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  Here, the Auditor obviously had a grossly outdated and inaccurate valuation.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.

Properly drafted written contracts are typically enforceable as against the parties thereto, with few exceptions – fraud being one of them. The manner in which written contracts are treated upon the allegation of fraud is highly dependent on the type of fraud alleged. In short, it is a question of whether the party claiming fraud alleges that they were defrauded as to the terms or nature of the contract or as to the facts and representations underlying the contract.

Void and Voidability

One of the most common scenarios in which this question arises is relative to settlement agreements and/or “releases,” where one party gives some consideration (e.g., money) in exchange for the settlement and release of actual or potential legal claims. The type of fraud being alleged determines whether the contract or agreement is automatically void (void ab initio) or merely voidable. “A release obtained by fraud in the factum is void ab initio, while a release obtained by fraud in the inducement is merely voidable upon proof of fraud.” Haller v. Borror Corp., 50 Ohio St. 3d 10, 13 (1990). “Whether a release was procured through fraud of either type is a question for the trier of fact [such as a jury]. Whether the fraud as alleged is in the factum or in the inducement is an issue of law for the court.” Id., at 14-15.

Fraud in the Factum

“A release is obtained by fraud in the factum where an intentional act or misrepresentation of one party precludes a meeting of the minds concerning the nature or character of the purported agreement.” Id. Imagine a grandchild telling her grandmother that she is signing a letter for school when it is really a change to her estate plan. “Where device, trick, or want of capacity produces ‘no knowledge on the part of the releasor of the nature of the instrument, or no intention on his part to sign a release or such a release as the one executed,’ there has been no meeting of the minds.” Id., quoting Picklesimer v. Baltimore & O. R. Co., 151 Ohio St. 1, 5 (1949).

Fraud in the Inducement

As the title would suggest, “[c]ases of fraud in the inducement. . . are those in which the plaintiff, while admitting that he released his claim for damages and received a consideration therefor, asserts that he was induced to do so by the defendant’s fraud or misrepresentation.” Haller, at 14. In Haller, the alleged fraud involved the financial solvency of a defendant company. In essence, a representative of the company allegedly represented to the plaintiffs that the company would soon be closed and, therefore, if Plaintiffs did not accept the offered settlement, they would likely receive nothing with respect to their claim(s). Id., at 11-12. The plaintiffs apparently later learned that this was not true. The Ohio Supreme Court found these allegations consistent with a claim of fraud in the inducement.

Practical Considerations

“A release of liability procured through fraud in the inducement is voidable only, and can be contested only after a return or tender of consideration.” Haller v. Borror Corp., 50 Ohio St. 3d 10, 14 (1990); see also Berry v. Javitch, Block & Rathbone, L.L.P., 127 Ohio St. 3d 480, 483 (2010) (“[A]n action for fraud in the inducement of a settlement of a tort claim is prohibited unless the plaintiff tenders back the consideration received and rescinds the release.”); Manhattan Life Ins. Co. v. Burke, 69 Ohio St. 294 (1903).

While it may seem obvious, one cannot seek to void a contract while retaining the consideration they received for the same. In Haller, the plaintiffs received $50,000 in exchange for a release of their prior claims. The Court, finding their allegations of fraud to be consistent with fraud in the inducement, held that the plaintiffs were required to tender back the $50,000 to the defendants before they could seek to void the settlement agreement and release. Because they had not done so, the release they signed remained valid and enforceable, and their claims (including those released under the settlement agreement and that of fraud in the inducement) were dismissed. This is consistent with the idea that one cannot “cherry-pick” which parts of a contract to enforce; they cannot denounce their obligations under a contract while retaining the benefits thereof.

When it comes to contract negotiations, these cases demonstrate how important it is to (a) start from a properly drafted contract, and (b) do your due diligence in order to mitigate the risk of later disputes and litigation. Our transactional team is uniquely positioned to help in these negotiations, having significant experience in contract drafting, negotiation, and disputes.

For assistance with contractual matters, contact Casey Jones (513.943.5673 )

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Wende Cross has certified two classes in White v. Cincinnati, litigation in which both the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and Finney Law Firm represented payors of the illegal and unconstitutional Cincinnati tax on security alarm systems.  The two distinct classes certified are (a) residential and (b) non-residential payors of the Cincinnati alarms tax.

