“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).

Should closing attorneys issue opinion letters instead of title insurance?

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Fannie Mae just announced it will accept attorney’s opinion letters in lieu of title insurance policies to reduce closing costs. Is this good news for closing attorneys and their clients? Let’s discuss that issue.

When I was an associate in a law firm in the 1980’s, I was taught by the very smart lawyers who owned the firm that title insurance should be less expensive than attorneys’ opinion letters.  In other words, title insurance would protect everyone, the lender, the buyer, the seller, and even the closing attorney at a relatively nominal cost. The price of an attorney’s opinion (my opinion) would have to be commiserate with the liability directly assumed by the law firm through that letter. The very clear lesson was that I should issue title insurance, not opinion letters. And when a title opinion was demanded, I should charge a hefty fee for it.

I’ve taught law students and others that title insurance is the best choice for several reasons. First, attorneys are only responsible for their negligence, not hidden defects and mistakes in the public records. For example, I heard about a deed recorded in Greenville County where one person forged the signatures of eight individuals, including the witnesses and notary. Forgery is rarely evident on the face of the forged document. An attorney’s opinion of title would not cover that defect. Title insurance would. An attorney’s opinion would not cover a deed, mortgage, or set of restrictive covenants missed in a title examination because of mistaken indexing by a county employee. Title insurance would.

Second, attorneys die, move, are underinsured, allow their malpractice to expire and otherwise become unavailable when a title problem arises. Finally, statutes of limitations may come into play. Title insurance does not expire as long as the lender or owner has an interest in the property, including an interest arising from deed warranties. Title insurance shifts the risk of title defects from the property owner and lender, and, in a manner of speaking, from the closing attorney to a financially sound insurer.

Fannie Mae’s announcement said that acceptable opinion letters must come from properly licensed attorneys with malpractice insurance in an amount “commonly prevailing in the jurisdiction.” The letters must provide gap coverage. Every South Carolina title opinion I’ve seen takes a clear exception to matters arising after the date of the opinion. Fannie Mae will also require the letters to “state the title condition of the property is acceptable.” I’m not sure what that statement means, but I don’t believe I would give that unqualified opinion.

This news from Fannie May could be what politicians are calling a “nothing burger”. Freddie Mac issued a similar announcement two years ago, but that announcement has not had a major impact on the way lawyers and title insurers do business.

Let’s wait and see what happens. But, in the meantime, I don’t advise my friends who close real estate transactions to start issuing title opinions instead of title insurance.

Check out “Arrived Homes” real estate investment platform

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Real estate has always been a significant investment option but shelling out the required funds may be cost prohibitive for all but the most affluent among us. Jeff Bezos and his partners may have solved this problem.

Check out the real estate investment platform Arrived Homes. Go to the site and listen to the quick explanation entitled “What is Arrive in 1 min”.  Very simply, an investor can buy “shares” of rental properties and collect the rental income attributable to those shares. If the economy holds out and real estate continues to appreciate, the properties (and the shares) will increase in value over time. The company intends to hold the properties for five to seven years before selling them and distributing the equity to the investors.

The business finds, buys and manages residential rental properties and offers shares of the properties to investors. Potential investors can browse and choose among available properties. Management includes locating tenants, maintenance, repairs, improvements as well as handling accounting and taxes.  A quick review reflects several properties in South Carolina.

An interesting Arrived approach is to encourage the tenants of the rental properties to become investors in the properties they occupy. The idea is to encourage the tenants to treat the properties as if they own them….because they do! The longer the lease the tenant signs, the larger the equity incentive.

Rental income is paid quarterly in the form of dividends. Investors can review their returns and potential appreciation in the user dashboard.

How does the company make its money? It charges two fees, a sourcing fee and an assets under management fee. The sourcing fee is paid up front and the assets under management fee is charged at 1% per year. Both fees as listed on each property’s “page”.  Costs are deducted from the rental income.

The site launched a little over a year ago and has experienced significant growth. One report indicates properties have been purchased valued at close to $40 million already. New properties are listed every couple of weeks, and many sell out quickly.  

The intent it to make investing in real estate as easy as investing in stocks with a minimum investment of only $100. It’s an interesting concept!

