1. Environmental Issues
When purchasing a piece of property, it is important to be aware of any environmental liabilities associated with it. For example, you should find out if there are any registered underground tanks within several miles of the property, any known contaminated properties in the neighborhood, or any property owners who have been fined by the government for failing to meet environmental safety standards.
Before, it took a costly site investigation for the information, but now there are online environmental databases available at a fraction of the cost. Anyone can access reports on otherwise hard to detect environmental issues. With these databases, it is possible to obtain a listing of hazards near a property, or spills and violations attributed to businesses nearby.
Some reputable databases include VISTA Information Systems, located in San Diego, California, which allows you to register and search the data bank for free, and E Data Resources, which is located in Southport, Connecticut. These services are all relatively inexpensive, but can provide you with priceless information that is useful before you make a purchase.
2. Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning is a serious problem which can lead to adverse health problems. In children, high levels of lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral and learning problems, slow growth, and hearing problems. In adults, lead poisoning can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorder, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain.
Lead poisoning is especially a problem in cities with older buildings. Typically, lead is present in the paint from older buildings, in the water supply, and in the environment from cars and buses. Preventing lead poisoning in large cities, where there is so much possibility for exposure is both difficult and expensive. Federal programs have attempted to address this problem.
For buyers and sellers, lead poisoning is also an issue. Houses that were built before 1978 probably have paint that contains lead. Federal law requires that sellers disclose known information on lead-base paint hazards before selling a house. Sales contracts must include a federal form about lead-based paint in the building. Buyers will have up to 10 days to check for lead hazards and are likely to stipulate corrections.
Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas that has been estimated to cause 5,000 to 20,000 lung cancer deaths yearly. It is second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer. It has been estimated that nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the US has elevated radon levels.
Radon is produced when small amounts of uranium and radium in soil and rocks decay. Radon gas will also decay into smaller and radioactive particles that can be inhaled into the lungs where it can damage cells and cause lung cancer.
Radon is mainly released from soil, water and natural gas which have already been exposed to radon, from solar-heating systems that use radon-emitting rocks, and from uranium or phosphate mine tailings. Radon is naturally released in low concentrations, but inside your house, radon gas can become more concentrated. Lack of ventilation exhaust fans that bring in air from outside can increase the amount of radon in your home.
The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that homes be tested for radon, which should have a radon level of 4 picocuries per liter or less. For people selling their homes, the EPA recommends that the house be tested for radon, and radon levels be reduced, if necessary. Radon levels can be reduced by increasing the airflow into the house, keeping the vents open year round, and discouraging smoking in the house. For people buying homes, the EPA recommends obtaining radon test results in addition to information about radon reduction systems.
If you are planning to have your home tested for radon, the EPA recommends that the test be conducted in the lowest level of the home that is suitable for occupancy, and you should make sure that the test is done correctly by following the EPA Test Checklist.
There are two different types of testing devices available: passive devices and active devices. Passive devices, such as charcoal canisters, alpha track detectors, and charcoal liquid scintillation devices are exposed to air in the home for a specified amount of time, and sent to a laboratory to be analyzed. Active devices, like continuous radon monitors and continuous working level monitors, continuously measure and record the amount of radon in the air, and require operation by trained testers. These tests can be performed over a long term, or a short term, with the long term tests by active devices considered to be more accurate.
Common Ways of Holding Title
How Should I Take Ownership of the Property I am Buying?
Real property has become increasingly more valuable and the question of how parties can take ownership of their property has gained greater importance. The form of ownership taken -- the vesting of title -- will determine who may sign various documents involving the property and future rights of the parties to the transaction. These rights involve such matters as: real property taxes, income taxes, inheritance and gift taxes, transferability of title and exposure to creditor's claims. Also, how title is vested can have significant probate implications in the event of death.
The Land Title Association (LTA) advises those purchasing real property to give careful consideration to the manner in which title will be held. Buyers may wish to consult legal counsel to determine the most advantageous form of ownership for their particular situation, especially in cases of multiple owners of a single property.
The LTA has provided the following definitions of common vestings as an informational overview. Consumers should not rely on these as legal definitions. The Association urges real property purchasers to carefully consider their titling decision prior to closing, and to seek counsel should they be unfamiliar with the most suitable ownership choice for their particular situation.
