Articles Posted in real estate law

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Adverse possession is a way of acquiring title to real property through continuous possession or use for a specified period of time. One of the elements required to prove adverse possession is that the possession or use must be “hostile to the owner’s title.” This does not mean that there must be a dispute between the parties, but that the claimant’s possession is without recognition of any rights of the true owner. It also requires the use be adverse, not with the owner’s possession. A key problem is whether the owner of the property knew or should have known of the use. In a recent decision which concerned a deeded easement the supposedly adverse use had not changed through the succession of owners, and had not interfered with the owner’s use of the property. The court found that the use was not legally “hostile” to allow the adverse claim. This case is unusual because the adverse possessor had fenced out the other party, which is nearly always sufficient to establish an element of the claim.

Adverse-possession-hostility-attorney In Vieira Enterprises, Inc. v. John McCoy, the parties were owners of adjacent commercial properties. Vieira operated a mobile home park. The common boundary between the parcels was the centerline of Rosedale Avenue, and each owner had a 20 foot easement over the neighbor’s half of the road. However, at some time a 140-foot-long section of Rosedale Avenue had been fenced in by wire fences to the west of the private road, as well as by a wire gate across the road at the mobile home park’s northern boundary. Thus McCoy would appear to have been fenced out of his 20’ width of road plus the 20’ easement on the remainder of the road.

The problem arose when McCoy notified his neighbors that he was ready to begin a construction projection that would involve removal of the apparent boundary fences and the gate and his regular use of his right of way on Vieira’s property. The City of Capitola issued McCoy a zoning permit that stated conditions for his new building, including that “Rosedale Avenue shall be open to vehicular access for the proposed project and Cabrillo Estates Mobile Home Park at all times.

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Co-owners of real estate do not always have the same goals, and when they cannot agree, they may need the court’s help. Such is the case in a Partition action; in its original form, it literally meant dividing the land up into parts, and assigning one part to each individual co-owner. Partitioning the land is still the preferred method under California law, but in most cases real estate attorneys argue that it is impractical, would not result in a fair split, and the property should be sold and the money split. When the property is primarily a building or house, it is usually sold. Either owner is allowed to buy the property, essentially making a credit bid of their own equity in the property, plus additional cash which buys out the other owners. There is a third way to partition- by appraisal, but in an odd recent decision the trial court incorrectly called for appraisal. The court of appeals said this was wrong, and explained the options in an action for Partition.

Sacramento-partition-appraisal-attorneyIn Gayle Cummings v. Jennifer Dessel, the parties agreed to buy a property together east of Arcata, CA. Cummings put $80,000 down, they obtained seller financing, and the others were to make monthly payments and rehab the dilapidated residence. The defendants hit hard times and stopped paying the mortgage and working on the property. Plaintiff filed this action. The trial court ordered partition of the property by appraisal – each owner could bid to buy the other owner’s interest, with the minimum bid set by appraisal.

The court of appeals focused on the statutory language, as partition is governed by the California Code of Civil Procedure. Once the judge determines that a partition is called for, it “shall make an interlocutory judgment that determines the interests of the parties in the property and orders the partition of the property and, unless it is to be later determined, the manner of partition.” (§ 872.720, subd. (a))

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I had previously discussed the case of OC Interiors, where the court determined that a void judgment in the chain of title to real property nullifies all subsequent transfers, including a transfer to a bona fide purchaser. That is a frightening prospect for buyers, and a reason to take a close look at the preliminary title report, and consult a real estate attorney if they are not comfortable with what they find. A default judgment may, in some cases, easily be found to be void. In a more recent decision, some other defendants tried to avoid this result by arguing that the void default judgment had the effect of granting quiet title relief, and thus the subsequent transaction was valid. They were disappointed to find otherwise – the action to cancel and instrument did not have the same impact as an action to quiet title.

Sacramento-real-estate-instrument-cancellation-attorneyIn Deutsche Bank National Trust Company v. Alan Pyle et al. Saluto owned property in Rancho Mirage and obtained a loan. She defaulted and began a firestorm of recording documents to screw up the chain of title to presumably prevent foreclosure and eviction. The long list of recorded documents is set out at the end of this post. (I wonder if she paid someone to muddy things up like this- I have done a quiet title in a similar situation, and the hired perpetrator faced Federal criminal charges). A trustee’s sale was held. Saluto then filed an action against the lender to cancel the trustee’s deed and deed of trust and obtained a default judgment. Eventually, the lender got the judgment set aside, the court finding that she had falsified the proofs of service, and that the judgment was void.

The issues on appeal for the court were: (1) whether defendants were entitled to bona fide purchaser or encumbrancer status, and (2) the impact of the void default judgment in the chain of title.