The City charged residential alarm-system-owners $50 per year to register their systems and commercial owners $100 to register their systems.  Last fall, the 1st District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled the tax illegal under Ohio law and unconstitutional, overruling a trial Court ruling on the same subject.  In March of this year, the Ohio Supreme Court preserved that victory for Cincinnati property owners when it refused to accept discretionary review of the case.

We now proceed to an an Order that will establish the amount and procedures for the restitution of the illegally-collected sums, a fairness hearing, and then distribution of the refunds to payors.  We aim for the conclusion of those steps this calendar year.  The amount of restitution is expected to be more than $3.6 million.

For questions, contact Chris Finney at 513.943.6655.

You may read the order issued April 22 here.

 

 

Listen in as Chris Finney discusses his 8-0 unanimous victory against the Ohio Civil Rights Commission as they attempted to extract money for a tenant in an entirely frivolous case.  The conduct of the Ohio Attorney General’s office and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission was shameful and outrageous in this case.

 

Truth can be stranger than fiction.  And the last few weeks at the Finney Law Firm that has been the case.

Yesterday, Chris Finney, Jessica Gibson and Julie Gugino racked up a unanimous jury verdict (8-0) to defeat a case of claimed retaliation in response to a tenant’s claimed request for a disability accommodation that was met with a non-renewal of a residential lease.  The case was styled Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Abundant Life Faith Fellowship in front of Judge Christian Jenkins in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.  The Civil Rights Commission was also suing the Church’s pastor who had served for 41 years.  In candor, the Civil Rights Commission did a terrible job of vetting its own case with a terrible, dishonest plaintiff and a very sympathetic defendant.  Its attorneys at trial also were not exactly prepared or stellar.

The Civil Rights Commission case was full of demonstrable untruths about a kind-hearted 74-year-old African American minister who had suffered two strokes.  By the testimony of two of her fellow tenants in the building, the complaining tenant had plotted starting fewer than two weeks into her tenancy to drum up a fictitious lawsuit against the landlord as a way to extract money from him — she told this to her fellow tenants.  And for a year, she made his life a living hell, with incessant complaints about inadequate heat and fabrication about needing more light for a vision disability (in fact, her complaints about lighting had been adequately addressed early in her tenancy).  Dozens of complaints were addressed by visits by with servicemen, engineers, and repairmen to cater to her many whims and incessant gripes.  The Cincinnati Health Department came out and confirmed the unit in every room was heated to a comfortable 72°F to 73°F (the tenant lied to the jury — never a good idea — and said the readings were 62°F, 64°F and 66°F).

In the funniest part of the trial, the tenant at first denied and then admitted sending a bizarre text message to the landlord in the depth of winter, after he noticed that the windows of every unit in the building were open, including those of the tenant who constantly complained it was too cold!  Here is the text message, grammatical errors and misspellings included:

Yes, her crazy assertion to the landlord was that he must maintain the heat in the unit at 70°F even if the windows of the unit are left open!

Of course Pastor Brown and the Church had to fund the 4-year defense of the Civil Rights Administrative Complaint and the lawsuit, which he did with aplomb, but at great expense.  For the benefit of all landlords subject to outrageous prosecutions from obstinate public agencies, he saw this case through to its appropriate and proper end.  He refused to be bullied by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, the office of the Ohio Attorney General and Housing Opportunities Made Equal (H.O.M.E.) (which manufactured evidence and knowingly lied to the Civil Rights Commissions in “building their case”).

For more information or to avoid being bullied by these same agencies: (a) DO NOT TALK TO THEM in an investigation EVER and (b) contact Jessica Gibson  (513.943.5677) for assistance with your case.

Do you own land on one of the seven hills of Cincinnati? Has your downhill neighbor started digging on their land? Has such digging threatened to cause or caused your land to slide? If you answered yes to the preceding questions, then you might be entitled to an injunction or damages due to your neighbor removing the “lateral support” to your land.

This blog post will address a (i) background on lateral support; (ii) neighbor’s liability for removing lateral support from a landowner’s land when such land is in its natural or improved state; and (iii) landowner’s recourse when their land is going to start or starts to slide due to their neighbor’s digging.

Background:

The right to lateral support is a landowner’s right to have their land supported laterally by their neighbor’s land. The right varies based on whether the damaged land is natural or improved. Land in its natural state is always entitled to lateral support. However, improved land is not so entitled unless provided by statute or a neighbor negligently removes lateral support. Ohio provides such a statute.

