Traps for Unwary Real Estate Buyers

July 7, 2008

I was asked to briefly summarize some of the legal considerations that a buyer might keep in mind while venturing into the real estate market in Washington. I think something like this might prove to be helpful so long as you keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of all possible difficulties. Here is a short list of legalities that might be helpful to buyers of real estate to keep in mind.

New Construction. Washington has an extremely harsh “statute of repose.” Six years after the final permit is issued all recourse against anyone working on the project is barred, exect as to damage that has already arisen.

If for example you buyer a building, or bridge that collapses six and one half years after the last permit, you have no recourse against anyone in the construction industry.

The Washington statute of creates false expectations in the minds of consumers.

If you buy a building with a useful life of forty years you expect it to last that long. In Washington you can only count on six, assuming that you are buying a new building. If you are buying a used building, it is very likely that the six years have passed and you have no recourse whatsoever against anyone involved with the construction of it.

People who spend money to retrofit buildings , to make them earth-quake proof, must remember that they have no recourse against the engineers or builders if the work is faulty, assuming that the earth-quake occurs more than six years later.

This puts a premium on investigation and study before buying. It also puts a premium on the purchase agreement and the ability to look to the seller if there are latent defects. With respect to construction, owners should consider taking these things into account in negotiating contracts.

Building Codes. Many residential buyers put stock in representations that the building complies with code or they just rely on the fact that the building had to be inspected and approved by local government before it could be occupied. This does reduce the chances of defective construction but it is a long way from assuring the purchaser that the construction is not defective and there is no assurance that the building in fact complies with code. There is no recourse in the usual case against the city or county if the building was approved in spite of noncompliance — and this happens.

Form 17. The Seller’s Disclosure Statement required in residential sales has recently been interpreted (see my last entry) as unenforceable by one of our three courts of appeals. This can be cured by modifying the standard forms, but it certainly opens the door to using the form as a tool of deception.

Bad Materials and Workmanship. There are a number of cases in Washington in which purchasers have been held to be without recourse when the property they purchased was defective. The “economic loss rule” is invoked to hold the buyer without recourse. This result can be avoided contractually.

Verbal agreements. The form purchase and sale agreement in common use says that there are no other enforceable agreements. That means that agreements — even written agreements — outside the purchase and sale agreement are at least of questionable enforceability.

“Merger into the Deed.” When the transaction closes many of the terms and conditions of the agreement are terminated. Discovery after closing of a false representation may be too late if the representation or assurance is deemed to have been merged into the deed. This can be avoided by care in writing the contract.

There are of course other issues that arise but this at least gives you a sense of the care that must be taken in protecting an important investment such as buying real estate.

Please note that in the last legislative session a very modest bill was introduced to confer limited rights on home buyers. The bill was killed by the Democrats, particularly Frank Chopp.


Washington Distressed Property Law (2)

June 11, 2008

It appears that most of the complaints about the equity skimming law are originating with representatives of real estate agents. (See a comment to an earlier entry.) The reason for this is that the law impresses new duties on the agents and with the new duties the prospect of liability. Over the years there has been a good deal of marketing to get you to think of real estate agents as “real estate professionals.” This law they believe is taking this idea too far.

The crux of this concern is that real estate agents might be characterized as “distressed home consultants” who the new law says owe a fiduciary duty to the the distressed home owner, someone facing foreclosure. Courts have described “fiduciary duty” as the highest obligation of care, loyalty and good faith. Most distressed home owners believe that they are getting this from the person who is advising them. (For that matter many people who retain a real estate agent imagine that they are receiving this level of commitment.) Illegal equity skimming, at least the cases I have seen, all involve engendering this level of confidence in the home owner and practicing beneath that level.

Representatives of real estate agents argue that this is not fair to the agents because the standard is vague and broad in scope. Remember though that the law applies only to agents, as well as all other people, who meet the definition of “distressed home consultants.” The law describes two categories of these “distressed home consultants.” The first is a person who solicits or contacts a “distressed home owner” and makes a representation or offer to to provide a service that will avoid the foreclosure.

The statute lists 13 types of offers that render a person a “distressed home consultant.” They include such things as avoiding or delaying the foreclosure, arranging a lease with a purchase option and the like. Do any of these things and you are a “distressed home consultant” with a fiduciary duty to the home owner. Clearly a real estate agent could inadvertently say something that would render him or her potentially liable as a fiduciary. So could anyone else.

The other way a person can be a “distressed home consultant” is by systematically contacting owners of homes that are in foreclosure. If you systematically solicit people in foreclosure you owe them a fiduciary duty. This should reduce the wildly misleading solicitations that are routinely sent to people after a notice of foreclosure is recorded, then published. Home owners in foreclosure receive dozens of these mailed promises of relief. Real estate agents, and others, who do mass mailings and target these people fall under the definition.

