Contract Selling Is Back, Big-Time

The Chicago Reader quoted me in The Infamous Practice of Contract Selling Is Back in Chicago. It reads, in part,

When Carolyn Smith saw a for sale sign go up on her block one evening in the fall of 2011, it felt serendipitous. The now 68-year-old was anxiously looking for a new place to live. The landlord of her four-unit apartment building in the city’s Austin neighborhood was in foreclosure and had stopped paying the water bill. That month, she and the other tenants had finally scraped together the money themselves to prevent a shutoff and were planning to withhold rent until the landlord paid them back. Exhausted with this process and tired of dealing with “slumlords,” Smith wanted to buy a home in the neighborhood to ensure that she, her mother, Gwendolyn, and their dog, Sugar Baby, would have a stable place to live. But due to a past bankruptcy, Smith thought she would never be able to get a mortgage. So when she saw a house on her street for sale with a sign that said “owner financing,” she was excited. The next morning, she called the number listed and learned that the down payment was just $900—a sum she could fathom paying. “I figured I was blessed,” she says.

Her good fortune continued. A man on the other end of the line told her she was the very first one to inquire. The seller, South Carolina-based National Asset Advisors, called her several more times and mailed her paperwork to sign. Smith says she never met in person with anyone from National Asset Advisors or Harbour Portfolio Advisors, the Texas-based company that owned the home. But she says the agents she spoke with assured her that her credit was good enough for the transaction, despite the past bankruptcy. Next, they gave her a key code that allowed her to go in and look at the house, explaining that she’d be purchasing it “as is.” Smith thought the two-flat looked like a fixer-upper—the door had been damaged in an apparent break-in, and there was no hot-water heater, furnace, or kitchen sink—but given her poor luck with apartments of late, she felt she couldn’t pass up the chance to own a home. Both she and her mother, now 84, had been renting their whole lives; after pulling together the down payment, they beamed with pride when, in December 2011, they received a letter from National Asset Advisors that read “Congratulations on your purchase of your new home!”

But within a year, Smith discovered that the house was in even worse shape than she’d realized. In her first months in her new home, Smith estimates that she spent more than $4,000 just to get the heat and running water working properly, drinking bottled water in the meantime. Then the chimney started to crumble. Smith would hear the periodic thud of stray bricks tumbling into the alleyway as she sat in her living room or lay in bed at night; she began to worry that a passerby would be hit in the head and soon spent another $2,000 to replace the chimney. Public records show that the house had sat vacant earlier that year, and the city had ordered its previous owners to make extensive repairs.

Had Smith approached a bank for a mortgage, she likely would’ve received a Federal Housing Administration-issued form advising her to get a home inspection before buying. But as far as she recalls, no one she spoke to ever suggested one, and in her rush to get out of her old apartment, she didn’t think to insist.

The documents Smith signed with Harbour and National Asset Advisors required her to bring the property into habitable condition within four months, and with all the unexpected expenses, she soon fell behind on her monthly payments of $545.

Smith’s retirement from her job as an adult educator at Malcolm X College, in the spring of 2013, compounded the financial strain. Living on a fixed income of what she estimates was around $1,100 a month in pension and social security payments, she fell further behind, and the stress mounted.

“When we got to be two months behind, they would call me every day,” she remembers.

National Asset Advisors also began sending her letters threatening to evict her. That’s when Smith had a heart-stopping realization: She hadn’t actually purchased her home at all. The document she had signed wasn’t a traditional mortgage, as she had believed, but a “contract for deed”—a type of seller-financed transaction under which buyers lack any equity in the property until they’ve paid for it in full. Since Smith didn’t actually have a deed to the house, or any of the rights typically afforded home owners, she and her mother could be thrown out without a foreclosure process, forfeiting the thousands of dollars they’d already spent to rehabilitate the home.

“I know people always say ‘buyer beware’ ” she acknowledges. “But I’d never had a mortgage before, and I feel like they took advantage of that.”

What felt like a private nightmare for Smith has been playing out nationwide in the wake of the housing market crash, as investment firms step in to fill a void left by banks, now focused on lending to wealthier borrowers with spotless credit histories. In a tight credit market, companies like Harbour, which has purchased roughly 7,000 homes nationwide since 2010, including at least 42 in Cook County, purport to offer another shot at home ownership for those who can’t get mortgages. Such practices are increasingly common in struggling cities hard hit by the housing crash. A February 2016 article in the New York Times titled “Market for Fixer-Uppers Traps Low-Income Buyers” examined Harbour’s contract-for-deed sales in Akron, Ohio, and Battle Creek, Michigan. The Detroit News has reported that in 2015 the number of homes sold through contract-for-deed agreements in the city exceeded those sold through traditional mortgages.

*     *     *

Contract-for-deed sales also offered an attractive loophole from the growing set of regulations on traditional mortgages following the financial crisis. “In the same way that you saw [subprime lenders like] Countrywide get really big in the late 1990s,” says David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “one of the real attractions for the businesses operating in this space is that they are underregulated.”

