September 14, 2016
There is an interesting September 14, 2016 article in the Washington Post by Ilyce Glink and Samuel Tamkin entitled, “Why you should look carefully at an HOA’s plans for that community before buying a home there.” The article responds to Virginia home buyers who have great questions that aren’t answered in an HOA disclosure packet. The purchasers know that the roads the HOA owns need major repairs. It is overall a great article. The HOA disclosure packet doesn’t say how this will be paid for. They are concerned that their dues might increase from $1,000 to $3,500. This is a make or break question. Virginia law entitles the buyer to disclosure of HOA governing documents, corporate records and financial reports before going to closing on purchase of property. These disclosures are supposed to educate buyers about their rights and responsibilities to the HOA for as long as they own the property. In reality, buyers have many things on their minds during this exciting and stressful time. Their busy lives are consumed with urgent matters. They attend the home inspection and negotiation of any repairs. They come up with the down payment and approval from their mortgage lender. An excited family member may be dismissive of any questions or red flags about the property. The purchase will require the buyers to move and have their lives disrupted. Many home buyers feel worn down by demands of the process. They want to avoid cancelling and starting all over. All the buyers know about the HOA may be from seeing neighboring houses, maybe some common areas like a pool or playground. What’s in the HOA disclosure packet or condominium resale certificate give the association great influence over the financial affairs and home life of the buyers. Virginia law requires that HOA disclosure packet to include the following statements and documents:
1. Name and registered agent of the association.
2. Approved expenditures that will require a special assessment.
3. Ordinary assessments or mandatory dues or charges.
4. Whether there are any other parties to which the lot owner may be liable for fees or charges.
5. Reserve study report or summary.
6. Current budget and financial balance sheet.
7. Any pending lawsuit or unpaid judgment that could have a material impact.
8. Insurance coverage provided and not provided by the association.
9. Whether any improvement to the property being sold is in violation of the governing documents.
10. Flag display restrictions.
11. Solar panel use restrictions.
1. Declaration & any amendments.
2. Articles of incorporation, bylaws & any amendments
3. Rules, regulations or architectural guidelines
4. Approved minutes of the board and owner meetings for previous six months
5. Notices of any pending architectural violations
6. Disclosure Packet Notice Form prepared by the Virginia Common Interest Community Board
7. Annual Report form filed with the state with officers and directors and other information
8. Federal Housing Administration lending approval statement
While many people aren’t familiar with these kinds of documents, they reflect the family’s future financial obligations to the HOA and restrictions on the use of the property. The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis was caused in part by mortgage lenders giving borrowers loan documents that they didn’t understand. The HOA covenants are also a source of confusion. Many buyers would never buy a home without using a home inspector, but they try to tackle the HOA disclosure packet themselves. Unfortunately, it is easier for an unaided consumer to eyeball things in the home that need repairs than make sense out of the HOA documents. The federal government requires mortgage lenders to provide borrowers with simplified statements of the loan terms to make them transparent. For HOAs, consumer protections are weaker. Virginia law gives the buyer only three days to cancel the purchase contract after receipt of the HOA disclosure packet. That might give a professional working in the real estate industry enough time to digest them. However, many ordinary consumers struggle to make this three-day review period a meaningful part of their decision-making. A buyer could negotiate with the seller for this three-day period to be lengthened in the language of the sales contract. Few ask for this because the disclosures in the sales contract do not suggest to the buyer that additional time might be necessary.
As more HOA horror stories appear in news articles and social media posts, consumers are more likely to read the HOA disclosure packet and ask questions like in today’s Washington Post article. Even if the buyer is familiar with community associations law, the governing documents may be vague, ambiguous or unclear about issues critical to the buyer’s use and enjoyment of the home. This is what the home buyers in the article discovered. Glink and Tamkin recommend that the buyers knock on the door of the HOA president and ask her point-blank about how the road repairs will be paid for. An officer who understands their leadership responsibilities well might provide a sufficient answer upon a direct request. However, in most situations this probably won’t achieve a satisfactory result. Educated officers and directors know that the HOA or condo board is only required to provide the information and documents referenced in the statutes. If the buyer is unsatisfied, they have to either exercise the contingency within the deadline or negotiate for an extension of the cancellation period and a follow-up request to the board. The HOA could employ dilatory tactics, inducing the buyer to inadvertently waive the right of cancellation while pursuing an answer to the question. The road expense issue is probably already a hot-button issue for this board with lots of HOA politics in play.