“Fiduciary duty” is a court-defined term that has been in use since long before Washington was a state. It is a term imposed by the courts where there is a relationship of trust and dependence. Its scope is defined by published cases, trial judges and juries. Lawyers have a fiduciary duty to their clients. Escrow agents and closers have fiduciary duties to both the buyer and the seller. The successor trustee performing the foreclosure has fiduciary duties. Trustees of real estate trusts and all other trusts have fiduciary duties. Partners in real estate transactions have fiduciary duties to each other. The concept is far from alien in real estate transactions.

What is interesting to me is that the real estate agents who are so confounded by the idea of having a fiduciary duty already have a fiduciary duty to their clients. This was imposed by the courts some time ago. When agents represent the buyer and the seller, a “dual agency,” they have fiduciary obligations to both sides. I hope that they are aware of this.

I presume that the aspect of fiduciary duty that troubles real estate agents the most is the standard of care. If a real estate agent or anyone else presumes to tell a person in foreclosure what to do or promises relief from the foreclosure, he or she should be held to the standard of care of a profession that can give such advise. This is currently the law. A real estate agent has court approval to fill in the blanks on real estate forms. A real estate agent is not permitted to discuss with the client the legal effect of contractual provisions. This would be the unauthorized practice of law. They are supposed to refer the client to a lawyer for legal advise.

In the context of a foreclosure a real estate agent, or any other person offering advise about what steps to take, is usually offering legal advise regarding foreclosure procedure or legal artifices to avoid foreclosure. This is not something most people (including real estate agents) are qualified to do and it has recently led to broad scale disasters for home owners in connection with equity skimming. A real estate person or anyone else finding himself or herself in this situation should refer the home owner to a lawyer rather than offering legal advise. This is already the law.


Equity Skimming in Washington: A Brief History

June 7, 2008

There are three main reasons that real estate has attracted so many unscrupulous people in recent years.

First it is an asset that can be highly leveraged. Homes can be purchased for a relatively small amount down and the balance financed. When property goes up in value this confers wild profit on the owner. For example, say you buy a home for $100,000 and pay 10% down. When the transaction closes you have purchased a $100,000 asset for an expenditure of one tenth its value. Putting aside transactional costs, if the property increases in value 25%, you have gained $25,000 in value on an original investment of $10,000. You more than doubled your money on a 25% increase in value of the asset.

The second aspect that attracts the criminally inclined, is that these very valuable assets are often owned by people who are not sophisticated in real estate financing. This is an area where people typically just given themselves to the grinding wheels of commerce without knowing a lot about what is going on in a real estate transaction. Thus there is great opportunity for duplicity behind a mask of convention.

This area is also relatively unpoliced. In the early 1900’s the scam of choice was securities fraud. So many people were falling victim to fraudulent securities schemes that the federal government created the Securities Exchange Commission and in the 1930’s passed legislation imposing severe penalties for securities fraud and implementing broad disclosure requirements.

Many equity skimmers would probably have been selling bunko stock one hundred years ago. The equity skimming schemes of today occupy a relatively unpoliced area without much in the way of legislation (although states such a Washington are passing legislation to thwart this form of fleecing). In short home sales is an area where a lot of money passes hands, there is potential for fast profit and there is not a great deal in the way of scrutiny — similar to stock sales before the Security Exchange Commission.

There have always been lots of real estate scams but for our purposes the story starts in the 1970’s. There was a recession in the early 70’s (or something that looked remarkably like one). An average house in Seattle could be purchased for $15,000, due in large part to local economic problems. This was followed by a period of inflation and breathtakingly high interest rates.

The inflation encouraged people to sell their real estate profitably, but the high interest rates prevented many people from getting loans to buy real estate. These pressures created an era of seller financing. The buyer would give the down payment to the seller and make monthly payments to the seller with an agreement to pay the purchase price off in full in three to five years, when financing could be obtained. This sort of arrangement was commonplace.

The buyer got the house and with it the obligation to pay payments to the seller and the obligation to continue to pay the seller’s mortgage. The buyer could assume FHA loans but usually the buyer just agreed to make the payments for the seller after the sale. The malevolent instincts that had been somewhat suppressed by federal laws in the area of securities sales were revived in this situation.

All sorts of bad things happened. Crooks would buy homes with faulty seller financing documents so sellers could not foreclose if they were not paid by the buyer, while at the same time they remained obligated on the mortgage which the buyer might choose not to pay. Companies were formed that bought real estate on seller financing, then just stripped the property of everything of value and left the barren property for the sellers to foreclose upon.

Seller financing deals could be structured to protect the seller, but there is always a portion of the population that does not consult a lawyer before entering into a transaction of this sort. It is this group around which financial vultures circle.

There was nothing of the magnitude of the massive systematic fraud of recent years, so the legislature was relatively slow to address the problem of equity skimming. In 1988 Washington passed a law that criminalized equity skimming and declared it to be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act. The forward to the bill states in part:

The legislature finds that persons are engaging in patterns of conduct which defraud innocent homeowners of their equity interest or other value in residential dwellings under the guise of a purchase of the owner’s residence but which is in fact a device to convert the owner’s equity interest or other value in the residence to an equity skimmer, who fails to make payments, diverts the equity or other value to the skimmer’s benefit, and leaves the innocent homeowner with a resulting financial loss or debt.

