Fraudsters — both high-tech and old school — daily attempt to use real estate and other transactions to scam our law firm, our title company and our clients out of money and property.¬† To date, we have not been hit (some of our client have been), but we are always on guard.¬† Fraudsters forever keep trying.

As you are growing your business — and these tips apply to businesses large and small, old and new — it is a good idea — from time to time — to gather your financial team and key executives, along with your IT professionals, and simply have a conversation about “tightening things up” and avoiding common scams.

  • Are your checks (and cash) — incoming, outgoing and blank checkbooks — tightly secured and under watchful eyes?
  • Are your systems too open and accessible (a simple question such as automatic screen savers with passwords that trigger when an employee is away from his desk)?
  • Do you have proper insurance to protect your real risks?
  • Do you have proper training and systems in place to avoid common and emerging risks?

In the end, we all have some exposure.¬† So, eternal vigilance, the latest technology protection and training of employees new and old, is the only answer.¬† Part of this caution is constantly “tightening up” and “changing up” your transactional practices and security procedures to avoid the latest scam.

Here are some common scams we and our clients have seen:

  1. In the low-tech world, fraudsters simply borrow money based upon false promises and representations.¬† This is a time-tested and common scam.¬† It is borne of two human instincts: (a) we want to trust people and (b) we are lured by the promise of a better-then market return on investment (if it’s “too good to be true,” it’s probably fraud).¬† Many of these fraudsters have the appearance of business stability and financial success, but are willing to offer above-market interest rates for a personal or business loan.¬† In the end, these loans are not properly secured and are not properly guaranteed, and the fraudster never had the ability or intent to pay back the monies.
  2. Similarly, we have seen clients purchase assets or entire businesses that are subject to liens or governmental enforcement actions, or the purchase price is based upon false financial documents or hidden property condition.  In a business transaction, be careful of slippery buyers, sellers and attorneys who can make fraudulent closing adjustments as the numbers are flying about in a closing.
  3. Another low-tech fraud is thieves who rifle U.S. Postal Service mail boxes (both the blue drop boxes and mailboxes at your home or business), steal checks, and then change the payee and amount on the check and cash it.
  4. Pay attention here: In the high-tech world, fraudsters hack into a Realtor, investor or title company email system, and steal their email signature and logo, and the details of an imminent transaction.¬† Then, they establish a similar email domain (with maybe one letter changed or a “dot” added).¬† Using the new domain, they send an email to the party who is to originate a wire with false wire instructions — instructions straight into the fraudster’s overseas wire address.¬† The email by all appearances looks entirely legitimate and it’s from a name you know and with whom you actively are dealing.
  5. We have written about sellers who don’t own actually property attempting to mortgage or sell the same.¬† Read here and here.
  6. Finally, fraudsters use sophisticated hacking and ransomware viruses to invade your critical computer systems.  They corrupt your data and hijack control of your systems, relenting only when an exorbitant ransom has been paid.  Extortionists have taken over critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines, hospitals, and municipalities.  Most recently, the vendor running the Cincinnati Multiple Listing Service and dozens of MLSes nationwide was the victim of a weeks-long ransomware attack that was costly and disruptive.

