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Property seller’s word not enough

DEAR BENNY: I really need help urgently. I am interested in a property in Maryland, contacted the owner and she told me I can have the house but she did not sign any quit claim deed to me. The major question is, what can I do to transfer the property to me without the deed? All I have is her word of mouth. The property was in tax sale, and the investor who bought the tax certificate wants to foreclose. I am pressed for time to come up with the deed so I can redeem the property, but I cannot do that without some type of evidence that the property is mine. – Richard

DEAR RICHARD: What were you thinking about? Did you give the lady any money? I certainly hope not. The general rule of law is that oral agreements are not enforceable when real estate is involved.

    I suspect you were scammed. The property owner knew that there would be a tax sale, and found a sucker (pardon me, a buyer) who would give her money and she would walk away with some money in her pocket book.

    Hopefully, this is not the case. Under most tax sale situations, the owner has the absolute right – for a set period of time as spelled out in the law – to redeem the property by paying the tax arrearage. If you can find your seller, put pressure on her to “fish or cut bait” – i.e., either assign in writing her interests to you or redeem the property herself by paying the tax.

    Moral of this story: Please consult a lawyer before you enter into any real estate transaction, no matter how simple it may sound.

DEAR BENNY: I live in the middle of two neighbors with large trees in their yards.

The neighbor to my left has three huge trees in the back yard that are 30 years old. I’m afraid if we get a hurricane they’ll fall on my house. I have never said anything to him about this.
The neighbor to my right has a huge pine tree that has been a problem since I moved here. We agreed nine or 10 years ago to have the tree cut down. The tree trimmer showed up to discuss the price and the neighbor

came out and joined us. We agreed on $400, to be split between us. We shook hands but when the tree guy showed up early the next morning, my neighbor was leaving his house and denied making any such agreement. So I paid $200 to cut the limbs on my side. Did shaking hands and agreeing to pay $200 constitute an oral contract or an agreement? Can I take him to court if this tree damages my property in the future? – Mrs. ROD

DEAR MRS. ROD: Samuel Goldwyn once said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” But that “ain’t necessarily so.” Some contracts must be reduced to a written document, such as real estate transactions. However, oral contracts are enforceable, but you have to be able to prove the facts.

    You and your neighbor shook hands; were there any witnesses? Furthermore, in order to have a valid contract (oral or written) three things are required: (1) I make an offer; (2) you accept, and (3) there is valuable consideration. Typically, consideration is where money in transferred. However, if you take action (or do not take action) in reliance on the fact that there was a contract, that will be considered consideration. So in your case, in reliance on the fact that you thought there was a contract, you had the tree guy trim your branches.

    Yes, I believe you had a valid contract. But note that I said “had.” If I read your question correctly, this took place nine or 10 years ago. All written contracts have statutes of limitation, whereby after a certain number of years, typically three, the contract cannot be enforced. And oral contracts generally have a shorter limitation period.

    Moving to the present, if you believe that the neighbor’s tree is a danger to you, you should immediately send them a letter – by certified mail, return receipt requested – telling them of the danger. It would be a stronger case for you if you could get a professional arborist to give you a written report, although the arborist will not be able to trespass on the neighbor’s property.

    If you are still friendly with the neighbors, you should first give them a call to alert them to the letter.

Benny Kass is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C. and in Maryland. He is not providing specific legal or financial advice to any reader. He wants readers to e-mail him, but cannot guarantee a personal response. He can be reached at: [email protected].



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