Paying tribute to a giant of the SC Real Estate Bar

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Dave Whitener was a friend and mentor to us all

Have you ever tried to organize your old forms, seminar materials and documents only to start waxing nostalgic and ultimately getting absolutely nothing accomplished? That happened to me today.

I am sorely behind schedule writing an update to the Handbook for South Carolina Dirt Lawyers. I’m sure my name is “Mud” with Terry Burnett and Alicia Hutto, my good friends at the South Carolina Bar who are not very patiently waiting for results. I had a plan to get the update done in 2017 and again in 2018, but that never happened. I’ve been so busy with new initiatives at work that I didn’t even attempt to develop a plan to write an update in 2019. Now, I’m shooting for the date of my death or retirement, whichever comes earlier. Wish me luck!

Hugh Dave WhitenerBut today, I began to organize ancient materials in an attempt to breathe new life into this aged project. And I kept coming across the same name, my late, great friend, Dave Whitener. Why? Because Dave wrote and taught much of the subject matter I now need to address.

Dave was 70 years old when he died in 2014 after practicing commercial real estate and teaching law school in Columbia for many years. He was married to my friend, Tricia Wharton Whitener, who continues his good work today. Dave was not only an excellent practitioner and teacher, but he was also, as his obituary quips, “renowned as a raconteur whose stories made others happy”. He loved people and he loved the law. He loved talking to law students and lawyers and telling them memorable stories in an effort to keep them out of trouble.

Since keeping my fellow South Carolina dirt lawyers out of trouble is the mission of this blog, I’m finding that many of the lessons Dave taught are appropriate on my day of waxing nostalgic.

If a law student or lawyer called Dave with a disturbing current event that the caller said “rang a bell” from one of Dave’s ethics lectures, Dave would reply, “You’re hearing the dinner bell at the federal prison.” That would get the caller’s attention!  I thought of that quote when I came across a lecture from Dave entitled “Top Ten ‘You Betters’”.  I thought I’d share that list with this audience today because this particular top ten list will never go out of style for real estate practitioners.

Dave Whitener’s Top Ten “You Betters”

    1. You better not facilitate the unauthorized practice of law.
    2. You better do what you should be doing.
    3. You better know what you should be doing.
    4. You better be on time.
    5. Everything better be shown on the closing statement.
    6. Everything on the closing statement better be correct.
    7. You better communicate with your clients.
    8. You better understand the rules on conflicts of interest.
    9. You better remember that your trust account is sacred.
    10. You better train your staff properly.

 

 

I could editorialize about each item on the list, but I believe the simplicity of this list speaks volumes for today’s purposes. But if I were to write a chapter on each item on the list, my handbook would be complete.

stay tuned

Thank you, Dave, for your example. My next blog may be about Dave’s ten-point plan for defending the rights of South Carolina licensed practitioners to handle real estate closings. Watch this space! 

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Dirt Lawyers: beware of these assessor antics

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and be aware of a tool for fighting back!

tiny detectives

The South Carolina Bar maintains a great listserv for members of the Real Estate Practices Section through which lawyers can ask questions and share information via email. I recommend that South Carolina real estate practitioners join the section and the list. Both provide opportunities for staying in touch with fellow practitioners and keeping up with news and trends.

Recently, the list contained this entry from a wonderful practitioner in Myrtle Beach whose name I’m withholding from this blog:

“Good morning Listmates,

Is every County going through the same audit of principal residence discounts for their taxpayers? Or is it just in Horry County? I have run into multiple back-charged properties and even ran into one where it was back-charged between when we did the title search and when we recorded the Deed. (And, yes, the Assessor refused to abate the new bills for the new owner.)

So what we have now is that on any given day the assessor can back charge multiple years’ worth of taxes (and you know how big the discount is, so these bills aren’t tiny!) regardless of whether or not we have searched the title, whether the property is in foreclosure, or even whether or not the property owner is dead. (Yes – my situation involved a deceased person in foreclosure – who do I go after for that tax bill payment??)

Add to this that our title abstractors who update the title work prior to recording are looking for judgments, liens, Deeds, Mortgages….but they are not looking for new tax bills, because tax bills come out in the Fall, right? Not anymore.

I imagine the buyers who get stuck with these bills could make a title insurance claim, but ultimately that will come back to the attorney because we “missed it” and then the E&O premiums go up and the client is lost to us because we look incompetent.

