Real Estate Scams to Avoid

Scam Detector quoted me in 10 Real Estate Scams That You Need To Avoid Today. It opens,

The real estate industry is a sector that’s extremely profitable if done right. If you think about it, a house is the most expensive item that a person buys over his/her lifetime. Big money, big opportunities. However, on the same token criminals prey on the weak and use creative ways to make a lot of money by scamming victims all over the world, whether buyers, sellers or realtors.

Amongst the most notorious fraudulent practices on the market, we have already exposed and shared information about real estate investment scams, home buying scams, residential real estate tips and the Real Estate Agent Scam.

This week we caught up with a few fraud prevention experts and real estate professionals. We invited them to share new tips and expose some prevalent scams they’re aware of, which are happening now.

Here are 10 real estate scams that you need to avoid today:

1. Hackers Stealing Your Down Payment: Mortgage Closing Date

“A hacker could fool you into thinking he’s your agent and trick you into sending him money, which you’ll never get back. It’s so bad the FTC even sent an alert warning consumers that real estate agents email accounts are getting hacked.”, says Robert Siciliano, fraud prevention expert with IDTheftSecurity.com.

He continues: “Let’s say your realtor’s name is Bill Baker. Bill Baker’s e-mail account gets hacked. The hacker observes Baker’s correspondences with his clients—including you. Ahhh, the hacker sees you have an upcoming closing. The hacker, posing as Bill Baker, sends you an e-mail, complete with  instructions on where to wire your closing funds. You follow these instructions. But there’s one last step: kissing your money goodbye, as it will disappear into an untraceable abyss overseas. This scam can also target your escrow agent.”

“It’s obvious that one way to prevent this is to arrange a home purchase  deal where there are zero closing costs”, says Siciliano. “The scam is prevalent, perhaps having occurred thousands of times. It was just a matter of time until scammers recognized the opportunity to target real estate agents and their clients.

The lax security defences of the real estate industry haven’t helped. Unlike the entire financial industry who have encrypted communications, the real estate industry is a hodgepodge of free e-mail accounts and unprotected communications.”

In addition, Robert points out: “Realtors, who are so often on the go and in a hurry, frequently use public Wi-Fi like at coffee houses. Anyone involved in a real estate transaction can be hacked, such as lawyers”.

When it comes to preventing this particular scam, here are a few points that Siciliano suggests:

– Eliminate e-mail as a correspondence conduit—at least as far as information on closings and other sensitive information.

– On the other hand, you may value having “everything in writing,” and e-mail provides a permanent record. In that case, use encrypted email or  some setup that requires additional login credentials to gain access to the  communication.

– For money-wiring instructions, request a phone call. And make this  request over the phone so that the hacker doesn’t try to pose as your Realtor over the phone.

– Any e-mailed money instructions should be confirmed by phone—with the Realtor and the bank to send the money to.

– Get verification of the transfer ASAP. If you suspect a scam, have the  receiving bank freeze any withdrawal attempt of the newly deposited  funds—if you’ve reached the bank in time, that is.

2. Real Estate Agents Assigning The Sales To Themselves

“I know a victim of a realtor who is scamming his buyers by taking advantage of sudden traumatic life events”, says Mariko Baerg from Bridgewell Group.

A buyer had purchased a house. Between the time it was a firm deal and the title transfer date he got in a severe car accident and could no longer work for the short term.

The realtor that was representing him had coerced the buyer into assigning the sale to the realtor himself for a discounted price because he fearfully convinced the buyer that he would have difficulties keeping his financing from the lender.

Assigning to yourself is a clear conflict of interest, the realtor did not try to market the assignment to anyone else, and the sale amount was $100,000 less than market value! He also forged the seller’s signature to convince the buyer that it was OK to assign the property.

The issue could be avoided by making sure you have a power of attorney lined up in the case that you have an accident, making your realtor show you comparables to confirm what market value is before transferring. Also, if you have a feeling there may be a conflict of interest always obtain legal counsel or receive a second opinion to determine what your options are.”, explains Berg.

3. Arc Fault Breaker Swap Out Scam

This next fraudulent practice is exposed by Jeff Miller, co-founder of AE Home Group: “Arc fault breaker swap outs are a common scam I’ve seen in the flipping industry. Modern building code requires that electrical boxes contain arc fault breakers as opposed to traditional breakers in order to further prevent electrical fires.

While safer, these arc fault breakers can add upwards of $800 to the cost of the renovation. Following the issuance of a use and occupancy permit, some flippers will return to the home and replace these expensive arc fault breakers with the cheaper traditional breakers, adding profit to their bottom line.”, says Miller.

4. Real Estate News: Bait and Switch Scheme

Another fraudulent real estate practice is the “bait and switch” scheme, explained here by Lucas Machado, President of House Heroes: “The scam occurs when a prospective buyer offers an “above market value” price to a home seller. The seller – blown away by the high offer – excitedly signs on the dotted line.

Sadly, the unscrupulous buyer has no intention to purchase the property at this price.

