Articles Posted in real estate law

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Contracts related to real estate transactions often have arbitration provisions included, requiring the parties to submit their disputes to an arbitrator rather than the court. Some standard forms, such as the CAR forms, have optional arbitration provisions that apply if accepted by all parties. Commercial Brokerages often require binding arbitration in the representation agreements. The argument for arbitration is that it is faster and cheaper. This may be true in low-dollar transactions, but otherwise, I believe it is a myth. Also, arbitrator decisions are not appealable, even if erroneous. I’ve written before about alternatives to arbitration, namely judicial reference and general reference, which allow hearings by a referee and oversight by the court. However, in a recent decision, a contract required binding arbitration under AAA rules (with a panel of 3 arbitrators) and the large brokerage was well on its way to bankrupting the plaintiff due to the cost of the proceeding. The court rescued the plaintiff, finding that if they could not afford the arbitration, the matter could be heard by the court.

Sacramento-real-estate-arbitration-attorney-1In Weiler v. Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services Inc., the plaintiffs hired Marcus & Millichap to advise them regarding a 1031 exchange of their Las Vegas Properties for a commercial property in Texas with a Red Robin restaurant, supposedly worth $4.1 million. They claim that M&M represented that this was a solid income producing property, and that the tenant was required to pay the property taxes. Shortly after the deal closed the tenant became delinquent in rent and property taxes. The plaintiffs lost money and eventually sold the property for $2.1 million less than they had paid.

The plaintiffs filed suit, but their contract with M&M required binding arbitration through the American Arbitration Association (AAA). M&M had the court order the case to arbitration. The court retained jurisdiction for monitoring the arbitration.

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A common belief is that to claim adverse possession of real property, all one has to do is pay five years of overdue property tax, and take possession of the property. Parties trying to establish adverse possession in California must prove several elements: (1) Possession must be by actual occupation under such circumstances as to constitute reasonable notice to the owner. (2) It must be hostile to the owner’s title. (3) The holder must claim the property as his own under either color of title or claim of right. (4) Possession must be continuous and uninterrupted for five years. (5) The holder must pay all the taxes levied and assessed upon the property during the period. This last element is seldom the focus of court decisions, but in a recent decision the claimant was disappointed to learn that a change in the law requires timely payment of assessed property taxes.

Sacramento-attorney-adverse-possessionIn McLear-Gary v. Emrys Scott, McLear-Gary claimed an easement along a logging skid trail. Emrys Scott replaced an old wooden gate with a metal gate across the easement route and kept the gate locked, blocking McLear-Gary from accessing the easement.

The trial court found that McLear-Gary had established an “exclusively pedestrian” prescriptive and implied easement over the properties belonging to the defendants, the court concluded this easement was extinguished by adverse possession when Emrys Scott, acting for the benefit of the common interests of his cotenants, locked and maintained the locked gate (not always hostile notice of adverse possession!) across the easement route and otherwise met the requirements for the affirmative defense.

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When co-owners of real estate cannot agree about what to do with the property, they always have a right to file a lawsuit for Partition. Traditionally, this process was designed and used to literally split the property in to “equal” parcels. However, if the value of the property is primarily a building or home, a physical split does not work, so the Judge may order sale of the property and splitting the proceeds. If the parties can agree, they may partition by appraisal, with one buying the other out. Courts have explained that Partition is “the procedure for segregating and terminating common interests in the same parcel of property. It is a “remedy much favored by the law. The original purpose of partition was to permit cotenants to avoid the inconvenience and dissension arising from sharing joint possession of land. An additional reason to favor partition is the policy of facilitating transmission of title, thereby avoiding unreasonable restraints on the use and enjoyment of property.” Sometimes, due to market conditions, it makes sense to ask the court to order the sale of the property immediately, and after the legal process unwinds, to split the proceeds. In a decision this year out of San Francisco the court ordered the sale first, with deciding the split later. However, one of the parties was unhappy when the court of appeals said that they had it backwards- you must first determine the split, then sell.

Sacramento-partition-attorneyIn Summers v. Superior Court, Summers and Tan were co owners of an investment property. They had a dispute and a partition action was filed. The trial court ordered the property to be partitioned and sold, and the parties’ ownership interests to be determined at a later date. Summers appealed.

The Court first noted that Code of Civil Procedure Section 872.720. Subdivision (a) declares that “[i]f the court finds that the plaintiff is entitled to partition, it shall make an interlocutory judgment that determines the interests of the parties in the property and orders the partition of the property.” (A ruling is interlocutory if it left issues for future determination.) The order of partition “shall order that the property be divided among the parties in accordance with their interests as determined in the interlocutory judgment (emph. added).” (§ 872.810.)

