“Curbed” article outlines the experience of iSellers

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computer house digital sales smaller

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!

State challenges Hobcaw Barony’s claim to North Inlet

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Hobcaw Barony

Photo courtesy of The Post and Courier

This blog recently discussed an interesting lawsuit brewing in Georgetown County involving the property of Hobcaw Barony and adjacent North Inlet. The owner of Hobcaw, the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, is claiming title to 8,000 acres of marsh at North Inlet, a vast marshland that has always been used by the public for recreational purposes. The lawsuit claims title to the property by virtue of a Kings Grant.

Local gossip indicates the Foundation simply intends to clean up title issues and does not intend to preclude the public from enjoying the property. But the complaint reads like a normal quiet title action of marshland property and the locals are nervous. An easement has been suggested to resolve the conflict, but this suggestion has been rebuffed by the Foundation.

The State of South Carolina has now filed responsive pleadings asking for an order declaring that the property is dedicated to public use. The State’s response to the Foundation’s complaint alleges that the Foundation lacks the power to exclude the general public from the property because the public has a right to the use of navigable waters.

The State claims the public is entitled to the marshland through continued use of the property for fishing, shrimping, crabbing and similar activities for generations.

I’ll keep you posted as this issue is litigated.

HOA seeks to oust orphan from age-restricted neighborhood

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HOA grandparents grandson

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?

Recent HOA foreclosure case leads to new rule in Beaufort County

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Master imposes rule based on Chief Justice Beatty’s concurring opinion

foreclosure notice

This blog recently discussed the remarkable homeowners’ association foreclosure case, Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, 2019.) You can read the earlier blog here.

The case focused on the inadequacy of the foreclosure sales price and the business model of a third party to leverage a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear eviction. I believe the case will require HOA foreclosure attorneys to rethink their approach going forward.

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Beatty said he would go a step further than the majority opinion and adopt the equity method of determining an adequate sales price for residential property in a foreclosure. The equity method compares the winning bid price to the equity in the property. The alternative debt method compares the total debt on the property to its fair market value.

The majority opinion stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but a search of our South Carolina’s jurisprudence reveals that our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does. In this case, the debt method would have resulted in a ratio of 53.9 percent, while the equity method would have resulted in a ratio of 4.9%.

The new rule of the Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes focuses on a totally separate issue in the case. The homeowners, who were in default, did not receive a notice of the date and time of the foreclosure sale. Judge Dukes’ office disseminated a message to foreclosure attorneys requiring new wording in foreclosure orders.

The new required wording entitled “Special Default Foreclosure Order and Sale Notice Service Instructions” reads as follows:

That, in addition to all notices to the property owner(s) which are required by the  SCRCP or other law, in a case involving property owner’s SCRPC 55 default, or any other case or circumstances where property owner(s) would not ordinarily receive a copy of the Order of Foreclosure and/or Notice of Sale, the party seeking foreclosure (Foreclosing Party) shall, within 5 (five) days of the execution of this Order cause this Order and Notice of Sale (if available) to be served by US Mail upon said property owner(s).

An affidavit of such service shall be filed with the Clerk of Court expeditiously.

In cases where the Notice of Sale is executed later in time than the Order, service shall be accomplished separately, and shall be sent no later than 5 (five) days from receipt by the Foreclosing Party.”

I suspect additional guidance will be coming from our courts about whether the Winrose case will have broad application in foreclosure cases or be limited to its facts. I’m confident foreclosure attorneys feel they need more information.

Representing a subcontractor and a homeowner against the contractor. Is it ethical?

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gavel handshake

Please take a look at South Carolina Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion 19-05 here. This blog rarely touches litigation, primarily because the litigation knowledge of this blogger would fit easily on the head of a pin. But this EAO does affect real estate, and I can envision dirt lawyers getting themselves into this ethical conundrum, so here goes.

The facts are simple:  The attorney represents a subcontractor against a contractor regarding payment for work performed on a new home. The time for filing a mechanics’ lien has run, and the contractor has been paid in full. The homeowners want to retain the attorney to represent them to sue the contractor for breach of contract and negligently performed construction work. The homeowners’ claims do not appear to involve the work of the subcontractor.

The attorney is concerned that the contractor may not have sufficient assets to satisfy judgments of both parties.

So, the question becomes whether the attorney may ethically represent both parties.

