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.

 

 

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.

The real estate legal “pro tip” of the day is carefully assuring your property legal descriptions are updated after each partial conveyance  so that the description of the “residue” is property on record with the county offices dealing with real estate matters.

When commercial and residential property owners acquire property, the deed into the buyer or grantee must have a legal description attached that is acceptable in form to the County Engineer, Auditor and Recorder in Ohio.  If it is an existing property description (i.e., no change from when the seller took title to the property), there will be a legal description, and an already-created Auditor’s parcel associated with that land.  It is thus not an issue that would impair the new closing.  For new cut-ups and subdivisions, the developer/seller usually undertakes that process with the County Engineer, Auditor and Recorder before it is time for closing.  At least it should.

As we approach a closing, commercial or residential, however, where we occasionally run into problems with getting a deed recorded because of a “new” legal descriptions is a situation in which an owner has conveyed away a part of the property that was originally deeded to him during the seller’s ownership of the property.  Because of an eminent domain taking, a property line dispute with a neighbor, a conveyance of a sliver to an adjoining property owner, or a combination with an adjoining parcel, the legal description by which the owner took title is no longer current or accurate, and thus needs to be updated with the County Engineer, Auditor and Recorder.

This “updating” starts with two things: (1) A plat of new survey of the property showing the new boundaries, along with a “closure chart” that shows that the ending point of the legal description meets up with the starting point, and (2) a new legal description of the parcel to be conveyed.  Then, it must be processed through the County offices to update the records of each.  Finally, the deed should be ready for recording.  But until these things are completed a deed is not recordable.  Thus, it is hard to close a transaction unless and until the legal descriptions are thusly updated inasmuch as monetary liens and and other interests can slip in during this “gap.”

It is best to take these preliminary steps at the time of the act “cutting up” your parcel (i.e., concurrent with the eminent domain taking, the property line dispute with a neighbor, the conveyance of a sliver to an adjoining property owner, or the combination with an adjoining parcel), rather than waiting for a closing on a sale that might be years later, so that the time needed for a new survey and legal description, and processing with the Engineering, Auditor and Recorder do not delay your closing.  Also, it is a smart practice to see if the buyer of the parcel (at the time of the original cutup) will pay the cost and handle the paperwork associated with getting the new plat and legal processed by the County.

Contact Isaac Heintz (513.946.6654), Eli N. Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) or Jennings D. Kleeman (513.797.2858) for help with your real estate legal needs.

While the real estate market seems to have slowed slightly, our title company, Ivy Pointe Title, continues to close a record-breaking number of transactions. Perhaps due to challenges that buyers are facing in making competitive offers and having those offers accepted, our firm has also noticed an uptick in the number of (actual or attempted) contract terminations prior to closing – this phenomenon, when unjustified under the terms of the contract, is often referred to as an “anticipatory repudiation.”

An anticipatory repudiation is “‘a repudiation of the promisor’s contractual duty before the time fixed for performance has arrived.’” Sunesis Trucking Co. v. Thistledown Racetrack, L.L.C., 2014-Ohio-3333, ¶ 29 (8th Dist. 2014), quoting McDonald v. Bedford Datsun, 59 Ohio App.3d 38, 40, 570 N.E.2d 299 (8th Dist.1989). For example, if you have a contract to sell your property to a buyer, and the buyer backs out three days before the closing for any reason not justified under the terms of the contract – or for no reason at all – an anticipatory repudiation of the contract has likely occurred. It is akin to a breach of the contract; however, because it occurs before “the time fixed for performance” (i.e., the closing), it is considered “anticipatory.”

Remedies

“If an anticipatory breach of contract is found to occur, the injured party has the option of (1) terminating the contract and suing the breaching party immediately, or (2) continuing the contract and suing the breaching party for damages after the time for performance has passed.” Sunesis, at ¶ 33, citing 18 Ohio Jurisprudence 3d Contracts, Section 238 (2011). It is worth noting that the “repudiation” must be unequivocal. If you are unsure whether a party’s statement amounts to a repudiation or whether they intend to still fulfill their obligations under the contract, you should seek “adequate assurances” as to whether they intend to comply.

An anticipatory repudiation may stem from a buyer submitting offers on multiple listings to increase the odds of one of their offers being accepted (certainly plausible in this market) or a seller receiving a higher back-up offer and having remorse over having accepted a previous, lower offer. In either event, the non-repudiating party has a right to enforce the contract or sue for their damages. For instance, in the above hypothetical, the seller could re-list the property and, if the property sells for lower than the contract price with the original buyer, sue for the difference.

