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Too Much Money is a Red Flag!

Realtors, attorneys, and home sellers should be alert to red flags that indicate fraud, scams, or troubled deals. One major red flag is when a buyer offers too much money. Sellers should beware of any offer with a purchase price that is far higher than expected or earnest money that is far more than customary in the market.

Common Scams

Foreign Buyer Blindly Purchasing Home

One common scam involves foreign buyers emailing Realtors asking for help purchasing a home. After a few emails, the buyer (usually from China, England, or Canada) will make a full price offer on a home the he has never seen. He will then send earnest money in a certified check. If the red flags weren’t waiving already, they should be when the Earnest Money is way too high. For instance, in Madison, Wisconsin, earnest money typically ranges from $1,000 – $3,000. The foreign buyer will send $100,000 or more in earnest money. They will then ask for a return of the excess money. If you return the funds via wire, as requested, you will soon find yourself in a bind when the certified check bounces. It was fake.

Too much earnest money is a red flag!

For more information on this, common scam: Link here.

Local Buyer Seeking Occupancy

Another potential scam occurs when a buyer seeks to purchase property with an extended, pre-closing occupancy. In this case, we have seen buyers offer substantial earnest money (10-20 times the typical amount) and request occupancy for many months prior to closing. The buyer then moves in, fails to close and refuses to leave. The seller must file an eviction proceeding to remove the buyer.

Again, too much earnest money raises red flags. In additions, extended, pre-closing occupancy should raise a red flag worthy of retaining an attorney.  Interestingly, one of the ways to mitigate the risk of an extended occupancy period is to ask for an unusually high amount of earnest money.  Thus, red flags don’t always lead to fraud.  But they can indicate additional risks.

Unrealistic Purchase Price

Any time a buyer offers far more than the reasonable value of a home, it is a red flag for fraud. In some cases, this kind of fraud can benefit both buyer and seller. But, it may be fraud nonetheless and can expose the Realtor or other professionals to liability and harm.

For additional resources on avoiding Real Estate Scams, check out the following links:

Various Real Estate Scams: http://realtormag.realtor.org/law-and-ethics/law/article/2010/08/5-real-estate-scams-you-need-know-about

Foreign Buyer Scam: https://homesteadtitle.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/real-estate-scam-warning/

Corporate Records Scam: https://homesteadtitle.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/scam-alert-annual-minutes-requirements/

Deed Copy Scam: https://homesteadtitle.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/deed-copy-scam-alert/

Better Business Bureau False Complaint:
https://homesteadtitle.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/better-business-bureau-false-complaint/

 

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“Refer A Friend” Program Likely Violates Federal Law

A Realtor recently asked me about an interesting incentive program. In hopes of increasing business, the agent would like to consider a “refer-a-friend” program, providing raffle prizes to former clients who refer listings or buyers to the Licensee. She suspected that this might not be legal. Her legal intuition is correct. A “refer a friend” program with raffle tickets and prizes likely violates RESPA Section 8 and Wisconsin State licensing law. Incentives-for-Referral programs should probably be avoided.

RESPA Prohibits Giving Value in Exchange for Referrals

A referral program that provides anything of value to the referring party likely violates State and Federal law.  The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), Section 8 prohibits the giving of “any thing of value” in exchange for a referral of real estate services or the splitting of fees where one party performs no services (a referral is not a service). This prohibition includes the giving of raffle tickets, prizes, or other non-monetary consideration.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has addressed similar programs in the past.  In February 2004, HUD entered into a settlement agreement with Integrity Home Funding LLC over a “Refer a Friend” program.  Under this program, a mortgage broker provided raffle tickets and the opportunity to win prizes to any former client that referred business to the broker.  HUD determined that the “Refer a Friend Program” violated Section 8 of RESPA because it provided a thing of value for referring business.  The broker entered a settlement agreement with HUD, agreeing to pay $1,500 in penalties and an additional $20,000 if he was found to have later violated the agreement. 

Wisconsin Law Limits Referral Fees to Licensed Agents

In addition, Wisconsin State law prohibits the payment of any fee, commission, or referral fee to a non-licensed individual:

Wisconsin Statute 452.19 Fee-splitting. No licensed broker may pay a fee or a commission . . . for a referral or as a finder’s fee to any person who is not licensed . . . .

This prohibition would also likely apply to providing prizes in exchange for referrals.