Natural Land:

If a neighbor’s digging causes damage (e.g., sliding) to a landowner’s natural land, then the neighbor is liable for the damages that flow from such digging. There is no need for the landowner to show fault; it is a strict liability standard. To prove strict liability, the landowner must show (i) that their land was injured by the removal of its lateral support, (ii) that the injury resulted from the neighbor’s digging, and (iii) ascertainable damages.

Improved Land:

The Ohio Revised Code, under Sections 723.49 – 723.50, allows a neighbor to excavate down to (i) nine feet below the curb or street grade and (ii) the full depth of the foundation wall of any building on the landowner’s land, without liability. That said, if a neighbor digs to a depth greater than nine feet below the curb of the street, and such digging causes damage to any of a landowner’s buildings, then the neighbor is liable regardless of whether the neighbor is negligent. However, the neighbor’s digging must be the proximate cause of the damage.

Under a negligence standard, a neighbor might also be liable when the neighbor’s digging causes damage to a landowner’s building. The landowner must demonstrate that the neighbor was negligent by showing that the neighbor’s digging (i) removed the lateral support to the landowner’s building, (ii) caused injury thereto, and (iii) caused ascertainable damages.

Note: Concerning negligence, a neighbor has a duty to perform work, even if on their land, in such a manner as not to damage an uphill landowner’s land.

Landowner’s Recourse:

When dealing with the possible removal or the removal of lateral support, a landowner may seek an injunction or sue for damages. A landowner may seek an injunction to ask the court to prevent a neighbor from taking actions that will remove the lateral support to the landowner’s land. Alternatively, a landowner may seek monetary damages after a neighbor damages the landowner’s land. Such damages are based on “the time required to repair and a comparison of the cost to repair to the diminution in the fair market value of the [landowner’s land] before and after the damage.”[1]

Note: If a landowner lives uphill from a neighbor, and the neighbor removes soil downhill from the landowner’s land resulting in damage to the landowner’s land, then the neighbor must make the repairs.

Conclusion:

If (i) you own land on one of the seven hills of Cincinnati; (ii) your downhill neighbor started digging on their land; and (iii) such digging threatened to cause or caused your land to slide, then call the Finney Law Firm today, where an experienced professional can provide insight as to whether you have a claim for an injunction or damages.

[1] 1 Ohio Real Property Law and Practice § 8.07 (2021).

The business buzzword for 2022 is: Inflation.

The inflation rate in 2021 was 7.5%, a rate that the the Federal Reserve says took them completely by surprise.  And 2022?  Many prognosticators (this author included) believe inflation will hit double digits for the first time in more than 30 years.  This comes after rates of inflation consistently at or below 2% for the past decade.  As a result, many marketplace participants simply are not aware of strategies that will enable them to navigate the shoals of an inflationary environment.

This blog entry may pivot between references to rates of inflation and rates of interest for borrowing.  These two concepts, while different, are addressed interchangeably as (a) inflation is a widely accepted indicator of an over-stimulated economy and (b) the predictable response to inflation is raising interest rates charged to banks by the Fed to dampen that economic activity.  In turn, banks will then raise the rates charged to consumer and commercial borrowers.  So, higher inflation inevitably begets higher interest rates.  The Fed has forecasted both (i) the possibility of front-loaded rate increases, meaning sharp rises in the coming months (as opposed to sequential rate hikes being stretched out over months and years) and (ii) as many as seven rate hikes in 2022 alone.  This means interest rates could rise by a full 2% or more from today’s rates before January of 2023.  How high can rates go? In March of 1980 the prime rate of interest peaked at 19.5%.  Imagine the impact of interest rate adjustments on your business model at those exorbitant rates.