Common Methods of Holding Title
Sole ownership may be described as ownership by an individual or other entity capable of acquiring title. Examples of common vestings in cases of sole ownership are:
A Single Man/Woman: A man or woman who has not been legally married. For example: Bruce Buyer, a single man.
An Unmarried Man/Woman: A man or woman who was previously married and is now legally divorced. For example: Sally Seller, an unmarried woman.
A Married Man/Woman as His/Her Sole and Separate Property: A married man or woman who wishes to acquire title in his or her name alone.
The title company insuring title will require the spouse of the married man or woman acquiring title to specifically disclaim or relinquish his or her right, title and interest to the property. This establishes that it is the desire of both spouses that title to the property be granted to one spouse as that spouse's sole and separate property. For example: Bruce Buyer, a married man, as his sole and separate property.
Title to property owned by two or more persons may be vested in the following forms:
Community Property: A form of vesting title to property owned by husband and wife during their marriage which they intend to own together. Community property is distinguished from separate property, which is property acquired before marriage, by separate gift or bequest, after legal separation, or which is agreed to be owned only by one spouse.
Real property conveyed to a married man or woman is presumed to be community property, unless otherwise stated. Since all such property is owned equally, husband and wife must sign all agreements and documents of transfer. Under community property, either spouse has the right to dispose of one half of the community property, including transfers by will. For example: Bruce Buyer and Barbara Buyer, husband and wife as community property.
Joint Tenancy: A form of vesting title to property owned by two or more persons, who may or may not be married, in equal interest, subject to the right of survivorship in the surviving joint tenant(s). Title must have been acquired at the same time, by the same conveyance, and the document must expressly declare the intention to create a joint tenancy estate. When a joint tenant dies, title to the property is automatically conveyed by operation of law to the surviving joint tenant(s). Therefore, joint tenancy property is not subject to disposition by will. For example: Bruce Buyer and Barbara Buyer, husband and wife as joint tenants.
Tenancy in Common: A form of vesting title to property owned by any two or more individuals in undivided fractional interests. These fractional interests may be unequal in quantity or duration and may arise at different times. Each tenant in common owns a share of the property, is entitled to a comparable portion of the income from the property and must bear an equivalent share of expenses. Each co-tenant may sell, lease or will to his/her heir that share of the property belonging to him/her. For example: Bruce Buyer, a single man, as to an undivided 3/4 interest and Penny Purchaser, a single woman, as to an undivided 1/4 interest, as tenants in common.
Other ways of vesting title include as:
A Corporation*: A corporation is a legal entity, created under state law, consisting of one or more shareholders but regarded under law as having an existence and personality separate from such shareholders.
A Partnership*: A partnership is an association of two or more persons who can carry on business for profit as co-owners, as governed by the Uniform Partnership Act. A partnership may hold title to real property in the name of the partnership.
As Trustees of A Trust*: A trust is an arrangement whereby legal title to property is transferred by the grantor to a person called a trustee, to be held and managed by that person for the benefit of the people specified in the trust agreement, called the beneficiaries.
Limited Liability Companies (L.L.C.): This form of ownership is a legal entity and is similar to both the corporation and the partnership. The operating agreement will determine how the L.L.C. functions and is taxed. Like the corporation its existence is separate from its owners.
*In cases of corporate, partnership, L.L.C. or trust ownership - required documents may include corporate articles and bylaws, partnership agreements, L.L.C. operating agreement and trust agreements and/or certificates.
Remember: How title is vested has important legal consequences. You may wish to consult an attorney to determine the most advantageous form of ownership for your particular situation.
Estate planners often recommend "Living Trusts" as a viable option when contemplating the manner in which to hold title to real property. When a property is held in a Living Trust, title companies have particular requirements to facilitate the transaction. While not comprehensive, following are answers to many commonly asked questions. If you have questions that are not answered below, your title company representative may be able to assist you, however, one may wish to seek legal counsel.
Who are the parties to a Trust?
