Is the Seller a “Foreign Person”? Buyers, FIRPTA Says You Better Find Out

ID-10075952This is not legal advice. For legal advice, consult an attorney in person about your specific situation. Never rely on a blog. [Updated 12/17/14]

The Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (FIRPTA) is a federal law that requires a “foreign person” to pay tax on the gain realized upon the sale of real property owned by that person. However, the law does not make the seller responsible for paying this tax.  Rather, the law requires the buyer to determine whether or not the seller is a “foreign person” (basically a non-resident alien).

If the seller is a “foreign person” as defined by the statute,then the buyer must withhold 10% of the sale proceeds at closing. These funds are to be forwarded to the IRS to insure that the foreign person pays tax on the gain realized from the transfer. If the buyer fails to determine that the seller is a foreign person and thus fails to withhold 10% of the proceeds, the buyer is liable for the 10%. WOW! That’s significant. If you just bought a $400,000 house from a foreigner and did not satisfy your obligations under this statute, you may be liable to the IRS for a cool 40 grand. Ouch.

The NWMLS, recognizing the serious risk to buyers, has included a “FIRPTA” provision in the standard Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA):

j. FIRPTA – Tax Withholding at Closing. The Closing Agent is instructed to prepare a certification (NWMLS Form 22E or equivalent) that Seller is not a “foreign person” within the meaning of the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act. Seller shall sign this certification. If Seller is a foreign person, and this transaction is not otherwise exempt from FIRPTA, Closing Agent is instructed to withhold and pay the required amount to the Internal Revenue Service.

So that’s good news! The PSA specifically instructs the closing agent, aka escrow, to make sure the buyer complies with this legal obligation.  Whew!

Wait, there’s bad news? Yep. Virtually every escrow company has its own “escrow instructions” that elaborate on the terms of the PSA.  And guess what?  Those instructions relieve the escrow agent from taking any steps to make sure the buyer complies with FIRPTA.  Here is the language from some commonly used escrow instructions:

Seller warrants to Escrowee [i.e., the Closing Agent] that if Seller is an individual, Seller is a non-resident alien for purposes of U.S. Income taxation, or if Seller is a corporation, partnership, trust or estate, Seller is not a foreign entity. The Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980 as amended by the Tax Reform Act of 1984 places special requirements for tax reporting and withholding on the parties to a real estate transaction where the transferor (seller) is a non-resident alien or non-domestic corporation or partnership or partnerships. It is understood and acknowledged by the undersigned that (a) Escrowee will not take an active role in either the determination of the non-alien status of the seller transferor or the withholding of any funds; and (b) Escrowee makes no representations and (c) Buyer and Seller are seeking an attorney’s, accountant’s, or other tax specialists opinion concerning the effect of this Act on this transaction and are not acting on the statements made or omitted by the Escrowee.

So what protection the PSA provides, the escrow instructions take away. “Whew!” is grossly premature.

Obviously, “consulting with an attorney or other specialist” is simply the escrow company engaging in a little CYA.  The closing agent, and only the closing agent, is in a position to obtain the necessary signed certification. The PSA instructs the closing agent to do so.  But the closing agent promptly tells the buyer that it will not do so. If you’re a buyer in this situation, watch out. You could get some exceptionally bad news from the IRS long after you’ve purchased the home.

Not convinced? Check out my follow-up post where I flesh out my opinion with those of several other residential real estate lawyers.

Finally, this is a fantastic illustration of how a buyer can benefit from having an attorney on board from the get-go. At Quill Realty, we provide every client with an attorney (and we pay the attorney’s fee). So if you’re a Quill client, you can rest assured that your attorney will identify and resolve this issue (usually by demanding that the closing agent comply with the terms of the PSA and not those of the escrow instructions, to which they usually agree).  Not a Quill client?  Well, good luck in seeking to eliminate this very substantial post-closing exposure to the IRS…

Escrow Trenches: nutty funding conditions

Recall those episodes where Jerry Seinfeld grits his teeth and in one exasperated and frustrated breadth says, “Neeeewman!”

Similarly, so do title and escrow staff in dealing with lender funding conditions and other challenges that seemingly are for no other purpose but to drive us to the closet for our straight-jackets.

Unfortunately, some conditions cannot be easily met at the moment the request comes over the fax or e-mail.   Some require work that delays closings.  Or, in extreme cases a condition can completely shut down all other transactions you are working on for a couple of hours to work feverishly to meet conditions or do a workaround when parties to a transaction become completely uncooperative.

Here’s a couple funding conditions pulled from our short list posted on our blog:

  • “Prove that the borrowers are not married.” (hmmm)
  • “Slight variance in borrower’s signature from others of the same borrower, need borrower to re-execute documents.”  (can cause escrow people to find a new profession.  Who’s signature is the same after signing an FHA loan package that is 119 pages long and 1.375 inches thick?)
  • “Borrower signed on the line adjacent to the one provided where the name appears.   Please re-execute the document.”  (resulted in a re-sign after tracking down the borrower).