There is a disturbing issue about the facts described in this newspaper column that isn’t addressed by the article. The HOA is managed by its board and not by a property management company. The monthly dues for the property are $1,000. This means that the officers and directors are handling a huge budget themselves, making day-to-day property management decisions. Maybe the board consists of retired real estate professionals who do this as a hobby to benefit the community at no added benefit to themselves. Given the commitment required to manage such a large budget, this is probably not the case. This would be my number one question.
If the purchasers have questions about what the documents mean, they might ask their real estate agent. Realtors provide a lot of value to their clients because they negotiate sales transactions all the time. The agent may not be the best person to ask because she won’t receive a commission on the sale if the buyer gets cold feet and backs out. The disclosure packets contain legal documents that are designed to enforce restrictions in court should disputes arise. If an attorney or real estate agent might struggle to make sense out of the disclosure packet, a buyer who is not familiar with HOAs may only read a few pages before setting them aside and focusing their attention elsewhere. If consumers understood the HOA disclosure packet and made an intentional decision to go to closing or back out based on what they read, consumer trends and demands might force home builders to make HOAs more owner-friendly.
In theory, a buyer can retain independent attorneys and CPAs to review the HOA disclosure packet and answer questions. This would allow an educated decision whether to cancel within the short deadline. In reality, if the buyer doesn’t already have an attorney and/or CPA lined up at the beginning of the three-day period, it may already be too late. Let’s say the buyer spends a day trying to make sense of the HOA disclosure packet on his own. If the family cannot figure things out themselves, on the second day he might start calling around for an attorney. Unfortunately, almost all community association lawyers represent the associations themselves, big investors or developers. They do not normally represent homeowners. My firm is an exception – in my solo practice I never represent HOA boards. General practice attorneys often represent individual persons. However, to effectively advise the purchaser on short notice, the attorney must be familiar with the appellate court decisions concerning the HOA statutes and governing documents. Much of the law pertaining to community associations matters is found in court opinions, not just acts of the general assembly. Many general practice lawyers are very good but may not be familiar with these things. Assuming that the buyer does find an attorney who is a good fit, there still are time constraints. The buyer has to talk to the lawyer, hire him, and provide the documents. It may take the attorney more than an hour or two to review the documents to prepare to provide an overview and answer questions. All of this must be completed within 3 days (or whatever extended period agreed with the seller) so that the buyer can make a meaningful decision to exercise or waive the HOA contingency. Otherwise the buyer might lose their deposit and some other fees if they want to get out of the contract. The three-day period might work if the buyer hired the attorney beforehand. However, the terms and disclosures in the sales contract do not alert the buyer that such might be desired.
Don’t get me wrong. The HOA disclosure packet provides critical information and documents to consumers and does contain a right of cancellation. Doing away with it entirely would be a huge setback to property owners. Unfortunately, the deadlines and procedural features of the disclosure laws don’t do enough to protect consumers. My professional experience working with owners leads me to believe that many of them go to closing unaware of what they are getting into. This is not really their fault. Sometimes they don’t understand the extent of some restriction or obligation that the property is subject to. Also, owners have rights that they are often unaware of and could improve their situation if they knew about them.
One of the key statements in the packet is the Virginia Common Interest Community Board Disclosure Notice Form. This is a kind of “Miranda” warning to consumers about what it means to live in an HOA or condo. The current version is useful but could be improved. It doesn’t mention fines for rule violations. It states that the buyer is subject to all of the decisions of the Board. Yet an adverse decision of the board might be legally void or voidable if the owner acts promptly. The notice does not reference the statutes or common law principles that may dramatically affect the rights and obligations of owners. The packet notice does not point out to the buyer that they have a right to have their own attorney review the documents and answer their questions. If the buyer received a useful disclosure notice form at the time they signed the contract, then they might more carefully consider whether to hire an attorney, CPA or other professional to help them with the HOA disclosure packet. Also, if the statute allowed for a longer period of time for the contingency than three days, the buyer would not need to negotiate that in advance. These additional protections are necessary because the system that exists has a practical effect of limiting home buyers’ right to counsel.
