Will 2023 be a “normal” year in real estate?

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The “Greenville Business Magazine” published an article on January 27 that should interest all dirt lawyers. The article, written by David Caraviello, is entitled, “Leaving the Frenzy Behind: Could 2023 Be a More ‘Normal’ Year in South Carolina’s Real Estate Market?” You can read the article in its entirety here.

The article outlines the frenzy of the 2022 real estate market in South Carolina which culminated in an acute inventory shortage. While industry leaders budgeted for 2023, they wondered whether home prices would plummet because of rising interest rates. The national picture may be bleak because of these factors, but the article points out that experts do not foresee a gloom-and-doom scenario for South Carolina.

I’ve seen several news sources recently, including this one, pointing out that South Carolina is a primary destination for consumers looking for milder winters and following jobs at BMW, Volvo, and other companies. The market does not look dismal for us.

Please take a minute to read the article. To some real estate professionals, it says, the scenario entering 2023 sounds “refreshingly normal,” although we may have forgotten what normal is.

Perhaps 2023 will return to the ordinary seasonal ebbs and flows to which law firms can adapt from a staffing and other cost standpoint. Maybe everyone will be able to take a vacation this year. Let’s hope so! Good luck out there!

MV Realty sued by Florida Attorney General

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This blog has previously discussed MV Realty PBC, LLC. South Carolina title examiners report they are discovering “Homeowner Benefit Agreements” or “Exclusive Listing Agreements” filed in the public records as mortgages or memoranda of agreement. The duration of the agreements purport to be forty years, and quick search revealed hundreds of these unusual documents filed in several South Carolina counties. The documents indicate that they create liens against the real estate in question.

The company behind these documents is MV Realty PBC, LLC which appears to be doing business in the Palmetto State as MV Realty of South Carolina, LLC. The company’s website indicates the company will pay a homeowner between $300 and $5,000 in connection with its Homeowner Benefit Program. In return for the payment, the homeowner agrees to use the company’s services as listing agent if the decision is made to sell the property during the term of the agreement. The agreements typically provide that the homeowner may elect to pay an early termination fee to avoid listing the property in question with MV Realty.

In response to numerous underwriting questions on the topic, Chicago Title sent an underwriting memorandum to its agents entitled “Exclusive Listing Agreements”. Chicago Title’s position on the topic was set out in its memorandum as follows: “Pending further guidance, Chicago Title requires that you treat recordings of this kind like any other lien or mortgage. You should obtain a release or satisfaction of the recording as part of the closing or take an exception to the recorded document in your commitments and final policies.”

Googling MV Realty results in a great deal of information. Real estate lawyers should familiarize themselves with this company and its program to advise clients who may question whether the program makes sense from a financial and legal perspective.

In December, Florida’s Attorney General sued the company calling the venture a “deceptive scheme”. The lawsuit seeks an injunction, preventing enforcement of the contracts with consumers, preventing future deceptive and unfair trade practices, and returning funds to consumers.

News sources report that the company is active in 23 states, including South Carolina, and that Attorneys General in several other states are investigating the activities of this company. News sources also report numerous lawsuits against consumers seeking to enforce these contracts. U.S. Senator Sharrod Brown (D-Ohio) has indicated the company could face scrutiny from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Development.

Dirt lawyers, pay attention to this situation. We will certainly see updates.

Cybersecurity Breach affects SC county offices

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Chicago Title’s South Carolina state office sent out a memorandum on December 29 announcing that Cott Systems, Inc. has suffered a cybersecurity breach. I wanted to make sure the readers of this blog have access to this important information.

Cott Systems provides many services to county offices, including electronic recording, record storage, online searching, and court case management. Chicago Title has been told that Cott Systems provides services to at least the following counties: Darlington, Florence, Marlboro, Oconee, and Union. Other counties may be involved.

Apparently, this company took its services offline upon discovery of the breach. As of December 29, the company was unable to estimate when service may be restored but reported that it is working diligently to address the problem. As of mid-day on January 4, we were told that at least two counties were back online. I hope all of them are up and running at this point.  

If title abstracting and recording services are ever unavailable in the counties where you do business, please contact your title insurance company for assistance. Your friendly underwriters should be able to talk with you to resolve your issues, depending on the dates of your prior title work, dates of closings, etc.  Please be careful out there!

Fifth Circuit addresses short-term rental challenge

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This blog has previously discussed challenges by various cities, including cities in South Carolina, to short-term rentals in residential areas.

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.