A typical trust is the Family Trust in which the Husband and Wife are the Trustees and, with their children, the Beneficiaries. Those who establish the trust and transfer their property into it are known as Trustors or Settlors. The settlor's usually appoint themselves as Trustees and they are the primary beneficiaries during their lifetime. After their passing, their children and grandchildren usually become the primary beneficiaries if the trust is to survive, or the beneficiaries receive distributions directly from the trust if it is to close out.
What is a Living Trust?
Sometimes called an Inter-vivos Trust, the Living Trust is created during the lifetime of the Settlors (as opposed to being created by their Wills after death) and usually terminates after they die and the body of the Trust is distributed to their beneficiaries.
Can a Trust hold title to Real Property?
No; the Trustee holds the property on behalf of the Trust.
Is a Trust the best way to hold my property?
Only your attorney or accountant can answer the question; some common reasons for holding property in a Trust are to minimize or postpone death taxes, to avoid a time consuming probate, and to shield property from attack by certain unsecured creditors.
What taxes can I avoid by putting my property in trust?
Married persons can usually exempt a significant part of their assets from taxation and may postpone taxes after the first of them to die passes. You should check with your attorney or accountant before taking any action.
Can I homestead property which is held in a Trust?
Yes, if the property otherwise qualifies.
Can a Trustee borrow money against the property?
A Trustee can take any action permitted by the terms of the Trust, and the typical Trust Agreement does give the Trustee the authority to borrow and encumber real property. However, not all lenders will lend on a property held in trust, so check with your lender first.
Can Someone else hold title for me "in trust?"
Some people who do not wish their names to show as titleholders make private arrangements with a third party Trustee; however, such an arrangement may be illegal, and is always inadvisable because the Trustee of record is the only one who is empowered to convey, or borrow against, the property, and a Title Insurer cannot protect you from a Trustee who is not acting in accordance with your wishes despite the existence of a private agreement you have with the Trustee.
In purchasing your new home, your future monthly payments will be made up of principal, interest, real property taxes and insurance, but what is the tax for the Community Facilities District, otherwise known as a Mello-Roos District? The LTA has answered some of the questions most commonly asked about the Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act.
What is a Mello-Roos District?
A Mello-Roos District is an area where a special tax is imposed on those real property owners within a Community Facilities District. This district has chosen to seek public financing through the sale of bonds for the purpose of financing certain public improvements and services. These services may include streets, water, sewage and drainage, electricity, infrastructure, schools, parks and police protection to newly developing areas. The tax you pay is used to make the payments of principal and interest on the bonds.
Are the assessments included within the Proposition 13 tax limits?
No. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 severely restricted local government in its ability to finance public capital facilities and services by increasing real property taxes. The "Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act of 1982" provided local government with an additional financing tool. The Proposition 13 tax limits are on the value of the real property, while Mello-Roos taxes are equally and uniformly applied to all properties.
What are my Mello-Roos taxes paying for?
Your taxes may be paying for both services and facilities. The services may be financed only to the extent of new growth, and services include: Police protection, fire protection, ambulance and paramedic services, recreation program services, library services, the operation and maintenance of parks, parkways and open space, museums, cultural facilities, flood and storm protection, and services for the removal of any threatening hazardous substance. Facilities which may be financed under the Act include: Property with an estimated useful life of five years or longer, parks, recreation facilities, parkway facilities, open-space facilities, elementary and secondary school sites and structures, libraries, child care facilities, natural gas pipeline facilities, telephone lines, facilities to transmit and distribute electrical energy, cable television lines, and others.
When do I pay these taxes?
By purchasing an interest in a subdivision within a Community Facilities District you can expect to be assessed for a Mello-Roos tax which will typically be collected with your general property tax bill. These special tax payments are subject to the same penalties that apply to regular property taxes.
How long does the tax stay in effect?
The tax will stay in effect until the principal and interest on the bonds are paid off along with any reasonable administrative costs incurred in collecting the special tax or so long as it is needed to pay the expenses of services, but in no case shall exceed 40 years.
What happens if a general tax payment is not made on time?
Because the Mello-Roos tax is typically collected with your general property tax bill, the Facilities District that obtained the lien may withdraw the assessment from the tax roll and commence judicial foreclosure.
What is the basis for the tax?