Based on my own personal experiences with real estate, the stories I have read about other people’s experiences and homeowners I have spoken to, I believe that on a practical level, the HOA disclosure packet is an ineffective system of consumer protection. This is shown by the surprise that owners experience when they are victim of an abusive debt collection practice, an arbitrary architectural review decision or any other infringement of their property rights by an association. Fundamentally, the HOA disclosure packet procedure doesn’t work because consumers don’t understand how its contents help them find answers to any questions they might have.
What does a buyer need to know that isn’t found in the HOA disclosure packet? The courts are the branch of government that oversee HOA boards. The Supreme Court of Virginia has repeatedly held that the declaration is a written contract or agreement between the owners and the HOA. If you go to the Virginia Code looking for guidance on something not explained in the packet you might not find the answer there because of the nature of the legal system. The declaration, along with other real estate contracts are interpreted by court precedents for many issues. For example, if a party breaches a contract, they are entitled to remedies which might include money damages, attorney’s fees or an order for the other side to do something. An owner has an interest in knowing whether the declaration even makes the association qualify as an HOA. The system of remedies for breach of covenants is very important in the HOA context because that’s where the owner finds means of enforcing his rights. A wide variety of rules that pertain to HOAs are found in court opinions that aren’t neatly summarized in the disclosure packet or even in legislation.
Because the governing documents are written in legalese interpreted by court opinions and legislative enactments, the disclosure packet is not effective as a summary of the rights the HOA has over the property. The Washington Post column illustrates this. A buyer does not have the time to take a law class on community associations or enforcement of real estate covenants in the three days in which the disclosure laws give them to review it.
I hope that the General Assembly amends the statutes to provide stronger protections for buyers. If buyers knew what they were getting themselves into beforehand, they would be better educated to be owners or even board members. In the meantime, home buyers should prepare to retain advisors to help them understand the documents. If necessary, the buyer and seller can agree to expand the three-day waiting period. Ultimately, families must work with their own team to stick up for themselves and protect their rights. Owners owe it to themselves to adequately understand all of the rights and burdens that may come with the sacrifices made to purchase the property to begin with. Buyers should retain a qualified attorney to help them understand the documents before they even receive the HOA disclosure packet or condominium resale certificate.
For Further Reading:
Va. Code Section 55-509.5 (Contents of association disclosure packet; delivery of packet)
Va. Code Section 55-79.97 (Va. Condominium Act – Resale by Purchaser)
November 4, 2014
Today’s blog post is the third installment in a series on the emerging trend of foreclosure of condominium association liens on private property owners. In a previous article, I discussed a new appellate court decision, Chase Plaza Condominium v. Wachovia Bank, recognizing the right of an association under the D.C. Code to sell a condo unit in foreclosure to satisfy unpaid assessments, thereby extinguishing the much larger bank mortgage. This installment examines how future, similar attempts may be viewed under the Virginia Condominium Act.
Presently, Lenders Have Priority over Association Liens in Virginia:
In 2003, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard a case involving similar facts as in the Chase Plaza case under the corresponding portion of the Virginia Condominium Act. Va. Code Sect. 55-79.84 provides that a properly recorded Condo assessment lien has priority over other encumbrances except for:
- Real Estate Tax Liens;
- Liens Recorded Before the Condominium Declaration;
- First Mortgages or First Deeds of Trusts Recorded Before the Assessment Lien.
That same code section provides for the distribution of the proceeds of the association foreclosure sale, differing materially from the aforesaid lien priorities:
- Reasonable Expenses of the Sale & Attorney’s Fees;
- Lien for Unit Owner’s Assessments;
- Any Remaining Inferior Claims of Record;
- The Unit Owners Themselves.
Since the statute provides for differing priorities for liens and distribution, I’m not surprised that this issue was litigated. At the Virginia Supreme Court, Colchester Towne Condominium Council argued that these provisions permitted foreclosure of a unit for its owner’s failure to pay assessments. This Association asserted that before the bank received anything, the proceeds would first be paid for expenses, taxes or the assessments.
Wachovia Bank argued that it had a priority over the Condominium Association for both the lien and payment. In a narrow 4-3 decision, the majority agreed with the bank. Justice Lawrence Koontz found that the General Assembly intended for the first mortgage to get paid before the association assessment liens. The Court observed that purchase money mortgages are the “primary fuel that drives the development engine in a condominium complex.” Justice Koontz remarked that a contrary result (the D.C. and Nevada cases come to mind as examples) would not adequately protect the lender’s interests.
