South Carolina lawyers: We have a new UPL case

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This blog is about dirt, and the facts of the new unauthorized practice of law case do not involve real estate, but who among us doesn’t like to keep up with what our Supreme Court is thinking about UPL, the topic we believe can make us or break us at any moment?

The case, Westbrook v. The Murkin Group, LLC*, was decided March 18 and involved a Florida company that provides debt collection services in exchange for contingency fees. The Murkin Group advertises itself as having “in-house collection specialists”. Under the terms of its agreement with clients, once an account is turned over to Murkin, the client agrees to cease all communication with the debtor and to allow Murkin to be the sole point of contact. The agreement further authorizes Murkin to forward accounts to an attorney designated by Murkin when legal action is required.

In 2017, Wando River Grill became dissatisfied with its linen supplier, Cintas, and suspended its services. Cintas claimed the suspension constituted a breach of contract and invoked a liquidated damages provision in the contract, seeking more than $8,000 in damages. Cintas hired Murkin to collect the debt.  A South Carolina licensed attorney represented the restaurant in the dispute.

Murkin sent a demand letter, and the parties began to communicate about the dispute via email. Murkin claimed Cintas would waive its damages claim if the restaurant paid a “one-time processing fee for reinstatement”. Murkin prepared and sent the reinstatement agreement to the restaurant with signature lines for the restaurant and “The Murkin Group, on behalf of Cintas Corporation – Charleston, SC.”

The restaurant sent the proposed reinstatement agreement to the Petitioner, its lawyer, Edward Westbrook. Westbrook contacted Murkin and asked to discuss the matter directly with Murkin’s South Carolina counsel. The response was, “Whether or not this gets forwarded to local counsel is a decision which out office will make, with our client, when we feel it appropriate.”

(I can only imagine how that comment was received!)

The dispute continued, and Westbrook emailed Murkin asking for the South Carolina Bar numbers of several Murkin employees. Westbrook then filed a declaratory judgment action pursuant to our Supreme Court’s request that individuals who become aware of UPL bring a declaratory judgment action in the Court’s original jurisdiction.

The Court referred the matter to a special referee who filed a report recommending that the Court find Murkin’s actions constituted UPL.

The Supreme Court held that Murkin engaged in UPL when it interpreted Cintas’ client agreement and gave legal opinions as to what damages were recoverable. It also engaged in UPL when it sought to negotiate the contract dispute and advised Cintas on settlement.

While Murkin characterized its actions as “debt collection”, the Court stated that the true nature of the underlying matter is a contract dispute. The Court enjoined Murkin from engaging in any further such conduct.

 

*South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27952 (March 18, 2020).

Congress is working on online notary legislation

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Please see the linked March 22 article from HousingWire that outlines the bipartisan movement in Congress led by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Kevin Cramer (R-NC) to allow for remote online notarization nationwide.

While most of our agents seem to support this effort, we understand some oppose the South Carolina remote online notary law (RON) because they believe they would lose control of closings if it passed. I understand that concern, but point out that neither the state nor federal proposals would change our unauthorized practice of law precedent. In fact, the senators working on the federal version indicate it would not impede consumer choice nor change any state law governing the practice of law.

The federal bill is entitled “Securing and Enabling Commerce Using Remote and Electronic Notarization Act of 2020.” Currently about half the states allow for RON at this point, but South Carolina is not one of them.

Please pay attention to this movement and contact your congressmen whether you support or oppose the legislation.

iBuyers aren’t here yet, but they are close!

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I refer you to this article from The Title Report entitled “iBuyers gaining market share in some markets”.

While South Carolina has been safe from the iBuyer phenomenon so far, I wanted you to see this article because it shows us how close iBuyers actually are to us. The Raleigh, North Carolina, market led the nation in iBuyer market share for the third quarter, according to Redfin.

Nearly 8 percent of homes bought in Raleigh in that period were purchased by iBuyers.

This blog has discussed iBuyers previously. Opendoor, OfferPad, Redfin and Zillow continue to increase their footprints. They buy houses for prices determined by their respective algorithms in markets where they operate. The locations close to South Carolina, so far, are Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Jacksonville, Birmingham and Nashville. How far behind can we be?

