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The Effects of Trends in Real Estate on Legal Issues

There is no doubt that changes in the real estate market affect legal issues pertaining to real estate professionals.  This is evident when reviewing the changes in the real estate market during the last nine (9) years.

 

In 2007, the Great Recession hit the real estate market.  As a result, there were unprecedented increases in foreclosures and short sales due to losses of income and depreciation in the value of homes.  The situation was compounded by loans secured by real estate, for which borrowers did not qualify.  There were also questionable loan products with adjustable rates, creating a situation where borrowers could no longer afford their properties.  As a result, from 2007 to approximately 2011, the real estate industry dealt with short sales and the REO resale market.

 

In approximately 2010, the “flipper market” was born.  Due to low priced short sales and REO resales, investors began purchasing properties.  Those investors renovated and improved those properties and subsequently, placed them on the market. 

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Advisory Regarding Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Agents should be very careful when asked whether a landlord will accept pets.  Both Federal and State law require a landlord to reasonably accommodate a tenant’s disability.  Disability is defined very broadly to include any mental or physical disorder or condition that makes it difficult to perform a major life activity.  If a tenant requests that the landlord permit a service animal or emotional support animal because it is necessary to accommodate the tenant’ disability, the owner would be required to allow the tenant to keep the animal in most situations.

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Question and Answer Regarding Translation of Documents and Reports

Question:         If an agent reads and writes a foreign language, can that agent translate documents and reports in that language for their client?

 

Answer:           No.  If an agent translates documents and reports, it leaves open the possibility of a client claiming that the agent misinterpreted or misread the report.  For example, we had a case where an agent and the buyer spoke Spanish.  The agent read the inspection report to the client in Spanish.  The inspection report contained warnings regarding drainage issues.  The agent read those warnings to the buyer and the buyer accepted them.  The buyer later had drainage problems and sued the agent claiming that the agent failed to properly translate the warnings in the inspection report for the buyer.  If the agent had not translated that information, the agent could have used the defense that the buyer received and inspected the inspection report.  However, because there was a question about what was interpreted, we no longer had that defense available.

Court Holds Lender’s Appraiser Not Liable for Alleged Misrepresentation to a Land Purchaser

In Willemsen v. Mitrosilis, a California appellate court recently held a lender’s appraiser not liable to a land purchaser for an alleged failure to supply information, which would have influenced plaintiff’s decision to purchase the land. In Willemsen, plaintiff offered to purchase a lot. Plaintiff applied for financing through a bank. The bank retained defendant, an appraiser, to determine the value of the land. The purchase agreement between the buyer and seller contained numerous contingencies to allow plaintiff to determine whether the property was suitable for his purposes. The purchase agreement did not include an appraisal contingency.

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Court Allows Lawsuit Against the Operator of a Website For Inaccurate Information about the Plaintiff

In Robins v. Spokeo, defendant operated a website that provided users with information about other individuals, including contact data, marital status, age, occupation and wealth.   Plaintiff sued defendant for willful violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).  He alleged that the defendant published false information about him and his wife.  The defendant moved to dismiss the claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and claiming that there was no standing under the FCRA.  The district court granted the motion and the plaintiff appealed.  The court of appeals reversed holding that the plaintiff had standing under the FCRA to file suit and claim injury.  The court commented that the plaintiff was not required to show actual harm in order to sue Spokeo for willful violations.

HOT ISSUES!

In the ever changing market known as the real estate industry, there are always issues that tend to appear in many transactions.  When these types of issues arise, it is important to be able to recognize them, as well as take the necessary steps to manage the risk of liability.  Remember, however, that these scenarios should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and it is always appropriate, and oftentimes necessary, to consult legal counsel.

Keep your hands out of my pocket!  A common issue in the market today is the prominence of pocket listings.  Pocket listings are listings of property (generally residential) that are kept off of the MLS, in essence, in the real estate agent’s pocket.  There are a slew of issues that can arise out of a pocket listing which can result in civil, administrative (BRE), and even criminal liability.  Whether it is a breach of fiduciary duty by failing to adequately advise your client, or unintended discrimination (yes, you can be liable for that too!), it is important to appropriately analyze the scenario with your management and/or other advisors before deciding to take a pocket listing.  Remember to use C.A.R. Form SEL in order to acquire the required authority from your client to exclude the property from the MLS.  Otherwise, you may find an unwanted hand in your pocket…

To dual or not to dual?  Many agents and brokers know that dual agency creates additional responsibilities, and that it is important to handle these scenarios carefully.  However, some types of scenarios, which may not appear to be dual agency, can be still deemed to be dual agency.  Any time agents from the same office represent different parties in a transaction (i.e. separate agents for buyer and seller, but both are under the same broker), a dual agency relationship is created, as the broker owes the same duties to both parties.  Therefore, it is important for all of the agents involved to handle this transaction with extra care, and to obtain all of the necessary dual agency disclosures and consents.  Since these types of transactions create extra duties for the broker, it is good practice to keep the broker and/or manager involved and apprised of the status of the transaction.