I guess the moral of this story is to instruct your abstractors to check for taxes before recording any Deeds. If you have a seller on the hook at least you can get the taxes paid at the closing. (Or if you have a deceased foreclosed party, at least you’ll know before the next tax year…)”

Horry County is, of course, a vacation haven. Many, many homeowners use Horry County properties as second homes and investment properties. Primary resident discounts amount to the difference in a 6% and a 4% mileage rate, so, as the astute lawyer suggested in her e-mail to fellow real estate practitioners, the differences are “not tiny”. Thus, all the coastal counties are vigilant about policing the discounts for primary residents.

(I know a guy who lives in an interior county in North Carolina and owns a second home in the Outer Banks. He votes where his beach house is located and has his mail delivered there, resulting in multiple trips to retrieve the mail. I don’t know exactly how the North Carolina statute on the primary residence discount reads, but I don’t recommend this tactic without the advice of a tax expert.)

Luckily for us in South Carolina, the Palmetto Land Title Association worked on this problem several years ago. Teri Callen of our office was Legislative Chair of PLTA at a time when the Association lobbied to “fix” the situation outlined above.

The Association, through intense lobbying efforts, was able to obtain a statutory amendment to the effect that a tax bill is final and that a “surprise” change in the 4% eligibility would only result in a personal liability so as not to affect title to the real property.

Most buyers are protected because they are bona fide purchasers for value without notice. (The lawyer’s problem, above, with the deceased property owner in foreclosure might not see the benefit of the statute.) The amendment went into effect in 2016, and counties will typically withdraw their surprise tax bills when they are provided with the statutory language.

Section 12-43-220(c)(2)(vii) of the South Carolina code now reads:

“(A) if a person signs the certification, obtains the four percent assessment ratio, and is thereafter found not eligible, or thereafter loses eligibility and fails to notify the assessor within six months, a penalty is imposed equal to one hundred percent of the tax paid, plus interest on that amount at the rate of one-half of one percent a month, but in no case less than thirty dollars nor more than the current year’s taxes. This penalty and any interest are considered ad valorem taxes due of the property for the purposes of collection and enforcement.

(B) If property had undergone an assessable transfer of interest as provided pursuant to Section 12-37-3150 and the transferee is a bona fide purchaser for value without notice, penalties assessed pursuant to subsection (vii)(A) and the additional property taxes and late payment penalties are solely the personal liability of the transferor and do not constitute a lien on and are not enforceable against the property in the hands of the transferee…”

Thanks to Teri Callen and Palmetto Land Title Association for this statutory “fix”! If you are faced with the problem outlined in the email above, provide your assessor’s office with the statute and remind them that the Code does not allow a “re-do” of tax bills that affect third party purchasers.

Also, consider joining Palmetto Land Title Association. It fights for us!

Forgive me for repeating myself

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But practitioners really need to read The Lean Law Firm

In October, this blog discussed a book I had just read,  the 2018 ABA Law Practice Division book, The Lean Law Firm, How to run your firm like the world’s most efficient and profitable businesses.  Now that I have attended a South Carolina Bar seminar by the authors, I am even more convinced that the methodology this book embraces is exactly what residential real estate practitioners need to adopt to assist them in reducing stress and growing value in their practices.

lean law firm4

One of the authors is Columbia consumer lawyer Dave Maxfield, who happens to be the brother-in-law of my co-worker, Dorothy Boudreaux. The other lawyer, Larry Port, is CEO of Rocket Matter, the cloud based legal practice management software company. The January 31 seminar made an impactful initial point: most law firms are in survival mode. They won’t progress unless the lawyers step back and take a look at the business to gain perspective.

What is a lean law firm?  In the words of Larry Port, being lean is not about cost cutting. “It’s more about creating systems and then finding the constraints and inefficiencies that impede them. Lean lawyers believe in measurement, reducing waste, and producing as much value as they can for their clients. And more than anything else, Lean is about experimentation and continuous improvement.” The processes set out in this book are intended to teach lawyers how to increase their income while they are reducing their stress.

Unfortunately, most lawyers have little or no awareness of the value of creating systems. We are not taught to run businesses in law school. The lawyers I know and love are so busy practicing law that they don’t take the time to modernize, to focus on processes, and to create the systems that will allow them to run their firms like efficient and profitable businesses.

