Advice for purchaser clients: obtain a survey!

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Advice for lawyers: paper your file when clients refuse!

On this cold, wet Monday morning, I was wondering what I could write to help my real estate lawyer friends through a February week in South Carolina. Then I remembered this news article from the U.S. Sun an excellent dirt lawyer friend from the coast sent to me. His quote was: “I wish I could get all buyers to read it when they turn down a survey.” Perhaps you can use this article to convince a client or two.

Any of us who are old enough to have practiced in the 1990s will remember a time when lenders and title insurance companies required current surveys for every closing. A current survey is a great tool for a real estate lawyer to review along with the title work. Comparing the boundary lines with the title work and checking for easements, encroachments and such horrible mishaps as sewer lines running under improvements gave the lawyer and client a great deal of comfort.

Our backdoor neighbors were once Steve and Wendy Spitz. Many real estate lawyers in South Carolina attribute our knowledge and enthusiasm for the practice to Steve’s property classes in law school. We both built in a new subdivision, and a corner of the Spitz home, as revealed by a survey, sat squarely on a City of Columbia water easement. That builder’s mistake was corrected prior to closing by negotiating with the City to move the easement. Thankfully, the water line itself was not a problem.

To hold down closing costs, at some point in the 1990s lenders began to eliminate the requirement for a survey in most residential closings if the lender could obtain title insurance survey coverage. One of the title insurance companies agreed to provide survey coverage to lenders without a new survey. There were some requirements back then, like having a survey of record showing the improvements or having an affidavit from the owner that nothing had changed since the prior survey.

Then, for competitive reasons, all the title insurance companies caved. Current surveys were no longer required. Over the years, the requirements were even softened.

My thought was that the title companies had unceremoniously hung the lawyers out to dry. Previously, the closing attorney simply told the client that a survey was required to close. With the change, the closing attorney had to convince the client of the need for a survey despite the added cost. I believe one of the biggest traps for the unwary closing attorney is failing to advise purchaser clients to obtain surveys and failing to paper files when surveys are rejected.

And don’t even mention the surveyors! They were collectively and understandably furious that they had lost a large portion of their business. I remember being the sacrificial lamb who was sent to speak to a statewide group of surveyors on behalf of the title insurance industry. It wasn’t pretty.

Here’s another story from my neighborhood. A kindly preacher friend bought a house several doors down from us. The free-standing garage had been added prior to my friend’s purchase and well after the original construction. My friend did not obtain a current survey. When he sold the house, a new survey revealed that the garage violated the side setback line by more than ten feet, and the purchaser refused to close. Keep in mind that contracts typically require sellers to give marketable title. A setback violation of this magnitude may be insured over by a title insurance company, but the title may not be marketable. This purchaser was within his rights to reject this title.

By that time, the developer, a Greenville based insurance company, had sold all the lots, and took the position that it could no longer waive violations of the restrictions even though the restrictions clearly allowed for developer waivers. The solution was that my friend went door to door to obtain the signatures of the required majority of the owners. Thankfully, my friend was a very nice guy, and the neighbors were willing to accommodate his request by signing the waiver.

Today, title insurance policies have evolved to the point that survey coverage is often given to owners without current surveys. But the example above demonstrates that title insurance coverage may not cure the underlying problem. Title insurance can never create marketable title. And title insurance claims may take time and cause aggravation that clients will not appreciate.

So let your clients read the linked article and advise them to obtain surveys. And, if they refuse, obtain  informed consent confirmed in writing for your file!