While these are humorous after the fact it also paints a picture of what goes on behind the scenes.   Another thing that creates grins for title and escrow staff:  When there is a “rush” on a request and that request involves the collaboration and cooperation with a government agency.

Understanding the terminology of “loan docs”

signing-docsBack in February of 2006 I took the time to type out an outline of everything that happens with a real estate transaction, and color coded it to reflect who does what. I called it Anatomy of a Real Estate Transaction, and I did it backwards from the end to the beginning. Many have found it helpful, but it may be time to re-write it, though I don’t think much has changed since then as to how an escrow starts and ends.

Recently with loan processing becoming a bit more difficult than it was back in 2006, I have noticed a lot of confusion regarding the terminology used by lenders and agents and escrow at the end of the transaction.  In the 2006 post I said:

***This one little line is THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ANY REAL ESTATE TRANSACTION INVOLVING FINANCING!  And yet, I purposely put it there as quietly as it happens, no fanfare, no bold lettering, no all caps, to notice to all parties.  “Docs are in” – A quiet little event between the lender and escrow that is clearly THE BE-ALL-END-ALL OF EVERYTHING!*** 

There are actually three things that happen at the end of a real estate transaction where the buyer is using a mortgage to purchase.

1) Docs are ORDERED

2) Docs are SENT

3) Docs are IN

This is the nail biting stage of every real estate transacton. 

Often the confusion regarding the last word in those three stages creates many phone calls back and forth due to a misunderstanding of the terminology.  This happens often enough that I thought it would be helpful to those buying and selling homes to highlight the distinction in a separate blog post.

Often the buyer will say “lender said the loan documents are at escrow” when what the lender really said was the loan documents have been ordered.  Sometimes the lender says the loan documents have been sent, which is not quite the same as their being in escrow.

If you are buying a home you want to make sure your lender is instructed to notify you TWICE. 

You want to be notified when the docs have been ORDERED, as that pretty much means your loan is really fully approved and out of underwriting.  It also tells you that you likely are pretty much “done” and on your way to closing.  It also tells you to start preparing to go and sign your closing documents, as most escrow companies will not sechedule a signing appointment until they receive the loan documents.

You also want to be notified by the lender when the loan documents are SENT, especially if you need a little advance time to clean up your desk, or give your boss a little notice that you will likely be leaving work to go sign your closing papers. The closer the loan documents are ordered to the actual closing date, the less time you will have to give your boss notice that you need a little time off or a longer lunch to sign your closing papers.  These two cues: Docs have been ordered and Docs have been sent, can be pretty important if you can’t just jump up and leave work without notice.

Unlike states that don’t have escrow, where people have 30 days or more notice as to what day they need to take off from work to go and sign their papers, escrow states require that the buyer sign at least a day before closing. In WA and CA, closing is a phone call, often between 4 and 5 p.m., so taking off from work “on closing day” is not usually needed.  In fact, if you do take off on closing day, be prepared to be sitting around staring at the wall waiting for a phone call before you can get the keys and start moving  into the house.

I am currently waiting for “docs” on two closings.  In one “docs have been ordered”, on the other “docs have been sent” on neither have docs made it to escrow.  As the agent, I wait impatiently for docs to be IN so I can review the closing numbers for my clients.  One is a seller, so those numbers are not loan document sensitive and final numbers have already been reviewed and corrected at my end, and the seller has already signed their closing papers. 

On the other, I can’t review the final numbers for my buyer client until the loan docs are IN, as escrow prepares the Buyer Closing Statement after receiving those loan documents.  We are pretty sure what the numbers should be…but given the documents are “late”, I vigilantly watch my email and phone so I can review the numbers immediately.  I don’t want to be part of  the delay on a closing, by not being available to review the final numbers within 15 minutes of receiving them.

“docs have been ordered” is the breathe a little easier cue.  That usually converts IF it will close to WHEN it will close. So asking your lender to notify you when docs have been ordered, is a very good idea.

What Happens When The Equity Isn't There, But The Contract Is?

Responsibility on the listing side…

Last week’s Rain City Guide discussion on Short sales got me thinking about some of the other things that are occurring in this market as well. Many homeowners have taken out a ton of equity and are either maxed out or upside down at this point, but some may not be aware of exactly how much they owe. When it comes to listing these properties – or any property, the listing agent should pull title, but also talk to the title rep and find out how much the property is monetarily encumbered by liens. Merely relying on the seller’s information is not enough to be truly diligent.

Take a seller who thought he owed X amount of dollars on his home. After being on the market for a while, the seller’s agent relied on that information to help when it came to reducing the price. A buyer came along and a contract was executed for the purchase of the property. One week before closing the listing agent calls the buyer’s agent and drops the bombshell: The seller actually owes quite a bit more than they thought. Instead of getting a nice chunk of change from their seller net proceeds, the seller will be short X amount of money to close.

Does this really happen?

You bet! Twice I have seen this happen personally and both times the listing agent had not bothered to check the actual amounts owed on the properties. Yes, a listing agent should be able to rely on the seller’s information, but as a matter of diligence shouldn’t they go ahead and take the extra step to get the full accurate information? Title has already been pulled in most cases anyway.

