The number of residential property sales exploded over the past few years, but the hot real estate market may have driven at least one unexpected consequence when it comes to surveys. Amid the highly competitive market, some home buyers may have been told that it would take longer to close a transaction since surveyors were overwhelmed with numerous orders. Thus, some buyers elected to waive surveys. After purchasing the property, however, buyers may have discovered encroachment matters impacting their property or their neighbor’s property, or that a boundary line is in a different location than originally believed.
Every year the claims team receives several notices involving survey matters and boundary disputes. Here are a few scenarios that serve as a reminder about the importance of surveys, and what you can do when a transaction does, or does not, include a survey.
Scenario One: A new buyer does not obtain a survey at closing. She is visited by her neighbor a few days after purchasing the property. The new property owner believes it’s going to be a friendly visit but instead the neighbor says, “your driveway and garage are encroaching on my property, and we want it removed in 30 days or else you will be hearing from our attorney.”
Typically, such an encroachment would have been shown in a survey. Further, the title policy may not offer much relief to the beleaguered buyer in such a case.
A title policy will likely have reflected a standard survey exception in Schedule B which may read, “Any discrepancies, conflicts, or shortage in area or boundary lines, or any encroachments or protrusions, or any overlapping of improvements that would be disclosed by an inspection or an accurate and complete land survey of the Land.” Since a survey was not obtained in this scenario, this may result in the matter not being covered under the title policy.
Scenario Two: This next situation involves a seller who owns a large tract of land and decides to split the tract into three smaller lots. The seller only wants to sell and convey one of the smaller, unplatted lots. The legal description in the seller’s deed is for the entire larger tract. How will the parties determine which of the three tracks is to be sold and properly identify the location of the property and its legal description to include in the deed? The purchase agreement most likely is not clear and will require additional questions and written clarification between the agent and the parties as to what is intended to be conveyed in the transaction. Unfortunately, without clarification in such cases, the parties may eventually find themselves in an expensive lawsuit.
In either scenario, if a survey is not requested and purchased at the time of closing, it is a good practice to have the buyer sign a document that the party understands a new survey is being declined, and to keep the document in the closing file. On the other hand, if a survey is obtained ahead of closing the transaction, consider the following:
- Review the survey for accuracy of the survey and the survey certification. Are the correct parties identified? Review the legal description. Do you have a signed and dated survey from the surveyor?
- Carefully review the survey to locate any items beyond the boundary lines or encroaching onto the buyer’s property.
- Add any specific survey matters which are reflected on the survey as exceptions in the title commitment.
- Provide a copy of the survey to the buyer (and lender, if appropriate).
- As a good practice, have the buyer acknowledge receipt of the survey by having the buyer sign and date either the survey or a separate document confirming receipt, and keep a copy in the closing file.
Also, in certain jurisdictions, Survey Coverage or Survey Endorsement may be available for purchase to add coverage to an Owner’s or Loan Policy. If permitted in your jurisdiction to rely on a prior survey and an affidavit, discuss such a situation and the requirements with the Alliant National underwriting team before the closing occurs.
We understand not every case requires a new survey, but a buyer may find that a survey provides an understanding of what was conveyed and some peace of mind regarding their investment.
If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
2021 American Land Title Association/National Society of Professional Surveyors (ALTA/NSPS) Standards: https://www.nsps.us.com/page/2021ALTA.
American Land Title Association (ALTA): Frequently Asked Questions and other guidance for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys: www.alta.org.
Fraudsters continue to seek out legitimate businesses they can use as a cover for illegal schemes that attempt to separate people from their money. One of the fraud scams that has reemerged is the check fraud scheme.
The claims team was recently notified of a scenario involving an Alliant National agent. A new purchase agreement and a sizeable earnest money deposit cashier’s check was presented to the agent. The cashier’s check was from a foreign bank and was promptly deposited by the agent into their escrow account. Shortly after depositing the check, the buyer notified the agent that the transaction was cancelled. The buyer demanded the agent promptly return the funds through aggressively worded emails and continuous phone calls. The agent did the right thing by not allowing the purported buyer to usurp the procedures that the agent already had in place. Ultimately, the foreign bank confirmed that the cashier’s check was fraudulent, and the purported buyer ceased any further efforts to communicate with the agent.