Affidavit of Title

An additional mechanism that is often helpful for a buyer (where the seller repudiates) is an affidavit of title. Pursuant to Ohio R.C. 5301.252, a person having an interest in real estate by virtue of a contract may assert his or her interests via an affidavit recorded in the real property records. This effectively encumbers the real estate such that most title companies will not close a transaction on the property while the affidavit is pending. In other words, it prevents the seller from being able to sell the property to someone else where you have a valid and enforceable contract to purchase that same property – it forces them to “deal with” you and your contractual interest in the property. Importantly, the affidavit of title has various technical requirements and, if containing any untrue statements, could serve as the basis for a slander of title claim. Therefore, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney before utilizing this mechanism to make sure that it is properly prepared and recorded.

If you would like to know more about your rights relative to a real estate contract, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to meet with you and explore your options.

 

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about creative home buying by friends. Is this a good idea?

Well, economically, it could make sense.  A single person may not need a 4-bedroom home, but could easily share the cost of loan principal and interest, taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance costs with another friend with the same housing needs. But what happens when one friend loses their job? Has a drug or alcohol problem? Has a bad boyfriend (or girlfriend)?  Likes to party too much? Gets a job out of town?  Gets married? Has a different standard for maintenance and improvements to the home? No longer can afford “their share” of the expenses?

Let us assure you that without documenting the agreement carefully laying out expectations and contingencies of the parties going forward, co-ownership (known as co-tenancy in Ohio law, as counterintuitive as that may sound) could turn out to be expensive and legally problematic.

The bottom line is that co-owners, whether buying as an investment or to live in the property, should have a clear understanding in advance and in writing as to (a) the standard of maintenance and who decides, (b) the division of monthly expenses, and (c) an exit strategy on death, disability, or one co-owner just wanting “out.”

Finney Law Firm has drafted many LLC operating agreements, corporate buy-sell agreements, and co-tenancy agreements. Contact  Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) or Jennings Kleeman (513.943.6650) for help with such an agreement.

On October 1, the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors and Dayton Area Board of Realtors issued a major update to the form residential purchase contract in use by most Realtors in the two marketplaces. This blog entry explores the major changes to the Contract.

Most Realtors in both the Cincinnati and Dayton marketplaces use form contracts prepared by their Board of Realtors.  Because of the cross-over of the two marketplaces (West Chester, Springboro, etc.), several years ago, the two Boards started issuing a joint contract form.  Both Boards have undertaken extensive training of their members for this most-recent significant set of changes.

The changes include:

  • The most significant change is a complete re-write of the inspection contingency. In the sizzling residential market of 2020 and 2021, desperate buyers trying to secure a contract on a home — after losing out in multiple multiple-offer situations — would buy a home quickly, maybe rashly, sight-unseen with an inspection contingency. During the previously open-ended contingency period, they would for the first time “decide” if they wanted to buy the home. If they terminated (which came with increasing frequency), the seller lost a crucial 10-20 days at the beginning of the marketing period and ended up with a home back on the market with the stigma of a failed sale. This was frustrating for Realtor and seller.  The changes include:
    • Requiring that the inspector be licensed in Ohio (or specialists in more narrow fields).
    • Allowing access for inspection.
    • “Minor, routine maintenance and cosmetic items” cannot be the basis for termination.
    • Importantly, if the seller fails to timely respond to buyer’s request for repairs, he is deemed to have agreed to make those repairs.
    • In the event of certain undisclosed significant defects, the buyer has the right to skip the repair offer/counteroffer process, and simply terminate the contract. These bases are:
      • Structural
      • The presence of asbestos
      • The presence of lead-based paint
      • The presence of hazardous materials
  • A converse problem has also emerged due to the unusually active marketplace, which is that a seller would (in my word) scheme to cause a buyer to default under the contract, such as not allowing access for inspections. The requirement for seller cooperation is made explicit.
  • All timelines in the contract form are “time is of the essence,” except the closing date, which allows for an extension of up to seven days if both parties are “proceeding in good faith performance.”
  • The buyer is in default if earnest money has not been paid within three days.
  • Clarification is made as to the authority of the seller to sign in a fiduciary and corporate capacity.
  • Clarifies that the title agent or closing attorney is representing neither buyer nor seller.
  • The contract better explains Ohio’s confusing timing of real estate tax payments and prorations, and continues the option to elect the Dayton short proration or Cincinnati’s full proration at closing.
  • Clarifies that seller is responsible for Home Owner’s Association transfer fees, along with the cost of obtaining HOA documentation.

