Friday, November 9, 2018

Common Real Estate Scams and How to Avoid Them

Just like with most other areas of business, the real estate industry has been the target of many types of very creative and successful scams. While scammers are an unfortunate part of all industries where the exchange of money is involved, real estate especially has been a focus in recent years, likely because many more real estate investors these days are not local, and instead invest from afar. When someone can afford to invest in lucrative real estate across the country without ever leaving their home, they gain valuable convenience, while at the same time opening up themselves to risk.

One of the common scams is referred to as a "land contract sale" scam. A land contract is a document that spells out the legally-binding agreement between a seller and buyer, in which the seller of the property agrees to finance the buyer's side of the sale. Basically, the seller of the property becomes like a bank, in situations where the buyer doesn't have the credit history to get a real bank loan. So, instead of getting a mortgage and paying the interest and principal to the bank over an average of 30 years, they work out a payment plan where they pay the seller "mortgage-like" payments over 30 years (or often a shorter period, with a balloon payment at the end).

The existence of land contracts is important in the real estate industry, in that it allows people with little credit history to start down the path to home ownership earlier than they normally would be able to. Unfortunately, because of how the contracts are designed, sometimes sellers are able to take advantage of their buyers. The seller will put extremely strict requirements in the contract, intended to force the buyer to break the restrictions, thus making the property revert back to the seller's ownership. Or, they might make the interest rate on the payments much higher than any rate a bank would set. Sometimes, they even choose not to file the land contract and take out loans against the property, until it gets foreclosed upon. Land contracts don't always have bad outcomes, but if you're ever in a situation where you might need one, you should have your legal representation take a thorough look.

Lending scams tend to be very common as well, especially among people with little credit history (or very bad credit scores). Some (often unlicensed) lenders will be willing to lend an investor a lot of money to purchase a property and fix it up but will charge a much higher interest rate and have a shorter period in which the borrower must pay back the loan. They will also often charge high upfront fees for "loan insurance." The way to avoid this type of scam is to be wary. If a lender doesn't have very many questions for you, or if they don't ask for your credit information, it's probably a scam. As the saying goes, "If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is."

Rental scams, which don't necessarily affect real estate investors directly, do affect people in the real estate industry quite often. The scammer will find vacant houses, often for sale or for rent, and will post their own listings, claiming to be looking for tenants. A potential renter will sign a fake lease created by the scammer, will wire or mail a security deposit and the first month of rent, and will never receive the keys to the property in response. The scammer will tell their target that they live out of town, which is how they explain why they can't give the prospective tenant a tour. They also quote a rent price significantly less than the going market rate, to help convince tenants to move fast on the "opportunity." It is suggested that homeowners looking to sell or rent should clearly place signage with contact information, in a location that can be clearly seen by prospective tenants.

One of the most costly scams out there is a classic. The scammer (sometimes the actual seller, or sometimes just a random person), will convince the prospective buyer (usually an out-of-town investor) that the property is of higher condition than it actually is. They accomplish this by insisting on using their own inspectors, who give the prospective buyer a false report. They will also not disclose liens on the property or significant unseen damage (like termites or mold in the walls). One way to avoid this scam (though not foolproof by any means) is to only purchase properties listed on trusted platforms like the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Additionally, out-of-state investors who aren't able to come and actually see every property they invest in should still visit the area at some point and find real estate agents and inspectors who they can trust to be honest. There's no perfect way to stop yourself from getting scammed in any industry, but being careful in all of your business decisions is a good start.

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