A few Red Flags from the transaction included:
- A foreign buyer,
- For sale by owner transaction,
- No real estate agent utilized in the transaction,
- Use of non-standard real estate purchase and sale agreement template,
- Termination of the purchase and sale agreement was quickly sent to the agent after the check was deposited, and
- An aggressive stance is taken by the buyer requesting that the funds be returned.
Appropriately, the agent did not rush the process, notified the purported foreign buyer of their check verification process, independently researched and located contact information for the foreign bank, confirmed the validity (or lack thereof) of the cashier’s check with the bank, and waited for confirmation from the bank on whether or not the funds cleared the account.
For a foreign bank’s check, it is important to remember that it may take several weeks for funds to clear an account. If you act and return funds too quickly, the buyer’s original check may be returned due to insufficient funds. If you attempt to try and recover the funds from the buyer, most likely the buyer will refuse to return the money or the buyer can no longer be located. Then, the agent is left without those funds in their escrow account, which will lead to other issues.
It is critical to stay alert and continue to recognize this and other fraud schemes before fraudsters visit your office. You can learn more about identifying and preventing fraud by downloading Alliant National’s white paper – Escrow Fraud/Social Engineering: Recent Schemes and Prevention Tips. This 23-page guide was also referenced in our recent #AllNatAdvantage post titled The #1 Tool For Recovering Diverted Funds: Your Wire Fraud Response Plan.
In addition, here are a few other resources that outline a similar check scam:
If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
I’m sure at some point in life, each of us has thrown up our hands and said, “I’m not worrying about the details, this is good enough.” Of course, when you deal with real property transactions, you quickly learn that the small stuff matters.
The claims team has seen several areas that can be typically resolved in the transaction or post-closing without ever rising to the level of a claim. Let’s look at three of those areas – Release of Liens, Release of Revolving Line of Credit / Home Equity Line of Credit, and Property Taxes – which all require attention to detail.
- Release of Liens
Let’s say you’ve obtained the payoff letter from the correctly identified and verified lienor, closed the transaction, sent the funds to the lienor, and now you are moving on to the transaction. But wait! The lien is recorded in the county land records, so how are others to know it has been paid? Several lienors will handle recording a release in the proper county land records, but there are few lienors who fail to do so. Either the lienor sends an unrecorded release to their borrower, to the title company, or does not prepare one at all. In a few states, there are statutes that provide a timeframe in which a lienor must record the release after receipt of payment. In other cases, the instrument may have a clause that discusses the obligation of the lienor when the debt is paid. In all cases, as part of a post-closing, best practice process, a release or satisfaction should be promptly filed in the property’s county land records before the file is classified as completed. This may require a few follow-up communications with the lienor to satisfy this requirement, but it will be worth it in the long run.
- Release of Revolving Line of Credit / Home Equity Line of Credit
The Revolving Line of Credit or Home Equity Line of Credit loans allow a borrower to draw funds, when needed, and the borrower can use the line of credit over and over while being secured with the property. Many closers may take the same steps as a typical payoff of a mortgage or deed of trust, but there are a few additional steps required to properly close down and have the loan released from the property. Just sending the payoff funds is not enough.
To properly address these types of loans, a written request from the borrower to close the account upon receipt of the full payoff is typically required. Many lenders request a signed letter from the borrower requesting to close the account. So, if you are wiring the funds, the seller’s written request to close the account will still need to be delivered to the lender. To provide evidence that the borrower’s written request was sent to the lender, a best practice would be to track the delivery of the request to the lender, either by facsimile, mail or email. Once you receive confirmation that it has been delivered and received, keep a copy of this information in the file along with a copy of the written request. Similar to the Release of Lien section above, a release or satisfaction should be properly filed in the property’s county land records before the file is classified as completed.
