iBuyers are jumping back into the water: does that mean the market is safe?

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In March, the disruptive iBuyers announced that they were no longer buying homes in the midst of the pandemic. They said they were unable to pinpoint house values to the extent to make them comfortable in proceeding with their market model. And they said they were unable to insure the health and safety of their employees, partners and customers.

Some economists projected these companies would completely go out of business after losing such substantial momentum in the midst of the various shelter-in-place orders.

But now, just weeks later, the iBuyers say they’re back!

Offerpad, Redfin, Zillow, Opendoor and others have announced plans to resume operations after verifying health safety procedures. More of the processes will be handled remotely, and, as we are all doing, there will be more sanitizing, mask and glove wearing, and hand washing. They will likely offer digital methods for appraisals and for home viewing by potential buyers. Some will offer self-service listings.

One of the companies has discussed a safe, on-demand, and fully digital experience to buy and sell homes. They believe the experience is needed now more than ever.

As this blog has discussed previously, although these market disrupters have made it to markets in Georgia and North Carolina, we have not seen them announce operations in The Palmetto State. But my colleague, Martha McConnell, said she saw a Redfin “for sale” sign in her neighborhood in southeast Columbia last week.

So the iBuyers may be closer to us than we think!

Are RON closings now allowed in South Carolina?

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After a tease from our Supreme Court on Friday, the answer is still “no”

For about 15 minutes on Friday afternoon, May 1, those of us involved in real estate transactions in South Carolina got excited. An Order* from the South Carolina Supreme Court hit our in-boxes. The order was entitled “RE: Participation in Closings of Real Estate Transactions”. We collectively thought South Carolina may have moved into the 21st Century with an authorization for Remote Online Notarization (RON) closings.

Then we read the order.

You can read it here.

By way of preamble, the Court said, “we find that the public health emergency created by COVID-19 requires changes in the usual operation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in terms of the normal functioning of real estate transactions.”

Then the order stated that until August 1, lawyers may “participate in and supervise the closing of a real estate transaction by way of a video conference.”

Fair enough, but I think most South Carolina transactional lawyers believed they could already ethically handle closings via video conference.

Most lawyers definitely believed they can ethically handle “mail away closings.” Were we wrong? Ethics Advisory Opinion 05-16 states that an attorney may ethically conduct real estate closings by mail as long as it is done in a way that: (1) ensures that the attorney is providing competent representation to the client; (2) all aspects of the closing remain under the supervision of an attorney; and (3) the attorney complies with the duty to communicate with the client so as to maintain the attorney-client relationship and be in a position to explain and answer any questions about the documents sent to the client for signature.

To meet this test, according to the EAO, clients must have reasonable means to be in contact with the attorney, by telephone, facsimile, or electronic transmission. The EAO further states that there is no legal requirement that a client attend the closing, but that it must be the client’s decision not to attend the closing.

Ethics Advisory Opinions are, of course, not binding on the South Carolina Supreme Court. But if we rely on the EAO and handle mail-away closings, why can we not also handle closings via video conference, as long as we comply with all of our ethical obligations to properly represent our clients? Technology has changed since 2005!

Setting that issue aside, let’s look at the real problem. The primary obstacle to any closing that is not conducted strictly in the presence of the lawyer is the proper notarization of the recordable documents. According to South Carolina Code §26-1-5, the notary must be in the physical presence of the signatory. For this reason, clients and their lawyers must employ notaries in the client’s location when the client and the lawyer are not in the same location.

Did the May 1 Supreme Court order fix the notary problem at least temporarily? Lawyers who have spent the last four days debating this question via listserv and Facebook have decided that it does not. But did the Court try to help? Maybe.

The Order goes on to say, “necessary persons to a real estate transaction may, under the direction of the supervising attorney, similarly participate in the real estate closing by way of a video conference, provided any necessary person so consents; further, the supervising attorney shall ensure that the attestation of a recordable instrument is accomplished, which may be satisfied by use of real-time audio-visual communication technology, provided the identity of the necessary person is confirmed and a notary attests the signature of any necessary person.” (Emphasis added.)

Giving the Court the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Justices did not attempt to fix the notary problem but, instead, believed they must address the professional responsibility aspects of the closing process to allow the legislature and governor address the statutory notary issue.

