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 In the Sagatov case, the seller used a marked-up, outdated realtor association form as a template for a transaction conducted apparently without brokers.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.
April 10, 2014
The departure of a tenant leaves the landlord with long to-do list, including listing the property for rent, evaluating applicants, repairing or remodeling the property and preparing a new lease agreement. Wrapping-up the relationship with the previous tenant can inadvertently fall to the bottom of the list of priorities. A lawsuit over the prior tenant’s security deposit can create a big distraction to the landlord after the old tenant leaves and the new one moves in. Proving damages can be a time intensive activity. Fortunately, many of these disputes are avoidable. This blog post explores seven strategies landlords may employ to avoid tenant security deposit disputes.
1. Use a Lease Appropriate to the Jurisdiction and the Property:
In urban areas of Virginia, landlords leasing out 4 or more properties must follow the Virginia Residential Landlord & Tenant Act (“VRLTA”). Similarly, District of Columbia landlords must follow the D.C. Housing Code. These sets of rules contain different provisions regarding what terms a landlord may put in a lease. They also show how the courts would interpret the lease. If the property is a condominium unit, the community will have rules and regulations governing leases in the development. Confusion is fertile grounds for conflict. Wise landlords use lease agreements adapted to their jurisdiction’s laws and the property unique situation.
2. Calculate Realtor Commissions and Routine Repairs into the Rent:
When the tenant moves out, the landlord may need a realtor to promptly market the property to a good replacement tenant. The realtor will require a commission on the rental. Even with fastidious tenants, features of the property will wear out with the passage of time. Most landlords want the property to “pay for itself” out of funds from tenants. During a transition, the previous tenant’s security deposit appears as low-hanging fruit. However, the landlord’s interests are best served by having the property pay for these expenses over the term of the lease out of ordinary rent. Landlords should account for more than mortgage payments, insurance, association fees and real estate taxes in the rent. The decision to rent the property requires a full cost analysis in addition to review of what the market will bear. The security deposit is for damage that exceeds ordinary wear over the period of the tenancy.
3. Conduct an Inspection of the Property Prior to the Tenant’s Move-In:
If the landlord and tenant end up litigating over the security deposit, the Court will hear evidence of the difference in the condition of the property between the move-in and the move-out. Whenever a property is in transition or dispute, a thorough, documented inspection is invaluable. I have previously blogged about property inspections in my “Navigating the Walk Through” post series. Before the tenant moves in, the landlord should conduct an inspection, take photos and provide a simple report to the tenant. The VRLTA requires the landlord to provide the tenant with a move-in inspection report. This can save the landlord tremendous time later on.
4. Provide the Tenant Notice and Inspect the Property Again at the End:
Both the VRLTA and the D.C. Housing Code require landlords to provide tenants notice of the final inspection. The close-out inspection should be conducted within three days of when the tenant returns possession. This requires the landlord and his agent to focus on the departing tenant, new renter, realtors and contractors simultaneously. Some inexperienced landlords put off focusing on the previous tenant’s security deposit until after any renovations are done and the new tenant is in. Savvy landlords recognize the significance of the condition of the premises at the time the previous tenant departs. After the property has been renovated and the new tenant has moved in, the condition of the property cannot be documented post-hoc.
5. Retain and Store Damaged Fixtures Replaced Between Tenants:
When contractors replace fixtures in a rental property, usually they throw the replaced ones away to clean the job site. If the landlord intends to deduct those damaged fixture from the security deposit for damaged fixtures, he should consider retaining them as real evidence. Some damages don’t photograph well. If the tenant later complains about the deduction, the landlord can then offer to let the tenant inspect the physical items. A tenant will think twice about filing suit knowing that the landlord will bring the disputed fixtures to court. Few landlords do this. Even if they tell the contractor, the manager may not remind the employees accustomed to cleaning up the site. This requires extra attention to detail, but may be convenient to some landlords. Some bulky or fragile items may not be suitable as trial exhibits.
6. Provide an Itemized List of Deductions Supported by the Inspection:
Under the VRLTA and the D.C. Housing Code, the landlord has 45 days to provide the tenant with the security deposit refund and the written list of deductions. If the tenant disputes the list, the landlord may desire to later add additional items not included on the list to aggressively respond to the lawsuit. However, the Court may deem any items not listed as waived. The deductions included on the list should be those supported by the final inspection documentation. Note that the landlord cannot deduct for ordinary wear and tear. The definition of “ordinary wear and tear” is flexible. I like to understand it as normal depreciation over the life of the item’s normal use. If any refund is made, the tenant may be entitled to interest.
7. Provide Strong Customer Service:
Whether a landlord is renting out a room to a summer intern or leasing a single family home for a year to a large family, he owes it to himself (and the tenants) to manage the property like a business, including a commitment to strong customer service. A happy tenant can save a landlord a realtor’s commission by referring a new tenant. Where the realtor may also get referrals by establishing rapport with the departing tenant.
Can you think of any other strategies for landlords to prevent or resolve legal disputes with departing tenants?