Here are a few things to consider to protect yourself in inflationary times:

  1. Utilize commercial rent adjustments to your advantage.  During low inflationary times, landlords and tenants have commonly avoided complex periodic calculations for rent increases based upon Consumer Price Increases (CPI) increases, in favor of either fixed rent rates during the term of a lease or rent increases only pursuant  to a fixed schedule (say, for example 5% increases every 3 years).  As inflation accelerates and persists at high levels, landlords will hope they had full CPI adjustments built into their leases past and will start demanding then in leases in the future.  Conversely, tenants will cherish fixed-rate, longer-term leases that create a benefit to them of inflation (but the rapidly-changing office and retail markets might cause devaluation of spaces that previous saw decades of stability and strength).  As always, we recommend that tenants consider asking for an early termination provision in all commercial leases.
  2. Anticipate and avoid mortgage interest rate surprises. Many residential mortgages and most commercial mortgages have fixed interest rates only for a few years.  As to residential rates, after the period of the fixed rate, frequently rate increases are capped, but will still be painful.  But for commercial borrowers, when the fixed term expires, the rate increase is typically unlimited.  As a result, commercial borrowers locked into mortgages that might not be paid off for a decade or more could have dramatic, uncapped and unanticipated increases in the interest portion of the mortgage payment that continues to escalate each adjustment period.  To mitigate these impacts, consider refinancing into a new fixed-rate term that gives you breathing room before the impact of higher rates hits with full force.  Also, the sale of parts of your portfolio to pay down debt could lift your P&L from the greatest impacts of interest rate hikes.
  3. Be careful of fixed-rate pricing.  Home builders, contractors and manufacturers are experiencing difficulties fulfilling obligations under fixed-price contracts for matters that have a delivery date well into the future, shrinking their profit margins or turning winning contracts into losers.  Our office then is seeing instances of home builders trying to walk away from contracts and contractors seeking to convert fixed-price contracts into cost-plus agreements, shifting material and subcontractor pricing increases to buyers.  If you are that builder or contractor, consider adding an automatic or negotiated inflation adjustment in the contract and as a buyer, you want to lock in that fixed pricing firmly.
  4. Anticipate suppliers walking away from contracts. Similarly, we have seen manufacturers and distributors of certain products avoiding their obligations to supply certain goods or equipment.  As a buyer, do you have your supply contracts documented correctly and have you diversified your supply pipeline to protect yourself if a supplier lets you down?  Is the party with whom you are contracting sufficiently capitalized to stand behind their contractual obligations?
  5. Consider inflation and interest-rate contingencies.  The Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors/Dayton Area Board of Realtors form residential purchase contract allows a buyer to state the specific terms of the mortgage it is seeking as a contingency to ia buyer’s performance under the contract.  If you specify a “fixed rate loan for 80% of the purchase price at a rate below 3.5% per annum fixed for a period of 30 years,” and interest rates rise before the closing, the buyer has a perfect out.  Similarly, buyers and sellers can include in any contract an “out” for high rates of inflation and higher interest rates.
  6. Be wary of options.  Options to renew leases and options to purchase may seem innocuous and predictable in stable times.  But in a dynamic high-interest rate marketplace, an option acquired today to buy a property at a fixed price three, five or ten years into the future (say under a long-term commercial lease) can unexpectedly enrich the option holder.  Options can be a way a way to leverage dramatic profits to the option holder.
  7. Be prepared to offer seller financing.  A close partner to higher interest rates are tighter lending standards.  Fewer and fewer buyers can afford to buy at inflated interest rates, and lenders also frequently tighten their loan eligibility standards.  As a result, a eligible buyers — abundant today — become frighteningly scarce.  In the worst of the inflationary period at the end of 1977 to 1981, sellers had to offer loan assumptions, land contracts, leases with options (or obligations) to purchase (with the warning noted above) and simple notes with accompanying mortgages to get any property sold.
  8. Be prepared to buy at foreclosure sales.  Foreclosure sales, which have virtually disappeared for the past two years, could come roaring back as commercial and residential owners cannot afford their new, higher mortgage payments, and, of course, mortgage foreclosure moratoria have been lifted.
  9. Be prepared to offer seller financing.  A close partner to higher interest rates are frequently tighter lending standards.  Fewer and fewer buyers can afford to buy at inflated interest rates, and lenders also frequently tighten their loan eligibility standards.  As a result, a eligible buyers — abundant today — become frighteningly scarce.  When lending is loose (as today), it seems readily available to anyone.  And when it tightens, it seems to strangle the marketplaces.  In the worst of the inflationary period at the end of 1977 to 1981, sellers had to offer loan assumptions, land contracts, leases with options (or obligations) to purchase and simple notes with accompanying mortgages to get almost any property sold.

