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.