So, how can you protect yourself in this world increasingly fraught with risk of theft of your valuable data, money and time by those with malintent?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Stay in your lane.¬† Let lenders lend.¬† In most cases, they are good at it.¬† If a borrower is coming to you for a loan, it’s likely because he’s not eligible for conventional financing, and that ineligibility is for a good reason — he’s either lying, broke or both.
  • Carefully use due diligence and proper documentation.¬† If you are going to lend money or buy assets or a business, perform the kind of due diligence a prudent and sophisticated buyer or lender would undertake and obtain appropriate security and guarantees of a loan.¬† We discuss some of the pitfalls of private lending here.¬† Similar risks can exist in buying assets and buying whole operating businesses.¬† Part of this process is assuring that the borrower actually owns the assets he is selling or pledging (free and clear) and that your security interest is properly and timely perfected as against that asset.¬† In a real estate-based loan, title insurance is a key way to assure this is so.¬† In purchasing a business, the risk is even greater in that the corporate entity may have significant residual undisclosed liabilities or governmental enforcement problems. That seller — and your purchase monies — will completely disappear by the time you learn of the fraud.¬† Finally, the #1 “due diligence item” is to know your employees, know your borrowers, know your sellers.¬† The internet (and now artificial intelligence tools) is an incredibly powerful way to do background on parties to a business transaction,¬† Use it.¬† Cautiously heed the lessons of what you find.
  • Properly perfect security interests and document guarantees.¬† When banks lend money, they want proper security for their loans and appropriate guarantors for their repayment.¬† In most cases, banks are over-protected, and they want it that way.¬† You do too.¬† In both real estate and equipment-based transactions, we have seen borrowers pledge the same assets to different lenders as security for two or more loans.¬† Obviously, in that circumstance someone is going to be left holding the bag.¬† (Yes, fraudsters are that shameless.)¬† Using proper real and personal property title examinations and lien searches and using appropriate documentation for loans and guarantees is critical.¬† For example, in Kentucky, in order for a personal guarantee of debt to be enforceable, it must follow specific statutory requirements.¬† Without that, it’s worthless.
  • Don’t put checks or other key financial documents in blue U.S. Post Office boxes on the streets and don’t have checks sent to a mail box at your business or residence that is accessible by others.
  • As to wire fraud, you can’t be careful enough.
    • The sender of a wire should assume everything you see is a lie, the fax, the email, the logo, the wire instructions, the sender web site, the sender.¬† Everything.¬† Always verify everything via voice using a trusted and known telephone number for the wire recipient.
    • If you smell a rat, don’t initiate the wire.¬† Wait and check some more.¬† Urgency — especially inappropriate urgency — is a key indicator of fraud.
    • Read carefully the sender email addresses and the email.¬† Many times the email domain of a fraudster does not exactly match the domain name with which you have been dealing.¬† Note misspellings and grammatical errors in the text of an email that may come from a foreign sender or one unfamiliar with the parties and the transaction.
    • Note last-minute changes, especially of wiring instructions.
    • Note changes made on the Friday before a holiday weekend or before another holiday, and before the end-of-month, when Realtors and title company employees are more likely to be busy and careless.
  • Buy cyber insurance.¬† Your property and casualty insurance agent can offer your business cyber protection.¬† It requires you to use good practices for the insurance to invoke, but both the coverage and the required procedures are a critical part of best practices protection.
  • As to ransomware attacks, we have two pieces of advice:
    • First, according to the Harvard Business Review (citing IBM), 60% of cyber attacks originate inside your organization.¬† Either a malevolent employee or ex-employee intent on theft or vandalism (75% of attacks) or a negligent employee (25% of incidents) who falls for a phishing attack scam cause most losses.¬† So, hire and retain employees of good character, monitor their activities, and carefully, comprehensively and quickly cut off computer access of former employees.¬† Segregate access to data in your organization to those who need that data, and no one else.
    • Second, every computer system is vulnerable.¬† Every one.¬† But homegrown (premises-based and self-maintained) servers are more vulnerable to a hack (in my opinion).¬† As a result, we (a) have migrated the vast majority of our data into the Microsoft cloud (other providers are also available) (heaven help the world if they hack the Microsoft cloud!), (b) have segregated access to data to employees who need that access, and (c) have make serial backups of data that is not in the cloud.
  • Understand the risks, develop training and systems to avoid the risk, and train all of your employees on cyber security procedures.

As our attorneys can assist with due diligence and proper documentation (including title insurance) of your transactions, call us!

As real estate attorneys and licensed Ohio title insurance agents, we must constantly be on the lookout for the latest scheme to defraud buyers, sellers, lenders and others in real estate transactions.  We have already written about ever-persistent attempts at wire fraud.  (This one is never going away, we fear.)  But yet another fraud that is borne from the bountiful information available on and the anonymity of the internet is on the rise: Seller impersonation schemes.

According to one of our underwriters, First American Title Insurance, Seller impersonation schemes have increased 73% in 2023.¬† We personally have seen this attempted — but caught — to two separate commercial Realtor clients.

Here’s how the scam works, according to First American:

  1. Scammers search public records to identify real estate that is free of a mortgage or other liens. These often include vacant lots or rental properties. The identity of the landowner is also obtained through these public records searches.
  2. Scammers pose as property owners and contact a real estate agent to list the property for sale. All communications are through email and other electronic means and not in person.
  3. The listing price of the property is typically set below the current market value to generate immediate interest in the property.
  4. When an offer comes in, the scammer quickly accepts it, with a preference for cash sales.
  5. The title company or closing attorney transfers the closing proceeds to the scammer. The fraud is typically not discovered until the time of recording of transferring documents with the applicable county.

The natural reaction of a Realtor or buyer is: “that it’s the job of the closing attorney or title agent to ascertain the true identity of the seller,” but in the cases of limited liability companies and corporations, there typically is no public information at all (including the Secretary of State’s records), to ascertain the true owners and officers of these entities.¬† In the case of individual sellers, if they are shipping to Ohio a notarized deed signed out of state, it is possible that no one even asked for their I.D.

Thus, not only is it not negligence on the part of the attorney or title agent to fully ferret out the “authority” question, it’s something that’s not even possible in many instances.¬† In short, it’s one of the inherent risks in real estate transactions.

Thus — and it sounds self-serving to say this, but it’s true — one of the only sure ways a buyer can protect himself against his scam is to purchase an Owner’s Policy of Title Insurance at the time of the acquisition.¬† (And, no, simply buying coverage for the lender is simply insufficient — it is in fact NO COVERAGE AT ALL for the buyer).¬† In the above scenario, a non-fraudulent buyer who purchases an Owner’s Policy is covered if they fall victim to this scam.

__________

We are tremendously proud of the title presence we have in Ohio and Kentucky through Ivy Pointe Title.¬† Our residential division headed by Rick Turner (513.943.5660), and our commercial division headed by Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) are — as our tag line says — “accurate and on time, every time.”¬† They are here to protect you from these kinds of scams and schemes.¬† Let us know how we can help you safely close your next transaction.