Wouldn’t your closing process be improved if you were able to figure out and reduce or eliminate those matters that cause delay? I was in an office recently and noticed a great deal of foot traffic by staff members. I asked where everyone was heading and was told they were all probably looking for files. Wouldn’t that office’s process be improved by using closing software that makes every file constantly available to every person involved in the closing? I was in another firm with multiple branches and learned one branch had templates for the title work for each subdivision, but the other branches didn’t have access to the templates. Sometimes, just stepping back to take a look will reveal small tweaks that can vastly improve systems.

One of my favorite suggestions from the book is the use of Kanban boards, a project management tool used to visually depict work at various stages. The simplest Kanban boards would have three columns: “to-do”, “doing” and “done”. A Kanban board for a residential closing office might have these columns:  “file opening”, “pre-closing”, “title”, “document preparation”, “closing”, “recording”, “disbursement” and “post-closing”. Each closing would be depicted in the appropriate column. By paying attention to this workflow tool, a closing attorney would learn quickly where work bottlenecks, and improvements could be made efficiently.

I believe the advice I once heard:  every time you touch a closing file after the closing, you lose money. A Kanban board might reveal whether reducing the numbers of post-closing touches in your office would increase the income from each closing.

Does the book sound like dry reading to you? It is not that at all. In fact, it is the first book published by the ABA to employ the graphic novel approach. It is written in the form of a story about Gray Law Firm, a small struggling firm, it’s newly-hired, former big law lawyer, Carson Wright, who wants to help  “fix” the law firm, and Carson’s friend, Guy Chaplin, who runs an extremely successful racing bicycle manufacturing and distribution company.  Guy slowly teaches Carson the business principles that make his company successful. And Guy helps Carson figure out how to apply those principles to his law firm.

I have to warn you that the book contains a lot of math. I am not a math scholar by any stretch of the imagination, and I was able to follow the formulas and to see how they would work well in a law firm that handles real estate, especially residential real estate. In fact, my only complaint about this book is that it is not geared specifically to real estate practitioners.

The book gives very specific advice about the basics of management, standardization, written procedures, checklists, marketing, goal setting and technology. A South Carolina real estate lawyer might find that some of the advice doesn’t apply, but I’m betting that most of it does apply, and I am encouraging everyone to order a copy of this book at www.ShopABA.org and to take its advice to heart.

I am now in the process of twisting Dave’s arm to translate “Lean” to residential real estate. If I am successful, I will certainly share his wisdom with my friends who practice residential real estate in South Carolina who are probably battling survival mode as they read this.

We hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

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And if the holidays make you blue, please ask for help!

blue christmas

Our office pledges to give our agents all the CLE they need free of charge, that is, if they are South Carolina practitioners and only practice real estate law. Don’t ask us for litigation education…we don’t know anything about litigation! We have an impressive calendar of webinars and “brunch and learns”, and we have one grand “annual seminar” where all of our agents are invited to one place to network, to be wined and dined by us, and to learn the latest and greatest issues affecting the practice of real estate law.

We typically hold this seminar in October or November, well before year-end. For 2018, we planned our grand finale in Myrtle Beach in early October, the Monday after the horrible flood that affected our coast and Pee Dee area.

The hotel kept telling us that Myrtle Beach was fine!  Our speakers flying in from other states would have no problem with air or ground transportation. Our agents, however, coming from all over South Carolina, would have been hard pressed to get to Myrtle Beach from the South because Georgetown was flooded or from the West or North, where the Pee Dee was almost entirely unpassable.

So, we punted!  We convinced the hotel to let us reschedule and had a great cocktail party on Sunday, December 16 and an all-day seminar on Monday, December 17. We were thrilled when our agents responded and attended one week prior to Christmas vacation. And we thoroughly enjoyed celebrating with the lawyers and their staff members who work with us all year long.

We were able to hug our agents and wish for them the best during the holiday season in person, which was great fun for us!

Why am I going on and on about seminars and lawyers and holidays?  I have been impressed this year with the fact that some people, and especially some lawyers, don’t enjoy this time of year, and I wanted to encourage everyone, especially, every lawyer, who needs help to get help now.