Selling a home through an iBuyer can be much simpler than the market we currently occupy. The homeowner opens the iBuyer’s website, enters their address and some basic information about the house. Within a few days, the iBuyer will make an offer.

The seller doesn’t have to clean the house, stage the house, store excess furniture, board pets, leave home for open houses or any of the other indignities suffered under our current system. It’s a much easier process.

What’s the catch? The seller may be leaving money on the table. The offer will be less than the amount the homeowner could receive if all the gamers are property played on the open market.

If the offer is acceptable to the seller, he or she will schedule a time for a representative of the iBuyer to visit and assess the home. If maintenance issues are spotted, the seller may choose to complete the repairs or to allow the iBuyer to complete them at the seller’s expense. At that point, a final offer will be made.

The seller is allowed to select a closing date, typically within 60-90 days. The closing date is typically flexible and within the seller’s control. There is no worrying about the contingency of the buyer to sell a house or to obtain financing.

While real estate agents in normal closings might charge a total of 6 or 7 percent for commission, the iBuyer might charge a transaction fee of 7.5 percent. The iBuyer makes most of its money from these transaction fees, not from flipping prices. The homes are subsequently sold on the open market, so there will be a profit. But the iBuyer is not a normal home flipper. Substantial repairs are not made, and substantial profits are not made.

So the dichotomy for the seller seems to be convenience vs. price. If the amount the seller loses in price is worth it because of the convenience, then the seller is a prime candidate to do business with an iBuyer.

How are real estate agents adapting? They are assisting sellers by obtaining multiple iBuyer offers, analyzing and explaining the offers, discussing the options of accepting one of the offers or beginning to market the home in the traditional manner, and coordinating everything with the iBuyer or traditional buyer, including repairs.

We’ll pay attention as this phenomenon grows, and we’ll definitely report when it hits South Carolina.

Dirt lawyers: help guard against elder abuse!

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My company recently sent out a memorandum about elder abuse in the financial and real estate industries that made some interesting points.

My father died last September and, although he was as sharp as a tack until the end, he had difficulty hearing and his reactions had slowed. As a result, my brother and I had to carefully and repeatedly (and loudly!) explain to him every move we were making with regard to his care and finances. If he had needed to enter into any type of real estate transaction in the last months of his life, the real estate lawyer should have had antennae up!

Elderly persons should be treasured, not abused! And, as real estate lawyers, we may be in a particular position to guard against abuses.

Elder abuse often happens at the hands of family members or “friends” who, because of the vulnerabilities associated with age, such as mental impairment, are able to employ methods such as theft, fraud, forgery, extortion and the wrongful use of powers of attorney to separate an elderly person from property or funds.

Reflect upon the numbers of stories you have heard in your community about elderly persons falling prey to telephone scams. Those same individuals would not have succumbed in their prime. Even with all mental facilities in place, they don’t hear as well, they don’t keep up with changes in technology, and they are unable to keep up with fraud trends we all hear about every day.

Here are some signs of elder financial abuse that you may be able to detect in your office:

  • Sudden changes in an elderly person’s estate planning documents;
  • Changes made in the title to properties in favor of a “friend;”
  • Home health aide, housekeeper or other person is added to the accounts of an elderly person or is receiving an assignment of proceeds;
  • Family members or trusted “friend” discourages or interferes with direct communications with an elderly person involved in a transaction;
  • The older person seems unable to comprehend the financial implications of the transaction;
  • The older person signs documents without seemingly knowing or understanding what is being signed;
  • A power of attorney is involved. I’ve told this story many times, but we had a wonderful claims attorney with our company who routinely called powers of attorney “instruments of the devil”. Powers of attorney are extremely useful tools in our world, but we should always exercise caution when they are used, especially when an elderly person is involved;
  • Anyone seems to be forcing the elderly person to act;
  • Numerous unpaid bills may be a clue that someone is diverting the money designated for the daily living of the elderly person;
  • Promises of lifelong care in exchange for property;
  • The elderly person complains that he or she used to have money but doesn’t understand why the money is no longer available;
  • The caregiver is evasive about the specifics of the transaction in the presence of the elderly person;
  • The elderly person seems fearful or reticent to speak in front of a family member, friend, loan officer, real estate agent or anyone involved in the transaction.
  • The accompanying family member or caregiver attempts to prevent the elderly person from interacting with others.
  • The elderly person and the family member or caregiver give conflicting accounts of the transaction, the expenditures or the financial need.
  • The elderly person appears disheveled or without proper care even though he or she has adequate financial resources.