For both commercial properties as well as single family homes, owners have flooded us with inquiries about their notices from County Auditors in Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Montgomery Counties as to new property valuations.¬† We can’t imagine the number of calls the County Auditors must be getting.

A few guideposts for you:

  • First, read this important blog entry that essentially tells you that the first 30% of the valuation increases in southwest Ohio will not result in an increase (or at least not a significant increase) in your actual tax bill.
  • Second, Auditor’s property valuation is not some magical number — for the January 2024 tax bill, it is to be the fair market value as of January 1, 2023.¬† Thus, if your property was worth more then than in the prior valuation period, you should expect a valuation increase — perhaps one even above average for all properties in the marketplace.¬† Some clients seem to think that since valuations were less than what they thought the property was actually worth in the past, the Auditor’s valuation process is supposed to yield a lower number.¬† Well, it’s not.
  • Third, if your property was purchased since the last triennial valuation date (January 1, 2020), the sale price likely will be reflected in the valuation.¬† As this blog entry addresses, a recent arm’s length sale essentially — and largely irrebuttably — IS the value by law.
  • Fourth, if your property falls in one of the gazelle categories of properties whose values have leaped ahead of the market — single family homes, warehouse and industrial properties, and apartment buildings — you should both celebrate your good fortune and expect a bigger tax bill as a result.
  • Fifth, on the flip side, if you are a victim of the weak office market or the mall or downtown retail market weaknesses, you should should see some tax relief in the January tax bills.
  • Sixth, gas prices are up, grocery prices are up, car prices are up.¬† You have not had a valuation increase in three years.¬† Wouldn’t you expect your tax bill would rise some, at least modestly?
  • Seventh, for both buyers and sellers in today’s market, the looming valuation increases create both a possible problem and an opportunity as to contractual tax prorations for sales between now and January when the new — very different — valuations come out.¬† Read here for more detail on this.
  • Eighth, remember, the Board of Revision process to challenge property valuations is a two-way street.¬† If your property truly is undervalued, you risk an increase.¬† Cautiously keep in mind the upward dynamics of the real estate market over the past three years.¬† You could wind up with an increased valuation as opposed to the sought reduction if you overplay your hand.
  • Finally, I had a client recently ask me “why would single family home valuations be increasing in Cincinnati?” and I swear he must live under a rock.¬† I responded, “haven’t you seen newspaper articles explaining that Cincinnati has had one of the hottest housing markets in the nation since the start of COVID?”¬† The response, “ummm, no.”¬† It is surprising since we deal with this every day, and to some extent it is just denial of the obvious fact that we are blessed in Cincinnati with a fantastic housing and commercial real estate market.¬† Enjoy it while it lasts!

If, after reading this and the prior blog entry on the new valuations coming out in January, you still have tax valuation questions, please contact me (513.943.6655) or another member of our tax team.  We are glad to help.

In the category of “you learn something new all the time,” this week I learned something new about Remote Online Notaries (“RONs”) used for real estate closings.

The scenario was that a seller was unaware until he reached the closing table that the signature of his wife — married since the house was acquired — was needed on the deed in order to release her rights of dower.¬† Unfortunately, the wife was (a) a non-citizen of the USA, (b) she had a green card and had resided in the US for years, and (c) was physically located in Germany as of the time of the closing.

In the days before RONs, the only option was (a) email the deed to the signer and have them print it out in the remote jurisdiction (usually on funny-sized paper), (b) make an appointment at the U.S. Embassy for an overseas equivalent of a notary (or acknowledgement) (typically you can’t just drop in unannounced), (c) wait for that¬† appointment and (d) Fed Ex the deed back to Cincinnati.

The wife was able to get a quick appointment at the U.S. Embassy and would be able to get a deed back to Cincinnati about five days after the initial closing (even including an intervening weekend).  Unfortunately, the buyer just could not wait the five days and was throwing a fit, demanding thousands of dollars of concessions for (what we saw as) a relatively short delay.

So, RON to the rescue, right?

Not so fast.¬† The title underwriter’s (the guys who ultimately make the call as to whether we can close or not) first reaction was “so long as she is a US citizen, we can use a RON closing.”¬† I replied, “well no, in addition to being out of the country she is not a US citizen.”

Digging deeper (which we appreciate our title underwriter doing), it turns out that the “US citizen” thing is not a bright line test.¬† Rather, RON closings use sophisticated Knowledge-based Authentication (“KBA”).¬† These are whose odd security questions that pull and query minute details from your past (many times when I am asked a KBA question, I don’t even know the answer, even though the question is about something I should know!).¬† Well, as it turns out, those KBA questions are primarily pulled from information contained deep in your credit report, and — if your contacts to the US and its credit-reporting system ae sufficiently robust — RONs can possibly work for non-US citizens, including those who at the time are overseas.¬† (You actually find out “if it works” during the execution of a RON closing.)