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In an action for “specific performance” a party to a contract seeks the court order the other party to perform as required by the contract. One requirement for such an order is that the remedy at law is inadequate – that is, the plaintiff cannot be adequately compensated by the payment of money. In the case of contracts for the sale of real property it is presumed that property is unique and breach cannot be adequately compensated for with money. (Civil Code section 3387.) The problem Sacramento real estate attorneys usually see is a dispute as to the buyer’s performance – did the buyer perform every trivial step such that the seller was forced to convey the property. In a recent decision a buyer of a commercial property spent over $600,000 on the purchase and seeking entitlements, but did not take the last required step of paying $3 million dollars within 30 days of getting permits, and he lost the property.

Sacramento-specific-performance-attorneyIn Tierney v Javaid, Tierney wanted to buy a gas station property at 376 Castro Street in San Francisco, and build condominiums. The parties entered a contract in 2004. The entitlement process was complicated and ended up taking Tierney eight years—until 2012—to secure the conditional use permit authorizing him to demolish the gas station and construct the residential units. At that point, however, the owner refused to sell, and the lawsuit followed.

The Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA)

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When someone uses real property which they do not own, they are a trespasser, but if enough time passes that trespass can become an enforceable right. There are several flavors of rights- equitable easement, prescriptive easement, and adverse possession that are considered by the courts and real estate attorneys in analyzing these cases. In a recent decision the negligent trespasser struck out on all three.

sacramento-equitable-easement-lawyerIn Eric Hansen v Sandridge Partners, LP, the Hansens were farmers. They planted their own property plus a disputed area of ten acres. They learned that the neighbors were in talks to sell their property, and Hansen remembered that there was a discrepancy in the line they had been farming, and there was “a lot line adjustment issue.” He spoke with the neighbor about it and they discussed the issue, but there was no conclusion. The Hansens went ahead and put in irrigation on the disputed property, and then planted pistachio trees. The sale closed and the parties still could not resolve anything, so Hansen sued to quiet title to a prescriptive easement. The trial court denied this claim, but did find that the Hansens had established a right to an equitable easement. The court of appeals said no, the Hansens get nothing, no easement, no adverse possession. But I’ll bet that they would have gotten a prescriptive easement if their complaint was drafted correctly.

Equitable Easement

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The award of attorney fees in California lawsuits is governed by the “American Rule,” in which ordinarily each party pays their own fees. However, parties may enter a contract that has an attorney fee provision which allocates attorney fees, usually to the prevailing party in a lawsuit. A recent Northern California decision involved such provisions in a complicated real estate transaction. The Seller & Buyer of property (Sundower Towers in Reno) also entered a “repurchase agreement,” which required the Seller to later buy the property back. Later, they entered a third agreement – an option, in which the Buyer granted the Seller the right to buy the property back. A lawsuit followed based on the Repurchase Agreement, but the court found this agreement unenforceable because it created an illegal subdivision. However, the defendant raised the Option agreement as an affirmative defense and sought attorney fees under the Option. In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Court found that raising the affirmative defense did not trigger the option attorney fees provision, but it still found a way to award attorney fees.

Sacramento-option-attorney-2In Mountain Aire Enterprises, LLC v. Sundowner Towers, LLC, the option agreement contained the following attorney fees provision:

“Litigation Costs. If any legal action or any other proceeding, including arbitration or an action for declaratory relief[,] is brought for the enforcement of this Agreement or because of an alleged dispute, breach, default, or misrepresentation in connection with any provision of this Agreement, the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees, expert fees and other costs incurred in that action or proceeding, in addition to any other relief to which the prevailing party may be entitled.” (Italics added.)

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California title insurance policies essentially indemnify the insured party against loss due to (a) Liens or encumbrances on, or defects in the title to said property; (b) Invalidity or unenforceability of any liens or encumbrances thereon; or (c) Incorrectness of searches relating to the title to real or personal property. The usual scenario Sacramento real estate attorneys see is where the insurance company has liability is if it misses a lien or title defect which later creates a problem. The insured property owner or lender then makes a claim and efforts are made to resolve the problem. But what happens when the title is transferred before the problem is discovered? the holder of insurance may get sued, and then they make a claim against their insurance. In a recent case in Fresno County buyer at a foreclosure was disappointed to learn that the foreclosing lender’s insurance would not help. Due to the policy language and the nature of a trustee’s sale, the insurance was out of reach, and the new owner had to pay off the lien.

Sacramento-title-insurance-attorneyIn Hovannisian v First American Title Insurance Company, Wells Fargo held a loan secured by a “first” deed of trust. First American provided a lender’s title insurance policy. The borrower defaulted and Wells Fargo foreclosed. The Hovanissians, plaintiffs here, bought the property at the trustee’s sale. They subsequently discovered that there had been a deed of trust recorded prior to Wells Fargo’s which was still a lien against the property. Apparently, this had not been discovered by the title company. Wells Fargo was thus unaware of it.

