Posts Tagged ‘real estate lawsuits’

New Zillow Program Could Hurt Home Sellers, Agents

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Today Zillow announced that it has test-launched a new program called Instant Offers, which it claims will help home sellers and agents. But upon close inspection this program is full of legal caveats for home sellers and agents alike.

The new program claims to offer options to home sellers so that they can avoid traditional marketing such as open houses and photographs. Here is how it works, according to what I read: a seller decides to use the program, which offers 3 options –

1. Sell directly to investor buyers: Without placing the home on the MLS it is offered to investors for purchase – almost like a For Sale by Owner listing. The investors can make an offer. At that point the homeowner can decide whether to take the offer or list on the MLS with an agent the traditional way (Zillow will recommend the agent). Zillow will benefit financially from the agent referral as more agents will want to advertise with Zillow). It is not clear how Zillow will benefit financially when sellers do not want to work with agents, but maybe there will be some kind of agreement between it and the investors.

2. Sell to investor buyers and use an agent recommended by Zillow to assist with the sale: If the homeowner wants to list their home Zillow will recommend one of it’s “Premier Agents.” These are agents who pay Zillow for advertising. Zillow wins here (like above) because 70% of its revenue comes from these agents who advertise.

3. Reject offers and list on the MLS with an agent: Zillow will of course recommend one of it’s Premier Agents (note that Zillow is NOT a broker, rather these agents achieve this status by paying Zillow money to advertise their names and services).

Ok…so you may think this is good – it gives home sellers options. But here are the other points to consider for all home sellers:

1. Potential lower sales price – investor buyers typically do not pay high prices – they offer a quick sale but the catch is that they want to save money. For those who have to sell quickly this could be a good thing, but for those who want to realize top dollar this is not the answer. If you have a home that is a true fixer upper an investor buyer is great as well, but there may be competing investor buyers out there on the open market and you could end up getting more if you have multiple offers, so choosing the Zillow program really puts your back against the proverbial wall.

2. High Fees – People always complain about high fees for selling homes. This program appears to charge a 9% service fee to those who choose to sell to one of the Zillow partner investors.  Rather than pay such a high fee for a likely lower net sales price, it’s better to interview professional skilled area agents. Standard commission rates in CA are around 5% but commissions are negotiable.

3. THE LEGALITIES – Selling a home is a legal transaction, with contracts, paperwork and deadlines that are imperative to get right in order to prevent a lawsuit down the road. Although Zillow says it will recommend the seller work with an agent to get through the paperwork process with the new program, sellers have the option to forgo this. This is problematic, to put it mildly.

If I can give you one piece of advice only when it comes to selling your home, it would be this: have a lawyer review all your paperwork, including seller disclosures. If you do not want to hire a lawyer, make sure your agent has a good broker and have that broker review all your paperwork (or better yet, find an agent/Broker who IS an attorney). There are also many highly skilled agents who know what they are doing – find one.

4. Errors and Omissions insurance and lawsuits – Every broker (at least here in CA) must carry errors and omissions (E&O for short) insurance. It protects them in the event of a lawsuit brought by a party to a real estate transaction. Here’s the biggest problem with Zillow’s new program – Zillow is NOT a broker. If a home seller opts into the program and elects not to work with an agent, who is going to assume liability for contractual paperwork? What happens if disclosures are not filled out correctly, or if there is a problem with the home that is discovered after closing? The seller is put in a very bad position.

Agents could be hurt by this new program if they do not advertise with Zillow, as they will not be recommended by the company program. This is a lose-lose for hard-working professional agents everywhere who do not choose to pay money to Zillow, as home sellers in their areas may not even come across those skilled agents if they opt for the Zillow recommended agent.

These and many other questions do not have clear answers and as an attorney I say this program is fraught with potential problems for home sellers. So while Zillow may think the Instant Offer program is a great new “thing,” in my opinion, or until I see otherwise, sellers should steer clear. This program is in a test phase right now and is only available in Las Vegas NV and Orlando, FL.

For more information on the legalities of selling your home please contact a skilled attorney or broker in your area, or feel free to contact me with any questions by responding to this post.

