Be sure to advise your client and paper your file!
This blog recently discussed one of the biggest mistakes I made in private practice. This edition relates a war story where I (thankfully) did the right thing.
I represented real estate developers and rarely handled residential closings. When my clients developed residential subdivisions and residential condominium projects, I would gladly handle those cookie-cutter closings. And every now and then, another lawyer in my firm would ask for a favor: “Please close our good client’s purchase of a new home so he won’t choose another lawyer the next time he needs representation for his business….and please close it without charging an attorney’s fee.” I bet 90% of my dirt lawyer friends have fielded similar requests. Maybe you were smart enough to say “no”.
The client in this tale was a doctor. I’ll call him Dr. Roe. There are several doctors in my life that I hold in high esteem, but I have never liked representing doctors in legal matters. My experience is that they are too busy to listen to advice. They prefer for the magic to happen without their involvement.
This particular doctor had recently gone through a nasty divorce, and he had found a new home for himself and his four children who would be with him half of the time. This house was in the Hollywood area of Columbia, and the restrictive covenants contained a reverter clause. The clause stated that a violation of the normal residential restrictions would cause title of the lot to revert to the corporation that had developed the subdivision fifty or so years ago.
The reverter clause posed no problem if there was no violation of the covenants. I ordered a new survey and held my breath. The stars did not align for me, and the survey revealed a very slight violation of the side setback line. By very slight, I mean a couple of inches. The house was several decades old, and the violation may have been caused by settling.
I had a great relationship with my friendly title insurance company underwriter and called him to discuss my problem. He was very reasonable, and because of the minuscule violation, he authorized affirmative coverage for the lender as well as the owner. I was relieved but also concerned about relaying this information to my client. To get his attention, I had to set up an appointment at his office to explain the problem and show him the restrictions and the survey.
The bottom line was that he would obtain insurable title but not marketable title. I had seen marketability issues previously in my practice. In a commercial transaction, I saw a buyer walk away from a closing he had decided was not a good deal for him when his lawyer was able to uncover a questionable title problem that he argued defeated marketable title. I didn’t want that to happen to my client when he decided to sell his house.
He wanted the house! I gave him two pieces of advice: (1) when you decide to sell this house, please come to me, and let me help you with the listing agreement and contract. We will draft both documents to provide for insurable title instead of marketable title; and (2) please do not add onto this house in a way to increase the setback violations.
He said he understood completely. Before the closing, I drafted a letter to explain both problems. His signature at closing evidenced that I had delivered both pieces of advice. Done deal.
Fast forward about ten years. My office phone rings, and a residential closing lawyer friend calls me and says, “Claire, how did you handle this HUGE setback violation for Dr. Roe when you closed his house?” You know the feeling, dirt lawyers, my heart fell, and I lost several years off my life between that call and the moment I could get my hands on the file to see what had happened ten years previously.
Since I had explained marketability vs. insurability to my client verbally and in writing, I was in the clear. It turns out that Dr. Roe added a pool, a very nice and very big pool house and brick fencing, all of which violated the setbacks.
And I got payback! The lawyer who had asked me to handle the closing free of charge was asked to bring the quiet title action to “fix” the title problem. Luckily, the corporation that had imposed the restrictions was defunct, and no surviving officers or directors could be located. The title was cleared with a simple action served by publication. And Dr. Roe paid attorney’s fees and costs.
Never forget that obtaining affirmative coverage does not “fix” title problems. Affirmative coverage often provides a mechanism for a closing to take place, but your client always must be advised that marketable title is unavailable. And your client must be advised of the consequences of accepting insurable title. In writing!