Good news during Thanksgiving week for real estate agents…and us!

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Many real estate lawyers rely on their local real estate agent friends for the bulk of their residential closing business. When business is good for them, it’s good for us! Two recent stories in national publications are good signs for all of us.

First, an article from Housing Wire dated November 12, which you can read here, indicates more Americans are using real estate agents than ever before, including Millennials. The article cites a Harris Insights housing consumer study, which shows a full 90% of consumers use real estate agents to buy and sell their homes. These numbers are higher than those shown in previous similar studies, up 5 points from 2014 and 9 points from 2001.

We have all assumed that Millennials, ages 18 – 34, are replacing real estate agents with technology, but this study found the 91% of them use real estate agents in their transactions. According to this article, that number is higher among the Gen X group, ages 35 – 44, at 94%.

Surprising to me, this study indicates the older generations are more likely to cut real estate agents out of their transactions. Only 81% of consumers ages 55 and older indicate they use real estate agents in their transactions. And, apparently, more educated consumers enjoy the use of real estate agents in buying and selling their homes. High school graduates reported 83% use, while college educated consumers reported 94%. Higher income earners were also more likely to use real estate agents (98% of $75,000 – $100,000 earners vs. 79% of $50,000 or less earners.)

Read the article and the underlying study for more insight.

The second article that caught my attention is from Realtor Magazine on November 7. This article, entitled “Big Night of Midterm Wins for Realtors®”, reported that candidates across the country at federal, state and local levels won elections with the promise to benefit the real estate industry’s goals of strong communities and healthy residential and commercial property markets.

This article reports that the National Association of Realtors® supported hundreds of candidates they considered to be real estate champions, regardless of party affiliations.

It’s budget time for me, and our company is predicting a slight softening of residential and commercial markets in 2019. This positive news for our real estate agent partners makes me feel better about the year to come!

Here’s wishing everyone a very happy Thanksgiving with family and friends!

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Sometimes the sky isn’t so blue in Malibu

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California case might spell trouble for real estate agents and brokers across the country

The California Supreme Court decided a case in late 2016 that may have wide-ranging effect for real estate companies in that state.* The case involves a Chinese millionaire’s 2007 purchase of a mansion in Malibu for $12.25 million.

The seller, a trust, engaged Chris Cortazzo, a salesman in Coldwell Banker’s Malibu West office to sell the property.  As Cortazzo prepared to list the property, he obtained information from the tax assessor’s office that indicated the property’s living area was 9,434 square feet. The building permit described a single-family residence of 9,224 square feet, a guest house of 746 square feet, a garage of 1,080 square feet and a basement of unspecified area. The MLS listing stated that the property “offers approximately 15,000 square feet of living area”. Cortazzo also prepared and distributed a flyer making the same square footage representation.house measuring tape

In 2007, a couple made an offer to purchase the property. By handwritten note, Cortazzo informed them that Coldwell Banker did not “guarantee or warrant” the square footage, and advised them to “hire a qualified specialist to verify the square footage”. When the couple requested documentation of the square footage, Cortazzo gave them a letter from the property’s architect stating the “size of the house, as defined by the current Malibu building department ordinance is approximately 15,000 square feet.”  In a cover note, Cortazzo again cautioned them to hire a specialist. This sale fell through.

Horishi Horiike had been working for several years with Chizuko Namba, a sales person in Coldwell Banker’s Beverly Hills office, to find a residential property to buy. Namba showed Horiike the residence in question. Cortazzo gave Horiike the marketing flyer advertising approximately 15,000 square feet and an MLS printout that did not specify the square footage and contained note in small print that “Broker/Agent does not guarantee the accuracy of the square footage.” Horiike and the selling trust entered into a contract.

Before the closing, Horiike signed three disclosure forms confirming that Coldwell Banker represented both the buyer and the seller in the transaction. Under California law, a real estate broker may act as a dual agent for both parties, provided both parties consent to the arrangement after full disclosure.  The broker may act through one or more “associate licensees”, typically the salespeople who operate under the broker’s license and supervision. The governing statute provides that when an associate licensee owes a duty to any party in a real estate transaction, that duty is equivalent to the duty owed to that party by the broker.