So, the closing was saved — RON got it done within hours of the first phone call.¬† And I learned more about RON, citizenship and what “KBA” is.

#MakingADifference

 

Our phones are ringing and email boxes are filling up at Finney Law Firm about notices from County Auditors throughout the state of Ohio about dramatic property tax valuation increases coming with the January 2024 tax bills.

Read this shocking paragraph from an article from Paula Christian at WCPO (Channel 9):

The [Ohio Department of Taxation] recommended a 43% increase in property values in Clermont County and 42% in Butler County. The updates will be reflected in 2024 tax bills, which are sent out early next year and will last for three years until reappraisal.

So, the natural reaction from property owners receiving such notices is that their tax bill (i.e., the amount of taxes they are obligated to pay) will rise a similar amount.¬† This is not true — not by a long shot — given the intricacies of Ohio property taxation.

How could that be?  We explain:

  • First, the County Auditors throughout Ohio are charged by statute with re-valuing properties in their County every three years (a “Triennial”).¬† The statutory duty is to value each parcel at its fair market value (in the case of new tax valuations coming in January of next year, that is a January 1, 2023 valuation).
  • In southwest Ohio, January of 2024 will see new valuations for each of Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Montgomery Counties.¬† Warren County will have new valuations in January of 2025.
  • It is not the Auditor’s job to show mercy, or to “shade” the fact that the real estate market has changed dramatically since the prior 3-year valuation date (in the case of Counties having new valuation in January of 2024, that would be a January 1, 2020 valuation as a comparison).¬† They are obligated by statute to value properties fairly (i.e., what a reasonable buyer would pay a reasonable seller for that property).
  • Your property taxes are, very roughly, a result of this formula:

(Tax Valuation * Tax rate) – certain credits = tax bill.

  • Thus, it is natural to assume that to the same degree your valuation rises, so does your tax bill.
  • However, it is much more complicated than that.
    • About 10% of your tax bill is¬†inside millage which does stay at the same tax rate (i.e., it does generate more revenue in direct proportion to your increasing valuation).¬† But that is a very small part of your tax bill.
    • About 90% of your tax bill is outside millage, which is a result of tax levies that year after year generate a fixed amount of revenue for the levy recipients (depending on the district, schools are about 55-70% of your tax bill).¬† For example, a specific levy passed by the voters years ago may generate a fixed $40,000,000 in taxes each year (regardless of inflation or valuation increases).
    • That means that for the great majority of your Ohio tax bill, as the valuations increase, the rate rolls back, generating the roughly same revenue for the levy recipient overall each and every year.
    • Therefore, if your property has a lower-than-average valuation increase, the outside millage portion of your tax bill will actually decrease.¬† To the extent that your increase is merely average for that taxing district, the outside millage portion stays the same.¬† And to the extent that your valuation increase is more than average, the outside millage portion of your taxes will rise, but only to the extent of that excess increase.
    • Remember the last school levy campaign where the pro-levy advocates told you that “taxes don’t keep pace with inflation”?¬† Well, as a result of the formula set forth above, that’s actually true.

Do remember that when you get a changed value, that’s the first change in three years, so the increase reflects that entire Triennial period (i.e., 8% per year compounded would exceed a 25% valuation increase over three years).

Also keep in mind that certain categories of real estate have in fact seen dramatic changes since three years ago.¬† Indeed, our region has seen much greater-than-average appreciation than the rest of the nation for single family homes: “Cincinnati has seen the highest percentage of home-sale price increases in the country over the last year.”¬† ¬† As a result, our view is that property values in certain categories of real estate have skyrocketed in the past few years, especially single family residential and apartments, as well as warehouse and industrial properties.¬† Office properties, especially downtown, may have seen a decrease in valuation.¬† County Auditors simply are required by state law — as overseen by the State Department of Taxation — to recognize the full measure of those increases in their triennial valuation work. They have no choice.

Chicken Little cries from taxpayers that “the sky is falling” as a result of these properly-recognized valuation hikes are vastly over-stated.¬† For most taxpayers, the increase in their tax actually paid will be less than the inflation over that Triennial cycle.

By the way, two of the primary bases we see clients try to raise against the valuation increases of their properties are simply not valid in Ohio:

  • “My property could not have risen in value by this amount.”¬† While that statement well could be true, the Auditor may have¬†undervalued your property in prior years, resulting in an above-market hike.
  • “The Auditor has valued four similar houses on my street lower than my valuation.”¬† As entirely unfair as it may seem, the value the Auditor places on another property — as similar in location, size, age and other characteristics as it may be — is irrelevant as a matter of law.¬† What is relevant are sales of similar properties (which is different than the Auditor’s opinion as to values).

This all leads to a significant caution for those desiring to charge into the Board of Revision and challenge the value of their property: The Board can raise your property value even more if the then-current valuation does not reflect market.  Proceed with great caution.

If you have questions about your new tax valuation, please call the professionals at the Finney Law Firm.  We can answer your questions as well as challenge any valuation that exceeds fair market value of your property.  Contact Jessica Gibson (513.943.5677) or Chris Finney (513.943.6655) to help with that assignment.