Arguments against such rentals often focus on noise and parking problems in otherwise quiet residential subdivisions.

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.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed such a challenge in Hignell-Stark v. City of New Orleans, 46 F. 4th 317 (August 22, 2022). Thanks to Professor Dale Whitman of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School via the Dirt Listserv for information on this case.

An ordinance in the City of New Orleans required an owner to be a resident of the city to obtain a license to become a landlord allowing short-term rentals. When the plaintiffs challenged this ordinance using a “takings” theory, the Fifth Circuit held that theory to be inapplicable because permission to make short-term rentals of a residential unit is not a property interest. It is instead, according to the Court, a privilege.

The plaintiffs also argued that the ordinance was an undue burden on interstate commerce, and the Court agreed, stating that an ordinance that discriminates against interstate commerce is per se invalid unless there are no available alternative methods for enforcing the city’s legitimate policy goals. The ordinance in question was a blanket prohibition against out-of-state property owners’ participation in the short-term rental market. The Court pointed out that the ordinance doesn’t just make it more difficult for non-residents to compete in the market for short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods; it forbids them from participating altogether.

The Court pointed to alternative methods for achieving the city’s legitimate goals of preventing nuisances, promoting affordable housing, and protecting neighborhoods’ residential character. More aggressive enforcement of nuisance laws, increased penalties for nuisance violations, increased taxes on short-term rentals, requiring an operator remain on the property during night hours, and capping the number of short-term rentals licenses in particular zoning district might be alternatives.

The ordinance was held unconstitutional and void because the city’s objectives could be addressed in other ways that did not burden interstate commerce.

What do you think? Would you be comfortable with short-term rentals in your neighborhood?

Fannie Mae will accept attorney opinion letters in lieu of title insurance

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Fannie Mae’s updated Selling Guide now allows attorney opinion letters in lieu of title insurance in some circumstances. This change aligns Fannie Mae with Freddie Mac’s similar announcement. Will the marketplace change dramatically because of these policy announcements. I hope not and I doubt it.

Fannie Mae touts its change as a method to reduce costs for borrowers. I don’t believe South Carolina lawyers will issue title opinions for residential loans that will be less expensive than title insurance. I know I wouldn’t.

The guidance indicates opinion letters will not be accepted where the loan is secured by a condominium, a leasehold estate, or a manufactured home.

According to the guidance, the attorney’s title opinion letter must:

  • be addressed to the lender and all successors in interest of the lender
  • be commonly accepted in the area where the subject property is located
  • provide gap coverage for the duration between the loan closing and recordation of the mortgage
  • list all other liens and state they are subordinate
  • state the title condition of the property is acceptable and the mortgage constitutes a lien of the required priority on a fee simple estate in the property

Do you see any problems with this list? I’ve never issued an opinion letter that provided gap coverage and I don’t recommend that you accept that risk in your transactions. What happens if you update title and discover a mechanic’s lien recorded in the gap? That lien would become your problem as the attorney who agreed to cover the gap as of the date of the opinion letter or the closing date.

Before the general use of title insurance, attorney’s routinely issued opinion letters to lenders and buyers. But title insurance has historically been determined to be the better choice.  Attorneys should not be responsible for title problems that cannot be discovered through a title examination.  A forgery in the chain of title, for example, would be covered by title insurance but should not be covered by an attorney’s opinion. The same may be true for missing heirs, matters that may be apparent from a visit to the property and survey matters.

But it concerns me that lenders who accept attorney’s opinions may perceive those items (and others) to be covered. To ensure your opinion letters are not perceived to cover matters outside the title examination, proper “exceptions” should be added to your letters. To protect you, your law firm and your malpractice carrier, your letters should contain many paragraphs of exceptions!

My best advice is to resist this proposed change in the marketplace. I believe title insurance provides the best coverage for owners and lenders, and it indirectly provides protection for closing attorneys. We can be encouraged that Freddie Mac’s similar announcement two years ago has not greatly impacted our industry. Let’s hope Fannie Mae’s announcement will have a similar reaction.

Columbia house purportedly sold as an NFT

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149 Cottage Lake Way – one of the first NFT-based residential home sales for the US

When bizarre topics are discussed in my family, we often employ the famous quote by actor Chris Tucker from the funny movie Rush Hour: “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” I’m not sure I understand the words I am typing here, so we’ll add links below for you to read for yourself.

A company called Roofstock onChain claims to have sold a house located in Columbia, South Carolina using NFT technology. The address of the house is revealed: 149 Cottage Lake Way, and it’s located in my zip code. If you Google that address, you’ll see lots of pictures of the house and articles about this transaction.