Justice Elizabeth Lacy wrote for the three justice minority, which included now-incumbent Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser and Chief Justice-elect Donald Lemons. They favored permitting the association to conduct the foreclosure sale and give the unpaid assessments priority over the mortgage. However, they would permit the lender’s lien to survive the foreclosure process, burdening the property purchased at the auction. None of the justices on the Supreme Court at that time published an opinion that would give an Association powers like those found in the Chase Plaza case.
As of the date of this article, the conventional wisdom followed by many owners of distressed condominium properties in Virginia has a legal basis on this 4-3 decision from 11 years ago. I predict that in a matter of months or years, this same issue will resurface in the General Assembly or the Supreme Court. I don’t know to what extent the national sea change will have a ripple effect in Virginia. It is not possible to predict to what extent, if any, associations may acquire greater rights against banks and homeowners. However, local governments rely on associations to pay to maintain certain common areas and services. Cities and counties continue to seek ways to avoid budget shortfalls. New land development brings the prospect of additional tax dollars. These associations have a financial crisis of their own for the reasons I spoke of in my prior post. The financial crisis is greater today than 11 years ago, and so are the challenges to private property rights.
Where Does All This Leave Property Owners and Their Advisors?
For a homeowner, keeping one’s home and paying bills is a more immediate human concern than ending the larger rescission. What do these storm clouds mean to Virginia condominium owners? A few thoughts:
- Escrow Accounts. Courts and pundits suggest bank escrow of HOA dues may be the answer. Writer Megan McArdle points out, a “vast regulatory thicket surrounds mortgage lending.” Throwing association governance and budget issues into that thicket does not seem like an attractive option to owners, who don’t always find themselves aligned with their association’s decisions. Making banks party to disputes between Associations and owners would complicate matters further.
- Banks Shy From Financing Condos. The Wall Street Journal Reports that David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, expects mortgage rates to rise in Nevada. The Mortgage Bankers Association also reports that sometimes HOAs won’t accept payments from them or even tell them the amount due. I expect banks to strengthen due diligence of a condominium association’s governing documents, policies and financials before agreeing to lend on a property subject to its covenants.
- Home Buyer’s Focus on Contingency. In purchasing a condominium or another type of property in an association, a buyer has a window of time to review the association disclosures and either get out of the deal or move forward. If the banks start escrowing association fines, etc., this may become a greater focus in the home-buying process.
- Cash Only Trend Prevails in Condominium Sales. In many condominiums, unit sales are conducted in all cash. The cash only option certainly cuts out the problem of the purchase money-lender. This also cuts most owner-occupants out of the house hunt, and decreases the number of owner-occupants in the association, making the place less attractive to lenders. This does not seem to be a solution.
One option that I haven’t seem discussed elsewhere is this: What if, when unit owners default on their obligations, the property is put up for foreclosure, and the lender, association (or any other investor), could submit competing bids to a trustee? The HOA would get paid, and the lender could get the collateral property. I doubt this would work under the existing statutory framework, but perhaps it would work better than an escrow.
If you own a property that is subject to the covenants of a condominium or homeowners association, and the association has threatened to enforce its lien against your property, contact a qualified real estate attorney to protect your rights. In order to protect your rights, you may need to prepare for a sea change in the balance of powers in home ownership.
If you are considering an opportunity to purchase a property at an association assessment lien foreclosure sale, retain qualified counsel to advise you regarding related risks, and carefully consider purchase of title insurance.
Case opinions discussed: Colchester Towne Condominium Council v. Wachovia Bank, 266 Va. 46, 581 S.E.2d 201 (2003)
October 29, 2014
On October 16, 2014, I asked in a blog post, “What Rights Do Lenders and Owners Have Against Property Association Foreclosure?” In that installment, I discussed a Nevada foreclosure case that was not between the borrower and the lender. It reflected a litigation trend between the lender, homeowners association and the federal government. Today’s article continues exploration of this legal development emerging in some states. Some courts are finding that homeowners associations have the right to foreclosure on private property for failure to pay fines, dues and special assessments. Several recent court rulings found that HOA foreclosures can extinguish the lien of the bank who financed the purchase of the property. Owners, banks and federal housing agencies find this trend an alarming sea change in the home mortgage markets.