 

We will write more on this later, but we are pleased to announce that — six years after we first filed in State Court, and nearly four years after we moved the case to Federal Court — on Tuesday of this week Federal U.S. District Court Judge Douglas R. Cole certified our firm’s RICO and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the following Defendants as a class action:

  • Build Realty, Inc.
  • Edgar Construction, LLC
  • Cincy Construction, LLC
  • McGregor Construction, LLC
  • Cowtown Holdings, LLC
  • Build NKY, LLC
  • Greenleaf Support Services, LLC
  • Build SWO, LLC
  • Gary Bailey (as trustee and individually)
  • George Triantafilou (as trustee and individually)
  • G2 Technologies, LLC
  • GT Financial, LLC
  • Five Mile Capital Partners, LLC
  • First Title Agency, LLC

In doing so, Judge Cole certified all victims of the alleged RICO and breach of fiduciary duty scheme as class members and certified a sub-class of investors who had their properties improperly taken away by scheme participants.

A class notice is being negotiated and should be sent to class members within the coming month or so.  If you have an updated physical address or email address please email it to Chris@FinneyLawFirm.Com and we will try to keep you updated on developments.

This is a major victory for victims of this scheme, but we have many miles to trial to achieve final justice in this matter.  We will endeavor to keep the public updated through this blog.

For more background on this case, read here, here, here, here and here.

Our able co-counsel in this case is Bill Markovits and the firm of Markovits, Stock and DeMarco.

We are pleased to be “Making a Difference” for our now many clients in this long and very complex litigation.

You may read the Class Certification Order below.

 

Friday, our founder Christopher Finney was featured on a panel presentation before the Cincinnati Bar Association on “Code Enforcement from the Municipal Perspective.”¬† The panel included Erica Faaborg, Deputy City Solicitor of Cincinnati, Kathy Ryan of Wood and Lamping, and Stacey Purcell of Legal Aid of Cincinnati.

The panel discussion covered a wide range of code enforcement and nuisance actions, many of which fall outside the scope of what Finney Law Firm typically would handle such as slum landlords without heat and tenant hoarding.

Our primary experience falls in two areas: (i) Chronic and acute health and building code violations, with the municipality typically seeking an injunction and a fine against the property owner and (ii) nuisance actions seeking either the forced closure of the nuisance business (usually either a motel or a liquor establishment) or the appointment of a receiver to manage, fix up and sell a property.

In both instances, in nearly every jurisdiction in question, the municipality is simply seeking compliance.  In most instances, they neither want your money nor control of your property. They want the nuisance conduct (underage drinking, violence, drug dealing, prostitution) stopped or the the property fixed up.  Period.

As three starting points, commonly I advise:

  • Maybe our client has a legitimate defense, the nuisance does not exist, is not as exaggerated as the municipality claims, or we have an over-zealous building inspector picking a fight with a single property owner. But (a) this usually can be worked out (as their objective typically is compliance, we universally find they are clear and reasonable when asked to be) and (b) the Judge who will hear the case lives in our community and typically wants zealous code enforcement — we all want to live in a nice community, right?¬† As to judicial matters, these are “police powers” enforcement and the Judge almost never wants to second guess the City in a code issue. It will be very hard to overcome the presumption that the City is being reasonable in its enforcement.
  • Even if the client is right, the risk of lost and cost of litigation pales in comparison to the cost of fixing up the property or abating the nuisance.
  • And, worst of all, if the City is victorious in seeking the appointment of a receiver for your property, it’s “game over” for the property owner in terms of preserving any value from — any equity in — the property.¬† Why? Because the lawyers and receiver take over the property, repair it at your expense, charge their professional fees to the project and pay themselves from the income and proceeds, and sell the property quickly for what they see as a fair price to a new operator.¬† You can kiss your years-developed, hard-earned equity goodbye.¬† In the case of liquor establishments, if you are ordered closed, your millions of dollars in capital to develop and promote an establishment are out the window if you are forcibly shut down.

As a result, we strongly recommend working with building officials toward a reasonable compromise for enforcement — it can end the dispute, it improves the property or its operation, and it makes our communities stronger.¬† More importantly, in in the long measure, it saves the client money by investing in his property or business rather than running up a huge — and likely non-productive — legal tab.

Having said all of this — and we do counsel compliance and cooperation — a business owner or property owner does not need to just “lay down” for expensive and over-the-top enforcement.¬† Our firm has fought and won amazing battles against State and local governments, all the way to the US Supreme Court.¬† We have successfully challenged entire legislative schemes, including pre-sale and pre-leasing inspections, which are a constitutional overreach, in multiple jurisdictions.¬† Our firm has made a name for itself fighting and winning against bad government actors.¬† Our tools include the US and State Constitutions, state statute, the State of Ohio taxpayer statutes against both cities and county commissions, Open Meetings laws, Public Records laws, and other statutory avenues.¬† But before launching into these battles, we want to make sure we are positioned to win and that the client appreciates the costs and risks for undertaking these fights.

