Why Litigate when you can Mediate?

by Dan Krell

You may find it odd that a Realtor is talking about mediation; after all I am not an attorney. Although a majority of real estate transactions close without incident, many are very happy endings indeed (no pun intended); disputes do arise.

Many disputes between home buyers and home sellers get resolved through normal lines of communication. However, communications can break down and a resolution far off.

If you do have a real estate dispute of any kind, please consult your attorney. But before you sue in court, discuss mediation with your attorney an alternative vehicle to resolve your dispute.

For those who don’t know, mediation is a process of bringing the parties together in an attempt to communicate differences and reach an agreement through a trained and neutral third party (the mediator). The mediator does not make judgment nor does the mediator pass any binding decisions. The mediator is trained in special techniques to facilitate the process of mediation.

The Maryland Association of Realtors (MAR) describes the benefits of mediation as follows (MDRealtor.org): mediation is faster than litigation, as litigation can take as long as several years for resolution while mediation can take as long as sixty days; mediation is less expensive than litigation as both parties split the cost and no one pays an excessive amount; mediation is non-adversarial and focuses on a win-win result, while litigation focuses on the disagreement and has a win-lose outcome; mediation results in an agreement that is mutually agreed upon by the parties;

Another benefit is that the parties who decide to pursue mediation retain the right to use other legal remedies. If mediation does not work the parties involved can pursue arbitration or litigation as if the mediation never took place.

Although mediation is not appropriate for every situation, common disputes that have been successfully resolved through mediation include repair and inspection issues, costs for repairs, missing fixtures, earnest money deposits, and claims of misrepresentation about property and appliance condition. Certainly, criminal allegations should be pursued by legal means not through mediation. Similarly, unethical behavior by Realtors should be referred to the real estate commission.

As a service to consumers, the MAR offers mediation as a means to resolve real estate disputes in Maryland. The MAR has established uniform procedural guidelines to maintain standardization and homogeneity in the process. These guidelines can be obtained through the MAR Mediation Service Provider, as indicated by the MAR.

Before mediation begins, the parties must have a written agreement to mediate. The agreement can be signed before or after disputes may arise. In fact, if you use the MAR purchase contract, there is a clause that states you agree to try mediation before litigation as means to resolve any dispute that arises from the transaction.

The next step is to submit the potential disputes to mediate and have a mediator selected. Although the mediator is selected by the mediation service, all parties involved must agree to the selection. All mediation sessions are typically held in the county where the dispute arose and are private and confidential.

I was once told that litigation results in unhappy parties regardless of the result. As a faster and inexpensive alternative, mediation is a means to resolve real estate related disputes agreeably.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of June 11, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Home Ownership Month

by Dan Krell

June is here! For many it means that summer is around the corner, school is ending, and trips to the beach. For Realtors and community groups, June is National Homeownership Month.

Since 2002, President Bush has declared June as National Homeownership Month. By doing so, the goal has been to increase minority home ownership to 5.5 million new home owners by the end of the decade. Despite a declining real estate market, home ownership is at record highs. The White House reports that there were 75 million American homeowners during the fourth quarter of 2006, while the homeownership rate was close to sixty-nine percent.

In keeping with the goal, the President and the Congress have passed a number of laws to promote home ownership including The American Dream Downpayment Act, HOME Investments Partnerships Program, and the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program.

In 2003, The American Dream Downpayment Act was signed into law. The program was designed to offer down payment and closing cost assistance to low income home buyers. According to the White House, the program has helped over 21,000 families since its inception. Information for local participation and qualification can be obtained through the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which was part of the Title II of the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act, is a federal block grant that allocates almost $2 Billion annually to create affordable housing for low income families. This program has been so successful that it is reported that more than 143,000 families used this program to purchase a home during the 2006 fiscal year.

In keeping with the spirit of home ownership, the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program was created. This program provides non profit organizations, such as the Habitat for Humanity (habitat.montgomery.md.us), the funds necessary to purchase home sites for the purpose of building or renovating by sweat equity and volunteer-based homeownership programs for low-income persons and families. Local programs, such as Habitat for Humanity, offer the resources to families to own affordable homes as well as retaining home ownership by making repairs that they could not otherwise make.