Evaluating Competing Foreclosure Rights:
Today’s blog post focuses on where all of these legal developments put lenders when an Association attempts to enforce a lien for nonpayment of fines, assessments and dues. In a mortgage, the borrower agrees to put the property up as collateral to finance the purchase. The loan documents received at closing outline the payment obligations and the rights of foreclosure. Association obligations, on the other hand, are determined by the governing body of the Association according to the Bylaws. In many states, statutes provide for Associations to record liens in land records for unpaid assessments. Some statutes also allow Associations to conduct foreclosure sales to satisfy unpaid assessments by following certain procedures. Where state law allows, the Association’s authority to foreclose isn’t based on the owner’s agreement to make the property collateral. The statutes and recorded covenants put the buyer on notice of these Association rights.
Journalist Megan McArdle discusses on BloombergView how in about 20 states, HOAs can put homes up for auction (without the permission of the lender) and sell them to satisfy little more than outstanding dues (perhaps a four figure amount) to an investor, and the bank’s mortgage lien (six or seven figures, likely) is extinguished from the real estate. Ms. McArdle remarks that this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, and I tend to agree with her. Some adjustment must come to the regulatory landscape in order to preserve both property rights and market liquidity.
Personal Experience with Northern Virginia Condominium Ownership:
Before I got married, I owned and lived in a condominium in Northern Virginia for over nine years. I remember hearing discussions, whether at the annual meeting or in the elevators, that some owners in the building fell on hard times and had kept on paying their taxes and mortgages but had stopped paying their condo association dues. Those distressed homeowners felt confident that while the association might consider other collection activity, it would not be able to sell their unit in foreclosure, to the prejudice of both the mortgage lender and the owner. At that time, the right to occupy the unit had a unique value to them.
This made sense to me, because the mortgage lender usually has more “skin” in the game in terms of the dollars invested. Can this strategy continue to hold up in light of new national trends in HOA foreclosure? Changes have already reached the opposite shores of the Potomac in an August 28, 2014 District of Columbia Court of Appeals decision.
Bank and Association Battle in D.C. Courts Over Priority of Liens on Condo Unit:
Two months ago, the Court of Appeals published an opinion that will likely change the lending environment for D.C. condominiums. In July 2005, Brian York financed $280,000.00 to purchase a unit in the Chase Plaza Condominium in Washington, D.C.. Unfortunately, he became unable to continue making payments on his mortgage and Association dues after the mortgage crisis began in 2008. In April 2009, the Association recorded a lien of $9,415 in land records. The Association foreclosed, selling the entire home to an investor for only $10,000.00. The Association deducted its share and then forwarded the $478.00 balance to the lender. The bank and Association found themselves in Court over whether the Association had the right to wipe off the bank’s six figure mortgage lien in the five-figure sale to the investor.
The Court of Appeals found that under the D.C. condominium association foreclosure statute, the lender gets paid from the left-over proceeds, and to the extent the lien is not fully satisfied, it no longer attaches to the real estate. (It then becomes an unsecured debt against Mr. York, who went into bankruptcy).
J.P. Morgan, the successor in interest to the original lender, pointed out that such a conclusion, “will leave mortgage lenders unable to protect their interests, which in turn will cripple mortgage lending in the District of Columbia.” The Association and investor responded that the alternative leaves HOAs often unable to enforce their liens or find buyers in foreclosure sales. The Court suggested that lenders can protect their own liens by escrowing the HOA dues, like property taxes.
The decisions of Nevada, the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions do not control the Supreme Court of Virginia or the General Assembly. However, the same economic and human forces exert pressure on lending and home ownership in Virginia as they do in the District of Columbia. What is the current law in Virginia? How are owners and lenders to react to these changes here? The answer will come in the next installment in this series on Community Association Foreclosure.
If you are the beneficiary or servicer of a loan on distressed real estate subject to a lien of a community association, contact qualified legal counsel to protect your interest in the collateral.
Case opinion discussed: Chase Plaza Condominium Ass’n, Inc., et al. v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, 98 A.3d 166 (2014).