But I just wanted to help my client!  Many real estate professionals receive requests from their clients to take on additional tasks.  While these professionals happily take these tasks on, as they wish to help their clients, doing so is often not advisable and can create additional liabilities for the real estate professionals.  A common type of these tasks relates to property management.  Oftentimes, the owner of a property which was listed by an agent (or which an agent is trying to list), asks the agent to take on some extra tasks related to maintenance of the property or with a tenancy issue.  Some examples of these tasks include, communicating with the tenant about the tenancy, arranging for repair work to be done at the property, or any type of task that a property manager would typically do.  While the intentions of the agents are innocent and often to provide value added assistance, these kinds of tasks can create extra liability for the agent.   The BRE has certain rules that property managers must follow, and if an agent is deemed a property manager due to their acts, they must have followed these rules as well.  Additionally, many E&O Policies specifically exclude property management services.  This would mean that if a claim were to arise, the agent and/or broker could be left without coverage.  So while this may be nice for the client, it is definitely not nice for the agent.

Remember, you are a Real Estate Professional!  Consistent with the agents who take on property manager roles, many agents expand their liabilities and duties during the course of escrow as well.  While most agents know not to diagnose issues with the property (i.e. why those cracks are there, how the water spots happened, etc.), many agents take on expert duties (legal, tax, structural, etc.) which should be left to the appropriate professionals.  On the legal front a lot of agents and brokers start arguing legalities with the other side, for example, how the sections of the contract should be interpreted, how to draft some addendum, and whether terms are enforceable, to name a few.  In these types of scenarios it is imperative that the agent recommend, in writing (email is fine), that the principal seek the assistance of an attorney, so that none of their rights are jeopardized.  Otherwise the agent could unintentionally give advice that damages the client, and a breach of fiduciary duty case would inevitably follow.  The same applies as to financial/tax issues and property condition issues.

Cancelled!  It is a common mistake in the industry that, when a party has a right to cancel the agreement and escrow pursuant to the contract, such party can unilaterally cancel the agreement, without the other party.  However, this notion is simply incorrect.  In order to cancel the agreement and escrow, there needs to be a mutual instruction, signed by both buyer and seller.  Without mutual instructions, the contract and the escrow remain open, meaning that the property cannot be sold to another party, and the deposit is not distributed.  It should be noted that, if another escrow is opened with a new party, said escrow must be made contingent upon the cancellation of the first escrow.  Also, a lot of times an escrow and contract are not cancelled simply due to a dispute over the distribution of the deposit.  This is unnecessary, however, as paragraph 2C of C.A.R. form CC can be used to cancel the agreement, but leave the deposit with the escrow company until the buyer and seller resolve the deposit dispute. One of the most challenging problems is when there are more than one buyer with a contractual right to a property…this risk needs to be CANCELLED!

Watch What You Say! The old saying from Jack Webb on Dragnet: “What you say can and will be used against you in a court of law” is a good message to remember. Everything you say is vulnerable to discovery.  Texts, e-mails and other informal manners of communication are generally recoverable (even if deleted). With this in mind, anything you say or write should be stated or written as if it will be reviewed by a judge.

There are other areas of concern which we will continue to highlight.  The most important point, and it is our constant message, is be mindful of all the mines out there.  As the summer heats up, keep cool with a careful handling of your professional activities.

CALIFORNIA JUDGE INCREASES LEAD PAINT ABATEMENT FUND TO $1.15 BILLION DOLLARS

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg issued a final ruling this January ordering three paint companies to pay the State of California $1.15 billion to remove lead paint from interior surfaces of pre-1978 homes in Alameda County, Los Angeles County, Monterey County, San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Solano County, Ventura County and the cities of Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco.

While the federal government banned sales of lead paint in 1978, Judge Kleinberg said it remains a health hazard, citing a study conducted between 2007 and 2010 that found at least 50,000 children in the 10 cities and counties had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The ruling would create a state fund to strip lead paint from doors, windows and floors of homes in those communities. Cleanup crews will also remove lead-containing dust and seal off or cart away contaminated soil from homes whose owners consent.

Defendants ConAgra Grocery Products Co., NL Industries Inc. and Sherwin-Williams Co. are expected to appeal the ruling.

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