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)