September 2, 2014
On July 31, 2014, I posted about a recent Fairfax Circuit Court opinion concerning Earnest Money Deposits (“EMD’s”). The seller, Sagatov Builders, LLC, sued buyer Christian Hunt. Mr. Hunt had entered into a contract and later failed to make the EMD or complete closing. The Court refused to allow the seller to sue the buyer for the unpaid deposit amount, finding it to constitute an unenforceable penalty.
Recently, an anonymous visitor typed a question into the search feature of this blog, rephrased as follows: “If there is a pending dispute over an EMD, can the seller accept another contract on the same property?” In other words, what are the risks of having two unreleased contracts simultaneously on the same property? In the Sagatov case, the seller used a marked-up, outdated realtor association form as a template for a transaction conducted apparently without brokers. Since the buyer never made the EMD, that wasn’t a classic earnest money dispute. The visitor’s question intriguingly takes a step back and asks how the EMD dispute implicates fundamental contract issues.
Today’s post explores this visitor’s question. This reminds me of a personal experience I had over a year ago. My wife (then fiancée) and I were under contract to purchase a home in Fairfax County, Virginia. We made the EMD. Our home inspector discovered a below-grade crawl space suffering from significant water intrusion problems. Our agent provided our home inspection report to the seller along with a request for release of the EMD. We resolved the dispute by using the home inspection contingency to get out of the contract. We were able to get our EMD back without having to send lawyer letters or go to court. Once we decided to ask for the release, we didn’t care what the sellers did with the house once we moved on, so long as we weren’t involved. However, some buyers may attempt to tie up the disposition of the real estate in order to gain leverage in getting their EMD back. Buyers and sellers can disagree over whether a contingency is still available.
While the circumstances and wording of each contract dispute are different, this visitor’s question brings a few thoughts to mind:
- Conflict Avoidance. Sellers and their agents get their money by selling the house to a willing buyer, not by engaging in EMD disputes. If the buyer doesn’t want to go to closing, then there you are. Yes, the parties (and their agents) time is lost in a failed deal. There is a time value to money. However, usually it is in their best interests to undo the deal and move on. EMD disputes that can’t be amicably resolved end up in Court, possibly going to trial. Some cases continue for months or even years.
- Role of EMD. After the contract and deposit are made, any dispute between the buyer, seller and/or their agents implicates the EMD as a potential remedy for a default. The timing and circumstances of the underlying default are usually determinative.
- Materiality of Buyer’s Default. A seller cannot take a deposit, repudiate a signed contract on a flimsy pretense, pocket the EMD and then move on to the next potential purchaser.
- Available Remedies. The judge will seek to interpret facts of the case according to the terms of the contract. An example of the language of a contract that may be used in Virginia is available here. The Court can do one of any number of things, including (a) forcing an unwilling party to go forward with the sale, (b) undoing the deal and returning the parties to the original positions or (c) awarding money damages as compensation.
- Waiver Issues. Usually, buyers don’t back out unless they discover some defect or simply can’t close due to circumstances, such as not having the money. If the buyer demands a release of a contract and refuses to go to closing, it will be hard for them to expect the seller to keep the property off the market. Likewise, if a seller accepts a new contract, then the seller cannot reasonably expect the buyer to purchase the house.
- Mitigation of Loss. Under some circumstances, the seller may be under a duty to find a replacement buyer. For example, the seller may claim the deposit on the premise that changing market conditions will result in a lower subsequent sale. Or, the seller may claim damages on the theory that it will suffer losses related to having to keep the property on the market. It is unreasonable for a seller to incur avoidable losses and then seek compensation for them from the backing out buyer.
- Failure to Timely Close. If the parties are close to closing, the seller may consider waiting until the closing date passes. The buyer’s failure to prepare for and go to closing prejudices expectations on their part that the property be kept off the market.
- Professional Regulation. The Real Estate Board regulates the conduct of real estate licensees. Agents may have professional duties under their own agreements with the parties and the particular circumstances of the dispute.
In the event that parties to a real estate sales contract cannot amicably resolve disputes over the disposition of the property or the EMD, they are well advised to contact a qualified attorney for counsel and representation.
I took the featured photograph in Shenandoah County, Virginia. It is just for fun and does not depict any of the properties discussed on this blog.