Moral of the Story – Don’t offer prizes for referrals:

Refer a Friend Programs or raffles tickets in exchange for referrals are almost certainly prohibited under state and Federal law.

 

DISCLAIMER: This post should not be used for, and is not intended as, legal advice. Please consult an attorney regarding the specific facts and circumstances of your situation and never rely upon any blog as legal advice!

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Madison Couple and Local Agent Featured on ‘House Hunters’

The popular reality show “House Hunters” visits Madison with an episode airing tonight, May 13, 2013 on HGTV.

Tune in at 9:00pm to watch Keller Williams agent Josh Lavik help Darren and Megan Haworth find a home. The show’s producers were originally drawn to Lavik’s marketing materials. They were so impressed with the results of this show, they’ve also filmed another, featuring Josh and his wife, Jennifer, in their search for their own home.

Congratulations to Josh on a job well done and to his clients for finding the home of their dreams.

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Madison Plant Sales

Spring is finally here and its time to get planting! If you are selling a home, a beautiful garden can add curb appeal. If you’re staying put, a garden can add to your home’s value, the sustainability of your property, and your happiness.

Homestead Title takes pride in being green and sustainable. Every year we provide a list of local garden sales in the Madison area. Enjoy!

 

Date

Location

Event

May 4, 9am-1pm Alliant Energy Center Compost Bin Sale: bins are $45 each
May 5, 12pm-2pm Olbrich Gardens Dahlia Tuber Sale: sponsored by the Badger State Dahlia Society
May 10-11, 9am-3pm Olbrich Gardens Plant Sale with the Pros: Olbrich Gardens annual fundraiser.
May 10 -11, 8am-4pm West Side Garden Club: 3518 Nakoma Rd. West Side Garden Club annual plant sale.
May 10-12, 8am-3pm 5586 Cheryl Dr., Fitchburg Fitchburg Plant Sale
May 11, 9am-2pm UW Arboretum Visitor Center Native Plant Sale
May 11, 9am-1pm 1008 Shorewood Blvd, Shorewood Hills, WI Shorewood Hills Garden Club Plant and Mulch Sale
May 11, 9am-2pm Waterman Park, downtown Oregon Oregon Garden Club Plant Sale
May 11, 8:30am-1pm 7437 Terrace Ave., Middleton Sunset Garden Club Plant Sale
May 11, 8:30am-11am Mt. Horeb Fire Station, 120 S. First St., Mt. Horeb Mound Vue Garden Club Plant Sale
May 16-18, 9am-5pm Habitat ReStore, 208 Cottage Grove Rd. Habitat for Humanity of Dane County Plant Sale
May 18, 9am-12pm West Madison Agricultural Research Station, 8502 Mineral Point Rd. Wisconsin Hardy Perennial Society plant sale.
May 18, 9am-11am Spring Harbor School Indian Hills Garden Club plant sale
May 19, 12pm-3pm 1 Fen Oak Ct., Madison (east side UW-Extension) Master Gardener Plan Sale, Dane County UW-Extension Office
June 2, 10am-2pm Olbrich Gardens Wisconsin Hosta Society, hosta sale

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Photo Tips For Real Estate

Homestead Title Company provides a unique touch at closings table, showing slide-shows of the homes being sold. We see some beautiful photos. A quick survey of the MLS and FSBO sites, however, will show some dismal listing photos.

As an avid, amateur photographer, I am sometimes dismayed at the quality listing photos. Realtors and FSBO sellers often post some terrible photos and do themselves and their hopes of selling a disservice. The following tips are compiled from great Realtors, some great photographers we’ve worked with, and materials listed below.

  1. Understand the photo’s purpose: The purpose of a real estate photo is to sell real estate. Buyer’s viewing the picture should be drawn in and want to see more. Focus on parts of the property that will sell and do not photograph parts of the property that are less desirable.
  2. Simplify! Simplify your photos by removing everything from the picture that distracts from your purpose of making the home look attractive. Particularly avoid including chair backs, door frames, pets, people, toilets, and clutter in photos. The photographer should keep an eye out for things that can be done to improve the photo. Sweep floors and patios and remove clutter. If you use a stager or professional cleaner, try to take photos immediately after they complete their work.
  3. Use a wide-angle lens to shoot interiors: If possible, use at least a 24mm equivalent lens – anything higher than 28mm is not wide enough. Few off-the-shelf or point-and-shoot digital cameras come with lenses that are wide enough to truly, effectively shoot interiors. Consider hiring a professional or investing in a digital SLR camera with a good wide-angle lens
  4. Shoot Bright Interiors: Bright interiors are more attractive to buyers than dark moody ones. Use a flash, interior lights, and window lighting to brighten the photos.
  5. Don’t let bright windows distract:
    Bright is better.  But, windows can be hundreds of times brighter than other parts of interiors, causing them to appear completely white or “burned-out.”  Avoid this by using a flash, shooting at twilight when the light level outside is near the inside light level or using photo-editing techniques to darken the windows.