Legal disputes are rarely cut-and-dried to the point that the other party is without any legal defense to the action.¬† It seems there is always something about which to argue (read here, for example).¬† But it certainly seems to us — by reading the statute and by using it — that a statutory partition action in Ohio (O.R.C. Chapter 5307) is just such a “perfect” solution.

Two or more parties own property; one or more parties wants “out”

In this case, the statute addresses the issue where two or more parties own real property together but cannot agree if or when to sell it.

We are not addressing multiple shareholders in a corporation that owns real property or co-members of an LLC that own real property, but two or more parties named as grantees in a deed who own property together (known in the law as co-tenants).  Those shareholder or member disputes are handled in another manner.

Perfect power of partition

In short, in a partition action, one party can force the judicial sale of the property to the highest bidder with the net proceeds divided among the co-owners (the parties may argue, and this firm has argued about proper adjustments to the distribution of net proceeds).  There is no defense to the action although the process can take time as the Court permits discovery over the course of the partition proceedings.  However, the right to partition of jointly owned property is statutory Рif one party brings the action, the property will ultimately be judicially sold.

How to proceed to partition

Thus, if you own property jointly in Ohio and you want to liquidate your interest (for any reason at all or for no real reason at all), but the other party or parties do not wish to sell what are your options?

For this situation, let’s assume two things:

  • The co-owners are not married as that would be handled in Domestic Relations Court.
  • There is no written agreement, what we call a co-tenancy agreement (see here), whereby the parties have established in writing how they will handle disagreements between them as to how the property will be held and disposed.¬† In that case, the agreement likely will control.

Then, what options do you have to resolve differences over the ownership and disposition of jointly owned real estate? The answer lies in an action in partition.

What is partition?

A real estate partition is a formal legal proceeding through which a joint owner of real estate can ask the court to split the property. ¬† An “action for partition is equitable in nature, but it is controlled by statute.”¬† McGill v. Roush, 87 Ohio App.3d 66, 79, 621 N.E.2d 865 (2d Dist. 1993). A Partition Action is a lawsuit which existed at the common law for the purpose of passing down family farms.[1] When the heirs could not agree on how to run the farm together, one or more could commence a partition action, asking the court to fairly divide the farm between the heirs. Partition of the property itself is favored over sale and division of proceeds, however a property may be sold if it can be shown that it cannot be divided without manifest injury.[2]

Sale if property cannot reasonably be divided

Thus, a party can ask that the property be sold if it is determined that it cannot be divided. Certainly, this is the usual case for typical residential properties today. In this situation, the Court will appoint a commissioner or commissioners under O.R.C. ¬ß 5307.09.¬† When the commissioner(s) are of the opinion that the estate ‚Äúcannot be divided without manifest injury to its value‚ÄĚ they will provide a ‚Äújust valuation of the estate‚ÄĚ to the Court. One or more of the parties can elect to take the estate at the appraised value and pay to the other parties their proportion of the same. Alternatively, if neither party desires to purchase the property or cannot agree on the proportionate purchase of the same, the property will be sold at auction to the highest bidder.¬† Often, cases are resolved and settled among the parties prior to this occurring.

Under O.R.C. §5307.07, when partition of more than one tract is demanded, the Court will set off to each interested party its proper proportion in each of the several tracts. Thus, when multiple parcels of land are owned jointly, the separate parcels can be conveyed to separate owners so that each owner will have total control over their now separately owned parcel.

If a property was acquired upon someone’s death, a partition cannot be ordered within one year from the date of the death of the decedent, unless it is proven that either (i) all claims against the estate have been paid, (ii) secured to be paid, or (iii) that the personal property of the deceased is sufficient to pay those claims.

Attorney’s Fees

Under O.R.C. ¬ß5307.25, reasonable attorney‚Äôs fees can be paid from the proceeds of the sale to Plaintiff‚Äôs counsel and may also be paid to ‚Äúother counsel for services in the case for the common benefit of all the parties‚ÄĚ as the Court determines.

Conclusion

Thus, a Partition Action can be used to force the sale of jointly owned property where a recalcitrant party refuses to act.  Partition is a powerful tool to unwind and unstick a longstanding problem with a co-owner that will not budge.

 

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[1] The Appellees assert that the “Commissioner made a good faith effort to¬†partition¬†the Property, but there is no way to physically¬†divide¬†this family¬†farm¬†into four sections based on the lack of frontage, the inconsistent and varying nature and uses of the land, and the physical location of the parcels. Simon v. Underwood, 2017-Ohio-2885, ¬∂ 65 (Ct. App.).

[2] “Since the¬†partition¬†of property is to be favored over the sale of property, when a party objects to a commissioner’s report, that party should have a right to a hearing to contest the commissioner’s findings before the property is appraised and subsequently sold.” Stiles v. Stiles, 3d Dist. Auglaize No. 2-89-3 (May 10, 1991)]. Court must comply with statutory procedures to appoint a commissioner, make an independent valuation and recommendation regarding whether the property could be divided without a manifest injury to the property‚Äôs value and providing a joint owner opportunity to elect the property, and no was provided. Thrasher v. Watts, 2011-Ohio-2844, (Ohio Ct. App., Clark County 2011).