Looking ahead, the 2008 Federal budget includes funding for the “modernizing” of FHA (see my column from the week of May 17, 2007). The expansion of FHA will provide financing alternatives to sub-prime loans for home buyers while offering additional protection from and assistance for those in foreclosure.

Home ownership is the American dream. However for many families, it is still out of reach. Locally, the Maryland Association of Realtors, in conjunction with a coalition with home owners and those who want to be home owners, has created the League of Maryland Homeowners (leagueofmarylandhomeowners.com). The group is committed to making affordable housing available by searching and implementing solutions to the affordability crisis in housing.

There are many opportunities to assist others in their pursuit to home ownership. For example, the Tikvat Israel Congregation of Rockville is sending a contingent of high school students to New Orleans, LA later this month to assist the Habitat for Humanity effort in the still ravaged region.

Although we celebrate home ownership in June, we can make a difference year round from volunteering manual labor to as little as voicing your support for affordable housing initiatives.

This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of June 4, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Trapped and Pigeon Holed

by Dan Krell

A May 13th 60 Minutes piece that aired nationally attempted to portray a balanced view of how online brokerages have been chipping away at “standard” Realtor commissions. If you missed the segment, it was a story about the success and battles of an online brokerage called Redfin. (Interestingly, there was a similar story in the Washington Post almost a week later).

The story appeared to be an underdog piece about how Redfin is pitted against a real estate industry that is against change. Everyone loves an underdog, right? Although the story attempted to offer both sides of the story, 60 Minutes decision to interview a top real estate agent in the Seattle area made for sensationalism but little for advancing the truth and facts.

The agent interviewed was clearly not representative in income or business methods of an average Realtor. It appeared that the agent’s comments fed into the stereotypes being portrayed by her comments when challenged to lower her commissions as well as comments about home buying not being high tech.

The facts are that according to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average licensed real estate agent income was $35,670 in 2004. The average agent earned between $23,500 and $58,110 a year. Only the top ten percent earned more than $92,770.

Additionally, the real estate industry has embraced technology to assist in change as can be witnessed by the explosion of internet listings and computer based real estate applications. Many home buyers search for homes online before going to see the home in person. In fact new technology has allowed much of the process to become remote and impersonal; contracts and mortgage applications can be completed and signed and delivered via email. The truth is that the industry is very high tech and the National Association of Realtors is committed to technological advancement (www.realtor.org/technology/index.html).

As a Realtor in the trenches, I can tell you that commission structures have been changing for a while, however not because of “discount” brokers, but as a necessity of survival in a saturated industry. The recent record sellers’ market assisted in the growth of real estate business models that are based on flat fees. Online brokerages, such as Zip Realty, as well as “full service” Realtors have been offering closing credits, rebates, and low commission structures for some time.

How do you get a full service Realtor for a “discount” price? The truth is that although some Realtors are not negotiable on commission, many are. All you have to do is ask and chances are that you can negotiate a lower listing commission or a closing credit on your home purchase.

I was once told by a professor in graduate school that once others’ perceptions have you pigeon holed, you can never get out. Although the 60 Minutes story may be good for ratings, the one sided treatment and depicted stereotype of wealthy Realtors who are steadfast for the status quo did nothing to promote the facts. The National Association of Realtors has posted depicted misrepresentations as well as the correct facts on their website: (www.realtor.org/about_nar/60_minutes/NARRespondsToSixtyMinutesMain.html).

To CBS’s credit, some facts and rebuttal comments from the National Association of Realtors, as well as others, have been posted on the story webpage:

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of May 28, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Real Estate Tax traps You Need to Know About

by Dan Krell

It is unfortunate that many home buyers and home sellers neglect to consult with experts and sometimes enter into situations that may not be in their best interest. There are several common situations that are associated to real estate transactions that seem beneficial, but may actually incur a tax liability to those involved. The situations are the “short sale,” rebate programs, and the use of a down payment assistance programs.

The short sale has gained popularity recently as a sluggish market has forced some desperate home sellers to reduce the price of their home below what is actually owed. A short sale is when the lender agrees to accept an amount that is less than the payoff amount in order to sell a home. The concept is simple although the process is sometimes problematic. Although there is no net profit from a short sale, the financially challenged home seller can find some relief when they engage in such a process.