Whether you are using a tax company to provide a report on the outstanding property taxes or doing the research yourself, if not handled accurately, unpaid property taxes may result in a homeowner being subjected to additional taxes and penalties or losing the property. In a few states, just looking at the county’s tax collector site is not enough as there are other entities required to be paid that are situated outside of the tax collector’s office. If you are doing business in such a state, identify all the tax entities to which taxes are due and payable when a property is conveyed or refinanced.
Another tax example involves states that are reviewing prior owner exemptions. If an exemption was deemed to have expired in an earlier conveyance, the tax collector’s office is sending letters to the current homeowner seeking payment for the difference caused by the changed exemption for the prior years. As an example, if there is a homestead exemption reflected but a company has held title to the property for several years, this may require a discussion with the tax collector’s office as to the proper calculation of taxes owed if the exemption is no longer valid. With this information, the proper amount of taxes can be collected at closing.
Our final tax example involves prior year’s unpaid taxes or issued tax certificates. In these cases, make certain the proper payment amount is collected and timely delivered to stop a tax lien sale or, if sold, any certificate holder from obtaining a tax deed. Depending on the state, the expiration of the redemption period after a tax deed is issued may result in a loss. As a best practice, the title company should confirm with the tax collector’s office or its designated entity that it has received payment and that the payment is being applied to the correct account(s).
Attending to the details in these three areas will provide assurance to all those involved in the transaction. Having properly addressed these matters, a seller or buyer will not have to worry about being contacted in a few months, or possibly years from now, to address these issues. If you have questions, please contact the Alliant National claims team.
Whether your customer has owned property for years or just purchased property, you know these property owners are not immune from being a potential victim of real property fraud. With the use of technology and access to real property records, property owners are reporting a number of fraud cases. One type of fraud being reported involves foreign property owners. The typical target owns an unencumbered, vacant parcel of land and has an out-of-country mailing address listed in the county records. Fraudsters are most likely finding these properties by searching the county records to identify a potential victim.
Here’s one recent fraud scenario: Months after a sales transaction closed, the title company was advised by the insured of a potential fraudulent sale of a vacant parcel of land which was owned by a foreign investor. An investigation revealed that the sale of the property was fraudulent. The conveyance deed was allegedly notarized by a notary employed at the U.S. Consulate General office in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Consulate General’s office confirmed that there was no notary by that name employed at their office. The owner of the property, who resided in Columbia, confirmed that the property was not for sale.
A few Red Flags we have identified while administering these types of claims include:
- Vacant land sales;
- Vacant parcels that have been owned by the same owner for several years;
- Non-local owners;
- Low sales price; or
- Real estate agent is contacted by a buyer/seller in a rush to buy/sell the property.
Some tips to help a title company avoid this type of fraud:
- Be extremely careful with emails from out-of-country sellers rushing to close the transaction;
- If you receive a rush sale request from the purported seller or a real estate agent, DO NOT rush; rather take your time and give the file your full attention;
- Ask the real estate agent how or from whom they received the sale listing;
- Contact the prospect seller via Zoom, Skype or another video-enabled meeting platform;
- Ask the seller questions about the property such as when and how they came to acquire it, and what their plans were for the vacant parcel to see if the seller knows the property’s history;
- Request to see the identification that will be used at the closing transaction;
- Check the seller’s foreign identification. Look at the picture (sometimes you can see that a picture was placed on top of another picture), and check for inconsistencies with the font and signs of tampering. Whenever possible, compare to a standard version of the identification, whether using a guidebook, an online resource, or even Googling samples of identification for comparison;
- Check the property appraiser’s website for the current owner’s address, and consider forwarding a letter to that address;
- Check the tax collector’s website, and review the history of tax payments to see if you can determine who the payor has been, and their mailing address;
- Research the notary and contact the Embassy or Consulate to confirm the notary works there. We have learned that many of the foreign officers are aware of this type of fraud; and
- If your gut tells you something is wrong, please follow your gut. That feeling is usually right!