I recently received a plat of survey from a client for a 90-year-old two-family residence he had purchased.  (Survey obtained after the closing.)  It showed several things:

  • The building encroached 8′ onto his neighbor’s property;
  • In addition, there was a walkway and retaining wall the projected even further onto his neighbor’s property; and
  • The home projected 6′ into the public right-of-way (a “right-of-way” is the land owed in “fee simple” or by easement by a governmental entity for roadway and sidewalk purposes (such as through dedication); it is usually much wider than the actual paved area for either).

Now, that’s a hot mess of title and survey issues.¬† What to do?¬† What to do?

Get a survey before a purchase

Well, for starters, this is great example of why a buyer needs a survey in addition to a title examination before purchasing real property.  None of these problems would be evidenced by a title examination.  Only a field survey would show these encroachments.  Further, title insurance does not cover these occurrences.

Excuses and justifications

As a side note, we hear over the phone and in the closing room the 25 reasons why a buyer, lender or Realtor does not think title insurance or a survey is needed:

  • The property is “new” (i.e. a new subdivision, with newly-constructed houses);
  • The property is “old,” meaning the homes, garages, driveways and other improvements have existed for a long time.
  • Certainly the seller checked the title and survey, so it is fine.

None of these is a good reason not to get title insurance and a survey.  We can explain further if you like.

Other survey nightmares

In addition to the problems identified above, we have seen other major survey problems:

  • A new house built in violation of a zoning or covenant setback.
  • An entire subdivision where each house was built 5′ onto the neighbor’s property (and thus needs re-platting, deeding the 5′ to the correct owner, a release of the “wrong” mortgage and a re-filing of the correct mortgage).
  • Condominiums where the unit numbering was changed from the time the contract was signed to the time when the condominium documents were file (and thus many units were mis-numbered and every unit needs a new deed, a release of the “wrong” mortgage and a re-filing of the correct mortgage).
  • A complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the location of property lines.
  • Encroachments (e.g., fences, sheds, utilities) of various improvements onto our client’s property.
  • Encroachments of various improvements from our client’s property onto their neighbor’s property.
  • An easement that runs right where your client intends to build on otherwise “raw land.”

Solutions

For the client noted above, he has several remedies to the problems.

  1. First, did he purchase title insurance?¬† If he did, he may have a claim — but probably not.¬† Why not?¬† For starters, title insurance provides coverage for the insured premises, not for property outside the boundaries of the insured premises.¬† And by definition, the three problems he called about are outside of the metes and bounds of the property he acquired.¬† Moreover, the standard title insurance policy specifically excepts coverage of matters that would be disclosed by an accurate survey, and as a rule that exception to coverage is not deleted (and thus coverage provided) without a survey certified to the title company.
  2. Second, did he get a general warranty deed from the seller, the most common form of deed in use in southwest Ohio certainly?  If so, he may (may) have a claim against the seller for breach of the contract and breach of the general warranty covenants.
  3. Third, as to the first two issues (the encroachments onto the neighbor’s property he almost certainly has a strong case for a claim to ownership of the property through “adverse possession.”¬† You may read a detailed analysis of that here.
  4. Fourth, however, as to the portion of the property in the public right-of-way, the client has a difficult row to hoe.  One may not adversely possess against a governmental entity in Ohio.  The only way to perfect title to the portion of the building in the right-of-way is to seek a deed (or statutory street vacation) from the governmental entity whereby they voluntarily surrender that title to the property owner.

Conclusion

The saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is appropriate here, as it is with all due diligence investigations before the purchase of real property.¬† The buyer should have “kicked the tires” with a good surveyor before closing on the sale.¬† But this is the situation now. So, he can pursue the seller and the neighbor to vindicate his rights to the home and walkway.¬† As to the governmental entity owning an interest in the right-of-way, he simply needs to work the ropes to see if it will relinquish its interest in his home.

 

 

The purchaser of an apartment building Clermont County and his counsel are learning the lessons of real property taxes — and the ways to handle tax prorations —¬† the hard way.¬† Because neither the seller nor his attorney thought through the transaction carefully, the purchaser (a) lost $682,000 in tax proration negotiations and (b) has suffered what appears to be an entirely unnecessary increase in the same amount in his annual real estate taxes, essentially forever.

How can outcomes between savvy and clumsy real estate transactional work vary so dramatically?

Underlying facts

On December 28, 2021, RS Fairways, LLC closed on the purchase of Fairways at Royal Oaks, an apartment complex in Pierce Township on Clermont County for $32,600,000.¬† The Auditor’s valuation at the time of the sale was $6,622,000.¬† The difference between the sale price and the Auditor’s valuation was $25,977,700, a whopping 500% increase.

