All real estate contracts must be in writing

Q: We are in a rental house. We like this neighborhood and our children like the school. We talked to the landlady about buying, but she doesn’t want to sell.

Last year, we told our neighbor that if he ever wanted to sell, we would buy his house. He promised to give us first right of refusal. Now he’s getting ready to list his house for sale with a broker. Can we hold him to what he said before? — L. R.

A: All contracts for the sale of real estate must be in writing in order to be enforceable. Translation: Oral agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

You could have made an all-cash offer out loud in front of 20 witnesses. Your neighbor could have agreed to sell for that amount and even accepted a deposit check. But you still wouldn’t be able to hold him to it. When it comes to real estate, all sales contracts must be written.

You might want to give him a signed purchase offer at this point. But he might prefer to wait and see what happens on the open market. You’ll probably have competition. Good luck.

Transfer to daughter

Q: My husband and I own the home our daughter and her family occupy.

We are at an age where we want to simplify our lives, and we would like to put the title of the home in her name. However, we are uncertain about where to start the process.

Should we see an attorney? Could we simply sign the title over to her?

If so, what are potential legal issues (taxes, etc.)? We would appreciate whatever advice you can share.

J. W.

A: Turning over ownership to your daughter is relatively simple. An attorney draws up a new deed naming her as the owner of the property, and both of you sign it. The deed is then filed in your county public records office. Your daughter also takes over your cost basis for the property. And that’s it.

Your state has no gift tax. As far as the federal government is concerned, the IRS allows each of you to give your daughter $14,000 a year free of any gift tax. If she is married and you include her husband on the title, the gift amount will be double.

You’d file a gift tax return, but you wouldn’t owe any actual tax. The current value of the house minus that $28,000 (or $56,000) would someday be subtracted from what you could leave free of estate tax upon your death(s).

If you have little in assets and are thinking about possibly qualifying for Medicaid health coverage, the current value of the house will still be considered your asset for a look-back period of five years after the transfer.

By the way: The tax advice would be different if this house were your own residence.

Buyer’s shaky credit

Q: We sold our house on our own, with no Realtor, and have a signed a contract with a buyer. They need to get a mortgage, and we are wondering what to do if they have trouble with the loan. Do we have the right to know information about their private finances?

K. I.

A: You’re right to be concerned, and you should have checked their credit information before accepting their offer. Your agent would have investigated at that point.

Monitoring the progress of their loan application is important. Their income will be verified with their employer(s). If that’s impossible, they might bring in past income tax returns.

Occasionally, unpleasant surprises turn up with credit history. The buyer might have forgotten or unknown judgments against them. This is not fatal — they could clear them by paying them off. More serious is something like a bankruptcy the buyer “forgot” to mention or large outstanding debts.

You have a right to be notified promptly of any problems, for time is money in your situation. If the transaction might fall through, you should be told at once. Again, your broker would have been monitoring all this.

If things look shaky, you could put your house back on the market “subject to the nonperformance of the existing contract.” That would enable you to search for another buyer in the meantime and even accept a backup offer. Of course, you’d have to find prospective buyers who are willing to wait around to see what happens. Let’s just hope all goes well.

Contact Edith Lank at, at or at 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester NY 14620.

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