I had to start with the basics to attempt to get a handle on this topic. An NFT is a non-fungible token, a digital asset that can come in the form of art, music, in-game items, videos, and other assets. They are bought and sold online using cryptocurrency. The NFT allows the buyer to own the original item. NFTs have been described as physical collector’s items, only digital. Instead of receiving an actual painting, the buyer gets a digital file that represents exclusive ownership.

To trade in NFTs, the buyer must first have a digital wallet that allows storage of cryptocurrency and NFTs. The wallet must be funded with cryptocurrency. After that step, there are apparently several NFT marketplaces to explore.

So how did this house purchase take place? An LLC was created for the ownership of the three-bedroom recently renovated home. (And here are the words that I don’t understand.) Several of the articles say something along the lines of: The house was sold on the Roofstock onChain NFT marketplace by transferring the home identity to an Ethereum address owned by the buyer.

Dirt lawyers, I ask you, do you see any problems with this transaction? Did anyone search the title? Was there a physical inspection of the home? Was there a survey? Were the taxes prorated?  Did a South Carolina licensed attorney close the transaction?  I have more questions, but I bet you can come up with a list of your own.

I’ll continue to read about this topic and attempt to keep readers informed. In the meantime, here are some links for your education:

The future is now? Columbia becomes blockchain testing ground with house bought as an NFT

Blockchain Makes Deeper Inroads Into Real Estate As Roofstock Announces Its First NFT Home Sale

Are NFTs the future of home ownership?

How NFTs Could Change Real Estate

Blockchain Facts: What it is, how it works, and how it can be used

Roofstock onChain https://onchain.roofstock.com/

Welcome to Ethereum https://ethereum.org/en/

Congressional method for funding CFPB held unconstitutional

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A three-judge panel of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on October 19 that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s funding structure is unconstitutional. *

Rather than receiving its funding through periodic Congressional appropriations, the CFPB is funded directly from the Federal Reserve, which is funded through bank assessments. This funding method was intended to remove some congressional influence on the bureau.

Most federal agencies receive annual appropriations from Congress that are determined each year through legislative negotiations. Many agencies have separate funding sources like fees and assessments collected from the entities they regulate. The arrangement, like CFPB’s, which provides for a continuous funding source, is common among financial regulatory agencies like the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Many commentators have suggested that this opinion will not stand because nothing in the Constitution prevents Congress from funding agencies in a variety of ways. The case is expected to be appealed to the full Fifth Circuit and after that to the Supreme Court. But while this holding stands, it renders all CFPB actions from its inception vulnerable to challenge.

*Community Financial Services Association of America, Ltd. v. CFPB

Some (relatively) new scam tips

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If I told you how many articles I’ve written about fraud and scams, you’d think I’m much older than I am, so we won’t go there. But I am old enough to be retired. My husband and I both worked for large corporations who kept us current on scams of all kinds. In retirement, we must read numerous sources to make sure we keep ourselves safe online and otherwise.

The Washington Post, one of my favorite newspapers, published an article on September 6 entitled “Yes, it’s a scam; Simple tips to help you spot online fraud.” You can read it here.  

The first tip makes so much sense: “Have “the talk” with family members.” This is so important! Tell your aging parents, your teenagers who spend a considerable portion of their lives online, and everyone in between the tricks you learn from your practice and your title insurance company about safety online. As painful as it may be to assist your elderly family members with their computer issues, keeping them safe from scams will save you from having to unwind the problems. Tell your family members to come to you to “gut-check”, as the article advises, suspicious messages and phone calls.

The second tip involves social media. The article advises that privacy settings can make it significantly harder for cybercriminals to successfully target you and your family members. Read the article for the details.

The third tip is my mantra: stay current! Using current events for unjust enrichment is a prime strategy of scammers. The article reports that within 24 hours of President Biden’s announcement of the student loan forgiveness program, The Federal Trade Commission released a warning about student loan scams. Updates for all of us are available at Fraud.org, a project of the National Consumers League. Make one of your employees responsible for reviewing and reporting on the great information from that site. And make sure your family members know about it.

I love this one: “Assume that people or companies aren’t who they say they are.” As lawyers, we’re naturally and by education skeptical. Make sure those around you approach the internet and telephone as skeptically as you do.