New fraud warning from Chicago Title

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It goes without saying that one of the most important partnerships for a real estate lawyer is a great title insurance company. I am biased, but in my opinion, there is no better title insurance company doing business in South Carolina than Chicago Title.

This week, a warning was issued from Chicago Title about a new and very specific fraud scheme that I want to share with all South Carolina practitioners.

Chicago Title received two reports last week of fraudsters apparently operating out of Houston. The fraudsters posed as owners of South Carolina properties and listed the properties for sale on Zillow. Mail away cash closings were scheduled with local real estate lawyers. In both cases, the fraudsters provided presumably fake identification and deeds to closing attorneys.

In the first case, the closing attorney very astutely foiled the scheme when he determined the signatures on the deed appeared suspicious. He contacted the New York notary who purportedly notarized the deed. She reported her seal had been stolen and used in at least one successful fraudulent scheme. The lawyer also learned from Federal Express that the deed had been sent from Houston rather than New York, where the seller was purportedly located. The transaction was stopped.

Unfortunately, the second transaction was not stopped.  This seller package also originated in Houston. The fraudster’s telephone number appears on Zillow listing for properties in multiple states. Houston law enforcement has been notified and is opening an investigation.

Any mail away closings should be particularly scrutinized. If you conduct a closing with an unfamiliar seller, you should be especially vigilant in confirming the identities of the parties. Use more than one set of eyes in your office! Anything that appears unusual should be examined carefully. Give your staff the flexibility to slow down and carefully examine each document. Tell them to bring any unusual document to you. Check behind your staff! A great real estate paralegal is invaluable, but we spent three years in law school learning to spot issues. Use those issue-spotting skills to foil these fraudsters!

Be careful and good luck out there!

Short-term rentals questioned in South Carolina cities

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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. And I love a hot tub with a view!

But I’ve seen a couple of news articles about South Carolina cities questioning whether these types of short-term rentals are appropriate in residential subdivisions, and I understand the concern.

WLTX posted an article on March 16 entitled, “Renters frustrated after South Carolina city pauses short-term rentals for 6 months.” The article reports that Rock Hill is halting new and renewal permits for short-term rentals for at least the next six months.

The article quotes a man who said he and his wife operate nine Airbnb locations and have been put out of business by the resolution. The article quotes the resolution: “the homes are mainly in their older neighborhoods and these transient tenants have a negative effect on the peace and perceived safety of those neighborhoods.”

An article posted on March 17 by South Carolina Public Radio entitled “Upstate cities ponder the fate of short-term rentals” discusses the Rock Hill moratorium as well as similar discussions by city officials in Spartanburg.

The city attorney in Spartanburg is quoted as saying that city’s “permissive” zoning ordinance does not address short-term rentals and that any use that is not specifically allowed is prohibited. He admitted, however, that there are “plenty” of short-term rentals—about 120 on Airbnb alone.

One councilman in Spartanburg was quoted as arguing in favor of creating rules to keep “bad actors” from causing trouble in neighborhoods.

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.

What do you think? Would you be comfortable with short-term rentals in your neighborhood? Could rules about groups, parties and parking make a difference?

We may see other cities in The Palmetto State considering whether to limit short-term rentals through zoning or permitting. It’s an interesting question!

SC courts will overturn tax sales on the flimsiest of technicalities

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But apparently not when the claimant has no interest in the property

South Carolina courts don’t respect tax sales!

For that reason, tax sales have always been problematic for title examiners and real estate closing attorneys. Any concern about service of process or naming proper parties can result in the return the property to the owner of record. Historically, we would simply not close in the face of a tax sale in the chain of title.

In recent years, title insurance companies and real estate lawyers have attempted to take a more liberal approach. A rule of thumb might be that a tax sale that is at least ten years old where one person or entity has held title for a ten-year period since the tax sale may not result in an aborted closing. The title may not be marketable, but it may be insurable.

