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posted: 10/19/2013 12:30 AM

With real estate sales, it's not over until it's over

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Q. It seems like the newest scam is that the buyer walks away from the purchase of a house just before the closing, leaving the seller high and dry. Is there any way to make the purchase offer more binding, perhaps by having a lawyer draw it up? We want to put our house up for sale but are apprehensive because this has happened so often.

A. I'd have to know more about the experiences your friends have had recently, before I could tell you what happened.

I do know that most contracts will work only if the buyers are able to get the financing they need. You could have some assurance about that if you deal with buyers who have already been preapproved for a loan. A bank's appraiser would still have to find that your house was worth enough to justify the amount of the loan, though. If not, there'd be no use insisting that the buyers go ahead with the purchase -- they couldn't.

I suppose you could always hold out for an all-cash buyer, but finding one is likely to take a long time.

Another common provision in some areas is that the contract doesn't become fully binding until it's been approved by both parties' attorneys. There's usually a limit of a few days on that one, though, so I don't think it would explain last-minute walkaways.

Again, some contracts are dependent on a satisfactory report from a home inspector, but that one also should have a time limit so that sellers would hear about any problems early on.

Some sellers are willing to accept an offer that is contingent (dependent) on the buyers first selling their present home. If the buyers' house didn't sell, that could explain a deal falling through.

Certainly you can have your attorney draw up a sales contract, but I'm not sure that would do much more to protect you from everything that can go wrong. When it comes to real estate closings, I'm afraid it just ain't over till it's over.

Q. I have a house in another state that I rent out. The rent does not cover the mortgage payment, so I am paying $400 out of pocket for mortgage plus $900 to rent a home for myself here. I owe $160,000, but my real estate agent said the house is only worth $130,000. Should I refinance or sell and take the loss?

A. I don't see how refinancing is an option. Nobody's going to lend you $160,000 on a house worth $130,000, especially when it's rental property.

There doesn't seem much reason for holding on to a place that loses money every month. You can't count the $900 as part of the loss, though, because you'll always have housing expense wherever you are.

Q. I am 86 and live at a senior living complex. We sold our house in 2011, and I recall the lawyer telling me to keep the abstract, deed, survey and patio permit in a safe place for my records. My husband passed in May, and I am attempting to clean out files. How long must I keep these documents since I will never buy another house?

A. Those documents have nothing to do with the purchase of other property. They're all related to the past sale of your home. While I hesitate to contradict a lawyer, I don't see any harm in your discarding them at this point. On the other hand, they don't take up much room, and your children or grandchildren might find them interesting some day. Abstracts, if they go far back enough, can make fascinating reading.

Q. My parents sold a house and acreage to two of my brothers. They instructed the attorney who drew up the paperwork to title the property so that if one brother dies the other would become sole owner. Instead it's titled so the deceased brother's share would pass to his heirs. Is there a no-fuss, no-lawyer way to change the title and correct this? Both brothers are in agreement, and the property is fully paid for so there is no mortgage involved.

A. It's a simple matter to change the form of their co-ownership. The two brothers can just sign a new deed that lists their names as joint tenants with right of survivorship (or whatever wording that state uses.) The deed is then notarized and entered in the county's public records. The procedure should not be expensive. I'd say the attorney who made the error should agree to do it at no charge.

• Edith Lank will respond to questions sent to her at 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester, N.Y. 14620 (include a stamped return envelope), or readers may email her through

2013, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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