Although the short sale can help you out of a mortgage crisis, the IRS looks at the difference between the actual mortgage payoff and the negotiated payoff as a financial gain to you. You will most likely be issued a 1099 at the end of the year by your lender.

Another popular practice that seems beneficial but may have some liability is the rebate program. Rebates are offered to Home buyers and home sellers as a business incentive from organizations, brokers, and Realtors to use their services. Some organizations and credit unions offer buyer rebates as a value added service to its members if an affiliated broker or Realtor is used. For example, Costco offers rebates to its members of up to 0.75% of the price of the home when affiliated service providers are used. USAA offers its members up to $3,100 when the MoversAdvantage® program is used. If you participate in such a program, you may receive a 1099 as you may have incurred a tax liability.

Although they have been scrutinized by HUD and the IRS, down payment assistance programs have been used by millions nationwide to assist in the purchase of a home. Down payment assistance programs are non-profit organizations that assist home buyers with limited funds to purchase a home by providing the money needed for their down payment. The funds provided to the home buyer are typically received by the program as a gift from the home seller. These programs have been criticized as being a circle scheme funneling extra money from the home seller to the home buyer to assist in the purchase of the home, circumventing the underwriting guidelines.

Last year, the IRS revoked the non profit status of some of these programs citing that that the amount given to the program from the seller is directly related to the amount provided to the buyer. Additionally, the amounts in question are only provided to the program if the sale closes. If you use such a program, you should consult the IRS on the tax exempt status of the program as well as any tax liability you may incur.

As any real estate transaction may have tax ramifications, you should always consult a tax expert for advice.

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of May 21, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.

Going once, Going twice…sold!

by Dan Krell

When you think of a real estate auction, what may come to mind is a foreclosure sale. The foreclosure sale has been popular for many years with investors and home buyers looking for a good deal. However, auctioneers have been auctioning all types of real estate (such as commercial, residential, and land) for many years.

Real estate auctions have increased so much over the last few years, such that the National Association of Auctioneers reports that residential real estate auctions have increased 8.4% from 2004 to 2005 (auctioneers.org). The growing trend is national as well as local.

Is an auction the right tool for everyone? According to Fernando Palacios, the local representative of Tranzon, LLC (a national auction company), a real estate auction would not benefit everyone. Typically, real estate auctions have been used by investors and builders to sell their inventory quickly. However, in the present real estate market more home owners have been taking advantage of the “fast track” process so as sell their home quickly. He explains that the auction process is right for you if you want a quick sale and you can set your reserve price about 10% below the market.

Why the discounted price? Mr. Palacios explained that although the goal is to get a full retail price or higher, the reserve price is set below market value to help create a “buzz.” The buzz attracts potential home buyers to the auction.

There is a lot of activity the day of the auction as the excitement builds. Sometimes several bidders bid against each other in an effort to get the winning bid, resulting in a higher than market price. According to Mr. Palacios, this happens more often in moderately priced homes.

Mr. Palacios described the benefits of an auction as having a set sale date, maintaining privacy, selling “as-is,” and receiving a “cash” offer. Having a specific date for the sale can be helpful in planning as well as being, as Mr. Palacios states, “emotionally freeing” for the home owner. The auction has one date for prospective home buyers to present their “offers” to you via the bidding process.

He continues to explain that if sell your home through a Realtor, you must maintain your home in “showing” condition and be prepared for home buyers to come by at any time. Many times, home buyers will come when it is inconvenient such as dinner time and your kid’s bed time. The auction process helps you maintain your privacy until the date of the auction, when all registered participants can preview your home.

Another benefit of the auction process is that the home is sold “as-is;” the home buyer purchases the home without a home inspection. The home owner does not have to worry about a home inspection killing the deal, or about making repairs to the home.

Getting a “cash” offer is a basic part of the auction process, which means there are no contingencies and you can count on closing in thirty days. This is to the home owner’s advantage as the home buyer has no way out of the contract.

For more information on real estate auctions and to see if it right for you, visit the National Auctioneers Association (auctioneers.org) and the Auctioneers Association of Maryland (mdauctioneers.org).

This column is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. This article was originally published in the Montgomery County Sentinel the week of May 7, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dan Krell.