I think I am going to go with that interpretation. Otherwise the Order is useless.

And, I have another concern. Anyone of us who has read and struggled with the facts in the notorious Quicken** case knows that the Court by implication blessed dividing the various aspects of the closing that must be handled by an attorney among many attorneys. But the final sentence of this Order reads, “This order does not suspend any other provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and nothing in this order is intended to relieve an attorney of his or her obligation to assume the full professional and direct responsibility for the entire transaction.” (Emphasis added.)

I am so confused!

 

*Order 2020-05-01-01, South Carolina Supreme Court.

**Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 420 S.C. 452, 803 S.E.2d707 (2017).

Disrupted Disrupters

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COVID-19 is causing the iBuyers’ business model to stall

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With COVID-19 spreading, the iBuying frenzy seems to be fading fast. Commerce is slowing and even closing in some locations, especially major cities, making it difficult for iBuyers to determine fair prices for homes. Zillow, Redfin, Opendoor and Offerpad have all withdrawn from the iBuying market for the time being.

The only company not putting on the brakes seems to be HomeVestors, the “We Buy Ugly Houses” company that was in the iBuying space before that term became cool. The companies recently occupying this space never made it to South Carolina, but we saw “We Buy Ugly Houses” signs on telephone poles throughout the state, even in the most rural areas.

Some economists are speculating that COVID-19 may put a nail in the coffin of the “institutional fix-and flip” business model of those companies recently entering the market. The model was considered risky in the best of times. In times of economic uncertainty, it becomes even riskier. Safely buying a home at 95% of the market value requires confidence that the market won’t drop substantially.

HomeVestors, on the other hand, is attempting to grow by selling franchises and advertising that it remains in the market that others are leaving.

Other economists and some of the companies themselves are arguing that iBuying is a viable alternative in a market where it’s difficult to show homes and hold open houses. At this point, the correct answer is anybody’s guess.

The retreat of Zillow, Redfin, Opendoor and Offerpad before they even reach South Carolina is good news to South Carolina closing attorneys and real estate agents who view the iBuying phenomenon as another disruption to our business model as well as another possible means of dilution of control over residential closings by attorneys.

It sounds as if, for now, truly ugly houses may be the only ones subject to iBuying in South Carolina. The disrupters have been disrupted by economic uncertainty.

Tips for doing business … when we can’t do business as usual

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Our company has a remarkable network of intelligent, creative, caring agents in South Carolina. I asked our staff to pass along to me the innovative methods they are hearing that our residential closing attorneys are using as they continue to do business in this world infected by COVID-19, a world where business as usual is impossible.

I’m sharing this list with you to pass along some new ideas for your business and request that you share your innovative ideas with me. Let’s talk and continue to figure out ways to keep our clients, our staff and ourselves safe and well.

Some have asked why real estate closing services are considered to be “essential”. The technical explanation is that closings are an ancillary service of financial institutions, and financial services are essential. A better explanation may be that our industry allows access by our customers to the equity in their homes. If consumers are unable to sell or refinance their properties in a time of financial difficulty, then they are denied an avenue to prevent or delay financial difficulties. The same concept can be applied to commercial clients. They need access to their properties during difficult financial times more than ever. Never doubt that our closing services are essential in this environment.

Here are some ideas that our agents are using to conduct safe closings:

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

We have heard that clients are often surprised by the changes to closing procedures. Don’t let that happen. The new rules you establish should be clearly communicated with clients. You can’t control this unusual situation if you don’t clearly communicate the innovative methods you are using

  • Add the new rules to your email signatures.
  • Add the new rules to your engagement letters.
  • Use attractive signs inside and outside your office.
  • Make telephone calls!
  • Add video chatting to your website, Facebook pages and other social media venues.
  • Make sure your real estate agents and lenders understand the new procedures. They deserve extra communication during this time, too!
  • Let clients, real estate agents, lenders and other real estate professionals know about county office closures and other inconveniences that may affect closings.