A recent Court of Appeals case* made me laugh. (Remember I am an easily amused title nerd.) The plaintiff, Scott, was “renting to own” the property in question under a 1998 oral agreement with her uncle, McAlister. Scott took possession of the property after making an initial down payment of $4,000 and agreeing to pay the remaining $31,000 purchase price in monthly installments of $300. That’s her story, at least. McAlister testified that Scott agreed to obtain a loan to make a second payment of $31,000.

After Scott failed to make the $31,000 payment, McAlister told Scott that her monthly payments would be considered rent only, and the parties agreed to reduce the monthly payment to $200. In 2007, McAlister began eviction proceedings, but the circuit court vacated the order of ejectment when Scott asserted that she occupied the property under a land purchase agreement. McAlister moved and changed the mailing address for tax purposes. The taxes for 2011 were never paid, and the property was sold in a tax sale in 2012.

Scott claimed she was unaware of the mailing address change, the delinquent taxes, the tax sale or the opportunity to redeem the property until the purchaser’s surveyor showed up! In 2015, Scott filed a complaint alleging that tax sale technicalities were not followed because notices were never posted on the property. The tax collector claimed her office posted the property notice on the property in August of 2012.

The circuit court granted summary judgment after it determined Scott lacked standing and that the tax authorities owed her no duties because she was not the record taxpayer, property owner or grantee. The Court of Appeals cited cases for the proposition that a tax execution is issued against the defaulting taxpayer, not against the property. The summary judgment decision was upheld on the theory that while due process is owed to a property owner, it is not owed to a person who whose only interest is based on an oral agreement.

I love it when our appeals courts answer real estate questions correctly. Overturning this tax sale would have resulted in serious consequences for title examiners and closing attorneys!

*Scott v. McAlister, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5897 (March 9, 2022)

Ethics Advisory Opinion advises lawyers: stay away from Expertise.com

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Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-02 fielded two marketing questions from a lawyer concerning a website, Expertise.com. This website finds and reviews service professionals and states that it researches businesses by using customer referrals, public records, accreditations and licenses and mystery shoppers.

Some law firms are listed on the site without the knowledge of the lawyers through the site’s unilateral research and screening. The site states that it lists businesses alphabetically, but it allows law firms to submit to be reviewed and included at no cost. The site indicates this process takes approximately one year to complete.  A law firm can also purchase a “featured placement” to take advantage of being seen first on the website page and to include links to the law firm’s social media.

The lawyer’s questions were:

  1. If an attorney or law firm pays for a featured placement on Expertise.com, does that attorney violate Rule 7.4(b) by holding the law firm and its attorneys out as experts by virtue of the website’s name?

2. Does paying for a featured placement on Expertise.com violate Rule 7.2(c)?

The Ethics Advisory Committee responded definitely: “Lawyer may not participate in any way in marketing via Expertise.com.” Actively participating in an online business listing at a website whose stock language violates the advertising rules is itself a violation of the advertising rules, according to the Committee.

The Committee referred to an earlier EAO: 09-10 which opined that a lawyer who adopts, endorses, or claims an online directory listing takes responsibility under the Rules for all content of the listing and general content of the directory itself, regardless of who created the material. While the prior opinion focused on comparative language contained in client testimonials and endorsements submitted to the website, the reasoning applies to content created by the host that violates some other rule, like 7.4(b), according to the current EAO.

Regardless of the creator of the offending content and regardless of which rule it violates, the Committee’s view is that a lawyer may not adopt, endorse, claim, or contribute to any online listing that contains language or other material that would violate the Rules if created and disseminated directly by the lawyer.

Paying for a featured placement within a business directory website is not itself a violation of Rule 7.2(c) if the payment obligation or amount is not tied to the referral of business as a quid pro quo, according to the EAO. In the Committee’s view, if a featured placement is the only benefit received in exchange, the payment would be a “reasonable cost of advertisement” under the 7.2(c)(1) exception.

However, the Committee believes a lawyer may not pay Expertise.com for a featured placement because that step would be prohibited by Rule 7.4(b).

Be careful out there, lawyers!

Wire fraud continues to be a significant problem

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My preacher has suffered several email hacking schemes that prey on church members with kind hearts.