The Mortgage After a Spouse’s Death

photo by Dr. Neil Clifton

BeSmartee.com quoted me in What Happens to My Mortgage When My Spouse Dies? It opens,

We would like to help by answering the question of what happens to your mortgage when your spouse dies, and we’ve asked several experts to chime in.

It’s bad enough when your spouse dies, but to also worry about what will happen with your mortgage only adds to the turmoil. We would like to help by answering the question of what happens to your mortgage when your spouse dies, and we’ve asked several experts to chime in.

When You Are on the Deed

If you and your spouse took out a mortgage loan together, you would then be responsible for paying the mortgage by yourself if your spouse dies. ”If the surviving spouses’ name is on the mortgage, they are now responsible for the entire mortgage,” says Randall R. Saxton, a Madison, MS, attorney. But you have inherited your spouses’ half of the home, which typically means you don’t need to change the title.

Your partner’s passing doesn’t disqualify the mortgage or let the lender call it in immediately, using a ”due-on-sale” clause. Such clauses let mortgage lenders demand the entire mortgage be paid if a new owner assumes the mortgage, or they take the house back. But the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 prohibits lenders from using the due-on-sale clause when your spouse dies. But you would need to be able to handle the mortgage payments on your own to keep the house. ”While the lender cannot automatically foreclose due to the death of the mortgagee, they will be able to foreclose if the surviving spouse is unable to pay,” says Saxton.

Saxton has a suggestion: ”I always recommend life insurance policies, which would enable the surviving spouse to either pay off or maintain the payments of the mortgage.”

When You Are Not on the Deed

If you are not on the mortgage deed and your partner dies, your partner’s will should determine whether you get the house. If your partner didn’t have a will, your spouses’ assets will be distributed according to your state’s intestate laws.

Typically you, as the surviving spouse, will get your spouses’ assets after all expenses, such as funeral expenses and other debts, are paid. If there are enough assets in the estate, the mortgage will be paid. ”The estate will pay off the mortgage during probate,” says Aviva S. Pinto, CDFA, a wealth advisor at Bronfman E. L. Rothschild in New York City. ”If there are not sufficient assets to cover all debts, the house will have to be sold to pay off the debt,” says Pinto.

If you have children, your share is split with them. ”For example, if there is only one child of the deceased, the surviving spouse will own 50 percent of the property, and the child will own 50 percent of the property,” says Saxton. ”If neither [of you] pay the mortgage, the lender will be able to foreclose.”

Your Mortgage Lender Should Offer Help

No matter your particular situation, if your partner dies, you should contact your mortgage lender as soon as possible. They can help guide you on what will happen and your options. ”The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently issued a rule to provide more protections to the survivors of a homeowner,” says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. ”The rule gives widowed spouses some help in dealing with mortgage issues at a difficult time.”

Here are some specifics on how your mortgage lender can help, according to Reiss:

1. Mortgage servicers have to tell the widowed spouse about the documents that are necessary to confirm his or her status as a successor in interest to the deceased spouse.

2. Servicers are also required to provide many of the same notices and documents to the surviving spouse who is a successor in interest that the deceased spouse would have received.

Good Fence Negotiations Make Good Neighbors

man-75218_1920

Realtor.com quoted me in How to Build a Fence Without Ending Up in a Feud With Your Neighbors. It opens,

Good fences make good neighbors, but how do you make a good fence, exactly? After all, it’s not just a question of marking the division between two pieces of property. Do you and your neighbor both have a say on the height, style, and color—and should you split the costs evenly?

If you’re facing any of these questions as you contemplate some fence work, read on.

Does your neighbor have a say on your fence?

Whether your neighbor can weigh in depends largely on where you live, according to Marc Markel of Roberts Markel Weinberg Butler Hailey in Texas. Laws and regulations vary by state: In California, for instance, the “good neighbor fence” law requires neighbors to split the cost evenly.

To find your own local regulations, search online for “fence permit” along with your county and/or state. You can also visit statelocalgov.net: Click on your state and county to get to your local government’s website, where you can find info on fence permits or a phone number under “planning and zoning” to get your questions answered.

Fences may also be regulated by a homeowners association and/or your home’s restrictive covenant, which is typically found in your property deed and states how your land can be used.

For example, the height limit for fences is typically 6 feet for back and side fences and 4 feet for front-yard fences. Some covenants will spell out how repairs and new fences should be handled between neighbors—even if you build the fence entirely on your own property—while others will not. If there are no stated restrictions, then it’s basically up to you and your neighbor to work it out together, hopefully in a friendly manner.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, says it’s always best to get your neighbor’s input rather than just forging ahead. In the best-case scenario, “they may volunteer to share the cost 50-50,” he points out. Plus, there may be aesthetic issues to discuss: “Do you save money by installing a cheaper fence with a front and a back, or do you spend more money and get a fence that looks good on both sides?”

Your neighbors may have strong feelings about these issues. It’s better to hear them out sooner rather than later.

Georgia Court Finds that the Assignment of the Security Deed from MERS to Ocwen Permitted it to Exercise the Power of Sale Under the Security Deed Even Though Ocwen did not Hold the Note

The court in deciding Thompson v. Fed. Home Loan Mortg. Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. (N.D. Ga., 2013) granted defendant’s motion to dismiss.

