Real Estate Transactions in the United States

 

I attended the Saint Petersburg International Legal Forum in May and gave a series of talks on American law to an international audience. My lecture on Real Estate Transactions in the United States was recorded and is now on YouTube.

This lecture provides an overview of the basic U.S. residential real estate transaction for those who know very little about the subject.

Manafort Indicted for Real Estate Fraud

Special Counsel Mueller

Paul Manafort and his protege, Richard Gates III, were indicted on a variety of charges, including conspiracy, failure to file requirement financial reports and the making of false statements. The indictment was signed by Special Counsel Mueller. A number of the allegations involve real estate transactions. Here are the highlights (lowlights?) of the allegations that document how money can be laundered through real estate:

Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income.  Manafort, without reporting the income to his tax preparer or the United States, spent millions of dollars on luxury goods and services for himself and his extended family through payments wired from offshore nominee accounts to  United States vendors.  Manafort also used these offshore accounts to purchase multi-million dollar properties in the United Sates.  Manafort then borrower millions of dollars in loans using these properties as collateral, thereby obtaining cash in the United States without reporting and paying taxes on the income.  In order to increase the amount of money he could access in the United States, Manafort defrauded the institutions that loaned money on these properties so that they would lend him more money at more favorable rates than he would otherwise be able to obtain. (para 4)

More than $75,000,000 flowed through Manafort and Gate’s 15 offshore accounts. They also had 17 US corporations through which some of these funds flowed as well. In order to avoid paying taxes on this money, Manafort and Gates made millions of dollars in wire transfers to pay “for goods, services and real estate.” (para. 15) Manafort spent more than $12,000,000 on personal items including home improvement services, clothing, cars and housekeeping. He also bought four properties for over $6,000,000.

After Manafort bought these properties, “he took out mortgages on the properties thereby allowing Manafort to have the benefits of liquid income without paying taxes on it. Further, Manafort defrauded the banks that loaned him the money so that he could withdraw more money at a cheaper rate than he otherwise would have been permitted.” (para. 33) He did this by wrongfully claiming on a loan application that an investment property was owner-occupied (banks generally give you a more favorable interest rate if the property is owner-occupied). He was also able to borrow more money by claiming that part of the proceeds of a loan would be used to fund a renovation when in fact he did not intend to use the funds for that purpose.

The allegations in the indictment provide a nice case study of how real estate is used in money laundering.

The Lowdown on Blockchain & Real Estate

There is a lot of hype out there about the impact that blockchain technology will have on the real estate industry. There is no doubt that blockchain will be revolutionary over the long term, but its impact in the short term is much more limited. Spencer Compton and Diane Schottenstein have written an article for Law360 (unfortunately, behind a paywall), How Blockchain Can Be Applied To Real Estate Law, that provides a nice overview of where blockchain stands today in the real estate industry. It opens,

Real estate transactions are steeped in traditions that have hardly changed over hundreds of years. Today, as computer-based property recording systems are prevalent in our cities but roll out at a snail’s pace in rural areas (often hindered by strained municipal budgets), and e-signatures are little used (due to legitimate fears of fraud), arguably the real estate closing process has lagged in its use of computer aided technology. Yet other aspects of real estate ownership have been transformed by the internet: smart home technology to remotely control heating and lighting and monitor security; Airbnb which increases the value of real estate ownership and disrupts the hotel industry; and the real estate brokerage community’s design/photographic/communication technology to list and virtually show properties. Now add to our brave new world blockchain, a cloud-based decentralized ledger system that could offer speed, economy and improved security for real estate transactions. Will the real estate transaction industry avoid or embrace it?

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is best-known as the technology behind bitcoin, however bitcoin is not blockchain. Bitcoin is an implementation of blockchain technology. Blockchain is a data structure that allows for a digital ledger of transactions to be shared among a distributed network of computers. It uses cryptography to allow each participant on the network to manipulate the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central authority such as a bank or trade association. Using algorithms, the system can verify if a transaction will be approved and added to the blockchain and once it is on the blockchain it is extremely difficult to change or remove that transaction. A blockchain can be an open system or a system restricted to permissive users. There can be private blockchains (for ownership records or business transactions, for instance) and public blockchains (for public municipal data, real estate records etc.). Funds can be transferred by wires automatically authorized by the blockchain or via bitcoin or other virtual currency. Transparent, secure, frictionless payment is touted as one of blockchain’s many benefits.

The article goes on to answer the following questions:

  • How does a blockchain differ from a record kept by a financing institution or a government agency?
  • How is a blockchain transaction more secure than any other transaction?
  • How widely is blockchain used?
  • How blockchain is being used to record real property instruments?
  • How might blockchain affect the role of title insurance companies?

If the impact of blockchain on the real estate industry has mystified you, this primer will give you an overview of where things stand today and maybe tomorrow too.

 

Housing Finance Reform at the AALS

The Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services Section and the Real Estate Transactions section of the American Association of Law Schools hosted a joint program at the AALS annual meeting on The Future of the Federal Housing Finance System. I moderated the session, along with Cornell’s Bob Hockett.
Former Representative Brad Miller (D-N.C.) keynoted.  Until recently he was a Senior Fellow, at the Center for American Progress and is now a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He was followed by four more great speakers:
The program overview was as follows:
The fate of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are subject to the vagaries of politics, regulation,public opinion, the economy, and not least of all the numerous cases that were filed in 2013 against various government entities arising from the placement of the two companies into conservatorship. All of these vagaries occur, moreover, against a backdrop of surprising public and political ignorance of the history and functions of the GSEs and their place in the broader American financial and housing economies. This panel will take the long view to identify how the American housing finance market should be structured, given all of these constraints. Invited speakers include academics, government officials and researchers affiliated to think tanks. They will discuss the various bills that have been proposed to reform that market including Corker-Warner and Johnson-Crapo. They will also address regulatory efforts by the Federal Housing Finance Agency to shape the federal housing finance system in the absence of Congressional reform.
During the presentations, I felt a bit of awe for the collective knowledge of the speakers.  The program also emphasized for me how much there always is to learn about a topic as complex as housing finance.
Laurie Goodman was kind enough to let me post her PowerPoint slides from the program. If you are looking for a good overview of the current state of housing finance reform, you will want to take a look at them.
I was a bit depressed by the slide titled, “Why GSE reform is unlikely before 2017:”
1. There is no sense of urgency: GSEs are profitable, current system is functioning.
2. Higher legislative priorities.
3. No easy answers as to what a new housing finance system should look like.
4. Bipartisan action requires compromise, and some believe they have more to lose than to gain by compromising in this arena.
While the slide depressed me, I think it offers a pretty realistic assessment of where we are. I hope Congress and the Obama Administration prove me wrong.