We saw with the rapid deterioration of the real estate market from 2006 to 2010 that buyers many times would willfully breach their contractual obligations to buy or rent.  In this process, they would search for a contingency or loophole — any argument whatsoever — to evade their contractual promises.  And in other instances, they would just outright walk away.  Accompanying these contractual breaches were also insolvency and bankruptcy, making collection impractical or impossible.  Similarly, as the real estate marketplace has heated up over the past five years, we have seen sellers work to evade their contractual obligations so they could retain an appreciating investment or simply realize a higher price from a second buyer.

How can you protect yourself in this type of dynamic market to assure performance by a buyer or seller?

  • Consider escrow deposits, guarantees and other security. Sellers can demand higher earnest money deposits, non-refundable deposits and short contingency periods. Buyers can use tools we have written about here and here of Affidavits of Facts Relating to Title and legal actions for specific performance. Further, consider adding personal guarantees to contractual promises from corporate and LLC buyers or sellers.  Additionally, the performance by buyers and sellers can be further secured with mortgages against real property and secured positions in other assets.
  • Add an attorneys fee provision.  Also, consider adding a contract provision shifting the expense of attorneys fees to the breaching party in a contract.  That can sometimes change the calculus of a prospective breaching party.
  • Tighten your contract language. To lock buyers and sellers into real estate and supply contracts and leases, carefully consider ways the other party might find a contingency or loophole in their performance. Contingencies (commonly for inspection or financing) are the tunnel through which most buyers drive to walk away from a contract.  Ohio law provides that a buyer must “reasonably” attempt to fulfill a contract contingency, but many still attempt to use contingencies to artificially and intentionally avoid their legal obligations.  Fraud on the part of a seller (such as an undisclosed material defect discovered before closing) can also arguably be the basis for a buyer not performing.  Conversely, typically there are no contingencies to a seller’s performance under a contract.  But consider everything in the instrument — the date, the property description, the parties’ names, the “acceptance” language and timing, in considering how the other party might try to squirm away from their promises.

As the economy becomes more unpredictable and more dynamic in terms of pricing, supply shortages and interest rates, market participants would be wise to carefully think about the impact of inflation and interest rate hikes on their contractual obligations and market positioning.

 

 

[Editor’s note: We have many clients regularly buying, improving and holding commercial properties within the City limits of Cincinnati, but they are not availing themselves of the simple and valuable property tax abatements available.  Please contact Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) on your next project to attain these generous and significant property tax savings on your City project!]     

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The City of Cincinnati, Community Reinvestment Area Commercial Abatement Program provides incentives to build and/or renovate commercial, industrial or mixed-use facilities.  These incentives are manifest as property tax abatements and allow the developer (or future owner/operator) to reduce the operating expenses associated with the property.

  • Significantly, the abatement application must be submitted and approved on commercial projects before the commencement of construction. 

Commercial projects in the City of Cincinnati (you need to take care to understand the geographic City limits of Cincinnati) are eligible for a maximum net tax exemption of up to sixty-seven percent (67%) of the improvement value for up to fifteen years.  In all cases, the developer must also enter into a separate agreement with the relevant school board to pay an amount equal to thirty-three percent (33%) of the improvement value as a Payment-in-Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to be eligible for the abatement program.  This PILOT cost does not further reduce the potential maximum net tax exemption.

The application review process determines the abatement percentage and the number of years for which it will apply.  As part of the application, the developer must submit a $1,250 fee and describe its own development experience, the specific project and why it deserves a tax exemption, any planned community engagement, and anticipated job creation/retention.  Additionally, the developer must submit the following supplemental information:

  1. A detailed breakdown of all sources and uses of funds for the project;
  2. Supporting documentation for such funds;
  3. A post-construction operating pro forma for the building and cash flow analysis;
  4. The developer’s corporate documents evidencing ownership and authority to sign;
  5. Copy of the title deed;
  6. Copy of the proposed construction plans/renderings;
  7. Estimated pre-construction and post-construction real estate taxes; and
  8. Documents evidencing LEED or Living Building Challenge Certification, if applicable.

In connection with the application, Developers can indicate whether they intend to enter into a Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreement (VTICA), which factors into determining the percentage and length of time of the abatement.  Under a VTICA, the property owner agrees to pay a portion of the abated tax to the municipality for certain uses including, most prominently, the streetcar [applicable as to downtown projects].  City Council has instructed the Department of Community and Economic Development to consider VTICA contributions of fifteen percent (15%) or more of the abatement amount to be a substantial positive factor in reviewing applications.