Plaintiff filed this complaint challenging the defendants’ right to foreclose on his property and alleged the following: (1) the defendants failed to provide plaintiff with statutory notice of the foreclosure sale thirty days prior to November 6, 2012, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 44-14-162.2(a); (2) the defendants violated O.C.G.A. § 44-14-162.2(a) by failing to identify Freddie Mac as the secured creditor and failing to indicate Ocwen as an agent on Freddie Mac’s behalf; and (3) Ocwen lacked the authority to institute foreclosure proceedings because it only possessed the security deed while Freddie Mac was in possession of the note.

Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

In regards to the failure to record the security deed, the plaintiff further alleges that Ocwen lacked the authority to institute foreclosure proceedings because the security deed was improperly assigned and recorded in its favor. According to the plaintiff, the security deed should have been recorded in favor of Freddie Mac, the note holder and “true secured creditor.”

The court found that the assignment of the security deed from MERS to Ocwen permitted it to exercise the power of sale under the Security Deed even though Ocwen did not also hold the note. Thus the court decided that the plaintiff was unable to state a claim for wrongful foreclosure, and the defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted. The court likewise rejected the plaintiff’s remaining claims.

Georgia Court Finds that MERS Was Within Its Right in Transferring and Assigning Deed, Along with Power of Sale, to Another Party

The court in deciding Brannigan v. Bank of Am. Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. (N.D. Ga., 2013) found that MERS could transfer and assign the deed, along with the power of sale, to another party.

After Plaintiffs defaulted on their mortgage, U.S. Bank initiated non-judicial foreclosure proceedings. Plaintiffs Wade and Angelina Brannigan initiated this action and requested that the court set aside a foreclosure sale on the grounds of wrongful foreclosure.

Plaintiff asserted that U.S. Bank, Bank of America, the Albertelli Firm, and MERS conspired to file an alleged ‘Transfer and Assignment,’ whereby MERS purported to transfer, sell, convey and assign to U.S. Bank all of its right, title and interest in and to the security deed. Plaintiffs argued, “MERS retained no interest in their security deed to transfer, and said transfer and assignment were not only fraudulent but a legal nullity” as plaintiffs’ mortgage loan had already been assigned to LaSalle Bank.

In regards to the plaintiff’s claim against MERS, the court found that the plaintiffs executed a security deed listing MERS as grantee and nominee for the lender and its successors and assigns. By the terms of the security deed, MERS could transfer and assign the deed, along with the power of sale, to another party, and did so by transferring it to U.S. Bank. Moreover, the court noted that under Georgia law, the security deed assignee “may exercise any power therein contained,” including the power of sale in accordance with the terms of the deed. O.C.G.A. § 23-2-114.

Therefore, even if Plaintiffs had standing to challenge the assignment, by the terms in the security deed U.S. Bank was within its authority to foreclose after Plaintiffs’ default.

The court in deciding Brannigan v. Bank of Am. Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. (N.D. Ga., 2013) agreed with the defendants that the plaintiffs’ complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and was to be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6).

Plaintiffs filed an action asserting several state-law claims related to wrongful foreclosure. The claims against the defendants also included: fraud, intentional misrepresentation, and deceit (Count One); negligent misrepresentation (Count Two); negligence (Count Three); wrongful foreclosure (Count Four); and violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (Count Six).

Plaintiffs contended that the defendants wrongfully foreclosed on their property.
Plaintiffs challenged the assignment of the security deed from MERS to U.S. Bank as wholly void, illegal, ineffective and insufficient to transfer any interest to anyone.

Defendants argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the validity of the assignment. The court ultimately agreed. The court noted that the plaintiffs could not challenge the assignment’s validity because they were not parties to the assignment or intended third-party beneficiaries.

Next, the plaintiffs argued that the assignment from MERS to U.S. Bank was invalid because after the mortgage loan was assigned to LaSalle Bank, MERS retained no interest in the plaintiff’s security deed to transfer.

The court noted that the plaintiffs executed a security deed listing MERS as grantee and nominee for the lender and its successors and assigns. By the terms of the security deed, MERS could transfer and assign the deed, along with the power of sale, to another party, and did so by transferring it to U.S. Bank. Therefore, the court reasoned that even if the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the assignment, by the terms in the security deed, U.S. Bank was within its authority to foreclose after the plaintiffs’ default.

Finally, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant Albertelli Firm’s notice of default was inadequate because it “failed to properly identify the secured creditor, note holder and loan servicer.” The court found that the defendants complied with Georgia’s notice requirements. Therefore, the plaintiff could not state a claim for wrongful foreclosure.

Georgia Court Dismisses RESPA, TILA, and HOEPA Claims

The court in deciding Mitchell v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. (N.D. Ga., 2013) granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

Plaintiffs Reginald and Jamela Mitchell claimed that the defendants Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. and MERS violated the Truth-in-Lending Act (“TILA”), the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”), the Home Ownership Equity Protection Act (“HOEPA”) and state law by commencing foreclosure proceedings against Plaintiffs’ home.

After consideration of the plaintiff’s assertions, the court concluded that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.