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Slander of title is a false statement related to real property that causes monetary loss. The goal is the protection of the transferability of title. The claim is based on whether the publisher of false information could reasonable expect the false publication to influence the conduct of a third party, such as a lender or buyer. It may be an unsupported claim of an interest in real property that throws “doubt” on its ownership. However, Sacramento real estate attorneys point out to their clients that the false publication may be privileged, which is a statutory defense to a claim for slander of title.

Sacramento-slander-of-title-lawyerIn Raymond A. Schep v. Capital One, N.A., Schlep borrowed $910,000, secured by a deed of trust on his Beverly Hills home. He missed his mortgage payments and a Notice of Default was recorded. Before the Notice of Trustee’s Sale was recorded, someone recorded a “Substitution of Trustee and Full Reconveyance” (the ‘Wild Deed’). The court’s opinion does not specify who did this, but implies that it was the borrower. Subsequently the Notice of Sale recorded, and the property was foreclosed through a trustee’s sale. The Borrower filed this lawsuit claiming slander of title due to the recording of the Notice of Default, Notice of Sale, and Trustee’s Deed. Apparently his argument was that the Trustee had constructive notice of the Wild Deed and the implied competing claim on title.

Sacramento-privilege-slander-of-title-lawyerThe court found that the plaintiff was wrong, because all the documents underlying his claim were privileged. Civil Code section 2924(d) (1) (set out below) provides that the notices required for a trustee’s sale procedure are privileged communications under section 47 (also set out below).

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Encroachment, or trespass, is an invasion of real property rights by another. It can be anything, such as a fence, a railroad, landscaping, a parking lot or building. When the owner of the property wants to stop it, they may file an action for a permanent injunction prohibiting the use. Real Estate attorneys frequently see actions for injunction resulting in cross-complaints to establish a right to use the property, such as by adverse possession. However, the decisions regarding the statutes of limitations in such cases vary somewhat unpredictably, due to there being two sets of statutes that may apply –one giving 3 years, the other 5. In a decision by the Third District Court of Appeals (covering 23 counties including Sacramento, Yolo, Placer & El Dorado, full list below*) that has not been agreed with by the Supreme Court or other Districts, the court ruled that enjoining a permanent encroachment should be characterized as an action to recover real property, applying the 5 year statute..

Sacramento-encroachment-attorneyIn Harrison v. Welch, buyers of a vacant lot brought an action against their neighbor to quiet title and to enjoin neighbor’s encroachment on their land. The neighbor, who had placed a woodshed and landscaping on the lot, filed a cross-complaint alleging adverse possession and prescriptive easement. The trial judge ruled that the Buyer was barred by the statute of limitations and that the neighbors had not established adverse possession or prescriptive easement. Nonetheless, the court engaged in an equitable “balancing of the hardships, giving both the plaintiff and the defendant some satisfaction. Both parties appealed.

The statute of limitations issues revolved around two sets of statutes covering different concepts – recovery of real property, vs. stopping an encroachment. The statutes are in two consecutive Chapters of the Code of Civil Procedure-

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In a sales transaction, there is often included a guaranty, where one party guarantees to pay the debt of another. More accurately, a guarantor is “one who promises to answer for the debt, default, or miscarriage of another, or hypothecates property as security therefor.” (Civil.C. 2787). Thus if you buy a business or real estate, and the seller is concerned that you might not be able to pay for it, the seller may want someone with a stronger balance sheet to guaranty the debt. When a dispute arises, Sacramento business and real estate attorneys question what exactly was guaranteed, and if the guarantor was exonerated. Exoneration can occur if the creditor or seller does something that changes the terms of the deal without the guarantor’s approval. Both issues arose in a recent decision concerning the sale of a motorcycle dealership.

Sacramento-real-esate-loan-guaranty-attorneyIn G&W Warren’s Inc. v. Judson V. Dabney II, the Warrens sold their dealership to Dabney. The paperwork starts with a master “Asset Purchase Agreement.” This incorporated by reference …

– (1) a promissory note in the amount of $1,016,000 signed by Dabney as Maker;

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A court may create an “equitable easement”, on equitable grounds, even though the user is not entitled to an easement on one of the more traditional grounds. The judge balances the rights of the various parties to achieve an equitable solution. Generally, the courts apply a three-part test to determine if such an easement should be legally granted. In most cases there is an existing use, and either one landowner sues to stop the use (they see it as a trespass), or the user sues to legally establish the easement. However, in a recent decision out of Ventura County, the court granted an equitable easement where there had been no preexisting use.

Sacramento-equitable-easement-attorneyIn Hinrichs v. Melton, Hinrichs inherited two adjoining parcels. He used to live in a house on the southern lot, but had lived in Alaska for the past 20 years. He conveyed the southern property to Asquith, which left the northern parcel landlocked – it had no legal access from anywhere. The trial court granted the plaintiff an easement by necessity over the Asquinth parcel, up to the Melton property. Beginning at the Melton property, the court granted an equitable easement under the doctrine of balancing the hardships.