For help with a residential contract issue, contact Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) or Jennings Kleeman (513.943.6650).

Frequently we are asked by clients whether they are permitted to do “x” on their property: Move lot lines, build above a certain height, use a certain type of siding or trim or modify building setback lines. What rules govern these concerns?

The answer is: Both governmental restrictions and private contracts or covenants.

Let us explain.

Governmental restrictions

Zoning code, building code, fire code, subdivision regulations, engineer rules, and on and on and on, there a host of governmental regulations that dictate the use of, development of and construction on private property. And for each of these restrictions, there is a procedure for altering or “varying” the strict compliance with the restriction. These might include a board of zoning appeals, a board of building appeals,  or even an administrative appeal in Ohio Common Pleas Court or Kentucky Circuit Court.

So, once you jump through the hoops to get governmental approval, you are good to go, right?  Ummm, wrong.

Private covenants

For most modern subdivisions, commercial and residential, and for older ones going back decades, there are a series of private covenants against the land that many times mirror and then exceed the requirements in the governmental regulations. These covenants are recorded in the land records — in Ohio the County Recorder’s Office and in Kentucky in the County Clerk’s office. These covenants — whether the property owner is actually aware of them or not — are binding on each property owner in the subdivision as if the owner himself signed them. They are, in essence, a contract to which each subdivision property owner has expressly agreed.  These covenants may be in a textual document (many exceeding 50-100 pages) and they may be on a plat of subdivision as a graphically-drawn easement or restriction or text on the face of a plat.  Each have equal weight under the law. (Consider: did you understand as a property buyer that you were entering into 100-page contract and were bound to each provision thereof?)

Take for example building setbacks.  Zoning might require a minimum front yard of 25′, but the private covenants may require 50′. As to front entry garages, zoning may allow them, but private covenants may prohibit them.

Under private covenants, the “varying” or waiver could require unanimous approval of all lot owners, could require approval of the homeowners association board or an architectural committee thereof. Some covenants can be waived simply by a signature of the developer. The bottom line is that they are a matter of contract.  What the restrictions are and how they are waivered or varied is a question typically answered in the document itself.

Effect of governmental variance on private covenants (and vice versa)

So, as a property owner, once you go through the entire governmental variance process to allow a front entry garage or a smaller front yard setback, does that then solve the covenant problem?  Absolutely not. These two sets of restrictions each stand alone and must be modified or waived independently.

Similarly, if a property owner were to pursue a variance from requirements from a homeowners’ association, would that “fix” the violation of the governmental restriction? Still, no.

Thus, it will many times require two sets of approvals to get around a restriction that is in both the zoning code and the subdivision covenants.

Conclusion

For assistance with a zoning or covenant issue, please contact Jennings Kleeman (513.797.2858), Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) or Isaac Heintz (513.943.6654).

Today, the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors/Dayton Realtors announced that it will be issuing a new form purchase agreement for residential transactions on September 1. The new form has been in the works for more than a year now.

From their release, here are some of the major changes in the new form:

Time is of the Essence:  All dates and time-frames are “of the essence” throughout the contract, with a special provision for the closing date.

 

Earnest Money:  No more separate dates for submitting the earnest money for deposit and notifying the listing agent.  There is one time-frame for doing both (default is 3 days). There is also a provision to address non-real estate brokers holding the earnest money, as the laws pertaining to its handling by real estate brokers does not apply to non-real estate brokers.

 

Inclusions/Exclusions:  The default for appliances, such as refrigerators, ovens, etc. is for all to be included in the sale, unless they are specifically excluded in Section 6b.  Surveillance, monitoring and security system items are also addressed, including cameras and controls.  Doorbells are also specifically listed as being included in the sale.

 

Seller’s Certification:  The Seller’s certification has a new look and a new item pertaining to the Foreign Investments in Real Property Tax Act.

 

There are changes to the HOA and financing sections that clarify seller and buyer responsibilities and timing.

 

A significant change has been made to the Inspection ContingencyThe buyer will no longer be able to “walk away” without providing the seller the opportunity to correct material defects – with few, specifically defined exceptions.  And, the seller is required to respond to the buyer’s request for repairs within the time-frame specified or be deemed to have agreed to make all requested corrections.

This blog will be updated with more details after the form has been released. Contact Jennings Kleeman (513.797.2858) or Chris Finney (513.943.6655) for more details.

Today’s Wall Street Journal includes this probing article on condominium maintenance and governance. Although the article addresses proposed changes to Florida law, the issues are similar in Ohio and Kentucky.

