General Real Estate: July 2007 Archives
Yesterday, I checked my referral logs and found an article where somebody was essentially saying "If you want to be depressed, go read this site and then go rent somewhere for the rest of your life".
I can understand where the sentiment is coming from, particularly if they were of the sort of person who wants to meander around occasionally looking at houses until they find one they like, then sign a couple of papers and move in. Lest it not be obvious to you, these are the elements of disaster. I would never put an offer in without looking at at least ten to fifteen properties in the area, without aggressively shopping the mortgage market, or without taking positive steps to insure that I have at least as much leverage over the service providers as they do over me.
The fact is that for most people, the largest transactions of their life are all going to be real estate related. When the average transaction is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and those transactions are so complex as to defy understanding by non-professionals (and some alleged professionals), you have the elements for a system that's going to suffer abuses. Many past abuses have been corrected through the passage of legal impediments, but many others remain, and some are illegal but keep happening anyway (See my article on "What to Beware in Third Party Services" ).
What I am trying to do here (aside from picking up some business) is give you the insider's appreciation for what goes on. To that end, I'm setting out some tools for you to judge your agent's likely performance, and your loan officer's as well, and how to get better performance out of them - one hopes before it's too late. Do not think this gives you the knowledge to do it all yourself, however. It may not be "rocket science", but to pretend you can pick up everything a working professional learns and gets exposed to every day by reading a few articles would be false, and of no service to you. With this information, you can debunk the worst of the nonsense that you are told and get a better bargain for yourself no matter who your real estate agents and loan providers are. I am writing about knowledge that you need to have to understand the system, and I'm not pulling any punches about what goes on, anywhere in the transaction. I'm trying to show you limitations and blind spots in the information you may receive, and show you strategies that put you in a stronger position.
If you're the sort of person who prefers to go on in an "ignorance is bliss" state of mind, the education may be disturbing. Indeed, many people seem determined to go about their real estate (and other) transactions in this state of mind. They resist when I attempt to educate them in the realities of the market, figuratively in the same vein as people who put their hands over their ears and say "la-la-la! I am not listening! la-la-la! I am not listening!" It's like they want to get conned, or at least not having to think about it is worth more to them than the money they're being taken for. Since the money they're being taken for can easily go into five figures whether it's a purchase or a refinance, I find this difficult to believe. If you're making that much, you shouldn't need a loan.
Nobody does loans for free. Nobody does real estate for free (nobody does financial planning for free, legal advice for free, etcetera). "Free" is likely to be the most expensive service of all (This is different from at such a rate that yield spread pays all costs). If something about a loan, a real estate deal, or some aspect of financial planning seems "too good to be true," that should set alarm bells ringing right there. If the payment or interest rate on a prospective loan is nothing like what everyone else is talking about, they are looking to pull a con job on you.
If you're of the school that forewarned is forearmed, what you're reading here should give you the information you need to guard yourself against the deceits in the system. I've done lists of "red flags," warning signs not to do business there, "Questions to ask" that you can print out and take with you, "Salesgoodspeakian to English," debunking of pat phrases used to mislead you and what they really mean. I've given you strategies (apply for back up loans, order the appraisal yourself, don't sign exclusive buyer's agreements, etcetera) that, if adhered to, give you more leverage right down the line. I've gone through what real closing costs are, what points are, and warned you of the dangers of shopping for loans or real estate by what they tell you the payment will be. Most importantly, I've shown you how to keep control of your transaction by being aware at the start of the process what the likely bumps are going to be.
Not everyone in the business does everything I've warned you about. There are ethical providers out there; people like myself who will walk away from business or tell clients the pitfalls if something is not in the client's best interest. You can find us if you look for us. Nor are those who practice otherwise necessarily evil. Real Estate, financial planning, and many other fields are set up such that someone new in the business learns from somebody experienced. In many cases, they've been told "This is the way things are," and they just don't know any better. The person who taught them didn't know any better. It is my aim to ensure that people "know better." The change is not going to come from within the industry - the system is set up for their best advantage, and any one agent or loan provider unwilling to toe the industry line is at a competitive disadvantage, and their business is likely to fail. It's kind of the tragedy of the commons: their own individual behavior shows them nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by full truthful disclosure, and where there are people who do it anyway, we are comparatively few. Therefore, the change must come from outside the industry. So by being knowledgeable consumers and helping yourselves, you provide impetus for practitioners to reform their practices for everyone. It may take a long time, and it may never be complete, but if it's never started I can guarantee it won't get done.
The bottom line on this question is always, "Whatever the courts say." Divorce law is complex and even when you think you've got a clear message in the law as written, the courts may interpret it differently, or there may be precedent that says otherwise, or even just some overarching concern you are not aware of. Even if the law is clear, it can usually be gotten around by the agreement of the parties. Consult your attorney.
With that said, there are a few rules of thumb to go over, valid in broad for most states in most situations.