You may have read a recent heartbreaking news story in American Lawyer where a lawyer’s widow blamed “biglaw” for her husband’s suicide. She admitted that her husband had a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and lacked essential coping mechanisms. But she said she believed his high-pressure job and culture where it is shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect, created a perfect storm.

And our church held a “Blue Christmas” service in early December. This service brought home to me the sad point that many people are unusually sad during the holidays.

This story and this service encouraged me to read statistics on lawyer suicide, and I learned that there is apparently an epidemic. In a period of 18 months in South Carolina, six lawyers committed suicide. We, as lawyers, are supposed to be problem solvers. We are supposed to be strong. We are not supposed to have problems. But lawyers do have these problems. I read one statistic that indicated lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

In order to pass our “character and fitness” check to become lawyers and in order to keep our licenses for the long haul, we tend to hide our mental health problems. Having problems and hiding the problems can create perfect storms in our own lives.

I encourage any lawyer who is particularly unhappy this time of year to call South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers toll free helpline at (866) 545-9590 or contact any Lawyers Helping Lawyers member directly.

And I refer everyone to Stuart Mauney’s excellent article, “The Lawyers’ Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse”, which is located on the Bar’s website. This article outlines the problem and the symptoms and explains how important asking for help can be. This article is valuable to all of us because if we don’t suffer ourselves, we probably know someone who does. I am going to keep a copy of it at my desk for future reference.

I wish for all of you very happy holidays and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019!

Captain Sam’s Spit continues to be the subject of litigation

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I’ve blogged about “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island previously. Googling that name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a gorgeous but extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in July of 2016 and again in July of 2018 included field trips to view this property, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University School of Law is an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as lawyers, have for field trips? South Carolina Dirt lawyers should calendar the July 2020 version of this workshop.

Real estate development is my bread and butter, but two visits to the area told me that property should not be developed. A fellow field tripper, however, pointed out that the south end of Pawleys Island, where my parents took me to the beach as a child and which has been developed for many years, is just as precarious.

Captain Sam's Spit

Aerial view of Captain Sam’s Spit from The Post & Courier

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project located in Pawleys Island fights these cases. Amy Anderson, an attorney with that entity, joined us and explained the environmental issues as well as the legal battle.

Six months ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a bulkhead and retaining wall could not be built to develop the property.  Just last month, however, Administrative Law Court Judge Ralph Anderson ruled that a road can be built to support the development because the economic benefits of building homes on Captain Sam’s Spit outweigh its natural preservation.

Here are greatly simplified facts in a very complicated South Carolina Supreme Court case: the developer and the community association entered into a development agreement in 1994. That agreement covered many issues, one of which was the proposed conveyance from the developer to the community association of a ten-mile strip of beachfront property, basically, the entire length of the island. A deed consummated that conveyance in 1995. All of the property conveyed was undevelopable because of the State’s jurisdictional lines.

I didn’t learn the following fact from the published case, but I learned it from one of the lawyers who was kind enough to speak with me. When the jurisdictional lines were redrawn by the State, the 4.62 acre tract became developable. The developer then took the position that the 1994 development agreement and the 1995 deed resulted from a mutual mistake, and that the parties never intended to include that tract.

The Master-in-Equity and Court of Appeals did not see it that way. Both found that the agreement and deed were unambiguous and that parole evidence of the intent of the parties was not allowable. The Supreme Court agreed.

In the recent Administrative Law Court case, Judge Anderson said the economic benefit of developing the property would include real property taxes of $5 million per year. This case is just the most recent in a decade of litigation.

Count on an appeal in this case and other litigation to follow. I’ll keep you posted!

Charleston is exploding!

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The locals are expecting a quarter-million neighbors!

Last weekend, about sixty commercial dirt lawyers attended South Carolina Bar’s Dave Whitener Real Estate Intensive Workshop in Kiawah Island. This workshop is held every-other-year and honors the memory of the late, great real estate lawyer and law school professor who planned and moderated it for many years until his untimely death in 2014. I think Dave would have enjoyed the collaboration and education we all enjoyed last weekend*.

And I think he would have been shocked at changes in the Charleston area!

