Lack of Standardized Contracts
Creates Foreclosure Can of Worms

From a realtor’s perspective, representing a Buyer trying to purchase a foreclosure can present an endless can of worms.

For starters, there’s the issue of the house’s condition. What is it?

Unlike a typical owner-occupied home, there are no disclosures, and the Buyer usually must agree to purchase “as-is.” Since no one’s home, literally, anything can — and does — go wrong. Because foreclosed homes in Minnesota are frequently winterized, one of the first issues to negotiate is how — and sometimes even if — the prospective Buyer can test the plumbing, heating, and other major mechanical systems.

A second hurdle is response time. Unlike a typical deal, where a sale negotiation can be consummated in 24-48 hours, with many banks the equivalent timetable is weeks (I’ve even heard of months, in a few cases).

However, undoubtedly the biggest headache associated with foreclosures is, shall we say, the “variety” of bank-required contracts (suffice to say, there are as many bank-required legal forms circulating as there are bank-owned properties). That lack of standardization not only creates a great deal of uncertainty, but can be time-consuming, and can present novel traps and pitfalls for Buyers (and their realtors) each transaction.

Not Just “Boilerplate”

One of the biggest advances in residential real estate the last few decades, at least in Minnesota, is the adoption of standardized purchase agreements and addenda. While the 20-odd page, single-spaced contract you signed when you purchased your home last year may have said “Edina Realty,” “Coldwell Banker Burnet,” or “ReMAX,” the underlying document is the same in virtually every deal.

As Martha Stewart might say, “that’s a good thing.”

Unbeknownst to most consumers (and unfortunately, not a few realtors), the standard real estate contract is a dynamic, constantly evolving document.

In fact, each year, the purchase forms undergo a series of tweaks and adjustments to address new market conditions (like the prevalence of short sales now); conform with any new state or federal law; and to refine earlier language that has proved problematic.

That combination of standardization and constant updating greatly streamlines the deal process, by creating conventions for handling the complications and ambiguities that can be part of any transaction.

To pick just one example, consider the Financing Addendum.

The standard Minnesota form balances the Buyer’s need for time to firm up their financing with the Seller’s need for certainty. The compromise is to set a specific date by which the Buyer’s lender is to provide a “Written Statement” to the Seller indicating that the Buyer has secured their financing.

What happens if the Buyer’s lender doesn’t do that? The Addendum explicitly addresses what happens to the Buyer’s earnest money, the effect on the transaction, each party’s relative rights, etc.

Custom Contracts

Now throw all that out and start over with the bank’s required forms.

How much time is the Buyer allowed to line up their financing? How are they to communicate lender approval? What happens if they can’t get it? Under what circumstances does the Seller get to keep the Buyer’s earnest money — and when do they have to give it back?

As they say, “read the fine print.” And if the fine print happens to be ambiguous . . . prepare for some friction and (more) delay, at the very least. (As a general proposition, you can assume that banks are inserting/deleting language to increase their rights and limit their liabilities relative to Buyers.)

Similar issues can arise regarding the Inspection timing and the Buyer’s ability to back out; the scope of Seller disclosures (usually, just disclaimers); and responsibility for any third-party claims on the property (delinquent taxes, contractor liens, etc.).

After navigating all these issues, and investing a few months of their time, Buyers (and their realtors) are as likely as not to discover that the Buyer’s offer has been knocked out by another, higher one.

For all this aggravation, you’d think realtors would get a bonus, right? No way.

Not only is the typical foreclosure steeply discounted from the average market price (about $180,000 now), but the “payout” (the commission offered to the Buyer’s realtor) is heavily discounted, too.

About the author

Ross Kaplan has 19+ years experience selling real estate all over the Twin Cities. He is also a 12-time consecutive "Super Real Estate Agent," as determined by Mpls. - St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Magazine. Prior to becoming a Realtor, Ross was an attorney (corporate law), CPA, and entrepreneur. He holds an economics degree from Stanford.

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