed to obtain a loan to make a second payment of $31,000.

After Scott failed to make the $31,000 payment, McAlister told Scott that her monthly payments would be considered rent only, and the parties agreed to reduce the monthly payment to $200. In 2007, McAlister began eviction proceedings, but the circuit court vacated the order of ejectment when Scott asserted that she occupied the property under a land purchase agreement. McAlister moved and changed the mailing address for tax purposes. The taxes for 2011 were never paid, and the property was sold in a tax sale in 2012.

Scott claimed she was unaware of the mailing address change, the delinquent taxes, the tax sale or the opportunity to redeem the property until the purchaser’s surveyor showed up! In 2015, Scott filed a complaint alleging that tax sale technicalities were not followed because notices were never posted on the property. The tax collector claimed her office posted the property notice on the property in August of 2012.

The circuit court granted summary judgment after it determined Scott lacked standing and that the tax authorities owed her no duties because she was not the record taxpayer, property owner or grantee. The Court of Appeals cited cases for the proposition that a tax execution is issued against the defaulting taxpayer, not against the property. The summary judgment decision was upheld on the theory that while due process is owed to a property owner, it is not owed to a person who whose only interest is based on an oral agreement.

I love it when our appeals courts answer real estate questions correctly. Overturning this tax sale would have resulted in serious consequences for title examiners and closing attorneys!

*Scott v. McAlister, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5897 (March 9, 2022)