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!

Check out this interesting “heirs property” article with a SC slant

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I was not familiar with “The Daily Yonder” until a Google search for real estate news revealed an interesting article about heirs’ property. The tag line for The Daily Yonder is “Keep it Rural”.  The articled, with a South Carolina connection, can be read in its entirety here

Entitled “Land rich, cash poor—How black Americans lost some of the most desirable land in the U.S.”, the article was written by Sarah Melotte and was dated July 11. It caught my attention because it quoted a South Carolinian, Ercelle Chillis, who said her family’s seven-acre tract off Folly Road in Charleston means so much because it was purchased in 1926 by her father, who saved “pennies and nickels and dimes” to buy it. Chillis’ father died without a will, and his children did not probate his estate. Family members now own the land as heirs’ property.

The article focuses on the precarious nature of owning real estate as heirs’ property. The numbers of owners multiply as the years pass, making it more and more difficult to obtain clear title. Developers may target heirs, purchasing fractional interests to ultimately force a sale by all owners. These sales are often at below-market prices. In the case of natural disasters, relief from FEMA and other entities may be unavailable for properties with title issues.

Historically, many of these properties were in swampy and mosquito infested areas with low property values. The “Gullah Geechee Corridor”, a strip of land once predominantly inhabited by enslaved people, runs along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. We all know that the values of coastal properties have sky-rocketed in recent years.

The article points to several reasons black Americans have lost properties: violence, discrimination, intimidation, and immigration to the North. But legal scholars also blame vulnerable forms of land ownership, such as heirs’ property.

The author points to organizations such as The Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network, that are attempting to fix this problem. Legal reforms are also being implemented. Notably, in 2016, South Carolina state senator and Emanuel AME shooting victim Clementa Pinckney helped pass The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act which allows an heir to purchase other heirs’ interest to avoid forced sales to developers. Other important aspects of this legislation are the requirement of an appraisal and a directive that heirs receive a fair share of the profit.

Read this article for an interesting take on a real estate issue that many South Carolina practitioners confront on a fairly regular basis.

Does real estate “wholesaling” work in our market?

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Maybe, but real estate practitioners should be careful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Charlotte TV station reports on Fort Mill HOA “service fee”

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Charlotte television station WSOCTV (Channel 9) published a story on May 23 delving into an HOA fee from Baxter Village in Fort Mill. The story, entitled “South Carolina HOAs can charge substantial fee to leave neighborhood”, focuses on a residential seller who was shocked to find a more than $1,700 charge from her owners’ association on her closing statement.

The line item read “HOA Service Fee to Baxter”, and the fee was almost double the annual regular assessment of $950. According to the story, the covenants provide that the sale of a home will result in a fee which shall not exceed the greater of $500 or .25% of the gross sales price. The reporter interviewed a spokesman for the subdivision’s management company who said the fee has been in place since 1998. The sales price for the home highlighted in the story was $685,000.

The reporter interviewed a lawyer familiar with homeowners’ association issues in North Carolina as well as South Carolina. He said that North Carolina’s legislature had passed a Planned Community Act in 2010 that banned exit fees except in a few specific cases. South Carolina, of course, does not have similar legislation.

As with every residential purchase, the buyer should be advised by the attorney of the existence of covenants and should be encouraged to read them in their entirety to avoid surprises.

What do you think, dirt lawyers? Should we pass similar legislation in South Carolina?

Beaufort County offers fraud alert for property owners

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Allstate’s “Mayhem”

Do you know the name Dean Gerard Winters? He’s the actor who plays the character “Mayhem” in Allstate commercials. The character acts out cringe-worthy scenes involving car accidents, fires, falls and other calamities and advises us to buy insurance to protect against “Mayhem like me”.

I’ll never forget the name of a character who created mayhem in the midlands title world several years ago. That name is Matthew Cox.

A telephone call tipped us off that we had a serious mortgage fraud situation in Columbia. Representatives of several closing offices were recording mortgages describing the same two residential properties in Blythewood, as if the properties had been refinanced multiple times in the same day by different closing offices.

At first, we thought our company and our attorney agent were in the clear because our mortgage got to record first. South Carolina is a race notice state and getting to record first matters. Later, we learned that deeds to the so-called borrower were forged, so there was no safety for anyone involved in this seedy scenario. Thousands of dollars were lost.

Next, we learned about the two fraudsters who had moved to Columbia from Florida through Atlanta to work their mischief here. The two names were Matthew Cox and Rebecca Hauck. We heard that Cox had been in the mortgage lending business in Florida, where he got into trouble for faking loan documents. He had the guts to write a novel about his antics when he lost his brokerage license and needed funds, but the novel was never published. With funds running low, Cox and his girlfriend, Hauck, moved to Atlanta and then Columbia to continue their mortgage fraud efforts.

We didn’t hear more from the pair until several years later, when we heard they had thankfully been arrested and sent to federal prison.

How do you protect against Mayhem like Matthew Cox? Beaufort County has found a way. My friend and excellent dirt lawyer, Sarah Robertson, who practices with Burr Forman in Bluffton recently sent out an article to her clients advising that Beaufort County has set up a program to allow property owners to register at no charge to receive alerts from the ROD regarding possible fraudulent activity involving their properties. Sarah’s article indicates some other counties are beginning to offer this service.

This is a great service for clients that could be championed by real estate lawyers in other locations to protect against Mayhem like Matthew Cox!

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.

“Collapse” podcast focuses on legal issues of aging condominiums

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This blog has previously discussed the June 24, 2021 collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South  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.

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?

My husband and I have considered downsizing to a condominium in Columbia, but after spending some time with this repair and reserve issue, I would have to spend extensive time with the financials of any project that might interest us. And the high-rise projects at the coast face more difficult repair issues than those in the midlands because of salt, sand, water, and wind.

I’d like to recommend a podcast episode to lawyers who may be interested in this topic. And I believe all dirt lawyers who represent owners’ associations and even condominium purchasers should be aware of the legal and financial concerns that were clearly brought to the surface by this tragedy.

The podcast is entitled “Collapse: Disaster in Surfside” produced by Treefort Media and the Miami Herald. The podcast series discusses the collapse, the personal experiences of escape and failure to escape, the media coverage, the legal maneuvers, the insurance issues, and many other matters. The heart wrenching conflict between the victims who lost family members and those who lost their homes was difficult to absorb. I won’t ask you to listen to all of that.

But Episode 8 summarizes the legal and financial issues, and I highly recommend that episode.

Our horizontal property regime legislation is deficient at best. Reserves for repairs are discussed in our  HPR legislation but not required.

Once these huge, often high-rise projects are completed, there is no legislative future inspection requirement. The county in South Florida where Champlain Towers 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 extensive 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 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 condominium. Taken to a logical conclusion, these projects, properly run, may become available only to the wealthiest among us.

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).