Cortazzo did not state in writing to Horiike that there may be a discrepancy in the square footage, as he had done with the previous potential buyer. He also did not advise Horiike to retain an expert to verify the square footage. After the closing, Horiike learned that the property had less than 12,000 square feet of living area (although Coldwell Banker experts testified at trial that the living area was 14,186 square feet.)

In 2010, Horiike filed suit against Cortazzo and Coldwell Banker for intentional and negligent misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair business practices and false advertising. He did not sue the selling agent, Namba.

In a unanimous decision, California’s Supreme Court stated that the case presented a single, narrow question:  whether the associate licensee who represented the seller owed a duty to learn and disclose all information materially affecting the property, including the discrepancy in the square footage. The Court held that Coldwell Banker, as broker, owed a fiduciary duty to both parties and that Cortazzo, as associate licensee, had the responsibility to properly investigate and disclose all important information related to the transaction. The Court concluded Cortazzo owed a duty to Horiike equivalent to the duty owed to him by Coldwell Banker.

Several trade associations filed amicus briefs in the case. One concern is that an agent working with a buyer has no idea what property that buyer will ultimately purchase. Whether the same broker will represent the seller can’t be predicted. Another concern is that this decision may also reach commercial transactions. It is also possible that this case may open selling agents open to lawsuits from their clients for over-disclosure.

Could this happen in South Carolina? A provision in our statutory scheme may save brokers from the fate set out in this case, at least where different branch offices of a real estate firm are involved. Here, each branch office must be managed by a broker-in-charge. South Carolina Code §40-57-350 (I)(2) states that a broker-in-charge and associated licensees in one office of a real estate brokerage firm may conduct business with a client of another office of the real estate brokerage firm without creating a dual agency relationship, so long as the branch offices each have separate brokers-in-charge and do not share the same associated licensees.

I can’t find similar protection for listing and selling agents who work in the same branch office, nor for companies with listing and selling agents in the same location.  And, as we all know, there is no predicting what our court might say in connection with real estate matters. We will have to pay attention to see whether other courts, and particularly South Carolina courts, follow the lead of the California Supreme Court.

*Horiike v. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Co., 1 C5th 1024 (2016)

Can you be sure your real estate agent is not a serial killer?

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Maybe not! A recent South Carolina arrest brings this terrifying issue to light. Consumers visit houses accompanied only by real estate agents in South Carolina every day. Is this practice safe?

In November, Todd Kohlhepp was arrested in connection with the deaths of three individuals whose bodies were found on his property in Woodruff. Investigators were on his property near Wofford Road when they heard banging. They found a kidnap victim alive inside a large metal container “chained like a dog”. The victim had been missing for two months.

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Todd Kohlhepp – photo by myfox8.com

Kohlhepp was charged with three counts of murder, three counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, and one count of kidnapping. Kohlhepp is also alleged to be connected with four slayings in 2003 at Superbike Motorsports in Spartanburg.

Kohlhepp was a South Carolina licensed real estate agent. Real estate agents in South Carolina are licensed by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (LLR). A November 7 “Housing Wire” article asks how Kohlhepp got his license. The article quotes a prior article in “FOX Carolina” to the effect that LLR had stated Kohlhepp applied for a real estate license in 2006.

A background check was not required for the application. LLR’s website indicates an applicant who has been convicted or a crime must reveal that fact on the application and that the Real Estate Commission may review the application and conduct an investigation which may result in a delay in processing.

Kohlhepp had, in fact, been convicted of a 1986 kidnapping and rape in Arizona and had served 15 years in prison. But on his LLR application, according to FOX Carolina, he explained:

“I entered into a verbal agreement with my girlfriend who was also 15 at the time. I was charged with felony kidnapping due to the fact that I did have a firearm on me.”

He obtained the license and eventually established a firm of twelve agents and a reputation for being successful, professional, out-going and hard working. He was called a great salesman. He looked the part! He dressed well. He drove expensive cars.

What’s the lesson here? Consumers should eunderstand that a real estate agent’s license is no indication that the person who shows a home is honest and trustworthy.  Paying proper respect to the many, many wonderful real estate agents I know, however, it should be noted that we have seen cases in other parts of the country where real estate agents were harmed by their clients.