Once the seller signs the contract, the seller may only sell to that buyer for a specified time (weeks to even months) for the buyer’s purported due diligence. When that time ends, the fraudster asks to extend the contract a few weeks to work out closing details. Sounding reasonable, the seller agrees to the extension blinded by the high offer.”, warns Machado.

“There are two impacts on the seller. The seller keeps paying taxes, maintenance, utilities, insurance and develops an emotional commitment to sell.

Here’s what happens in the bait and switch: the buyer comes back to the seller with an excuse as to why this price no longer works, requests  a reduction to below market value, and threatens to cancel if their demand  is not met. Stressed by passage of time and on-going costs, the frustrated  seller agrees to the reduction.”

Machado offers a concrete example: “Our company had a scenario where we offered $185,000. The seller accepted a $220,000 offer. The “buyer” asked for extension after extension, for 12 months, and then the tired seller agreed to sale price $180,000. The victimized seller had on-going costs around $10,000 and lost approximately $20,000 by not accepting our offer a year ago.”

How can you avoid the bait and switch scheme?

a. Confirm proof of funds at time of executing the contract.

b. Do not grant unreasonable extensions or reductions.

c. Set expectations early on.

d. If extension or reduction is based on condition, request an inspector or general contractor report verifying claims.

5. Duplicated Listings

Leah Slaughter with OmniKey Realty warns about a scam constantly happening in the real estate business: the Duplicated Listings.

“We often see companies copy our legitimate rental listings and post on Craigslist for a much cheaper price. Unfortunately, many people fall for  these fake listings and wire or overnight money to the owners of these fake  listings and then cannot get access and eventually locate us and all we can  do is refer them to the police.”, says Slaughter.

“When searching for a rental, do your research and make sure you are working with a reputable company or a licensed agent/broker. If a landlord says they are not local and cannot give you access to the property, that is an immediate red flag.”

6. Real Estate Lawyers: Fake Profiles

David Reiss from Brooklyn Law School warns about a new type of scam: impersonating real estate lawyers. “In this case, the scammer takes control of the proceeds of a real estate closing by impersonating one of the parties to the closing and redirecting proceeds to an account controlled by him/her. The criminal might impersonate the seller’s lawyer and instruct that the proceeds from the sale be redirected to a new account.”, says Reiss.

“All such changes should be confirmed by a phone call (to a number that you know to be valid!) to confirm that they are from the real seller.”

Choosing a Real Estate Agent

US News & World Report quoted me in 6 Tips for Choosing a Real Estate Agent. It opens,

Selling a home has become easier over the years with online services to help the seller set a price and advertise, but most homeowners still hire a real estate agent.

While many agents have deep experience and know their markets intimately, newcomers abound – people looking to cash in when the market is hot and may not even work at the job full time. So experts advise homeowners to look carefully for an agent with the right combination of experience, knowledge, work ethic and personality.

What is a Realtor? Typically an agent is someone licensed by the state to sell real estate, while a broker is a manager of a team of agents. A Realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, the industry’s main trade group, which requires members abide by certain ethical standards. Experts suggest sellers use agents who have received more than minimum training required in their state.

“In California, the requirements for a real estate salesperson’s license are very low, basically, three classes and a test,” says Bryan Zuetel, a real estate attorney and broker in Orange County, California.

“Almost any agent can get a listing, enter the property into the (multiple listing service), create some flyers, hold open houses and fill in blanks on the contract forms,” Zuetel says. “However, most agents do not understand, but should understand, the complex contract terms, implications of an unhappy party in the transaction, legal requirements for the numerous disclosures, appropriate negotiations during the escrow period, conflict resolution via mediation or arbitration, and the remedies under the contract.”

Do your homework. Law professor David Reiss, academic program director at The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, says it’s important to check out a prospective agent with previous sellers.

“Some real estate agents are great at pitching themselves but not great at marketing homes once they have the listing,” Reiss says. “Getting recommendations from friends and relatives will give you information that the agent herself or himself would not provide. Do they return phone calls promptly? Are they creative problem solvers? Do they educate themselves about the pros and cons of the home and (comparable properties in the area)?”

Housing Booms and Busts

photo by Alex Brogan

Patricia McCoy and Susan Wachter have posted Why Cyclicality Matter to Access to Mortgage Credit to SSRN. The paper is now particularly relevant because of President Trump’s plan to roll back Dodd-Frank’s regulation of the financial markets, including the mortgage market. While McCoy and Wachter do not claim that Dodd-Frank solves the problem of cyclicality in the mortgage market, they do highlight how it reduces some of the worst excesses in that market. They make a persuasive case that more work needs to be done to reduce mortgage market cyclicality.

The abstract reads,

Virtually no attention has been paid to the problem of cyclicality in debates over access to mortgage credit, despite its importance as a driver of tight credit. Housing markets are prone to booms accompanied by bubbles in mortgage credit in which lenders cut underwriting standards, leading to elevated loan defaults. During downturns, these cycles artificially impede access to mortgage credit for underserved communities. During upswings, these cycles make homeownership unnecessarily precarious for many who attain it. This volatility exacerbates wealth and income disparities by ethnicity and race.