Most special taxes levied on properties within these districts have been structured on the basis of density of development, square footage of construction, or flat acreage charges. The act, however, allows for considerable flexibility in the method of apportionment of taxes, and the local agencies may have established an entirely different method of levying the special tax against property in the district in question.
How much will the Mello-Roos payment be?
The amount of tax may vary from year-to-year, but may not exceed the maximum amount specified when the district was created. In the case of the purchase of a new house within a subdivision, the maximum amount of the tax will be specified in the public report. The Resolution of Formation must specify the rate, method of apportionment, and manner of collection of the special tax in sufficient detail to allow each landowner or resident within the proposed district to estimate the maximum amount that he or she will have to pay.
How is the special tax reflected on the real property records?
The special tax is a lien on your property, essentially like a regular tax lien. The lien is recorded as a "Notice of Special Tax Lien" which is a continuing lien to secure each levy of the special tax.
How are Mello-Roos taxes affected when the property is sold?
The Mello-Roos tax is assessed against the land, but is not based upon the value of the property, therefore, the possible increased value of the property does not affect the amount of the tax when property is sold. The amount of the tax may not exceed the original maximum amount stated in the Resolution of Formation. Any delinquent payments must be satisfied before the sale of the real property since the unpaid amounts are a lien against the property.
Condominium and PUD Ownership
Builders, in an effort to combat the dual problem of an increasing population and a declining availability of prime land, are increasingly turning to common interest developments (CIDs) as a means to maximize land use and offer Homebuyers convenient, affordable housing.
The two most common forms of common interest developments in many states are Condominiums and Planned Unit Developments, often referred to as PUDs. The essential characteristics shared by these two forms of ownership are:
common ownership of private residential property;
mandatory membership of all owners in an association which controls use of the common property;
governing documents which establish the procedures for governing the association, the rules which the owners must follow in the use of their individual lots or units as well as the common properties; and
a means by which owners are assessed to finance the operation of the association and maintenance of the common properties.
Before continuing further, it may be helpful to clarify a common misconception about Condominiums and PUDs. The terms Condominium and PUD refer to types of interests in land, not to physical styles of dwellings. Therefore, when Homebuyers say that they are buying a townhouse, that is not the same as saying that they are buying a Condominium. When Homebuyers say that they are buying a unit in a PUD, they are not necessarily buying a single-family detached home. A townhouse might legally be a Condominium, a unit or lot in a Planned Unit Development, or a single-family detached residence. The terms Condominium or PUD will say a great deal about the ownership rights the buyer will receive in the unit and the interest they will acquire in the common properties or common areas of the development.
Common interest developments offer many advantages to Homebuyers-low maintenance and access to attractive amenities-however, there are restrictions and duties which come with ownership of a Condominium or PUD that buyers should be aware of prior to purchase.
To acquaint you with various aspects of ownership in common interest developments, the Land Title Association has answered some of the questions most commonly asked about Condominiums and PUDs.
What are the basic differences between ownership of a Condominium and ownership of a PUD?
The owner(s) of a unit within a typical Condominium project owns 100% of the unit, as defined by a recorded Condominium Plan. As well, they will own a fractional or percentage interest in all common areas of the Condominium project.
The owner(s) of a lot within a PUD own the lot which has been conveyed to them-as shown in the recorded Tract Map or Parcel Map-and the structure and improvements thereon. In addition, they receive rights and easements to use in common areas owned by another-frequently a Homeowner's association-of which the individual lot owners are members.
The above are basic descriptions and should not be considered legal definitions.
Besides ownership of my unit, what other amenities (common areas) will I be acquiring use of and how will I own them?
Common interest areas may span the spectrum from the ordinary-buildings, roadways, walkways and utility rooms-to the extravagant-equestrian trails and golf courses-with more usual amenities including community swimming pools and clubhouse facilities.
Your ownership rights in common areas will be spelled out in your project's Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC and R's). The subject of CC and R's will be expanded upon later in this brochure.
As we stated in the answer to the previous question, Condominium owners own a fractional or percentage interest in common with all other owners in the Condominium project, in all common areas. PUD owners receive rights and easements to use of common areas through their membership in a Homeowner's association, which typically owns and controls the common areas. Some PUD projects, however, provide that the individual Homeowners will own a fractional interest in the common areas. Again, in this case, a Homeowner's association will have the right to regulate the use of the common areas and to assess for purposes of maintaining the common areas.