July 31, 2014
Your typical disputes over an earnest money deposit as liquidated damages in residential real estate sales go something like this: Home buyers decide to submit a contract and an earnest money deposit as an offer to purchase the property. Before closing, the buyer cannot find financing or discovers a defect with the home. If the buyer still has a contingency she can exercise to get out of the contract, then usually there is not a problem with return of the deposit. Where the seller is worried about finding another buyer and there is no applicable contingency, there might be a dispute over who is entitled to the escrowed funds. In scenarios falling within this classic dilemma, the common fact is that the realtor, seller or some other escrow agent holds the buyer’s funds until they are dispersed pursuant to the sales contract.
What if the buyer signs the contract but never submits the deposit and does not go to closing? Can the buyer still be liable to the seller in the deposit amount? The Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia, recently held that contract default language in a National Association of Realtors form was unenforceable as written under this scenario.
In April 2012, Sagatov Builders, LLC entered into a contract to sell Christian Hunt a residential property in Willow Creek Estates in Oakton, Virginia. The contract required Mr. Hunt to submit a $50,000 deposit within 5 days of the issuance of the building permit. The seller submitted the approved building permit to Mr. Hunt in September 2012. According to the Complaint, Mr. Hunt failed to make the deposit or to go to closing. According to Redfin.com, the property was sold on Dec. 13, 2013 for $2,775,000. Perhaps Sagatov suffered some expenses and inconveniences associated with having the property tied up with Mr. Hunt during peak home selling months. Sagatov’s website has an advertisement for the completed property, including pictures and a description. In April 2014, Sagatov Builders filed a lawsuit against Mr. Hunt for the unpaid $50,000.00 deposit as liquidated damages for his breach of the contract.
Why is Sagatov seeking the deposit amount as liquidated damages instead of a calculation of actual damages suffered? The parties used a National Association of Realtors Sales Contract for Land form No. W-48C (VA) dated 6/95. Section 21, entitled, “Default,” provides that:
If the Purchaser is in default, the Seller shall have all legal and equitable remedies, retaining the Deposit until such time as those damages are ascertained, or the Seller may elect to terminate the contract and declare the Deposit forfeited as liquidated damages and not as a penalty …. If the Seller does not elect to accept the Deposit as liquidated damages, the Deposit may not be the limit of the Purchaser’s liability in the event of a default.
On its face, this provision would seem to give the seller the option of retaining the deposit as liquidated damages and/or going after the buyer for additional damages. What are “Liquidated Damages” in Virginia? Attorney Lee Berlik defines them in his blog post as:
[T]he amount of which has been agreed upon in advance by the contracting parties. When a contract contains a liquidated-damages provision, the amount of damages in the event of a breach is either specified, or a precise method for determining the sum of damages is laid out. This is often done in situations where the parties agree that the harm likely to be caused by a breach would be difficult or impossible to measure with any precision, so they agree on a figure in advance and dispense with the time and effort that would otherwise be involved in proving compensatory damages at trial.
Rather than litigating a hot mess of damages issues, parties can stipulate to liquidated damages in their contracts. So long as the liquidated amounts are not deemed a “penalty” by the Court, these provisions are enforceable. A few months ago I posted an article to this blog about how Courts seek to avoid imposing similar penalties in construing commercial lease acceleration of rents provisions.
The liquidated damages provisions in the real estate form that came before Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Charles Maxfield presented a new twist on the liquidated damages vs. improper penalty debate. Upon the buyer’s default, these provisions gave the Seller the option of electing the liquidated damages or seeking some other amount of damages.
- It isn’t a true stipulation to liquidated damages because of its elective characteristics; and
- Even if it was, it is a “penalty” because it would only be exercised if actual damages were less than the deposit amount.
I think that the drafters of the form (leaving aside for a moment the changes made by Sagatov and Hunt) contemplated that an escrowed deposit would become a potential source for payment of damages in the event of default. These default terms seem focused on avoiding a scenario where the escrow agent would have to release the deposit, only to watch an aggrieved party chase after those released funds in court. They seem to have tried to create a right to draw on an escrow in the event of a breach.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports that Sagatov will have an opportunity to re-draft its pleadings based on the Court’s ruling. It will be interesting if this case ultimately goes up on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
If the $50,000 deposit had been actually escrowed, would the Court’s interpretation and application of these Default terms be any different? If actual damages were less than $50,000, would drawing the whole amount constitute a “penalty?” What if expenses dealing with the dispute, such as attorney’s fees, were incurred by the seller?