Be mindful of these common-sense suggestions when any of your real estate transactions involve elderly persons. Think of them as you would want someone to think of your parents or aunts and uncles. Be careful to protect their interests. Proceed with caution!

Elders may also be the victims of predatory lending. Elders who own their homes and have built up equity over time become targets of predatory loan originators who pressure them in to high-interest loans that they may not be able to repay. Older homeowners are often persuaded to borrow money through home equity loans for home repairs, debt consolidation or to pay health care costs. These loans may be sold as “miracle financial cures” and are often packed with excessive fees, costly mortgage insurance and balloon payments.

Always discuss transactions directly with your elderly clients. Ask them pointed questions to make sure they understand the transaction.

And, as always, employ your instincts and your common sense.

“Curbed” article outlines the experience of iSellers

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iSeller may not be a “thing”, but iBuyer definitely is. I invite you to read the February 7 article by Jeff Andrews on curbed.com. This article outlines the experience of sellers who deal with Zillow, Opendoor and similar iBuyers. By extension, this article provides insight to real estate lawyers who want to remain in the real estate closing game after iBuyers make their way to South Carolina.

“iBuyer” is short for “instant buyer.” iBuyers buy houses for prices determined by their respective algorithms in the markets where they operate. The article contains a map showing those locations. South Carolina is not among those locations, but Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Jacksonville, Birmingham and Nashville are. How far behind can we be?

Selling a home through an iBuyer can be much simpler than the market we currently occupy. The homeowner opens the iBuyer’s website, enters their address and some basic information about the house. Within a few days, the iBuyer will make an offer.

The seller doesn’t have to clean the house, stage the house, store excess furniture, board pets, leave home for open houses, or any of the other indignities suffered under our current system. It’s a much easier process.

What’s the catch? The seller may be leaving money on the table. The offer will be less than the amount the homeowner could receive if all the games are properly played on the open market.

According to this article, if the offer is acceptable to the seller, he or she will schedule a time for a representative from the iBuyer to visit and asses the home. If maintenance issues are spotted, the seller may choose to complete the repairs or to allow the iBuyer to complete them at the seller’s expense.  At that point, a final offer will be made.

The seller is allowed to select a closing date, typically within 60-90 days. The closing date is typically flexible and within the seller’s control. There is no worrying about the contingency of the buyer to sell their house or obtain financing.

While the real estate agents in normal closings might charge a total of 6 or 7 percent for commission, the iBuyer might charge a transaction fee of 7.5 percent. According to this article, the iBuyer makes most of its money in these transaction fees. The houses are subsequently sold on the open market, so there will be a profit, but the iBuyer is not a home flipper. Substantial repairs are not made, and substantial profits are not made.

So the dichotomy for the seller seems to be convenience vs. price. If the amount the seller loses in price is worth it because of the convenience, then the seller is a prime candidate to do business with an iBuyer.

We’ll pay attention as this phenomenon grows, and we’ll definitely report when it hits South Carolina!

HOA seeks to oust orphan from age-restricted neighborhood

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Image from KOLD.com (News 13), Tucson, Arizona

 

A fifteen year-old California lad lost both of his parents last year. Collin Claybaugh’s mother, Bonnie, died in the hospital from a long-term illness. And his father, Clay, took his own life two weeks later.

What do good able-bodied grandparents do in this situation besides grieve the loss of their children? They take in their grandson, of course. That’s what Randy and Melodie Passmore did. The Passmores are both in their 70’s and live on a small pension plus social security. They own their home in The Gardens at Willow Creek, a 55-plus community in Prescott, Arizona.

The age restriction apparently has a limited exception for residents who are 19 years of age and older. But a 15-year old boy is definitely not allowed by the rules.