Check your CC and R's and association Bylaws (basically, rules governing the management of the development) to insure that you understand your rights to use of your unit and common areas.
What services will my Homeowner's assessments help to finance?
Your Homeowner's assessments support not only the easily recognizable-building and swimming pool upkeep, landscape maintenance-but also the unseen-association management and legal fees and association insurance.
As well, reserves must be factored into your assessments, including reserves for replacement of such items as roadways and walkways. In the case of Condominiums, where ownership is usually limited to airspace within the walls, floors and ceiling of the unit, reserves will frequently fund replacement of such items as roofs and plumbing.
Each member of the Homeowner's association, upon purchasing their unit, must receive a pro forma operating budget from the association. Basically, this will be a financial statement of the income and obligations of the association, which must include an estimate of the life of the obligations covered under the assessments and how their replacement is being funded.
What happens if I fail to pay my Homeowner's assessments?
Delinquency fees will be added onto the unpaid assessments.
Should your delinquency continue, the association has the right to place a lien upon your property. The lien may lead to a foreclosure if the delinquency is not paid.
Of what importance are CC and R's and Bylaws?
CC and R's and Bylaws are the rules and regulations of the community, meant to guide the use of individual properties and common areas. Buyers should be aware that CC and R's and Bylaws may be written so as to restrict not only property use, but also to restrict owners' lifestyles, for instance, spelling out hours during which entertainment, such as parties, may be hosted.
CC and R's and Bylaws are highly important and should be thoroughly examined and understood prior to purchase. They bind all owners and their successors to the rules and regulations of the community. Failure to follow those rules and regulations can be considered a breach of contract. Legal action may be taken against the Homeowner for any such breach.
At what point in the real estate transaction will I be allowed to review a copy of my CC and R's and Bylaws?
Legally, it is the responsibility of the owner to provide the prospective purchaser with the governing documents of the development (CC and R's and Bylaws), the most recent financial statement of the Homeowner's association and notice of any dues delinquent on the unit.
The law states that these items should be delivered as soon as practicable; however, the prospective buyer should request to see them as early as possible. If you do not fully understand what is stated in these documents, consult a real property attorney.
Should I object to items included in the CC and R's and/or Bylaws, will I have the opportunity to terminate those items prior to taking ownership?
No. The process required to terminate these restrictions is often complex and costly. Termination of restrictions will require, at least, a majority vote by members of the Homeowner's association, and may require litigation.
What if I have further questions regarding Condominium and PUD ownership?
Ask any questions you may have before you buy! Don't wait to take ownership to find out about restrictions and regulations affecting your Homeownership rights.
The Mechanics' Lien law provides special protection to contractors, subcontractors, laborers and suppliers who furnish labor or materials to repair, remodel or build your home.
If any of these people are not paid for the services or materials they have provided, your home may be subject to a mechanics' lien and eventual sale in a legal proceeding to enforce the lien. This result can occur even where full payment for the work of improvement has been made by the homeowner.
The mechanics' lien is a right that a state gives to workers and suppliers to record a lien to ensure payment. This lien may be recorded where the property owner has paid the contractor in full and the contractor then fails to pay the subcontractors, suppliers, or laborers. Thus, in the worst case, a homeowner may actually end up paying twice for the same work.
The theory is that the value of the property upon which the labor or materials have been bestowed has been increased by virtue of these efforts and the homeowner who has reaped this benefit is required in return to act as the ultimate guarantor of full payment to the persons responsible for this increase in value. In practice, a homeowner faced with a valid mechanics' lien may be compelled to pay the lien claimant and then pursue conventional legal remedies against the contractor or subcontractor who initially failed to pay the lien claimant but who himself was paid by the homeowner. Another justification for this result relates to the relative financial strengths of the parties to a work of improvement. The law views the property owner as being in a better situation to absorb the financial setback occasioned by having to pay the amount of a valid mechanics' lien, as opposed to a laborer or material man who is viewed as being less able to absorb the financial burdens occasioned by not being paid for services or materials provided in connection with a work of improvement.