Financial institutions had their hands full in the 1980’s. Seafirst Bank, the biggest bank in the Northwest was going bankrupt until it was purchased by Bank of America. Other big banks swallowed smaller ones into the nineties. Two of the biggest Seattle banks, Peoples Bank and Old National Bank, were bought by U.S. Bank of Oregon and merged into U.S. Bank of Washington. This activity seemed to occupy attention much more than occasional fraud on homeowners.

The opportunity for homeowner fraud errupted like never before during the Bush Administration. The administration’s laizes faire, anti-regulation bias allowed this situation to reach international economic crisis proportions, despite obvious abuses all along the way. (The policies that created the situation were constant between Clinton and Bush, but Bush’s response to the financial crisis made Katrina relief look adequate and timely.)

The subprime era was awash in home loan money; lenders could hardly give it away fast enough. Home loans were obtained without a great deal of review for as much as the full purchase price of a home. This was like a petri dish for raising a culture of financial fraud.

People were so eager to get at the money there were numerous seminars given on equity skimming. Small fortunes were made on the price of admission alone. These week-long seminars were packed with local real estate people, real estate agents, brokers and miscellaneous others. People from Seattle, Everett, from all over the Western part of the state attended.

Recently indicted Charles Head (California based) advertised on the internet, sent faxes to mortgage brokers and people in the real estate industry and nurtured relationships with lenders and escrow companies. He had dozens of companies that were nothing more than names to confuse the public. Sometimes the companies described themselves as facilitators, sometimes as lenders, sometimes as lenders’ agents, sometimes buyer’s agents, sometimes both lender and buyer’s agents and often not at all.


Amending the Law to Make it Harder to Stop Foreclosure Scams.

February 26, 2008

Here’s one that is sailing through the state legislature without discussion and under everyone’s radar.  Today the senate had a public hear to amend the deed of trust act so as to make it easier for trustees to conduct foreclosure sales when they are disputed.  Substitute Senate Bill 5378 removes a deed of trust trustee’s (the one who does the foreclosure) fiduciary duty to the owner and frees the trustee from having to field phone calls by saying requests for payoffs must be in writing.  Not only that but by law the trustee would not have to respond to a written request sooner than 10 days from receipt.  Not only that but the new law would make it clear that the trustee is under no obligation to discontinue a sale for any reason whatsoever.  Finally the owner, or anyone else, trying to stop the sale is required to put up security for damages, attorneys fees and costs.  This of course is a crippling requirement for someone going through a foreclosure.

That’s one way to stop a scandal: Deny access to the courts by prohibitive procedural and substantive legal requirements for getting a hearing.  This approach is reminiscent of the legislature’s answer to the condominium scandal, where developers were using materials that after a few years became defective and required replacement. The legislatures answer was to pass a law that said as to condominiums only if the problem does not show up within 4 years of the completion of the building, the owners have no recourse against anyone.

Substitute senate bill 5378  is skipping through the legislature without any debate.  In the area of real estate scandals the Washington legislature has developed a very clear pattern of resolving these things by curbing the rights of the victims.

This bill is sponsored by senators Weinstein, Kline and  Rockefeller.  What exactly is their connection with the banking industry?


Auto Restoration: How to Avoid Being Ripped Off

January 15, 2008

car-garage.jpgRestoration can be accurately estimated.  Buffalo Restorations in Puyallup restores vintage automobiles at costs ranging upwards of $100,000 and more, and has a number of unhappy customers. One of these customers recently obtained a jury verdict against Buffalo and its owner Robert Newgard for fraud, conversion and breach of contract. At the trial, among other witnesses, two former employees testified about Buffalo’s practices and two former customers testified about their experiences.

If you are considering having a car built or renovated, here are a few things to consider in choosing a shop and in reviewing your bills. First don’t let your decision where to take the car be swayed by advertising; let it be determined by the results of your “due diligence.” Also bear in mind that the quality of work is not necessarily related to the size of the company. Some of the best shops are one-person shops (as are some of the bad ones). Consider these things:

1. Check with the Superior Court to see the number of lawsuits that have been filed and check with the Better Business Bureau.

2. Contact the people who have sued or filed complaints.

3. Find out how long the people have been working there (high turn-over is a bad sign).

4. Find out where the employees worked before they were hired.

5. Get a list of customers who have had something similar done for them.

6. Ask for references, both customers and trade references.

7. What recognition has the shop received, such as awards or mention in publications.

8. Get an estimate and create a budget for the job, recognizing that experienced professionals can give a very close estimate of the final restoration cost with a good description of what things might be found that could change the cost. Discuss these variables in detail. Some renovation shops will spend a lot of time examining the car and preparing a budget and they will often charge a fee for this, sometimes around $500 (a good investment).

9. Discuss a completion schedule so that you have some notion of how long the car will be at the shop and be clear about what billing procedure will be followed.

10. Take the car to more than one shop and discuss with a consultant what needs to be done to the car if the estimated cost of restoration warrants it.

11. Get a written contract and make sure that it reflects what was actually agreed upon. If the contract is for a high enough amount have a lawyer review it.