Unfortunately, for both sides of this equation, caution should be exercised in these situations of one-on-one contact with strangers in confined locations. Ask your friends for referrals. Do some on-line digging about the person you are about to meet. Take a business associate. Take a friend. Take your scary-looking cousin. Shoot, take your whole family. Schedule meetings during daylight hours. Let your business associates, friends and family know where you are, who you are with and how long you should be there. Keep your cell phone in your hand.

The good news is that this particular former real estate agent, who has confessed to the crimes, is likely to be off the streets permanently.

Into the mystic: Fannie and Freddie predict what is in store for housing in 2017.

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In a sign that the average cost of houses is increasing across the country, the conforming loan limit for loans to be purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will increase in 2017 for the first time in ten years.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has announced the maximum conforming loan in most parts of the country (including South Carolina) will increase from $417,000 to $424,100. Stated another way, a borrower will not have to qualify for a “jumbo loan” unless the amount to be borrowed exceeds $424,100.

This change should help qualified buyers, particularly in our coastal areas where home prices are higher, obtain mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even though credit remains tight and interest rates are likely to increase.

This is the time of the year when all of us involved in the housing industry are charged with looking into the proverbial crystal ball and projecting how we think the real estate market for the new year will compare with the current year.  For what it’s worth (and this and $5 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks), I’m projecting around a 3 percent increase for next year in South Carolina. Let me know what your crystal ball is disclosing!

Who You Gonna Call?

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Even five months into TRID implementation, there is still confusion about
who is allowed to receive the CD and Closing Statement

paperwork confusionWe’re all crystal clear that the borrower must be provided with the new CFPB compliant Closing Disclosure. We’re clear that there are very specific rules about when that document must be delivered to facilitate the scheduled closing. We know that most of the large national lenders are preparing and delivering the Closing Disclosure themselves while many of the local and regional lenders are still relying on closing attorneys to prepare and deliver this document.

What remains uncertain in some areas is how to deliver the necessary closing numbers to real estate agents, sellers and, when it comes to seller numbers, to lenders.

Real Estate Agents: There is no doubt that real estate agents need the numbers. They typically provide valuable guidance to their buyer clients on the accuracy of the numbers in advance of and during closings. They are also required to retain copies of closing statements in their files. But the Closing Disclosure now contains much more information than the HUD-1 Settlement Statement, and it is a common belief that delivery by a lender or closing agent to a real estate agent violates the buyer’s right to protection of personal information.

What is the solution?  There are two lines of thought. Some believe the buyer should sign a waiver allowing the lender and settlement agent to provide the Closing Disclosure to the buyer’s real estate agent. Several lenders, however, have stated that they will not act on waivers of this type.

The other line of thought is that the real estate agents (both the buyer’s agent and the seller’s agent) can be provided with a closing statement without violating anyone’s privacy. All of the closing software programs have closing statements available for this purpose. American Land Title Association has created forms for this reason, and most lawyers also have versions they have previously used for commercial and residential cash transactions.

Real estate lawyers in South Carolina need to prepare separate closing statements regardless of this dilemma. Our Supreme Court has made it clear that all the numbers in a closing must be properly disclosed to the parties. It took many of us months to wrap our brains around the fact that a Closing Disclosure does not contain all the numbers. It is not a closing statement and it is not a replacement for the HUD-1. It is also not a document from which we can disburse. We need a settlement statement that balances to a disbursement analysis to assure that our numbers are correct.

Sellers: The seller should be provided with the seller’s Closing Disclosure, which is prepared by the settlement agent and not the lender. But, again, this document does not reveal all of the numbers relevant to the closing, so the seller should also be provided with a settlement statement.

Lenders (as to Seller’s numbers): We have heard that lenders are having difficulty obtaining seller information from closing attorneys, but under TRID, settlement agents are obligated to provide the seller’s information to the lender. Lenders need this information to test the accuracy of the buyer’s information, for audit purposes and to be able to provide proper information to investors.hang in there

Five months out, we are all still working our way through TRID, and we will continue to work our way through the various issues as they arise. South Carolina lawyers can rely on friendly real estate lawyers on the Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section ListServ, which can be found here. And title insurance companies continue to obtain and disseminate information as issues arise. We’ll get through it!