The Ethics Advisory Committee provides the framework for consideration, but leaves the difficult analysis to the attorney.

The short answer is: The attorney may represent both parties provided the attorney analyses the prospective representation under Rule 1.7, SCRPC, and then considers whether the “material limitation” conflicts section in section (a)(2) may apply.

The attorney must also evaluate the risk of future availability of assets and should engage in a course of ongoing assessment for conflicts, particularly those that may arise if the claims are reduced to judgments and the clients dispute their recovery amounts relative to each other.

Rule 1.7 provides:

  • Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a current conflict of interest. A current conflict of interest exists if:
  • The representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or (2) there is significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third party or by a personal interest of the lawyer.
  • Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:
  • the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;
  • the representation is not prohibited by law;
  • the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and
  • each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

 

 

(I added the emphasis.)

The material limitation of (a)(2) is the primary concern. Given the attorney’s concern about the sufficiency of the assets of the contractor to satisfy judgments, the attorney must evaluate whether that potential risk may materially limit his ability to represent either party.

The Committee eliminated (b)(2) and (b)(3) from consideration based on comments to the rule.

The analysis boils down to (b)(1) and (b)(4): the attorney’s assessment of whether he can provide competent and diligent representation to both parties and whether they consent to the representation after being informed of the benefits and risks of joint representation, particularly of the possibility of inadequate assets and the possibility of needing new counsel should they dispute recovery between themselves.

What do you think? Would you do it?

Supreme Court to hear CFPB Constitutionality Challenge

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Seila Law, LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau likely to be heard by mid-2020

CFPB building

The United States Supreme Court has chosen a case to decide the constitutionality of the CFPB. The case is Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (U.S. Supreme Court 19-7). The announcement was made on Friday, December 27. The allegation in question is that the structure of the agency grants too much power to its director, in violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.

Under the current structure, the director of the CFPB cannot be fired by the president absent “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” The heads of other federal agencies may be removed at the pleasure of the president.

The order posted by the Court requested that both sides address the following question: “If the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is found unconstitutional on the basis of separation of powers, can 12 U.S.C §5491(c)(3) be severed from the Dodd-Frank Act?”

The United States House of Representatives’ motion to file an amicus curiae brief because the Department of Justice has chosen not to defend the constitutionality of the agency.

Concern about the structure of the agency has been voiced since its inception based on the fact that such huge power has been placed in the hands of one individual director. The argument continues that the CFPB has more power than any agency ever created by Congress. While most federal agencies are controlled by commissions or by a director who serves at the pleasure of the President, the CFPB’s sole director is removable only for cause. Also, since all of the funding of the agency is not controlled by Congress, there is little legislative oversight.

In previous hearings, when the CFPB has been asked what the appropriate remedy should be if the structure of the agency is held to be unconstitutional, the CFPB has maintained that formative statute would have to be amended to allow the President to remove the director with or without cause.  Some have suggested that all of the actions of the CFPB might be suspect if its structure is held unconstitutional. Others have suggested that agency should be headed by a multi-person, bi-partisan commission rather than a single director for greater transparency and accountability.

If a decision in the case is announced in mid-2020, the presidential election could be affected since Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s role in creating the agency is a central pillar of her presidential bid.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh has made clear in a previous dissent that he believes the structure of the agency is unconstitutional.

SC Supreme Court may have eradicated HOA foreclosures

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Third party bid was held grossly inadequate

gavel house

On December 18, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided a case that will force homeowners’ association attorneys to carefully consider whether they will initiate foreclosure actions in the future*. This blog discussed the Court of Appeals case last April. You can read that blog here but the very short version is that the Court of Appeals did not upset any apple carts and left the foreclosure process status quo.

The facts are simple. Mr. and Mrs. Hale bought their home in Richland County in 1998 for $104,250. In the next 20+ years, they built up $60,000 in equity, and the property now has a fair market value of $128,000.

In 2011, the Hales fell behind on their homeowners’ association payments. The HOA initiated a foreclosure complaint seeking a sale of the property in exchange for $566.41 in principal and interest. The Hales defaulted.

Interestingly, after the affidavit of default was filed, the HOA sent the Hales a bill for $250, which they paid. Also interestingly, the law firm representing the HOA sent the Hales a notice that the lien had been satisfied.