The Passmores received a letter from the homeowners’ association advising them that Collin must move out. The letter said that the board must balance the interests of all parties involved, not just the Passmores. The HOA board said they are concerned that if they fail to enforce the age restriction, they could endanger the ability for the development to remain an age-restricted community.

The Passmores’ only alternative is to sell their home and move, which they believe will be difficult considering their age and financial position. They do not have funds to mount a legal battle.

My husband and I would love to downsize at this point in our lives, and we would be interested in living in a community where the exterior and grounds are maintained by someone else. But this story convinces me to stay clear of age-restricted communities.

How do you think this story would play out from a legal standpoint in South Carolina?

Motley Fool: “Zillow Plans to Do to Real Estate What Amazon Did to Retailing”

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Zillow Offers is not available in South Carolina yet, but it may be a matter of time

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This blog has promised to keep South Carolina dirt lawyers informed about the growing phenomenon of home “iBuying”. Please take a look at two recent articles from Motley Fool linked here.

One of the articles, entitled “Zillow Plans to Do to Real Estate What Amazon Did to Retailing”, indicates Zillow is aggressively taking on the neighborhood real estate broker. The other article, entitled “Why Zillow Wants to Pay More for Homes” indicates iBuying is a scale game, meaning the number of homeowners who accept Zillow’s offer increases dramatically with relatively small increases in price.

Zillow has been planning for this game for years. It already has a massive amount of traffic on its site and has accumulated an enormous amount of data. Go take a quick look at the data Zillow is showing about your own home!

To date, according to Motley Fool, Zillow faces intense competition from Opendoor, which leads the iBuying industry, already serving more than 40,000 customers. But Zillow is working hard to catch up. Opendoor operates in 21 markets. Zillow is in 17 of those markets, four additional markets, and plans to open in five more by the middle of 2020.

In early 2017, Zillow dipped its toe into the process of selling homes by launching a product it called “Instant Offers”. The product was initially tested in Las Vegas and Orlando and was described as a method for homeowners to sell their homes for a discounted price without the traditional complications of repairing, listing, staging and allowing for open houses.

The process started with a homeowner providing basic information via Internet about the home (square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and remodeling information) and uploading photos. The Zillow product then connected the homeowner with investors who buy homes in the area, and, typically, an all-cash offer was made by one or more of the investors. The homeowner paid no fee for the service and was not obligated to accept any offers. Zillow touted the product as a method to alleviate the seller’s stress and to allow the seller to close in a shorter time frame.

Other companies, Opendoor and Offerpad were already operating in this space at the time of the Zillow launch. The launch was called another example of technology disrupting the process of closing real estate transactions.

Real estate agents, of course, met the news with alarm. They said sellers would be suckered into making mistakes that might cost them the education of their kids, vacations or just the ability to sleep better at night because they have more money in their bank accounts. An online petition was initiated, asking the National Association of Realtors to threaten Zillow with being removed from access to listings. The NAR responded that it could not sponsor or encourage such a boycott.

Zillow has always stated publicly that it is not in the business of getting rid of real estate agents. Its executives called Zillow a media company, not a real estate company, and said it sold ads, not real estate. Even the Instant Offers program encouraged sellers to use a realtor even while avoiding the traditional listing and sales process. The question then became the amount of commission the real estate agent would earn for reduced services. When real estate agents initially complained about Instant Offers, Zillow responded that 70% of its revenue came from working with real estate agents.

In early 2018, however, Zillow announced that it would begin buying homes directly from sellers and then turning around and selling them. With this announcement, Zillow began selling ads and houses. Two test markets were announced, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Zillow said that when it buys homes, it will make the necessary repairs and updates and list the homes as quickly as possible. Zillow said local real estate agents would represent Zillow in the transactions. Zillow also announced in a press release that the vast majority of sellers who requested an Instant Offer ended up selling their homes with agents.

So far, nothing is in the works for South Carolina as far as we know, but since it is just next door in Atlanta and Charlotte, how long can it be?

Stay tuned for more news on this topic. Real estate lawyers will need to figure out how to remain in the game whether properties are sold through the Internet or not!