Factors in Reviewing Application/Determining Level of Exemption:

  1. Must apply prior to beginning any construction activities[1]
  2. Must use a minimum of $40,000 on renovation/construction1
  3. Must result in net, new job creation1
  4. For residential property, can only receive a Commercial Abatement of five (5) or more units
  5. Historic Properties may be eligible for an additional 10-year extension
  6. Election to enter a VTICA, as mentioned above
  7. New construction vs renovation
  8. LEED-certified or not
  9. Handicap accessibility

For assistance with commercial or residential tax abatements (almost exclusively inside the City of Cincinnati), please contact Eli Krafte-Jacobs [513-797-2853]).

[1] These items are absolute requirements

Earnest Money vs. Liquidated Damages

As Chris Finney has addressed extensively in prior blog entries, “a common misunderstanding of parties to a purchase contract is that the escrow money is some sort of measure of or limitation on damages for the buyer’s breach, or, conversely, that the return of the earnest money ‘cures’ the seller’s breach and is the limitation on his damages as well. However, unless the real estate purchase contract specifically calls out either of those limitations, neither of those propositions is true.” In other words, an earnest money deposit is in no way representative of the amount of “damages” caused by a breach of the contract unless the parties to that contract say it is.

Consider the following example: A Buyer contracts to purchase a home for a purchase price of $350,000. Buyer deposits $5,000 in earnest money. Buyer decides to buy a different home instead and breaches the contract to purchase the first home. The Seller of the first home has a tough time selling it after Buyer backs out but, eventually, finds someone else to buy the home. However, the new buyer will only pay $320,000. Seller can typically seek damages from Buyer based on the difference in the purchase price, i.e., $30,000, because that is the amount that places Seller in the position he would have been but for Buyer’s breach. Seller is NOT limited to merely collecting the $5,000 earnest money.

So then what does the phrase “unless the parties to the contract say it is” really mean? How can the parties to a contract predetermine what the damages will be if one of them breaches?

A liquidated damages clause is a contractual vehicle through which the parties can stipulate – in advance – the amount of damages due and owing should one of them breach the contract. It can be a fixed amount or a percentage of the total contract price. Relative to real estate contracts, particularly in the commercial context, parties will sometimes agree, in the purchase contract, that the earnest money will act as liquidated damages in the event of breach. Thus, while liquidated damages are not necessarily equal to the amount of earnest money deposited, they can be if the parties so agree.

Are liquidated damages clauses enforceable?

As the Ohio Supreme Court has long held, “parties are free to enter into contracts that contain provisions which apportion damages in the event of default.Lake Ridge Academy v. Carney, 66 Ohio St. 3d 376, 381 (1993). However, many parties who later breach a contract after having agreed to such a provision unsurprisingly attempt to defeat the same by arguing that the provision to which they agreed is somehow unenforceable – most often, by arguing that the clause operates a “penalty.”

Ohio courts utilize a three-part test to evaluate whether a liquidated damages clause is, indeed, enforceable.

Where the parties have agreed on the amount of damages, ascertained by estimation and adjustment, and have expressed this agreement in clear and unambiguous terms, the amount so fixed should be treated as liquidated damages and not as a penalty, if the damages would be (1) uncertain as to amount and difficult of proof, and if (2) the contract as a whole is not so manifestly unconscionable, unreasonable, and disproportionate in amount as to justify the conclusion that it does not express the true intention of the parties, and if (3) the contract is consistent with the conclusion that it was the intention of the parties that damages in the amount stated should follow the breach thereof.

Samson Sales, Inc. v. Honeywell, Inc., 12 Ohio St. 3d 27, Paragraph 2 of the Syllabus (1984).

Courts routinely uphold these clauses in the real estate context, in large part due to the unpredictability of the market. See, e.g., Cochran v. Schwartz, 120 Ohio App. 3d 59, 62 (2d Dist. 1997); Kurtz v. Western Prop., L.L.C., 2011-Ohio-6726 (10th Dist. 2011); Ottenstein v. Western Reserve Academy, 54 Ohio App. 2d 1, 4 (9th Dist. 1977); Schottenstein v. Devoe, 83 Ohio App. 193, 198 (1st Dist. 1948); Curtin v. Ogborn, 75 Ill. App. 3d 549, 555 (Ill. App. 1979) (outlining a general rule that liquidated damages are appropriate in amount where ten percent or less of the purchase price). This is because “although the contract price is easily ascertainable, the fair market value of real estate fluctuates, in some cases dramatically, and these fluctuations, based upon numerous independent variables, are unpredictable.” Kurtz, at ¶ 30 (relative to the first prong in the Samson test). “Difficulties inherent in assessing the fair market value of property due to the volatility of the real estate market have been the impetus for Ohio courts giving effect to liquidated damages provisions in real estate transactions.” Id., at ¶ 31.

