Blockchain and Real Estate

CoinDesk.com quoted me in Land Registry: A Big Blockchain Use Case Explored. It opens,

With distributed ledger technology being promoted as a benefit to everything from farming to Fair Trade coffee, use case investigation has emerged as a full-time fascination for many.

In this light, one popular blockchain use case that has remained generally outside scrutiny has been land title projects started in countries including in Georgia, Sweden and the Ukraine.

One could argue land registries seemed to become newsworthy only after work on the use case had begun. However, those working on projects disagree, asserting that land registries could prove one of the first viable beachheads for blockchain.

Elliot Hedman, chief operating officer of Bitland Global, the technology partner for a real estate title registration program in Ghana, for example, said that issues with land rights make it a logical fit.

Hedman told CoinDesk: “As for the benefit of a blockchain-based land registry, look to Haiti. There are still people fighting over whose land is whose. When disaster struck, all of their records were on paper, that being if they were written down at all.”

Hedman argued that, with a blockchain-based registry employing a network of distributed databases as a way to facilitate data exchange, the “monumental headache” associated with a recovery effort would cease.

Modern real estate

To understand the potential of a blockchain land registry system, analysts argue one must first understand how property changes hands.

When a purchaser seeks to buy property today, he or she must find and secure the title and have the lawful owner sign it over.

This seems simple on the surface, but the devil is in the details. For a large number of residential mortgage holders, flawed paperwork, forged signatures and defects in foreclosure and mortgage documents have marred proper documentation of property ownership.

The problem is so acute that Bank of America attempted foreclosure on properties for which it did not have mortgages in the wake of the financial crisis.

Readers may also recall the proliferation of NINJA (No Income, No Job or Assets) subprime loans during the Great Recession and how this practice created a flood of distressed assets that banks were simply unable to handle.

The resulting situation means that the property no longer has a ‘good title’ attached to it and is no longer legally sellable, leaving the prospective buyer in many cases with no remedies.

Economic booster

Land registry blockchains seek to fix these problems.

By using hashes to identify every real estate transaction (thus making it publicly available and searchable), proponents argue issues such as who is the legal owner of a property can be remedied.

“Land registry records are pretty reliable methods for maintaining land records, but they are expensive and inefficient,” David Reiss, professor of law and academic program director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, told CoinDesk.

He explained:  “There is good reason to think that blockchain technology could serve as the basis for a more reliable, cheaper and more efficient land registry.”

Understanding FSBO

US News & World Report quoted me in 3 Things to Know About Selling a House on Your Own. It opens,

The internet is full of sites that help homeowners sell property on their own, promising thousands in savings by avoiding commissions, but the National Association of Realtors says commission savings on a for-sale-by-owner transaction, or FSBO, are more than offset by lower sales prices.

The truth lies somewhere in between, according to most objective analysts. So for most sellers, deciding whether to go FSBO is a tough call.

Ali Wenzke, a Chicago writer with a blog called the Art of Happy Moving, says do-it-yourself transactions have worked well for her.

“My husband and I have sold two houses FSBO and purchased one home without an agent,” she says. “Be objective. Work hard. Be flexible to do showings at any time.”

“Anyone can do it and the average home is shown five times or less,” says Sissy Lappin, co-founder of the FSBO website ListingDoor.com.“The notion that no buyers or sellers can understand or manage what happens in a transaction is simply absurd.”

One thing is sure: the average seller’s experience does not necessarily apply in any specific case. What matters is whether you can succeed with a FSBO, regardless of whether your neighbor has.

Adjust your expectations. Experts do agree that FSBO novices should be realistic. Even if you get top dollar and avoid the agent’s commission, the process can be a time-consuming headache. And even if you don’t have an agent of your own, you may have little choice but to pay one representing the buyer, cutting the savings in half.

“While listing on your own seems easy, you are in fact replacing a job which you usually employ a broker to do full time,” says New York-based real estate agent Dylan Hoffman, who is not a fan of FSBOs. “You will need to organize showings, tours, previews and open houses. Plus all the back-end work, like maintaining photos and descriptions on websites, checking for a clear title, etc. An owner would also take on the role of marketing, both digital and print.”

The internet has made the process much easier, with many sites now offering listings, advice and services like printing signs. For a fee, usually several hundred dollars, some services will get your home on the multiple listing service used by real estate agents and buyers, though Lappin says it’s good enough to list on a site like Zillow.com, which is free. The goal is to save the agent’s commission, typically about 6 percent of the sales price, or $18,000 for a $300,000 home.

“FSBO has grown up and sellers don’t have to settle for a red-and-white generic yard sign,” Lappin says.

She says the seller of a $400,000 home with $60,000 in equity would spend 40 percent of that equity if they paid a real estate agent 6 percent commission, or $24,000.

What kind of homes sell without an agent? The National Association of Realtors says about 10 percent of home sales are conducted without an agent, though some critics say the figure is higher. The association says the average FSBO sells for 13 percent less than the average agent-assisted sale. Again, critics like Lappin disagree, with many noting the association’s studies do not look at comparable homes and lump in mobile homes and other inexpensive properties, as well as intra-family deals that tend to have low sales prices. Association figures do show that FSBO is less common with high-priced homes.

FSBO advocates generally agree that doing it yourself is more difficult for the seller, and can take longer. Though you might catch a buyer’s eye right off the bat, the FSBO approach is relatively passive, as you won’t have an agent steering buyers your way. Obviously, the seller must be available to show the house, and that can require weekdays, not just Sunday afternoons.

“It takes a lot of people skills to sell your own home,” says law professor David Reiss, director of The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at New York’s Brooklyn Law School. “Can you engage with potential buyers even as they are criticizing your house and the choices you made about it? Can you distinguish serious buyers from window shoppers? Can you negotiate without giving away the farm or playing too hard to get?”