The plaintiffs made a demand on the title company which was denied – they were never an insured under the policy. Wells Fargo then made a demand on the title company, likewise denied, because Wells Fargo no longer owned the property. Wells Fargo assigned its claims against the title company to the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs then filed this action against First American.

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Lease Options are commonly seen in California. The agreement gives the tenant an irrevocable right to buy the property under certain conditions, and usually have restrictions based on tenant defaults. Sacramento real estate attorneys most often see issues arise regarding how the option is exercised, tender of the option price, and what the purchase price will be. Easiest is when the option specifies the purchase price or provides an easy formula to determine it. More contentious is setting the price at ‘fair market value,’ because buyers and sellers seldom agree, and an expensive process of multiple appraisals may be required, along with court intervention. Such was the situation in a recent decision concerning a commercial property.

Sacramento-lease-option-attorneyIn Petrolink, Inc. v Lantel Enterprises, The parties had entered a lease concerning a gas station at Cajon Junction in San Bernardino County. The original lease was with Tosco, so it probably involved the 76 station now visible on Google maps. The Lease gave the tenant the right (or option) to buy the property at “fair market value.” The provision stated:

“21. RIGHT TO PURCHASE. As long as the Tenant is not in default of this Agreement, Tenant will have an option to purchase the property at any time after the first Ten (10) years of the lease term at a price equal to the fair market value of the property based on an appraisal.”

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It is common in a real estate transaction to have more than one loan providing the purchase money. In the residential situation, it usually involves the first mortgage and a second home equity line of credit (HELOC) for a lesser amount. The HELOC is a usually required if the buyer cannot provide a large enough down payment. The 1st mortgage deed of trust is usually recorded first in order and indexed that way. The lender wants this loan to have priority over the 2nd deed of trust. Multiple deeds of trust are also involved in some commercial transactions. If the first forecloses, the second will be wiped out, losing its security. Real estate attorneys sometimes see the holder of the second rushing to foreclose first so that it is not a “sold out junior.” In a recent decision in Contra Costa County, the deeds of trust were recorded in the opposite order – the HELOC first – and the HELOC foreclosed. The first lender believed it was entitled to the surplus from the trustee’s sale, but the court disagreed.

Sacramento-deed-of-trust-attorney-2In MTC Financial, Inc. v. Nationstar Mortgage, borrower Sparrow obtained a mortgage loan plus a $15,000 HELOC (home equity line of credit) 2nd on his property in Hercules. Both loans were from the same lender. Both deeds of trust were recorded at the same time, but the HELOC was indexed first in the recorder’s records. The mortgage was indexed as the very next document. Sparrow defaulted on the smaller HELOC, and the 2nd was foreclosed, with a surplus remaining of over $73,000. The trial court decided that the senior lienholder was not entitled to any surplus – as it was senior, the foreclosure sale buyer obtained the property subject to the senior loan. The lender appealed, arguing that, because the senior deed of trust was recorded 2nd, it was wiped out in the trustee’s sale.

The court determined that Nationstar, as a senior lienholder, was not entitled to any of the surplus proceeds of the trustee sale.

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People buy real estate in California through nominal or “straw” buyers for many reasons. Sometimes to hide assets, or to launder money. Maybe it’s for legitimate reasons. Nonetheless, California real estate attorneys usually encounter these situations where the agreement between the parties is oral, and there is no documentation. But a recent decision out of Malibu concerned a written agreement between the parties. That was not enough, and the plaintiff sought to rescind the contract. In a rescission of a real estate contract the party who was harmed is required to offer to return everything of value they received under the agreement. A party seeking rescission wants to undo the transaction in its entirety, restoring both parties to the status quo ante. If successful they are entitled to restitution, i.e., to recovery of the consideration that he or she gave and any other compensation necessary to make him or her whole. A claim for damages is not inconsistent with rescission – the aggrieved party shall be awarded complete relief, including restitution of benefits, if any, conferred by him as a result of the transaction and any consequential damages to which he is entitled. In this decision, the plaintiff was not entitled to rescission, but still received damages.

sacramento-real-estate-rescission-attorneyIn Li Guan v. Yongmei Hu, Hu was aromatically involved with Chen. Chen got his buddy, plaintiff Guan, to loan $2.55 million to Hu so that she could buy a house in Malibu. Hu was entitled to receive a percentage of the property’s fair market value. Specifically, Hu would “get 20%” if the house was “sold from January 1, 2012,” and her percentage would increase by 20 percent each year the house was not sold until January 1, 2016. Thereafter, Hu would receive “100%” of the house “as a gift from Mr. Guan.”

In July 2012, Chen emailed Hu telling her that “ ‘it is over! Don’t you re[a]lize it with normal sense?! S[ell] the house as instructed by [Guan] so that you could stil[l] be benefited from the deal.’ ”