Real Estate is usually owned by both partners in a marriage equally, even if one spouse acquired title prior to the marriage the second will be added by default when the marriage happens. The only thing that is usually held separate are inheritances - things that were inherited by one spouse or the other from relatives, and even those can often become joint property. Sometimes gifts to one spouse can also be held separate. One of the phrasings your learn from reading title reports are is "John Smith, who acquired title as a single man, and Jane Smith, husband and wife as joint tenants." This tells you John bought it before they were married, and Jane got added to title upon marriage by the effects of the law.
There are trusts and the like to frustrate this from happening, and most states have rules and law permitting them, but you have to talk to the lawyer, get the trust created, and most importantly, as it's the step that is most often omitted, transfer the assets to the trust in a timely fashion. I don't know how many folks I've seen who spent a couple of thousand dollars creating a trust and then didn't transfer the assets to it. Every penny they spent on that trust was wasted money.
Now, if Jane does not wish to be added to the property title, she may quitclaim it back to "John Smith, a married man as his sole and separate property." However, quitclaim deeds have this curious limitation in many states (California among them) that they only function with respect to the interest you have in the property as of the time you sign them. Since the new spouse has not yet been given the claim upon the property until the marriage takes place, the quitclaim cannot be signed until after the marriage in order to accomplish the desired goal, as Jane has not yet acquired the interest in the property. Jane can say she'll sign it after she's married, but if she changes her mind, that's a whole different legal struggle. If she signs it before the marriage, then since she subsequently acquired a claim to the property through the marriage, she now has an interest in the property through the eyes of the law. Let's even say John and Jane are ninth cousins, the only surviving family inheritors, but for whatever reason Jane quitclaims the property to John, but then they later get married. Jane now has a married woman's legal interest in the property. The quitclaim only applies to Jane's interest in the property at the time of the quitclaim, and has no effect upon any claims she may acquire later. The only way I am aware, in general, to deed away any rights you may acquire in the future is with a Grant Deed, and each state has its own laws as to how this may and may not be accomplished. On the other hand, a Quitclaim is a handy document if you may have the intention of acquiring some interest in the property back at a later time, as it generally doesn't make, for instance, buying the historic family homestead back from your wastrel brother problematic.
Now suppose John and Jane Smith get divorced, and the property was held jointly. Both John and Jane still have an interest in the property, and continue to hold an interest, even if the court orders them to sign a quitclaim, until they actually have done so. This is why it is better to get a court award of actual title rather than a court order for the other spouse to sign a quitclaim. Unfortunately, for some reason, most divorce courts are unwilling to award actual title rather than order the ex-spouse to sign the quitclaim. So whoever gets the title or possession is not able to do anything with the property without the ex-spouse's approval, unless and until that ex-spouse signs the quitclaim or the court awards the spouse in possession with clear title. I could tell stories of ex-spouses that disappeared, or pretended to disappear for years leaving the ex-spouse in possession unable to sell, unable to refinance, even unable in some circumstances to sign a valid lease. Not infrequently, the ex-spouse pops up years later wanting a better deal (that is, more money) as inducement to sign the quitclaim deed.
Until the ex-spouse signs the quitclaim, title companies will not insure either loans, either in support of refinancing or a sale, or actual sales transactions. No lenders policy of title insurance, no loan (in most states), and that kills the refinance, or the loan financing any sale. No policy of owner's title insurance, and I certainly won't pay my money for a property, and advise my clients in most stringent terms not to do so.
Now, let's say that the ex-spouse has signed the quitclaim but is still on the existing loan, which was taken out while you were still married. This isn't really a problem. In order to refinance, or deliver clear title on a sale, that loan needs to be paid off. The lender doesn't care how it gets the money, or from whom. That ex-spouse can drop off the face of the earth once the quitclaim is signed, and it really doesn't make any difference. Once they are out of the legal picture, they might as well be dead. Both of you are responsible for the entire debt. It's not like some is His and some is Hers. Now, because this is true, sometimes ex-spouses also get their credit hit when things like a short sale subsequently happen, or foreclosures. To guard the ex-spouse who is giving up the rights to the property from this happening, many times the divorce court will order the ex-spouse who is retaining possession to refinance in order to remove the spouse who no longer has a legal interest in the property from future liability on the debt.
Many times, the court will order the ex-spouse retaining the property to buy the relinquishing ex-spouse out of the property, to give them some money or other goods in exchange for their interest in the property.
Often, especially if both spouse's incomes were used in order to qualify for the loan on the property, the remaining ex-spouse will not be able to qualify for the necessary loan on their own. In this case, the smart thing to do is usually sell the property. It is a real issue that because many former spouses are delinquent in their payment of alimony and child support, the lenders want to see a certain history (usually three months) of these items being paid before they will allow the income so generated to be used to help qualify the remaining ex-spouse for the new loan.
Keep in mind that all of the above are simply common concerns and happenings, and may have nothing to do with the situation you find yourself in in a divorce. Consult your attorney for real feedback of how the law and legal precedent apply to your situation.
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