Charleston Ravenel Bridge

Charleston is exploding! Kiawah Island itself is in the throes of a major renovation anticipating its next PGA tournament in 2021. As we left Kiawah Island early Sunday morning, a time we could survey our surroundings with no traffic, we were amazed at the new subdivisions that have sprung up between the beautiful island and I-26 as well as those in the North Charleston area where the Boeing plant is located. The area is changing so fast it’s hard to recognize even for someone who does business in the area and visits it often.

I was not surprised to see this Charleston Post and Courier article entitled “105,000 homes await construction in the Charleston metro area” by David Slade dated July 18. The article begins with the premise that Charleston-area residents are about to welcome 250,000 neighbors—roughly equal to the population growth Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties have experienced since 1990. Wrap your brain around that thought! The anticipated housing, according to this report, is nearly enough to accommodate the combined populations of Charleston and neighboring Mount Pleasant, which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in South Carolina.

Traffic is already horrible in the area. We hear from many lawyer friends and their staff members who fight increasing traffic to get into work each morning. When the I-526 bridge over the Wando River was closed recently for emergency repairs, we heard that some lawyers found it easier to take boats to work rather than to deal with the detour around the bridge. The emergency repairs required for this bridge are an example of the challenged infrastructure in the area.

But, as this article points out, area governments will see added tax revenues from the new growth, which will be needed for the roads and other infrastructure. Mr. Slade points out that residents of John Island, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island and Wadmalaw Island have been waiting for many years for planned improvements to the Maybank Highway and River Road intersection which bottlenecks each day. The islands are beautiful places to live, but getting into Charleston to work can be problematic at best.

Charleston is the number 1 tourist destination in the United States and the number 2 tourist destination in the world. All of us in the real estate business will be looking with interest as this anticipated growth unfolds in the Holy City and its surrounding areas.

 

*Among the speakers this year was Dave’s widow, also a commercial real estate lawyer extraordinaire, Patricia Wharton Whitener, and two of Dave’s best friends, litigator Robert E. Stepp and USC Law Professor S. Alan Medlin. The line-up was excellent, and I encourage other lawyers who practice in the area of commercial real estate to attend this workshop at each offering!

With great power comes great responsibility

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Six sensational ways to stop cyber villains

Cybersecurity is job #1 for dirt lawyers. Even in our close-knit state, we hear of attacks every week. A lawyer’s office could easily be forced out of business by one of these evil attacks. In our office, we read everything printed on the topic, and I offer you the six best, simplest tips I’ve seen. The first five are from American Land Title Association, developed with the help of the FBI, and the sixth is from the South Carolina Bar.

  1. Call, don’t e-mail: Confirm all wiring instructions by phone before transferring funds. Use the phone number from the recipient’s website or business card.
  2. Be suspicious: It’s not common for the companies involved in real estate transactions to change wiring instructions and payment information. Use common sense, stay alert to things that don’t look or feel quite right in a transaction and use your “Spidey senses”!
  3. Confirm it all: Ask your bank to confirm not just the account number but also the name on the account before sending a wire.
  4. Verify immediately: Call the recipient to validate that the funds were received. Detecting that you sent the money to the wrong account within 24 hours gives you the best chance of recovering your money.
  5. Forward, don’t reply: When responding to an email, hit forward instead of reply, then start typing with a known email address. Criminals use email addresses that are similar to real ones. By typing email addresses you will make it easier to discover if a fraudster is after you.

Thank you, ALTA and FBI, for those great tips!

The best tip, by far, that I have seen comes from the South Carolina Bar.  This tip is not only excellent for avoiding cyber fraud, it’s a great way of avoiding mistakes of all kinds in real estate practices. Here it is:

  1. Give yourself and your staff permission to slow down! We know things are hot out there not only in terms of the weather but also in terms of the speed of closings. Many of us who weathered the financial downturn remember what it was like when things were hot in 2005 – 2007. Closing speed can be increased only so much without causing error after error. Remember illegal flips prior to the financial downturn?  How many of them could have been prevented if someone had stopped long enough to think or long enough to bounce the scenario off of a friendly title insurance company underwriter? The same is true of protecting your clients’ money. Stop and think and allow your staff members to spend the time to stop and think.

Thank you, South Carolina Bar, for this great tip.

And, finally, I strongly recommend insurance against cyber fraud. Check with your E&O carrier to see what it offers. If it does not offer insurance to protect against this danger, find a company that does!  Call your title insurance company for suggestions!