Who does a “liquidated damages” clause benefit?

While it is perhaps easier to envision how liquidated damages provisions tend to benefit the non-breaching party, they can be just as advantageous to a breaching party. For example, consider a situation where Buyer is under contract to purchase a $1 million retail center with a $100,000 liquidated damages clause. Buyer elects not to purchase the property and breaches the contract. A week after Buyer’s breach, there is a down-turn in the real estate market and, now, Seller can only get $800,000 for the property. Rather than potentially being on the hook for the $200,000 difference between the contract price and ultimate sale price, Buyer’s liability is capped at the fixed liquidated damages amount of $100,000 because that is what the parties agreed to in the contract.

Liquated damages clauses can also be mutually advantageous inasmuch as it allows the parties to know what to expect. Circumstances may arise that require a party to choose between breaching the contract or incurring some other loss. In such a situation, the clause helps that party weigh their options and explore all possible outcomes in order to make an informed decision.

Is a liquidated damages clause a good idea?

Like so many legal questions, the answer is unfortunately the rather frustrating “it depends.” Ultimately, whether to include a liquidated damages clause in your contract or whether to agree to such a clause being proposed by the other side, is a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis after considering all of the potential factors that may come into play.

Our firm has significant experience in dealing with these types of provisions – from drafting, to review, and to enforcement – and we can help you explore how including such a provision in your real estate contract may impact you, as well as answer any other real estate contract questions you may have.

Buying real estate improved by an existing building is in itself a legally intricate undertaking. However, new construction and renovation introduce a whole new level of complexity, difficulty, legal complication and financial risk.

This blog entry explores just one of those categories of added risk in the construction and renovation arena: mechanics liens. This article also is not the definitive, all-encompassing explanation of the Ohio mechanics lien statute (it has a multitude intricacies).  Rather, we provide herein three (or four) simple steps to assure that the extraordinary “muscle” added by mechanics lien claims is not applied against you as a property owner.

General risks of real estate investing

In short, real estate investing is not for amateurs or the faint of heart.  Many of the entries on this blog explore how to avoid pitfalls associated with real property acquisitions involving existing improvements, such as issues relating to matters of title, tax, physical defects in the property and improvements (and seller fraud relating to the same), zoning, land use and other regulatory hurdles,  and seller fraud in financial misrepresentations, just to name a few.

Additional risks inherent in new construction and building renovation

However, taking raw land or a developed lot (the difference being built roadways, utilities, addressing zoning and full subdivision) and building a new structure, or renovating an existing structure, are fraught with a host of added risks: Proper planning and design, zoning and land use restrictions, utility access, building code permitting and inspections, selecting an honest and qualified contractor who has a corral of qualified subcontractors, materialmen and laborers.  The list of added complexities associated with adding improvements to real estate is almost endless.  Properly executing a construction project from beginning to end is difficult.  That difficulty today is enhanced by the lack of availability of skilled labor and subcontractors, increasing pricing and drawing into the field entirely unqualified, untrained and unsupervised laborers.

The special risks associated with mechanics lien

One of the biggest legal challenges is protecting property owners and lenders against mechanics liens from contractors, subcontractors, materialmen and laborers on the project.

What is a mechanics lien?

Mechanics liens (not at all for what we think of as “mechanics” in normal parlance) are purely creatures of statute, meaning they don’t exist as a matter of contract nor are they common law rights.  Rather, R.C. §1311.011 (one- and two-family residential dwellings) (addressed partially in this blog entry)  and R.C §1311.02 (commercial properties) provide statutory lien rights to unpaid contractors, subcontractors, laborers and materialmen.  All of these rights are strictly limited in time, amount and circumstances allowed by statute.

