Housing and rental scam is on the rise again

On a Sunday, a couple looking for a rental (or maybe it's a house to buy) answer an ad on Craigslist and drive out to see the place. At the vacant home they're greeted by the owner, who explains he's already moved out of town and just came back to rent out (or maybe it's to sell) the place.

They like the property and the rent (or the asking price) seems like a real bargain. He's got other people coming to view the house, but he promises to keep it for our couple if they'll let him hold a check for the first and last month's rent (or an earnest money deposit.) He'll just need to run a credit check on Monday and have the lease (sales agreement) drawn up.

They're careful to get a receipt when they gave him their deposit. Everybody's happy. Win-win situation, right?

Not quite.

What's wrong with this picture?

He doesn't own the property.

How he manages to enter the vacant house I don't know, but over that one weekend he could meet several prospective tenants (or buyers), all of whom might give him deposits. I first heard of this scam a few years ago, and it's turning up again recently.

It wouldn't be out of line for that couple to ask for identification - at the least a driver's license - before handing over thousands of dollars to a stranger. And their smartphone could take pictures not only of their prospective home, but also of its former owner and the license plate on his car. It could even pull up the county's public records or tax rolls - a quick way to check the names of property owners.

Q. About that big shagbark hickory in the yard, and whether it would add value when the house went on the market. Sawmills and loggers shy away from yard and fencerow trees because of the chance there may be nails in them.

Homeowners nail the clothesline or the dog chain to trees in the yard, or kids pound nails in them from time to time and they end up growing into the tree.

Fencerow trees have wire fences stapled to them or posted signs, and they end up with ingrown nails. These can be damaging and dangerous to a sawmill and the operator. Some loggers will check them over with a metal detector, but that doesn't always work.

Hickory makes pretty good firewood, so that's probably where it will end up.

A. Thanks for a fascinating answer to that earlier question. Always good to hear from an expert.

Q. I have lived in here for over 25 years and am now considering selling. However, this state does not appear to have a formal deed. I paid off the mortgage and they provided a letter showing it is satisfied. I also checked with the county assessor, and they show I am the registered owner. When I sell, other than a sales agreement, what do I hand the new owner?

A. Trust me - every state uses deeds to transfer ownership of real property, and that includes yours. If you want to see the deed by which you became owner, you can order an inexpensive copy from the county's public records office. But when you sell, you'll be signing a different, new deed anyhow. That's how you turn over your title to the next owner.

Q. What is your opinion of people who will buy your house for cash? They list a phone number on a sign nailed to a telephone pole.

A. I expect they will indeed buy your house for cash, and as promptly as possible. To understand how much they will offer, though, let's consider what their business involves:

Those buyers usually plan to resell your house on the open market. Until that happens, they'll have expenses for property taxes, insurance, utilities and lawn or snow removal. They'll have their own money tied up in the house. They will likely repaint the interior, and they may need to make repairs before offering the place for sale. They'll make an allowance for unexpected problems that may arise along the way, and then they'll add in something for profit. Why else would they buy in the first place?

You can see that they'll offer you a deep discount from market value for the house. If you had a large mortgage, that might not be enough to pay it off, and the deal wouldn't work at all.

Someone who needs immediate cash in an emergency might find the arrangement useful. A house is worth more, though, to someone who plans to live in it. Most homeowners have time to offer their property for sale in normal fashion, on the open market.

• 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

© 2015, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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