He has sent out a written notification and has announced from the pulpit more than once that church members have reported to him that they sent money because of his very touching email requests about persons in need…email requests that he never made. He assured his congregation that if he needs specific funds for specific needs, he will make phone calls. He shared that preacher friends of his have reported similar schemes. The fake emails always report that he is unavailable to take phone calls but that the need is urgent and immediate.

Phone calls may be the key to fraud prevention!

A lawyer friend of mine called me this week to ask an opinion on a potential client’s case. Help me answer the question: Does a closing attorney have a duty to make a telephone call to clients who may need to wire funds in connection with a closing to warn about the dangers of wire fraud and how to prevent the loss of closing funds?

I don’t know the answer to that question. My gut reaction is that the standard in our communities in South Carolina is that lawyers should provide very specific instructions on wiring instructions and engagement letters to prevent this type of fraud. I’ve seen several excellent examples of red-letter, bolded warnings.

Chicago Title in South Carolina continues to see a rise in the amount of fraud and attempted fraud in connection with real estate closings. The most recent memorandum was sent out to agents on February 2. Most of these incidents involve hacked emails where a party to the transaction fails to maintain strong computer or email security.

Unfortunately, law firms with significant security measures in place have also been victims of these schemes. The hackers typically submit altered payoff letters or wiring instructions to divert the funds. Like the emails that have plagued my preacher, the forged emails, wiring instructions and payoff letters look very similar to legitimate documents.

Here is the current advice on preventing these disasters in your law firms:

  1. Obtain payoff information and wiring instructions early in the transaction so that there is ample time to review them and confirm their authenticity.
  2. Review every payoff and wiring instruction to determine whether it appears authentic on its face. Many fraudsters are excellent at spoofing letterheads and logos, but sometimes, you may see tell-tale signs.
  3. Compare each payoff letter and wiring instruction to prior instructions to determine whether account numbers have been changed.
  4. If the wire is going to an entity to which you have previously sent wires, compare the new information with the prior transaction. If you save wiring instructions in your systems, make sure that repository is secure and cannot be easily shared.
  5. Verify every wiring instruction verbally using a known and trusted telephone number. Do not use telephone numbers provided in the instructions themselves unless you can verify its validity.
  6. If you cannot verify the instructions verbally or have doubts about the transaction, consider mailing, overnighting or even hand delivering a check to a confirmed address instead of using a wire.

Chicago Title has developed an excellent APP for your cell phone that contains the information you will need in the event your law firm or your clients become victims of fraud. As always, I highly recommend Chicago Title!

Can mortgage lenders force arbitration on consumers?

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Fourth Circuit says no in a published opinion

In Lyons v. PNC Bank*, a consumer, William Lyons, Jr., filed suit against his home equity line of credit lender alleging violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). The lender, PNC Bank, had set-off funds from two of Mr. Lyons’ deposit accounts to pay the outstanding balance on his HELOC.

PNC moved to compel arbitration of the dispute based on an arbitration provision in the parties’ agreements relating to the deposit accounts. The case contains some discussion about jurisdiction, and one judges dissented on that basis. But the important holding in the case relates to pre-dispute arbitration provisions in consumer mortgages and related documents.

The Court found the relevant legislation to be 15 U.S.C. §1639c(e)(1) and §1639c(e)(3) from the Dodd-Frank Act, which had amended TILA. The first provision states:

“No residential mortgage loan and no extension of credit under and open end consumer credit plan secured by the principal dwelling of the consumer may include terms which require arbitration or any other nonjudicial procedure as the method for resolving any controversy or settling any claims arising out of the transaction.”

The second provision states:

“No provision of any residential mortgage loan or any extension of credit under an open end consumer credit plan secured by the principal dwelling of the consumer, and no other agreement between the consumer and the creditor relating to the residential mortgage loan…shall be applied or interpreted so as to bar a consumer from bringing an action in an appropriate district court of the United States…”

The Court held that the plain language of the legislation is clear and unambiguous that a consumer cannot be prevented from bringing a TILA action in federal district court by a provision in any agreement related to a residential mortgage loan. The Court’s holding indicates its opinion that Congress clearly intended consumers to have the right to litigate mortgage disputes.

* United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Opinion No. 21-1058 (February 15, 2022)