These statutes provide a tremendously powerful tool for these parties to assure payment from the property owner, secured firmly by the equity in the property, so long as their claim is narrowly allowed under the statute, and those rights will not extend beyond the statute. (The effective date of priority of liens as against mortgages and other lien holders is yet another a matter not addressed in this entry.)

These lien rights can transcend the contractual obligations of the property owner, meaning an owner can in fact owe money to someone with whom he has no contract at all (the owner may never have known their name or that they did work on his job, or supplied materials to his job).  An owner can, under some circumstances, owe money to a subcontractor, materialman or laborer even though he already has paid everything he owes to the general contractor (this principle applies to commercial projects only).   These can be jarring revelations to an unsuspecting property owner who has not taken the simple steps in this blog entry to protect himself from mechanics liens.  In other words, unaddressed, this is dangerous territory for a property owner making improvements to his property.

Three simple steps an owner can employ to protect himself from mechanics liens

Again, the Ohio mechanic’s lien statutes are tremendously involved, and this blog entry is not attempting to explore the many intricacies in that statute.  That’s for another day.  Rather, this article offers a few simple steps that a property owner undertaking a construction project can employ to avoid the potential of financially and legally catastrophic consequences from liens sinking a project or ruining the finances of a property owner.

  1. Pay no more to the contractor than the true value of work actually completed as of the draw, and perhaps less.  In some ways, this step is self-explanatory. As a construction project progresses, the owner should take great care to pay the contractor only for the value to the owner and the project of the work finished at the time of payment. In a reverse analysis, the owner should always have enough money left in his construction budget to finish the job if the contractor walks away after the most recent payment.  Now, estimating these two amounts (the value of work completed and remaining cost to complete) is tricky, and the owner should realize that the contractor — knowing the construction costs and business better than him — is in a superior position to estimate this, but relying on the contractor’s “word” is equally risky.  So, this step requires the owner to have a good understanding of the real cost of each stage of the work.  It also requires assuring the work completed at each stage is code compliant, contract compliant, and of good quality and workmanship.  Beyond this step, many owners will require “retainage” of an addition 10-20% from the “actual value of the improvements to date” to assure there is always enough left in the construction budget to complete the project.  This retainage is then paid at the end of the project (usually upon issuance of a certificate of occupancy, “substantial completion” as certified by the architect or some other objective metric).
  2. Affidavits of full payment. As each installment (or “draw”) of the construction budget is paid to the general contractor, the general contractor should provide an affidavit — a sworn statement, the falsity of which is a felony and the basis for a civil fraud claim– of what he is owed, and critically, the names of each subcontractor, materialman, and laborer, and the amounts owed at that stage to each.  In good practice, that “master affidavit” is then also accompanied by further affidavits from each subcontractor, materialman and laborer as to the amounts they are owed at that point in the project.
  3. Joint checks.  Then, the owner should cut joint checks to (a) the contractor and (b) each subcontractor, materialman and laborer, to assure that the amounts they themselves swear are due and owing are in fact paid in full.  These joint checks should track the sworn statements in the various affidavits.

If a property owner on a project follows these three simple steps, the risk of a mechanics lien is limited to (a) those subcontractors, materialmen and laborers not listed on the affidavits (falsely) and (b) only those claims for additional work arising from the most recent payment.

Beyond these three simple steps, a one-to-two family residential property owner is also protected from liens of subcontractors, materialmen, and laborers to the extent that he has paid the general contractor in full, or is limited only to the amounts owed under the master contract to the general contractor.  That statutory principle is more fully explored here.

  • Lien waivers.  A drastic fourth protection that can be employed by a property owner is to allow no contractor, subcontractor, materialman or laborer to step foot on the job or to supply materials to the job unless they have signed in advance a lien waiver, saying (a) in the case of the contractor, they will look only to the contract (and the courts in a typical collection action) to assure payment and (b) in the case of subcontractors, materialman and laborers, saying they will look only to the general contractor for payment, not to the owner and not to a lien against the property.  These lien waivers, heavy-handed and unusual as they may be, are legally effective.

So, there is much much more, legally and business-wise to being successful in the execution of a of residential or commercial construction project, and so much more of a winding path in the Ohio mechanics lien statutes, but these three (or four) simple steps can change the dynamics of a construction project strongly in favor of the property owner.

For assistance with mechanics lien issues or other legal challenges relating to new construction, feel free to contact me at 513.943.6655.