  6. More is better. Home buyers want to see more than just the front of the house. Buyers also want to get a look at the living room, kitchen, dining room, family room, master bedroom/bathroom and the backyard. For condos, consider shots of attractive common elements.
  7. Change With The Weather. Out-dated photos send the message that this is an out-dated listing. Don’t include snow pictures in spring and summer, or summer pictures in winter. Also, be aware of the mood of the scene. A gray, cloudy day offers great lighting conditions, but may convey gloom and despair in outdoor photos. New fallen snow can be beautiful (and difficult to photograph) but will obviously convey a chilly feeling. Include warm interior photos along side such pictures (fireplace or a bright room with warm colors).
  8. Go Pro. Professionals are surprisingly affordable and should provide much higher quality, sharper, properly lit images. They will often also provide other services, including virtual tours and web-ready photos).
  9. Invest In Good Equipment:
    If you insist on doing it yourself, invest in good equipment. Professionals use SLR cameras (single lens reflex camera with interchangeable lenses), a tripod, and an external flash unit. This equipment is expensive, but worth the investment. Consider that a Cannon or Nikon DSLR with a wide angle lens, a tripod and flash will cost under $1,000. Paying a professional for 10 listings will likely cost more. In other words, you could pay for your investment in less than a year.


  10. Consider Leveraging Your Talents:
    If you have good photography equipment, a little talent, and time to prospect, offer your services to FSBO Sellers. Take a look at FSBOMADISON.COM for an example of hundreds if not thousands of horrible real estate photos. Offering free photo services allows you to spend a lot of time with prospects while selling your services and building incredible good will.

     

Good Photography Resources:

 

The Digital Photography Book, By Scott Kelby

Excellent, easy to read book with outstanding and understandable advice for amateurs.

The Ditigal SLR Book, by Jon Canfield

Good book with good information for all levels of experience

http://www.bhphotovideo.com

Best, low-cost outlet for all things photography

http://photographyforrealestate.net

Photography resource for Realtors and the source for much of this publications

http://www.all-things-photography.com

Resource for professional photographers, but may have some helpful links and ideas

http://www.squidoo.com 

Good Educational content posted by blogger/readers

The Camera Company

Excellent, local (Madison, WI) source of equipment and expertise.

 

Finally, if you really want to see some AWFUL pictures, check out:
https://www.facebook.com/BadMLSPhotos

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There is a new scam targeting Wisconsin small businesses. A company called Corporate Records Services is sending out very official looking forms that request information about the company, the submission of an Annual Minutes Form, and the submission of $125. The form appears to be required by state statute. Businesses are not required to fill out this form. In fact, it is difficult to see what, if any, services this company provides.

The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions has issued and official statement cautioning business owners against this scam:

http://www.wdfi.org/newsroom/press/2013/AnnualMinutesFormAlert.pdf

Other states, including Illinois, New York, Maine, Indiana, and Tennessee have also issued warnings against this scam.

Wisconsin business owners who have questions about this form are urged to contact the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) at 608-266-1622.

 

Thank you to the WRA for alerting the Real Estate industry, many members of which have been targeted by this scam.

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Will 2013 Outpace 2012 for Another Great Year in Real Estate?

It was a great year for real estate. Yes, 2012 was “great” for real estate! We finally saw a marked improvement in sales both in Dane County and the State. Dane County sales were up by over 22%. Homestead Title outpaced the market with an increase of 40% in 2012! In addition, sales related to foreclosures showed a steady decline for the entire year. This is all great news.

In addition, there has been good economic news with lower unemployment and a surge in the stock market. As so often happens, this has corresponded with higher interest rates. Rates on 30 year mortgages ticked up last week. If you haven’t refinanced, NOW may be the time or you might just miss this historic window.