The best protection against these claims is for the homeowner to employ reputable firms with sufficient experience and capital and/or require completion and payment bonding of the construction work. The issuance of checks payable jointly to the contractor, material men and suppliers is another protective measure, as is the careful disbursement of funds in phases based upon the percentage of completion of the project at a given point in the construction process. The protection offered by mechanics' lien releases can also be helpful.
Even if a mechanics' lien is recorded against your property you may be able to resolve the problem without further payment to the lien claimant. This possibility exists where the proper procedure for establishing the lien was not followed. While it is true that mechanics' liens may be recorded by persons who have provided labor, services, or materials to a job site, each is required to strictly adhere to a well-established procedure in order to create a valid mechanics' lien.
Needless to say, this is one area of the law that is very complex, thus it may be worthwhile to consult an attorney if you become aware that a mechanics's lien has been recorded against your property. In the event you discover that a lien has been recorded but no effort has been made to enforce the lien, a title company may decide to ignore the lien. However, be prepared to be presented with a positive plan to eliminate the title problems created by this type of lien. This may be accomplished by means of a recorded mechanics' lien release from the person who created the lien, or other measures acceptable to the title company.
As in all areas of the real estate field, the best advice is to investigate the quality, integrity, and business reputation of the firm with whom you are dealing. Once you are satisfied you are dealing with a reputable company and before you begin your construction project, discuss your concerns about possible mechanics' lien problems and work out, in advance, a method of ensuring that they will not occur.
It is an unfortunate commentary, but when economic activity declines and housing activity decreases more real property enter the foreclosure process. High interest rates and creative financing arrangements also are contributing factors.
When prices are rapidly accelerating during a real estate "bonanza", many people go to any lengths available to get into the market through investments in vacation homes, rental housing and "trading up" to more expensive properties. In some cases, this results in the taking on of high interest rate payments and second, third and even fourth deeds of trust. Many buyers anticipate that interest rates will drop and home prices will continue to escalate. Neither may occur, and borrowers may be faced with large "balloon" payments becoming due. When payments cannot be met, the foreclosure process looms on the horizon.
In the foreclosure process, one thing should be kept in mind: as a general rule, a lender would rather receive payments than receive a home due to a foreclosure. Lenders are not in the business of selling real estate and will often try to accommodate property owners who are having payment problems. The best plan is to contact the lender before payment problems arise. If monthly payments are too hefty, it may be that a lender will be able to
make some alternative payment arrangements until the owner's financial situation improves.
Let's say, however, that a property owner has missed payments and has not made any alternate arrangements with the lender. In this case, the lender may decide to begin the foreclosure process. Under such circumstances, the lender, whether a bank, savings and loan or private party, will request that the trustee, often a title company, file a notice of default with the county recorder's office. A copy of the notice is mailed to the property owner.
If the default is due to a balloon payment not being made when due, the lender can require full payment on the entire outstanding loan as the only way to cure the default. If the default is not cured, the lender may direct the trustee to sell the property at a public sale.
In cases of a public sale, a notice of sale must be published in a local newspaper and posted in a public place, usually the courthouse, for three consecutive weeks. Once the notice of sale has been recorded, the property owner has until 5 days prior to the published sale date to bring the loan current. If the owner cures the default by making up the payments, the deed of trust will be reinstated and regular monthly payments will continue as before.
After this time, it may still be possible for the property owner to work out a postponement on the sale with the lender. However, if no postponement is reached, the property goes "on the block". At the sale, buyers must pay the amount of their bid in cash, cashier's check or other instrument acceptable to the trustee. A lender may "credit bid" up to the amount of the obligation being foreclosed upon.
With the recent attention given to foreclosure, there also has been corresponding interest in buying foreclosed properties. However, caveat emptor: buyer beware. Foreclosed properties are very likely to be burdened with overdue taxes, liens and clouded titles. A buyer should do his homework and ask a local title company for information concerning these outstanding liens and encumbrances. Title insurance may or may not be available
following a foreclosure sale and various exceptions may be included in any title insurance policy issued to a buyer of a foreclosed property.
Your local title company will be happy to provide additional information.