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CA Supreme Court to Review Legality of Dual Agency

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

The California Supreme Court will soon have a chance to review the practice of dual agency, where a broker (either through one agent or two agents who work for the same broker) represents both the buyer and seller in the sale of real property. California is a state that allows this practice, although the California Association of Realtors has penned rules that require full disclosure of such situations to all parties. Nevertheless, when one agent/broker represents both sides of a sale transaction there is a big conflict of interest, and the possibility of misrepresentation and breach of agency duties is highly possible. I have always been against dual agency, but I have represented both buyer and seller in transactions – there are rare situations where the scenario can work effectively. I think it would be better for all sellers and buyers if it were not allowed. images

Here is an example of a typical dual agency dilemma for an agent: If a seller tells his agent something in confidence, say what is his bottom line for an acceptable sales price, and that agent then represents the buyer – who asks what price they should offer on the home – the agent is placed in a very precarious situation. The agent in this example owes a duty to both sides, but how can she answer  her buyer’s question without betraying the seller’s confidence? She knows what the seller will take, but it is her duty to get the seller the best offer possible. Similarly, it is her duty to do her best on behalf of her buyer now, so it puts her in a hard place.

The case at hand stems from a sale of a luxury home in Malibu, in which the buyer (represented by a Coldwell Banker agent) claimed the listing agent (a different Coldwell Banker agent) failed to disclose to him that his home was much smaller in square footage than advertised – this claiming that the price was inflated for the size of the home.

I believe that dual agency should never be allowed unless the broker is also an attorney, and even then I have doubts. After all, it is not allowed with attorneys – could you imagine hiring counsel for the opposing side in a court battle! This is a very sensitive area and many agents do not understand the legalities involved. It will be interesting to see what the court decides.

 

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Lawsuits On the Rise Against Real Estate Agents

Friday, June 13th, 2014

When the real estate market heats up, so do the number of lawsuits against real estate agents and their brokers. Many buyers and sellers of real estate do not often pause to consider that they are involving themselves in a legal transaction, which can have severe consequences if not handled properly. Many agents, whether intentionally or by mistake,  unfortunately do not understand the ramifications of contract law.images

Here are the main areas for which agents and their brokers are sued in real estate sales-related cases:

1. Failure to advise on a contract. Real estate agents have a duty to make sure buyers and sellers understand the contacts they are signing. If there are any problematic issues or clauses in the contract the agent needs to make sure her clients understand them before signing. It is important to remember here that there is a fine line for agents – only attorneys can give legal advice (see below). An agent can explain a contract clause but should always defer to her broker and an attorney if further clarification or if advice is needed.

2. Giving legal advice. Only an attorney is licensed to give legal advice. Unfortunately there are many agents who provide legal advice, whether intentionally or not (most just have no clue they are doing so). I have seen it happen. The golden rule for agents is to not provide any advice on the contract that could be considered legal advice…when in doubt tell them you cannot give legal advice and refer the question to a broker (or if an agent is a broker he can refer directly to an attorney).

3. Misrepresentation of property features. This is a leading cause of real estate sales litigation. The key to avoid litigation is to be honest. Exaggerating features of a property or claiming it has features it does not can land agents in the hot seat.

images-34. Failure to disclose defects. Real estate agents have a duty to disclose any known defects of a property, or any that they see that are obvious (think big wet spot under a sink or in a ceiling, or an HVAC system that does not come on when started, for example). It is important to remember that a real estate agent is not held to the same standard as a home inspector, but here in California most agents complete an Agent Visual Inspection Disclosure, in which they document any known or observed faulty conditions.

When in doubt, always disclose (this is the same thing agents should tell their sellers when they fill out their disclosures – disclose everything). This is especially important if a listing agent has an escrow fall out and has been given a home inspection or other reports from a previous buyer – at that point the agent and homeowner are considered to have knowledge of the issues that were discovered and reported, and must disclose those items and provide the report to any new buyers.

There have been rumblings in past years about allowing only licensed attorneys to obtain broker licenses, but that has never been implemented. It may help reduce lawsuits, but the problem is that mistakes will still be made by agents, and brokers will often not catch them (especially brokers who oversee large numbers of agents).

The best security for buyers and sellers is to work with an agent who is also an attorney. In many states only attorneys can be the closing agents in real estate sales (here in California we have escrow officers instead, but attorneys can handle them as well, although this is rare). Working with an agent or broker who has a legal background offers peace of mind for both buyers and sellers of real estate.

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