This one is great: “Verify everything using a different channel.” Title insurance companies have been telling their agents for years (decades!) to verify wiring instructions by making a telephone call using a known and trusted telephone number. This advice can be used in other areas of online life. Use official customer service numbers and websites. Call your bank! Call or text a friend who asks for money via social media. The article advises the use of AARP’s free telephone service to ask about possible scams: 877-908-3360.

The article advises all of us to memorize the signs that something is a scam:

  • You didn’t initiate the conversation.
  • You won something.
  • You are panicked:  scammers want to create a sense of urgency.
  • It involves fast payment methods: peer to peer payment apps, for example.
  • There are payment complications. For example, the scammer will offer to pay over an app like Zelle, say there’s a problem, then ask for your email address so they can send a fake email to get your information.
  • They want information.
  • Something doesn’t feel right.

Stay current, keep your office current, and keep your family members current!

Myrtle Beach article points to current fraud cases

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The Myrtle Beach Sun News published an article on September 5 entitled, “They were conned out of their dream beach home, lawsuit says. These are common SC scams.”  You can read the article here.

Those of us who have worked in the real estate industry for years have heard of (or been bitten by) various iterations of real estate fraud schemes. These schemes change routinely as the fraudsters become more sophisticated. Thankfully, we are becoming more informed and therefore more sophisticated ourselves. But this article is an excellent reminder.

The article recounts the tale of a North Carolina couple, Jeremy and Candice Pedley, who spent years saving before finally acting on their dream of owning a family vacation home in North Myrtle Beach. The Pedleys entered into a contract last November to purchase a condo in in a gated community for $380,000. Unfortunately, a third party hacked into the real estate agent’s emails, impersonated their closing attorney, and convinced he Pedleys so wire their funds to a bank account in Rock Hill.

The hacking effort requested the exact number the Pedleys were expecting to wire, $86,183.81. This fact convinced the Pedleys that the fraudulent instructions were legitimate. According to the article, they have been able to recover about $36,000 of the lost funds. They were unable to complete the purchase of their dream condominium.

Columbia attorney Dave Maxfield is representing the Pedleys in a lawsuit attempting to recover their funds. According to the article, Maxfield told the Sun News that banks should do a better job stopping fraudulent accounts from being used, and real estate agents and attorneys need to warn clients about the pitfalls of wiring funds.

The article then details a few other common scams outlined by The S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs.

One such scheme creates fake rental listings promising low rent, immediate availability, and great amenities. The goal is to trick renters into transferring funds before they are tipped off that the listings don’t exist.

Another scheme notifies consumers that they have won the lottery, requesting, of course, some sort of fee or tax to receive the alleged winnings. Pressure is applied to “act now”.

Finally, the article discussed fake debt collectors. Fraudsters impersonate government authorities and attempt to convince consumers to pay off debt. These schemes typically request the target to pay a fraction of the amount they owe in return for full debt forgiveness. Threats of arrest are often used to apply pressure.

Please keep yourself and your staff members educated about all the current schemes. Your title insurance company should be a great source of current information. And please give your staff members permission to slow down and use the time they need to think through the facts of your transactions. I believe time is the key. The very smart individuals you employ, if properly armed with the necessary information and education, should be able to thwart most of these schemes, if they are given sufficient time to analyze the communications that hit their inboxes daily.

Chicago Title identifies earnest money fraud scheme

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Chicago Title’s South Carolina state office sent a memorandum to its agents on July 26, entitled “Checks Drawn on Foreign Banks.”  I wanted to share this valuable information with all South Carolina practitioners even though this particular fraud scheme has not been reported in any South Carolina transactions. Knowledge is power! Let’s stop this scheme at our borders.

The memo points to buyers who tender counterfeit cashier’s checks from Canadian banks as earnest money deposits. The fraudster quickly backs out of the transaction and requests a refund. Because foreign checks can take more than thirty days to process, the refund requests are made before the checks can be negotiated.

The scheme has been used in at least nine Midwestern states. The common facts are:

  • The offer to purchase provides for an all-cash transaction.
  • The selling broker has never met the buyer.
  • The buyer has not physically viewed the property.
  • The buyer is located outside the United States.
  • The initial deposit exceeds the required earnest money deposit.
  • The deposit is in the form of a check drawn on a Canadian bank.
  • The buyer requests that the funds be returned by a wire to their account.

Chicago Title advises that its agents should not accept foreign checks at all. Instead, agents are advised to insist on wired funds. This is great advice which will assist you in working within our ethics rules and in protecting your trust accounts. You don’t want to be in the position of having to replace lost funds! Be careful out there!