The boom-bust cycle must be addressed in order to assure healthy and sustainable access to credit for creditworthy borrowers. While the inherent cyclicality of the housing finance market cannot be fully eliminated, it can be mitigated to some extent. Mitigation is possible because housing market cycles are financed by and fueled by debt. Policymakers have begun to develop a suite of countercyclical tools to help iron out the peaks and troughs of the residential mortgage market. In this article, we discuss why access to credit is intrinsically linked to cyclicality and canvass possible techniques to modulate the extremes in those cycles.

McCoy and Wachter’s conclusions are worth heeding:

If homeownership is to attain solid footing, mitigating the cyclicality in the housing finance system will be imperative. That will require rooting out procyclical practices and requirements that fuel booms and busts. In their place, countercyclical measures must be instituted to modulate the highs and lows in the lending cycle. In the process, the goal is not to maximize homeownership per se; rather, it is to ensure that residential mortgages are made on safe and affordable terms.

*     *     *

Taming procyclicality in industry practices in housing finance is much farther behind and will require significantly more work. There is no easy fix for the procyclical effect of mortgage appraisals because appraisals are based on neighboring comparables. Similarly, procyclicality will require serious attention if the private-label securitization market returns. While the Dodd-Frank Act made modest reforms designed at curbing inflation of credit ratings, the issuer-pays system that drives grade inflation remains in place. Similarly, underpricing the risk of MBS and CDS will continue to be a problem in the absence of an effective short-selling mechanism and the effective identification of market-wide leverage. (34-35)

McCoy and Wachter offer a thoughtful overview of the risks that mortgage market cyclicality poses, but I am not optimistic that it will get a hearing in today’s Washington.  Maybe it will after the next bust.

Why Houses Don’t Sell

photo by BriYYZ

I was quoted on Trulia in 8 Reasons Your House Isn’t Selling. It opens,

It’s a seller’s market in many cities across the U.S. If your home is in one of those cities, say Charleston, SC, or Colorado Springs, CO, and isn’t getting offers, something could be wrong. The good news? Knowing there’s a problem is the first step toward resolving it. However, there could be many reasons your house isn’t selling. We’ve asked real estate professionals and agents from all over the country what those top reasons might be — and they’ve provided some sound advice on how to remedy each situation.

1. You’re overconfident

Being in a seller’s market might mean that your home will get snapped up for premium price, no matter its condition. But that isn’t always the best strategy to count on. “Sometimes homeowners and agents get overconfident in a seller’s market and get lazy about ‘Home Selling 101,’” says Sep Niakan, broker and owner of HB Roswell Realty in Miami, FL.

Solution: Be realistic from day one. Although you may love your house, brace yourself for it to potentially sit on the market for quite some time. And no matter the market, it’s still important to “position your home to sell well,” says Niakan. “What does that mean? Staging, staging, and more staging.

2. The house is priced too high

Classic supply and demand conditions come into play in a seller’s market: There’s high demand, yet low supply. Therefore, you can usually expect to get more money for your home. But that doesn’t mean the sky’s the limit when it comes to your listing price. “In a seller’s market, a seller may feel comfortable pushing the asking price a bit higher, and this can be a huge mistake,” says Chase Michels of Brush Hill Realtors in Downers Grove, IL. “Determining the best asking price for a home is one of the most important aspects of selling a home. If your home is listed at a price that is above market value, you will miss out on prospective buyers.”

Solution: Make sure that you and your agent are certain of the value of your home in your market and price it right. “Get an analysis of the local market with a professional agent, solid comparables, and specific market trend data,” says Jill Olivarez, a Miramar Beach, FL, real estate agent.

3. The home needs some TLC

It can be a bitter pill to swallow to pay for home improvements that you may not enjoy for long. But if you want to sell for full asking price, you might need to get your house in a condition that warrants it — and not base this number only on price per square foot. “Retail buyers understandably still want the most house for their money,” says Barbara Grassey, author of How to Sell Your House Fast in a Slow Market and founder of the West Florida Real Estate Investors Association.

Solution: “The seller should have amenities comparable to other properties for sale in that price range and should really upgrade certain amenities,” says Grassey. Some upgrade examples, she says, include a pull-down gooseneck faucet, an upgraded ceiling fan, a double-bar towel rack, or upgraded door handles. They sound simple, but a few small changes can make a big impact.

4. There’s a problem with the title

“Title” in this case doesn’t mean the cute name you might have given your place (“The Laurels,” “The Conners’ Corner Cottage,” etc.). Rather, it’s the document that shows ownership. “One reason a house won’t sell is because there is a problem with the title to the house that spooks buyers,” says David Reiss, law professor at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, NY. Here are some examples he gives of title problems:

  • Conveyance without a recorded deed (can sometimes happen in transfers between family members).
  • A paid-off mortgage that is still showing up as a valid lien on the house.
  • A mechanic’s lien that was filed for work done on the house by a subcontractor.

Solution: “Some [title] problems just require a little time to resolve,” says Reiss. Contact the title company to find out what you need to do to prepare for selling — then do it.