For our agents, remember that you can be rewarded for your efforts through Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program if you prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing. Program details and the nomination form are on our website at alliantnational.com/title-claims/crime-watch-program/.
This blog contains general information only, not intended to be relied upon as, nor a substitute for, specific professional advice. We accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any purpose acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material on this blog.
Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program creates a formidable partnership to fight fraud.
There is no other way to say it: Real estate fraud is a major problem in the United States. According to the National Association of Realtors, nearly 14,000 people were victimized by real estate fraud in 2020 alone.[i] Combatting this growing threat requires strong partnerships, and Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program seeks to foster such partnerships by rewarding Alliant National agents who prevent fraudulent closings.
The program has produced real results over the years. In this blog, we will look at a recent detection and prevention of a fraudulent transaction by Siesta Title and Escrow Services LLC.
Alliant National Agents on Crime Watch
Alliant National offers a $1,000 reward to Alliant National agents who help prevent a fraudulent transaction from closing. The company created the program to help raise agents’ awareness of potential fraudulent transactions and to reduce the overall cost of claims.
To qualify for consideration to receive a reward under the Crime Watch Program, an agent must satisfy a few requirements:
- The reporting agent must be an active Alliant National agent in good standing.
- The agents must prevent a fraudulent transaction or forgery involving a real estate transaction that was intended to be insured by Alliant National.
- In the case of forgery, the intended forgery must include the falsification of a signature with an intent to defraud.
- The Crime Watch Nomination form must be executed by an owner/manager.
- All available and relevant documentation – including evidence showing that the transaction was to have been insured by Alliant National – must be submitted to the appropriate Alliant National State or Regional Agency Manager along with the Award Nomination form.
The submission form and all relevant documentation will be reviewed by the company and a final determination will be made.
Siesta Title Spots Suspicious Activity
Siesta Title and Escrow Services LLC, a title agency headquartered in Port Charlotte, Fla., recently submitted a suspected fraud to Alliant National. Their story underscores the importance of Alliant National’s Crime Watch Program and how collaboration between agents and underwriters can help stop fraud.
The property in question was a vacant lot in Port Charlotte that had been owned by a Canadian man for 30 years. Quite quickly there were communication problems and other warning signs that something about the transaction was amiss.
“The seller was hard to reach from the beginning, did not respond to emails and only called once, but it was a horrible connection,” said Amanda Pertuch, the submitting agent.
Some of the other indicators that tipped Amanda off to the questionable nature of the transaction included:
- The purported seller having suspicious-looking ID
- The purported seller’s wiring instructions going to a foreign bank
- The purported seller’s letterhead having an address associated with a vacant lot
- The purported seller not having a bank account in the same country where he holds citizenship
- The notary on the closing documents was already on Siesta’s fraud alert list
- The purported seller not showing up in any Google searches
Following verification by Amanda’s manager and Alliant National, the suspected fraud was confirmed, and the transaction was cancelled. The proposed liability amount for the transaction was $160,000.
“I’m glad and relieved that we were able to catch this fraud attempt,” said Pertuch. “Anti-fraud programs are important for our industry to keep claim costs under control. I’m happy Alliant National and Siesta Title were able to take care of this quickly and efficiently.”
If you suspect fraud, notify your manager immediately. Your manager may investigate further and will determine next steps. Under no circumstance should suspicions be communicated to outside parties without prior approval from your manager.
Fraudsters will often attempt to speed the transaction along; do not let them succeed. If you suspect fraud or forgery, conduct a full investigation before proceeding to close the transaction and issuing the policy.
Managers should contact Alliant National underwriting or claims for further assistance.
Working Together, We Can Limit Fraud
Alliant National is committed to limiting fraud and lowering claim costs. However, we can’t do it alone. Just as our ability to deliver high-quality title insurance hinges on our partnerships with agents, so too does our capability to detect and thwart fraud. And as Siesta Title and Escrow Services’ work shows, when those partnerships work, real results that reward agents and protect transactions are indeed possible.
[i] Wire Fraud (nar.realtor)