Anti-discrimination laws limit what you can tell buyers about issues like the ethnicity of neighbors, or even the number of school-aged kids or seniors on the block. And you have to be willing to show to all comers.

Going it alone also means you won’t have an agent’s advice setting the home up to it up to look its best, though you could hire a professional stager.

Negotiating Real Estate Fees

office-negotiationPolicyGenius quoted me in 5 Mortgage Loan Fees and Rates You Should Always Negotiate. It opens,

When it comes to making major purchases or financial decisions, we always hear that mantra, “Everything is negotiable.” You can haggle with the salesman when shopping for a new car, or with the hiring manager at a new job over your starting salary. It’s even possible to negotiate your tuition rates as a college student.

But a lot of the costs associated with buying a house can be difficult to negotiate down, according to mortgage advisor and author Casey Fleming.

“Appraisal, underwriter and processor are chosen by the lender, and the variation in fees is quite small,” he says. “Escrow and title services are typically chosen by the real estate agent of the seller in most areas, so the buyer has little say in what those fees will be.”

There’s also not much way around paying private mortgage insurance — you’ll need no less than a 20% down payment to avoid it.

But, you don’t need to let the non-negotiable items prevent you from bargaining for a better deal on other house-hunting costs. Here are a few fees and costs worth negotiating:

Real estate broker’s fees and commissions

From the outset, consider negotiating your real estate broker’s fees, according to Prof. David Reiss of the Brooklyn Law School, who teaches real estate finance and community development. “If 6% is standard in your community, you can look for brokers who will sell your home for 5% or less,” he says. “Be careful how low to go though, because you want your broker to be motivated enough to sell your property.”

Reiss notes that to gain the most advantage in negotiating their fees, your broker’s listing agreement should outline all the services they’ll provide you regarding advertisements, showing, and the plan in place to buy or sell the property in question.

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.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

LawProfs in MERS Litigation

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (through Max Weinstein et al.); Melanie Leslie, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; Joseph William Singer, Harvard Law School; Rebecca Tushnet, Georgetown University Law Center and I filed an amicus brief  (also on SSRN) in County of Montgomery Recorder v. MERSCorp Inc, et al. (3rd Cir. No. 14-4315). The brief argues,

MERS represents a major departure from and grave disruption of recording practices in counties such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, that have traditionally ensured the orderly transfer of real property across the country. Prior to MERS, records of real property interests were public, transparent, and provided a secure foundation upon which the American economy could grow. MERS is a privately run recording system created to reduce costs for large investment banks, the “sell-side” of the mortgage industry, which is largely inaccessible to the public. MERS is recorded as the mortgage holder in traditional county records, as a “nominee” for the holder of the mortgage note. Meanwhile, the promissory note secured by the mortgage is pooled, securitized, and transferred multiple times, but MERS does not require that its members enter these transfers into its database. MERS is a system that is “grafted” onto the traditional recording system and could not exist without it, but it usurps the function of county recorders and eviscerates the system recorders are charged with maintaining.

The MERS system was modeled after the Depository Trust Company (DTC), an institution created to hold corporate and municipal securities, but, unlike the DTC, MERS has no statutory basis, nor is it regulated by the SEC. MERS’s lack of statutory grounding and oversight means that it has neither legal authority nor public accountability. By allowing its members to transfer mortgages from MERS to themselves without any evidence of ownership, MERS dispensed with the traditional requirement that purported assignees prove their relationship to the mortgagee of record with a complete chain of mortgage assignments, in order to foreclose. MERS thereby eliminated the rules that protected the rights of mortgage holders and homeowners. Surveys, government audits, reporting by public media, and court cases from across the country have revealed that MERS’s records are inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable. Moreover, because MERS does not allow public access to its records, the full extent of its system’s destruction of chains of title and the clarity of entitlements to real property is not yet known.

Electronic and paper recording systems alike can contain errors and inconsistencies. Electronic systems have the potential to increase the accessibility and accuracy of public records, but MERS has not done this. Rather, by making recording of mortgage assignments voluntary, and cloaking its system in secrecy, it has introduced unprecedented and perhaps irreparable levels of opacity, inaccuracy, and incompleteness, wreaking havoc on the local title recording systems that have existed in America since colonial times. (2-3)

Tennessee Court Rejected MERS’ Argument that Sale of Property Should be Invalidated

The court in deciding Mortgage Elec. Registration Sys. v. Ditto, 2014 Tenn. App. (Tenn. Ct. App., 2014) affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

This appeal involved the purchase of property at a tax sale. MERS filed suit against purchaser to invalidate his purchase of property because it had not received notice of the sale even though it was listed as a beneficiary or nominee on the deed of trust.

Purchaser claimed that MERS was not entitled to notice because MERS did not have an interest in the property. Purchaser also alleged that MERS failed to properly commence its lawsuit because it did not remit the proper funds pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 67-5-2504(c).

The trial court refused to set aside the tax sale, holding that the applicable notice requirements were met and that the purchaser was the holder of legal title to the property. MERS appealed the lower court’s decision, however this court affirmed the decision of the lower court.

Since appellant was never given an independent interest in the property, and it did not suffer an injury by the sale of the property at issue, and the only injury suffered by appellant related to the future effect the case could have on its business model, which was not a distinct and palpable injury capable of being redressed by the court, the trial court’s grant of the purchaser’s motion for judgment on the pleadings was properly granted as appellant did not have standing to file suit to set aside the tax sale of the property for lack of notice under Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-2502(c) and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court found that the failure to tender the appropriate funds when filing the petition to set aside the sale under Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-2504(c) was not a prerequisite for relief.