Move closings to different locations:

  • Close at the client’s car. Allow the client to remain in the vehicle. Hand the client a pen to keep. Watch the execution from a distance and witness signatures at that same distance. Some lawyers are calling these closings “curbside service” and “drive-through closings”.
  • Close on the trunk or hood of the client’s vehicle.
  • Rope off parking-lot spaces for closings. Use attractive signs to mark the designated spaces.
  • Use a tailgating tent in your parking lot or other outdoor location. Fresh air is a huge advantage!
  • Buy colorful, plastic tables and chairs for this purpose.

Limit contact with individuals who are not necessary for closings:

  • Don’t allow real estate agents, lenders and others who are not needed for signing documents into your office.
  • Don’t allow children in your office. If parents must bring children, have one parent remain outside with their children while the other parent signs, then switch.
  • Clearly communicate that extra individuals are not allowed during this difficult time.

Limit the individuals who come into your office for any reason:

  • Don’t allow walk-ins during this time.
  • Stagger closings.
  • Have clients call from their vehicles to check in. Then call them and ask them to come into your office only when they can enter without encountering other individuals.
  • Set up separate waiting rooms if you have space.
  • Separate buyers and sellers.
  • Use video conferencing for activities other than actual closings.

Keep your office de-cluttered and cleaner than usual:

  • Buy pens in bulk and allow one-time use only. Give clients the pens they use.
  • Clean all surfaces clients touch, including conference tables, chairs, doorknobs, elevator buttons, stair railings, restrooms. Cleaning should take place between closings.
  • Use effective, antibacterial cleaning products.
  • Communicate additional cleaning requirements with the individuals who clean your office after hours.
  • Keep hand sanitizer and wipes at convenient locations throughout your office.
  • Remove children’s play areas.
  • Remove magazines and other extraneous items from waiting rooms and conference tables.
  • Wear masks and gloves. Encourage visitors to wear masks and gloves. Consider providing those items to your visitors.
  • Ask visitors to clean hands at the door.
  • Encourage pre-and post-closing hand washing.
  • Pack up glasses and cups. Use only disposable items. Limit food and drink sharing.
  • Clean after visits from delivery services.
  • Increase ventilation by opening windows and adjusting HVAC systems.

Other ideas:

  • Designate drop locations for documents and checks. These locations may be on porches or lobbies. But don’t forget security! We added a new, locked drop box to the exterior of our office.
  • Mail or wire all funds. Don’t allow anyone to wait for checks in your office.
  • Sadly, don’t allow hand-shaking or hugging!
  • Advise anyone who feels sick to stay away! This includes your valuable staff members.
  • Use powers of attorney.
  • Use open spaces for meetings.
  • Use Plexiglass to separate individuals.

All of these ideas, of course, are not useful for every office. Use your best efforts! I heard a horror story about a closing office where staff members came to work despite feeling ill. The result? Individuals from twenty closings were infected. Don’t allow a horror story to occur in your office.

Please share ideas with me. I would love to add to this list to benefit everyone!

Stay safe and well out there!

What’s going on with iBuying during the COVID-19 chaos?

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This blog has discussed the spread of iBuyers, entities that make offers over the Internet to home sellers in certain residential markets. These sales take place with much less fuss and inconvenience than sales in the normal real estate market. What’s the catch? The sales price may be lower than the price that would have been obtained in the normal selling process. Sellers had to weigh convenience and price.

While we’ve seen the reach of the iBuyers (Opendoor, Offerpad, Zillow Offers and Redfin) spread to our neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina, we have not yet seen the phenomenon reach into South Carolina.

I refer you to the April 3 article from Forbes that reports Opendoor, Offerpad, Zillow Offers and Redfin have all put their online buying on hold since the first COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.

Interestingly, though, another company may be stepping up to fill this space. We’ve all seen the sign “We Buy Ugly Houses” posted on light poles, even in very small towns in South Carolina, for many years.

The Forbes article reports that the company behind those signs, HomeVestors, is transitioning to a virtual process and is continuing to buy houses across the nation. The article also reports that HomeVestors is opening new franchises to expand business further.

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This expansion may be good news to homeowners who are losing their jobs during this crisis and may need to sell their homes to remain financially solvent.

The article quotes the president of HomeVestors who said that nearly half of home sales traditionally occur between March and June, but the safety measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus may have significant impact on that market this year. HomeVestors is attempting to step into that market. The company hopes to provide some peace and continuity in this uncharted territory, according to the article.

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!