The Equitable Easement

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Default judgments occasionally occur, and sometimes they may be set-aside or vacated by the court. There are several statutory grounds for a judgment debtor to get a default vacated. But what happens in the default judgment concerns title to real property? If there is a default judgment in the chain of title, potential buyers need to take notice and may need to consult a real estate attorney. There is a possibility that the judgment could be vacated, and the result would affect the buyer’s title. A question arises – is the potential buyer a bona fide purchaser for value, who may rely on the recorded judgment? And what are the limits to vacating the default? Those are questions learned the hard way by a disappointed buyer in a recent decision.

Sacramento-BFP-lawyerIn OC Interior Services, Inc. (OCI) vs. Nationstar Mortgage Inc., OC purchased real property knowing about a recorded default judgment in the chain of title. The default judgment nullified the appellant’s deed of trust. It started when the original owner obtained a $2 million loan on a property in Silverado, California. He filed a lawsuit to cancel the deed of trust and snuck in a default judgment. OCI paid $750,000 for the property, knowing that it was worth $1.5 million. OCI was aware of the issue; it obtained title insurance for $937,500- over $150 thousand more than the purchase price! Before OCI purchased the property it asked its title insurer “‘what happens if this [default judgment] gets appealed?’ And they said, ‘That’s why you have title insurance.’ ”

The original lender got the default judgment vacated and proceeded to foreclose. OCI filed this lawsuit. OCI claimed that it qualified as a bona fide purchaser for value, relying on the recorded default judgment showing that the deed of trust had been wiped out. The court of appeals did not agree.

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The Statute of Frauds requires certain agreements to be in writing. The reason is that these agreements are too important to allow oral agreements, as they are susceptible to fraud. It is codified in Civil Code section 1624, and also applies to agreements for real estate commissions, about which the Supreme Court has said that a “broker’s real estate commissions agreement is invalid unless the agreement `or some note or memorandum thereof, is in writing and subscribed by the party to be charged or by the party’s agent.'” But what happens when not everyone who should sign does? Parties may need to consult with a Sacramento real estate attorney, because a dispute may result that the contract is not valid. I have never seen a matter where a real estate broker did not require ALL the parties on title to sign a listing agreement, but that was the case in a February decision regarding a listing agreement signed in 2013 – they waited four years to get a result, which is why, in my experience, everybody must sign. In this case, in a decision that combined the statute of frauds, the equal dignities rule, and the parole evidence rule, the broker lucked out…

Sacramento-Statute-of-frauds-attorneyIn Bernice Jacobs v. John Locatelli as Trustee, Jacobs was the broker looking to sell vacant land in Marin for over $2 million dollars. The broker Jacobs signed, as did Locatelli. However, there were blank signature lines for five other people, five other owners.

Right above Locatelli’s signature line is the notation “Owner: John B. Locatelli, Trustee of the John B. Locatelli Trust,” with his title listed as “Trustee.” As mentioned above, while there were signature lines for the remaining owners, they were left blank. However, at the very top of the agreement, “Owner” is defined (with emphasis added) as “John B. Locatelli, Trustee of the John B. Locatelli Trust, et al.” “Et al.” clearly means, in this context, “and others.”

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California law takes trees seriously and provides enhanced damages when someone harms them. There is provision for doubling the damages incurred for harm caused to timber, trees, and underwood, and trebling it if the harm is intentional. (Civil Code section 3346.) Another provision allows doubling the damages for harm to trees. (Civil Procedure section 733, set out below). Sacramento real estate attorneys commonly get asked about neighbor trees with overhanging branches and troublesome roots. However, in a recent decision where a landowner with an abundance of chutzpah went onto their neighbor’s property and cut trees to improve their view, they were surprised to learn that not only were they liable for three times the $40,000 to restore the property, but also three times the $30,000 awarded noneconomic damages for annoyance and loss of enjoyment of the property.

Sacramento-tree-damage-attorneyIn Jeanette E. Fulle v. Kaveh M. Kanani, the defendant lived uphill from the plaintiff. Plaintiff Fulle’s trees blocked the defendant’s view of the San Fernando Valley, so the defendant had workers go onto the plaintiff’s property and cut down the limbs and branches of six trees. Of course, he did not ask permission first. This lawsuit ensued.

The jury awarded $47,000 in damages, plus another $30,000 for noneconomic loss “including annoyance and discomfort, loss of enjoyment of the real property, inconvenience and emotional distress.” The trial judge trebled the economic damages per section 3346, but would not apply the multiplier to the noneconomic damages. It reasoned that use of the phrase “actual determinant” in 3346 intended to narrow the multiplier to economic damages. This appeal followed.