Following the sale, our former Associate, Brian Shrive — who now heads the civil division of the Clermont County Prosecutor’s office — on behalf of the Prosecutor, saw the conveyance fee form filed with the deed reporting the whopping sale price-compared-to-Auditor’s-valuation and filed \a Board of Revision Complaint to increase the valuation — retroactively to January 1, 2021 — to the sales price.

Almost inexorably, the Board of Revision would have so increased the value, so the owner, the Prosecutor and the School Board later entered into a Stipulation as to the new valuation at $32,600,000.

Tax proration language

As we have written about here (just one month before this buyer closed; he should have read our blog!), standard tax proration language in use in the Cincinnati area calls for a tax proration to be based upon¬†the most recent available tax duplicate.¬† Since the Auditor and School Board will not know about the sale until after the deed is recorded, current taxes can’t possibly be based upon the sale price.¬† Here, the Auditor obviously had a grossly outdated and inaccurate valuation.

In other words, standard and customary contract language in use in greater Cincinnati simply does not adequately protect the purchaser in a situation where it is paying much higher than the Auditor’s present valuation.

The Contract in question provided:

If the 2021 tax bill is not available as of the Closing Date, then the proration described in clause (b) above shall be based on the 2020 tax bill for the property.

Why do we prorate taxes in Ohio?¬† Taxes in Ohio are paid “six months in arrears at the end of the period.”¬† What does that mean?

It means that the first half 2021 tax bill is issued in January of 2022 and the second half 2021 tax bill is issued in July of 2022.¬† Therefore as of the date of closing (here, the end of December 2021), the seller owned the property for all of 2021, but hadn’t paid the taxes for 2021.¬† Therefore, at closing (under local contract form and custom) the seller prorates to the buyer the taxes for the period it had owned the property, but at existing tax and valuation rates.

The dual problems are: (i) if there is a change in the tax rate for 2021 (such as with the passage of a school or other levy), the proration will be wrong as to the 2021 rate and (b) if there is a change in the tax valuation in the normal triennial cycle, the valuation (and thus the taxes) will change, and, here’s the kicker, (c) well after the closing, a school board or the County Prosecutor have the right to ask the Board of Revision to retroactively, back to the beginning of the prior tax year, change the valuation to a reported sales price.

And, as Casey Jones of our office blogged here, a recent arm’s length sale is uncontestably the valuation for tax purposes.

Thus, under the law, a purchaser is liable for taxes calculated at the tax amount for the taxes for the periods from the date prior to the sale (based upon the next tax bill to be issued) and into the future.¬† And this new tax rate calculates in “unknowns” at the time of the closing, which are a change in rate and a change in valuation.¬† Both of these can be both assessed, and as to the valuation, can be contested and litigated, well after the sale, but the retroactive liability for those taxes falls on the new property owner.

“Forever” increase in taxes

The tax proration flub — a $682,000 mistake — was bad enough, but worse is that the reported sale will result in a new baseline valuation for future taxes of $32,600,000 for a property that previously was valued and taxed at just $6.2 million.¬† Every three years the County will start with the $32 million number and make (likely) increases from there, so this owner will have $700,000 in higher taxes (than likely he anticipated) forever.

Could the massive increase have been prevented?

Two fairly sophisticated legal techniques could have been employed by this purchaser to avoid these massive “surprise” tax bills.¬† One would have spared them the cost of the under-proration, and the second could have resulted in a permanent savings — tens of millions to the purchaser’s bottom line.¬† They employed neither.

First, when a purchaser pays an amount significantly above Auditor’s valuation for property (this is a simple task of comparing the sale price to Auditor’s valuation [a quick on-line check])¬†before the contract is negotiated and signed, a purchaser will want the tax proration language to include a re-proration after the final taxes for the year prorated are known.¬† [By the way, when we get into an environment of declining values, the inverse rules as to tax proration can apply — the purchaser will have an advantage in the proration process — an over-proration —¬† if the contract language is not modified.]

Second, a technique is available in Ohio (but not Kentucky) to have the seller first transfer the property into an LLC that he owns exclusively (by deed, but with an “exempt conveyance fee form,” so that no sales price is reported) and then, at the closing between seller and purchaser, the seller transfers his interest in the LLC to the purchaser — and thus there is no recorded deed.¬† These transfers are referred to as “drop and swaps” or “entity transfers.”¬† In this situation — with some possible exceptions, the Auditor and school board are not put on notice of the sale or the sale price, and thus the increase in value could slip by unnoticed.

Here, the purchaser employed neither technique resulting in a bad proration and “forever” tax liability.

Ensuing litigation

Despite terrible tax proration language that we see as “fatal” to the purchaser’s claims (see above, they¬†agreed to base the proration on the 2020 tax bill, period), the purchaser has sued the seller for a re-proration based upon the post-closing tax “surprise.”¬† Good luck with that.¬† See the Complaint here.

Conclusion

Smart advance legal planning by a purchaser or seller can dramatically change the outcome as to taxes in a real estate transaction.  Contact Isaac T. Heintz (513.943.6654) or Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513-797-2853) for assistance on your real estate transactions to avoid these disastrous outcomes.