Three months after the HOA filed the affidavit of default, the Master entered a default judgment, calculating the amount due to the HOA as $2,898.67, comprised of $250 in principal, $80.87 in interest, $542.80 in litigation costs and $2,025 in attorneys’ fees. The property was sold at auction two weeks later to a third party, Regime Solutions, LLC.

This is the Hale’s explanation of the facts in their motion to vacate the sale:

“When we were served with the lawsuit to take away our home, I put the papers in a drawer and forgot about them. Some time after that, we received a bill from the HOA asking for the $250.00. I paid that without a problem. In November, we received a letter from the law firm of (the HOA) telling us that the Lien had been Satisfied…I thought that everything was OK after that. The next thing I know, someone is knocking on my door telling me that they bought my home and that me and my family were being evicted.”

The Master denied the Hales’ motion and adopted the position that the “effective sales price” was $69,040, consisting of the successful bid plus the balance of the mortgage. In his order, Richland County’s Master-in-Equity, Joseph Strickland, stated that “the practice of homeowners’ association foreclosures would effectively be eradicated if (the Hale’s) position came to bear.”

The appeal was handled by the law office of my friend, Brian Boger, a Columbia lawyer and well-known champion of consumers’ rights. The appeal argued that the $3,036 bid “shocked the conscience” and violated equitable principles.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Chief Justice Lockemy dissented, saying:

“A buyer at a judicial sale in which a senior lienholder is not a party takes the property subject to that lien, but the buyer is not responsible for its payment. The evidence in this cases shows (the Hales) have continued to pay the mortgage for a home for which they have no title because they will suffer the severe consequences of default if they do not. The buyer (Regime) has paid nothing. I do not believe it proper to give a judicial sale buyer credit for assuming a debt which is not legally required to pay.”

The Supreme Court seemed truly troubled by Regime’s business model. In a footnote, the Court stated that Regime either allows the senior mortgagee to (re)foreclose on the property or quitclaims the property to the original homeowners for a hefty fee. The Court seemed to be disturbed by Regime’s failure to assume mortgages in the ordinary course of its business.

The Court discussed two methods to calculate whether a bid price is so grossly inadequate as to shock the conscience. The debt method is a ratio comparing the total debt on the property to the fair market value. Under the debt method, Regime would have paid 53.9% of the value of the property. The equity method is a ratio comparing the winning bid price to the equity in the property. Under the equity method, Regime would have paid 4.9% of the value of the property.

The Court stated that our courts have not established a bright-line rule for what percentage “shocks the conscience”, but that a search of our jurisprudence reveals our courts have consistently held a price below ten percent definitely does.

The Court stated that when the foreclosure purchaser assumes the mortgage, the debt method should be used. But the court rejected the blind application of the debt method because of the facts in this case. Under these facts, the Court stated, applying the equity method is the only logical option.

The Court expressed concern about the foreclosure proceeding itself, stating that it morphed in to “a proxy to capitalize on a small debt”. The Court said it was especially troubled by Regime’s participation in a foreclosure proceeding to accommodate its business model of leveraging a nominal debt to secure an exorbitant return from homeowners who fear the prospect of an eviction. The Court said, “We do not countenance the improper use of foreclosure proceedings by the HOA, its attorney or Regime.”

The decision should not be read as a shift toward providing relief to homeowners despite their own poor choices, according to the Court. The Court said the case would have turned out very differently if the HOA and Regime had pursued “foreclosure in the normal course and made affirmative efforts to assume the Hales’ mortgage”. And that under the “unique facts of this case”, the Hales have demonstrated Regime’s bid was grossly inadequate.

I am quite sure my foreclosure lawyer friends are deciding how to change their practices in light of this case. I’m not sure the Court is correct about the normal course of foreclosures. I also doubt that the facts in this case are unique.

Justice Beatty concurred in a separate opinion, stating that he would adopt the equity method generally. That approach would certainly provide more clarity. Justice Beatty also said, “homeownership is the quintessential American dream. Purchasing a home is the largest investment that most South Carolinians will make. To allow the hard-earned equity to be confiscated by a bidder’s minimal investment is unconscionable. This is especially troubling when the foreclosure sale is the result of an HOA lien.”

For many reasons, I am glad today that I am not a foreclosure lawyer!

*Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27934 (December 18, , 2019).