So how does 2013 look? It is way too early to tell, but the early returns hint at another strong year. Anecdotally, things look great: Facebook and twitter are lighting up with Realtors and Lenders celebrating an incredible start to 2013. Reliable statistics aren’t in, but Homestead Title’s early numbers suggest that 2013 is off to an even better start than 2012. Homestead Title’s sales orders are up over 40% from this time last year. In fact, this has been the best January we’ve ever had.

Here’s to a GREAT 2013 in real estate!

 

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CYA Letters and Better Communication

Real Estate Agents would be well served to learn a lawyer’s trick of the trade – the CYA letter. Short for “Cover Your A$&,” these letters serve an important function both for limiting liability and improving communication. Rather than viewing these as obnoxious, overly legal annoyances, Realtors should view CYA letters as tools to better serve their clients.

Scenario

Buyer:        I like the work the seller did in the basement. But I worry about whether it’s up to code. Can you find out?

Realtor:    I don’t know. You would need to ask an inspector and maybe an attorney. We can ask the Seller’s Realtor about permits and whether all the work meets code, but the ultimate determination is a legal question and I’m not an attorney.

This might be a good, safe answer that does not delve into legal advice. But, without more, there is still a risk of being sued or having a licensing or ethics complaint filed against you. A buyer who later has costly problems because of code violations may lash out at anyone and everyone, including the Realtor. The Buyer might misremember the conversation or even fabricate what was said. All of this can be avoided with a simple, follow up letter – a CYA letter.

CYA Letters are Good Customer Service

Anytime a Realtor is asked for legal advice, they should both decline and follow up with an email or letter. This creates a written record that the Realtor did their job and complied with the law (Wisconsin law prohibits Realtors from offering any legal advice – REEB 24.06). More importantly, it is great customer service and provides a clear communication to the client. A good, CYA letter might read as follows:

I want to follow up on our conversation about the basement. As I said, I don’t know whether there might be code violations. I did ask the Seller’s Realtor and we’ll see what she says. I’m not an attorney and can’t offer anything on this kind of question. An inspector or attorney could help you answer this question and I have some great referrals, if you need them. Thanks!

Following up in writing shows a level of professionalism and assures a clarity of communication. And it covers your tail.

By Attorney Peter Zarov. Mr. Zarov is a Wisconsin attorney who represents many Realtors and Brokers.

This post is not intended as legal advice. Realtors, Brokers and other individuals should consult an attorney regarding their specific issues and questions.

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BREAKING NEWS:
On January 1, 2013, Congress extended an important law that exempts many homeowners from paying taxes on cancelled debts. As part of the “Fiscal Cliff” deal, Congress extended the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 until the end of 2013. This will have a positive impact on distressed homeowners.

Cancelled Debt

If you owe a debt to someone else and they cancel or forgive that debt, the cancelled amount may be taxable.

Cancelled or forgiven debts happen every day in the Real Estate world. Short sales and foreclosures result in substantial, cancelled or forgiven debts. The Bank’s loss may be considered the home owner’s gain – a taxable, forgiven debt. A short sale happens when the proceeds of a home sale are not enough to pay off the mortgage. The bank agrees to take a “short” payoff and may cancel or forgive the shortage.

For the last 5 years, most homeowners were exempt from paying taxes on that forgiven or cancelled debt. The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 exempted many homeowners from paying taxes on forgiven debt. But, that law was set to expire on December 31, 2012

Taxable Income

If you owe $200,000 on your home but your sale only results in $150,000 in proceeds, you will be “short” by $50,000. You would likely need to count that $50,000 as taxable income to the IRS! In this case, you might owe and additional $12,500 in tax liability. In fact, you may owe this tax even if your house is foreclosed if it results in a shortfall to the bank.

Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007

The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 exempts many home owners from paying taxes on the forgiven debt. On January 1, 2013, Congress extended the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 until the end of 2013. This has the potential to save distressed homeowners millions of dollars in “phantom” tax liability over the coming year.


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Scam Alert: It’s Not A Real Bill!

Homestead Title just received a very realistic looking bill from DNS Services. The bill is for “Managed DNS Backup Business Services.” Man that sounds important. Its not – its a scam.


As with many fake bills, this one contains the hidden warning that it is “a solicitation for the order of goods or services, or both, and not a bill…” Other scams involve fake phone bills, yellow pages ads, and printer toner. Don’t fall for the scam. Throw the bill in the garbage.

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