Q: Would you help me settle a disagreement with my husband? Our house is listed for sale, and our real estate agent put a “For Sale” sign out front. Twice now, people have rung the bell and asked if they could come in and see the house. I didn’t want to let them in, but my husband did, and he gave them our real estate agent’s business card. What do you think? — G.
A: I don’t think you should let strangers in your home. You hired a broker to avoid that. You have no idea if these folks are financially qualified to purchase your home. If they are, they should be treated professionally from the start.
Instead, give them a smile and hand them your agent’s business card, and suggest they make an appointment to look at your home. That way, you’ll have time to send the kids next door, put the dog in the garage, turn off the TV, straighten the bathroom towels, open the blinds, turn on the basement light and clear stuff off the kitchen counter. Now, this is a little different than if a real estate agent notices your home while driving around with clients. Those potential buyers would be financially qualified, so if they knock on the door, you might let them come in. You could buy time to tidy up a bit by suggesting they inspect the exterior of the home first.
Joint ownership of cottage
Q: My parents bought a piece of lakefront property many years ago; their longtime friend owns the other piece. My father’s name and his friend’s name are the only names I have seen on any property tax bills.
If something happens to either my father or his friend, what would happen with the ownership? If something were to happen to my father, would his share of ownership be transferred to my mom, or would it go to my father’s friend? — askedith.com
A: It’s not exactly clear who bought the property or when, but let’s assume your father and his friend bought their shares at the same time from some previous owner. The answer to your question would be determined by the way in which their names are written on the deed.
If they are listed as joint tenants or joint tenants with right of survivorship, if one of them dies, the other would automatically become the sole owner. If, on the other hand, they are listed as tenants in common, or if their names are simply on the deed with no further description, then they each have the right to leave their share to a chosen heir.
The deed should be available to anyone to see in your county public records office; it may be online in some counties.
About life estates
Q: My mother bought a vacation cottage about 10 years ago. The woman who sold it to her died this winter. Now, my mother is being told she doesn’t own the cottage because the woman only had life interest in the property. The lawyer says it belongs to the woman’s two stepsons.
It is obviously not possible to go after her because she’s dead. My mother has a deed to the cottage. Should we go after the stepsons? Whose fault is it that we ended up in this mess? I don’t see why anyone would just buy life interest. Any information you can provide will be appreciated. — J. W.
A: The life estate interest gave that woman complete ownership of the property, but only during her lifetime. Perhaps her husband set it up that way in his will, naming his sons as remaindermen to automatically become owners after his wife’s death. As an owner, she had the right to sell, but she could only sell what she owned.
You didn’t say where the cottage is located, but in many states, the principle of caveat emptor (a Latin phrase meaning, “let the buyer beware”) still applies to the purchase of real estate. It is up to the buyer to investigate whether the seller really is the complete owner and if there are any other claims on the property.
If your mother retained an attorney for the purchase, as is customary in New York state, the lawyer should have discovered the limitation and disclosed it to her before she finalized the purchase. If she followed local practice in some other area, the title company, escrow company or whoever handled the closing should have alerted her. If she settled directly with the seller, taking no legal precautions, there may not be anyone to blame; a court might rule that she could have learned she was buying from an owner who had life interest by searching through the county’s public records.
So, why would anyone buy just a life interest? Perhaps your mother was attracted to what looked like a remarkably low price. She did, after all, receive undisputed ownership and was able to enjoy the cottage for a decade.
I just hope she didn’t spend too much on home improvements, because anything permanently attached to a home — with a few exceptions — becomes part of the real estate and must remain.
Contact Edith Lank at www.askedith.com, or at 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester NY 14620.