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.


Lease/Option: Watch Out

June 3, 2008

Over the last five years or so there has been a noticeable increase in Washington in the use of residential leases that include an option to purchase.  These are often put together by either the buyer or seller and treated rather informally.  This is a mistake for both parties, as the lease/option is becoming commonplace in the courts and the source of a great deal of anguish.  There are a host of technical reuqirements that the instrument must meet in order to be enforceable.  Typically a home-made lease/option lies in a nether world where it is arguable whether the technical requirements are met.

The recent case Pardee v. Jolly is an example of the legal entanglements and uncertainty in which one finds oneself in entering into a home-made lease/option. Shortly after signing the nefarious thing, the parties found themselves in court.  The judge held that the document had been properly enforced and ordered the landlord/pwner to convey to the tenant.  The landlord/owner appealed and the court of appeals reversed the trial judge.  The tenant then appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court and the Court reversed the court of appeals, sustaining the trial judge in part and remanding for further proceedings.

In drafting an option one must satisfy the statute of frauds among other things.  This requires a full legal description and an adequate writing.  It should have virtually all of the elements of a valid purchase and sale agreement.  If formalities are observed the option must be exercised in conformance with the requirements of the option.


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.