County’s Hands Tied on Excessive Forest Clearing

July 9, 2008

RCW 82.02.020 is an example of the ways in which the stong hand of special interest lobbies in Olympia affect folks in Washington. This law says in pertinent part that

no county, city, town, or other municipal corporation shall impose any tax, fee, or charge, either direct or indirect, on the construction or reconstruction of residential buildings, commercial buildings, industrial buildings, or on any other building or building space or appurtenance thereto, or on the development, subdivision, classification, or reclassification of land.

Meanwhile King County adopted its Clearing and Grading Critical Areas Ordinance in 2004 pursuant to the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A.060(2)) which required it to adopt regulations to protect its critical assets. Generally speaking the ordinance prohibited clearing more than 50% of rural lots with a number of qualifications and exceptions.

Before adopting this regulation the County undertook a number of studies and consulted with experts to verify that excessive clearing had negative impacts on stream health, wildlife, and critical aquifer recharge areas in the County.

The ordinance was challenged by a property rights groups that contended that the blanket prohibition against clearing was an improper indirect charge under RCW 82.02.020.

The County said that this was not a tax but a justified regulation, presenting 24 journal articles and several experts who identified the harm sought to be avoided and vouched for the efficacy of the regulation in terms of avoiding the harm.

The trial court sided with the County but the Court of Appeals did not. In Citizens Alliance for Property Rights v. Ron Sims

the court held that the bar against excessive clearing was prohibited by statute. The decision seems quite sound to me, relying on well established pro-development case law. Without disregarding precedent, the court could do little else. (Personally I would like to see the court start whittling away at the existing law.)

What is important here, I believe is that local decision regarding the environment, urban sprawl, habitat, and water issues are fairly commonly thwarted by the state legislature which in turn is rather shockingly influenced by special interests, particularly the building industry which pushed through the legislation giving developers a preferred tax status.


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.


What you Should Do If Facing a Foreclosure

March 14, 2008

It is readily understandable when people in financial distress make bad decisions and a notice of default or foreclosure from your bank is certainly distress inducing. I will list some things that everyone in this situation should at least look into. I will focus on Washington law, which may be instructive to people in other states but care should be taken to verify the law of your state. This almost certainly requires seeing a lawyer.

Almost all foreclosures are deed of trust foreclosures but you must know what type of instrument encumbers your home. For example with seller financing, if you went that way instead of conventional financing, a real estate contract may be involved and sometimes a mortgage rather than a deed of trust is involved. Because mortgages have used in all states the literature usually refers to “mortgage foreclosures” and when used in this way “mortgage” is being used as a generic term covering any or all of the three mentioned security instruments.

I will be writing in reference to nonjudicial deed of trust foreclosures because over 99% of home foreclosures are of this sort. It is called “nonjudicial” because there is no lawsuit; instead there is only a series of notices culiminating in a trustee’s sale.

The Process

The sequence of events involves typically a few preliminary letters from the bank. This is followed by a notice of default which is a formal notice that starts the statutory foreclosure process. It is mailed, and may be served or posted on the door. It contains information about the debt and information about the foreclosure process. After at least a month and maybe a longer period you receive a notice of foreclosure and a notice of trustee’s sale. These have all the details about the foreclosure sale and the debt to the bank and set the time and date of the foreclosure sale (called the “trustee’s sale” in the notice). Notices are published and recorded but there a no more notices sent to the homeowner.

What to Do

1. Read every letter and notice carefully. This is rarely done. Most people are so upset they do not know what the communications say, but they contain vital information that must be considered.

2. Try to refinance. Make this a rigorous process. Talk to the foreclosing bank if you can and other banks, then talk to several mortgage brokers. They do not all have the same information or ability.

3. Consider selling. There are so many of these sorts of sales that they warranted a name: “short sales,” meaning they have to close before the trustee’s sale. Find a good real estate agent with whom to list the property. Again talk to more than one. The listing agreement should include exactly what will be done to market the property. Put that in — all the details — because the form will only have very general information. Get the most aggressive plan that you can find. Often there are scheduled price reductions as you get closer to the sale date. If you do this, write to the bank to see whether the bank will cooperate with the sale. It may agree to put the foreclosure off to allow a sale by you because if the foreclosure goes through the bank usually ends up with the property and then it has to try to sell it. Your sale of the property can save the bank time and money.

4. Inquire about programs to help you you bring the loan current. You may qualify for a program designed to assist you. There are not many of these but inquire of the city, county and state whether there are any programs that might provide financial assistance.

5. Talk to a bankruptcy lawyer. Bankruptcies are intended to provide relief for this sort of financial distress. There may be a plan which will enable you to bring the loan current. Even if there is no such plan available, you may be able to sell the property under the protection of the bankruptcy court so as to be able to preserve the equity you have in the property.

6. You are likely to receive a number of “rescue” proposals in the mail. Do not enter into any of these without consulting with a real estate lawyer. Usually the inducement for people to offer these to you is that they can take your equity in your home. There are dozens of ways to accomplish this. These “rescues” are so frought with peril for the home owner that you should absolutely never enter into one without legal advise and a clear understanding of what is happening. Some of these “rescues” even involve identity theft and forgery, so do not even apply for anything before you are certain of what you are doing and who you are doing it with.

7. Make sure your adviser complies with the law and make sure that everything of consequence that you are told is put in writing. You can just jot it down and ask the adviser to sign it. In any case there should be a record of the things that you are told. Also be aware that these “advisers” are probably required to be licensed as a real estate agent. Find out all you can about the person and his or her history. Find out how many of these deals they’ve done and how many ended in the eviction of the homeowner. Get this in writing. Do a property record search to see how many homes this person or her company has taken. Search for everyone involved in the transaction, as there are usually at least two people and a company or two.

The Bill to Prevent Scams

The Washington legislature just passed a law to regulate people who come forward with advice for you about how to escape your situation. As of this writing House Bill 2791 has not been signed by the governor but it surely will be, as it passed both the state senate and house without a dissenting vote. It should become effective 90 days after being signed by the governor.

This bill requires that a number of different written disclosures and notices be provided to the homeowner by the “distressed home consultant.” The terms of the transaction must be spelled out in detail, including all the money being paid to the consultant and others who are involved. This must be signed by both parties. If the consultant represents anyone else, this must be fully disclosed in writing. Follow up on this very carefully. Find out all the details of the other relationship and be sure you get them in writing.

The bill creates a fiduciary duty from the adviser to you. This is the highest duty imposed by law. You are owed the duty of complete disclosure and full honesty. Your questions and concerns must be fully addressed. They are required to act in your best interest, so it is quite possible that a relationship with someone else in the transaction creates a conflict of interest.

All contracts are required to be in the language used by the homeowner. (This requirement would reduce fraud in a number of different situations apart from foreclosures, but at least in Washington I believe that it stands alone.)

The contract must comply with a number of requirement, including a notice of a five day cancellation right.

No doubt the most significant substantive right created by the bill is the duty of the consultant to verify that in fact the homeowner is able to buy back the home. Usually in these situations, the home owner is given an option or something of the sort to buy the property back after giving it away. In my experience it is unusual for a homeowner to be able to exercise this right before it terminates. This bill puts the burden on the facilitator to verify, and be able to prove, that the home owner had the ability to buy his or her home back.

Another provision with teeth is the requirement that the homeowner recieve at lease 82% of the market value of the home before an eviction can be done. This will certainly slow down people motivated by windfall profits and it gives assurance that the homeowner will not usually be left homeless and penniless.

There are a number of other aspects of the bill but time prevents a full discussion.