The issue raised by the collapse and the events leading up to it, and issues of condominium finance and governance, are highlighted by the article. These are important issues for condominium owners and buyers to carefully consider.

We are asked to review condominium documents

Frequently, we are asked to review condominium documents for a prospective buyer. The task sounds simple enough, and, of course, our buyer already wants to buy. And not to be a negative Nancy, but does our client really understand what he is getting into?

So, a small diversion on that topic.

We many times after an owner is in a condominium — sometimes years after the closing — receive a call from an owner who is really unhappy with communal ownership that condominiums represent. They don’t like the standard to which the common areas are maintained. They don’t want to follow the rules set by the association. They won’t like the dues assessed. They don’t like the conduct of their neighbors. Buyers should therefore appreciate that condominium ownership — be it high-rise, apartment style, or townhouse style — is fundamentally legally different that single family home ownership.   

Contents of condominium documents

In Ohio, Condominiums are “regulated” under R.C. § 5311, which contains some minimum requirements of condominium declarations. But, mostly, condominium declarations are a voluminous contract by and among the unit owners.  The declaration or covenants typically contain these major categories of contractual agreements:

  • Division of the real property (land and buildings) among:
    • Unit, which is usually the three-dimensional space defined by the interior surfaces of the perimeter walls of the area the owner is buyer.
    • Common areas, which is everything that is not a “unit.” Importantly, for this article, this is the foundation, exterior walls, parking garages and parking lots, roof, windows, exterior doors, patios, hallways, lobbies, etc.  Again, anything that is not a unit itself.
    • Limited common areas, which are portions of the condominium property that are common areas, but are limited in their use to a specific unit owner or fewer than all of the unit owners.
  • Limitations on use of the Common Areas, and in some cases the units themselves. For example, parking three-axle trucks, leaving child toys or erecting a basketball hoop might be prohibited.
  • The creation of the condominium association, which typically owns no property itself but is charged with maintaining the common areas.
  • Assessment of condominium dues in an amount set from time to time by the association whereby, primarily, the association maintains the common areas.
  • The right in the condominium association Board to set reasonable rules.
  • The right of the condominium association Board to place a lien against a unit and foreclose on a unit for unpaid assessments.
  • Attorney fee shifting from association to unit owner. What this shorthand means is that if a unit owner gets into litigation with the association and loses, he must pay the attorneys fees of the association. This is a powerful tool of the association in scrapes with the unit owner.

Notably, one of the things that is not usually in condominium documents is a minimum  required standard of maintenance of common areas. So, if an owner does not like how a parking lot or roof is maintained, the cycle on which garage doors are replaced or that exterior painting is done, the unit owner can either run for the Board himself (and assemble a majority) to make better decisions or he is largely “out of luck” on that issue.

What is a unit owner buying?

So, when a unit owner buys a condominium property, what he gets at the closing is a deed for (a) the unit and (b) a percentage ownership interest in all of the common areas of the development.  This is means if it is a multi-unit development, he owns a percentage interest in every roof, every foundation, every exterior wall, etc. And therefore he has a partial duty to pay to maintain all such areas. Further, that purchase is subject to the contractual agreements set forth in the Declaration.

This is a pretty big gulp with a lot of unknowns when you think about it. In other words, the buyer better read the contract, better like his neighbors, better understand the physical condition of the entire development and better understand the finances of the association (more on that below).

So, how does this intersect with the Miami disaster?

The news articles have hinted at, but have not stated directly, that some owners in the building understood that poor long-term maintenance meant problems for the building, and that over the years some favored higher dues and a better standard of maintenance and others were more frugal and thought the maintenance could wait. This would be typical push and pull between a condominium association and its members.

Well we now know without a doubt which side of that debate was correct — the building needed higher assessments and a much higher standard of maintenance.

Condition of common areas is important

But condominium buyers usually — in my experience — look primarily at the units condition in determining whether to buy, and not the condition of the building or entire condominium complex.  I have even had condominium unit buyers hire inspectors to inspect the unit, and I wonder: Why? The condition of the entirety of the building(s) is just as important.

Condition of association’s finances is important

And offsetting balances set forth in the Association’s reserves are critical for deferred maintenance issues, lest the new owners pay for maintenance costs that should have been set aside by the current and former owners.

What questions should a condo buyer ask?

So, in addition to understanding the condition of the unit being purchased, a buyer should ask two critical questions:

  • If I were buying this entire building as an investment, for example, is it in tip-top shape or are there significant deferred maintenance items? And in the case of the Miami building, are there red flags that would indicate significant structural issues that could cause physical harm or massive special assessments to fix long-lingering problems?
  • Has the association set aside sufficient reserves to address routine and deferred maintenance issues, or have successive Boards left a mess for future owners?

It’s complicated

The long and short of condominium purchaser and condominium ownership is: It’s complicated, and to really know what you are buying or “where things stand” with your condominium, one really needs (a) a full understanding of the condition of the common areas in addition to the condition of the unit, and (b) a full understanding of the association’s finances — especially its reserves for repairs — to really understanding what you are buying and what you own.

Contact Chris Finney (513.943.6655), Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797-2853 or Jennings Kleeman (513-797-2858) to discuss condominium purchase issues or owner/association disputes.

Cincinnati homeowners may obtain a Community Reinvestment Area (“CRA”) tax abatement by renovating existing residential structures. This practice is common and reduces tax liability for homeowners who make such renovations. That said, recently, various homeowners with existing CRA Tax Abatements suffered a reduction in their existing CRA Tax Abatement. This issue was as new to us as it may be to you.

To preemptively clear up the foregoing issue for others, this blog post will discuss a background of the CRA Tax Abatement Program for existing residential structures, the importance of submitting the application in a timely manner, and how the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office, which has a duty to make appraisals, and can make such appraisals based on its own preferred method, calculates Tax Abatements.

Background

The CRA Tax Abatement Program is meant to stimulate revitalization, retain residents, and attract new homeowners, in the Cincinnati area. To encourage the foregoing types of behavior, the City of Cincinnati Department of Economic Development provides CRA Tax Abatements to certain homeowners who renovate existing residential structures (e.g., residential homes and residential condos, up to three units). To qualify for a CRA Tax Abatement, the cost of renovations must total at least $2,500.00, or $5,000.00, depending on the number of units in the residential structure. Some renovations, which might increase the marketability of a residential structure, are not contemplated in the cost of renovations (e.g., roofing, windows, gutters, vinyl siding, etc.) Likewise, unrelated improvements and tax on the land itself are not contemplated in the cost of renovations.

To apply for the CRA Tax Abatement Program, applicants will need to submit an application to the City of Cincinnati Department of Economic Development. Applicants who are renovating existing residential structures must pay an application fee of $250.00, which may be paid by check, to the “City of Cincinnati.” Also, applicants will need to submit evidence showing that all permits related to the renovations are closed. Applicants may obtain such evidence here. Finally, applicants will need to submit a document evidencing the costs of the renovations. Such evidence should be in the form of a notarized list indicating (i) the general categories of the work completed; (ii) the date such work was completed; and (iii) the expenses, including costs of labor, associated with each category of work completed.

Timing of the Application

Under the CRA Tax Abatement Program, the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office can set a CRA Tax Abatement Period for, at most, ten years, unless homeowners comply with LEED, LBC, or HERS standards, which are not discussed herein. That said, under the CRA Tax Abatement Program, the applicant cannot apply for the abatement until renovations are complete, and the CRA Tax Abatement is not applied to the residential structure until the application has been submitted.  Despite those rules, the abatement period begins when the renovations are commenced. Furthermore, it might take the City of Cincinnati eight weeks to respond to the application. As such, an applicant should complete their renovations and apply as quickly as possible to avoid missing out on their CRA Tax Abatement period.

Calculation of the Abatement

The Hamilton County Auditor’s Office recently started calculating CRA Tax Abatements under the “Percentage Method.” Under the Percentage Method, the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office determines a homeowner’s CRA Tax Abatement amount by dividing the contributed value of all the improvements, at the time construction began, by the value of the home without improvements. The purpose of the Percentage Method is to provide homeowners with a percentage that remains consistent, despite changes in home values.

Before the Percentage Method, the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office calculated CRA Tax Abatements under the “Beginning Value Method.” Under the Beginning Value Method, the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office determined a homeowner’s CRA Tax Abatement amount by subtracting the value of the home without improvements from the contributed value of all the improvements, at the time construction began. The Beginning Value Method created an issue where homeowners were unable to truly appreciate the value of their CRA Tax Abatement, because, when their property value increased, the value of their abatements did not, leaving them with little tax liability savings.

Due to the foregoing issue, the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office reacted by creating the Percentage Method. Despite its best intentions, the Hamilton County Auditor’s Office did not provide for grandfather clause for the various homeowners, with CRA Tax Abatements, who were content with their CRA Tax Abatement Valuation. This gave rise to the issue first described in this blog post, which the Finney Law Firm resolved for similarly situated homeowners. So, if you are a similarly situated homeowner and need professional guidance on how to remedy such issue, call the Finney Law Firm, today!