Sellers, you still have signed a contract:

It is helpful to know what you actually owe on your property before you sign a purchase and sale agreement to sell it. In order to stay within contract, a seller will have to come up with the short fall dollar amount to bring to the closing table.The NWMLS Form 21 Residential Purchase & Sale Agreement clearly states: “ Monetary encumbrances or liens not assumed by Buyer, shall be paid or discharged by Seller on or before Closing.

How to stop escrow madness in an instant

The most wonderful, beautiful and innocent thing stopped the frenzy,  processes and insanity of end of month escrow transactions in an instant.  That thing was the glow of a sharply dressed very elderly woman who happened to find her way to our office and came to our front reception counter and said,

“Hi, can you help me, I’m lost and I can’t find my way home.”

In the midst of all the domestic and world issues, real estate problems, war conflicts, economic woes, layoffs, stock market crashes, corruptness of Bank and Investment CEO’s, politicians and everything else that batters our minds;  for me, it all became meaningless and subordinate to this gracious lady and her memory ailment. At that point I didn’t care about anything but her and helping her find her way home, which I did.

Escrow.  You just never know what each day will bring.

Head Scratcher: $100K loan orig. fee, poof! Maybe it's our hot weather.

Life in the escrow business:

A borrower notices a $100,000 loan origination fee on a very large transaction, puts on the brakes and says, “not so fast.” The borrower stops the transaction after the loan officer and borrower can’t work it out.

I know Lynlee mentioned a nutty conversation in an earlier post, but this takes the cake for me, YTD. For a LOT of people, in this market, the fees charged on this singular transaction would have made for a “great year.” (or two)

Have a great weekend everyone. Enjoy the weather!

Title and Escrow – Who Chooses?

In this post I will address the topic from a practical standpoint, in chronological order, based on “Common Practice”.  This post is written from the standpoint of “common practice” in the Seattle area, where Title and Escrow are two separate functions, and not combined as they are in “settlement” vs. “escrow” areas.  Areas that have “a settlement or ‘event’ closing”, operate differently.  After reading this, you will likely feel that something should change.  So posting on this topic is a great way to influence change, a side benefit to blogging in “transparent” fashion.

Nothing changes until its weaknesses are illuminated by discussion…so here goes.

1) The first thing an owner does (or the listing agent does on behalf of the owner) is contact a Title Company.  Most often, this is done BEFORE the property is listed for sale.

Most Title companies offer three levels of information/service:

a ) a “listing packet”

b) “Preliminary Title”

c) A full Title Insurance Policy

Often an agent will order a “listing packet” upon first getting a request to visit an owner at their home to discuss the property being listed for sale.  This level of information provides a basic legal description, a plat map, and some basic and general info regarding the property.  Some companies provide sale comps, but most experienced agents don’t rely on the Title Company for “comps” and do their own.  Personally I tell a Title Company not to waste their time or the paper producing comps for me.  I never find them to be useful, or as useful as the ones I do myself.

While in theory “the seller” orders Title as “common practice”, and By Law the Buyer is supposed to choose the Title Company (see RESPA below),  most often the agent has already been in contact with a Title Company before they even meet the seller. 

2) “Preliminary Title” is usually ordered by the agent as soon as they know that “they have the listing”.  Sometimes I do this as a first step, if I know the owners well enough to know that I will be listing the property before I go to the first meeting to discuss getting the property ready for market.  That gives me more info up front than the “listing packet” and saves the Title Company some time, and possibly a few trees, if we get “hard copies” or print out the info.

When an agent lists a property, part of the intitial input into the mls system is a field question that asks “Has Preliminary Title been ordered?”  Then there is a drop down box where you enter “Yes” or “No”.  The presumption is that the answer should be “YES” and often the Title Order # is included in the Agent Remarks section “Title Company is X order #X”.  To comply with RESPA, the buyer is supposed to choose the Title company.  So possibly this provision in the mls listing input should be eliminated.  You be the judge.  For now, that’s how it is.

In order to write an offer on a property, the agent for the buyer needs to access the legal description.  As soon as there is “mutual acceptance” of the contract, the lender needs to access the Title Order by company and Title Order #.  So without regard to the Insurance aspects of Title Insurance, the process of involving a specific Title Company happens long before there is a need to actually insure the property with regard to Title Issues.  At time of offer, the buyer has the option to choose Title and Escrow as part of the offer and is NOT obligated by law or contract to use the one who provided the owner and listing agent with services to date.  Still common practice does not follow that thinking…or at least hasn’t do date.  Maybe the people reading ths post will change that in the future.

3) Title Insurance Policy – Now we get into who pays and who chooses.  Up to this point, no one pays.  If the property never gets “signed around” and escrow is never opened, the Title Company has provided all of the services for free.  The title Company up to this point, provided these FREE services to the listing agent.  The balance is that the agent most often uses the same Title Company all of the time or most of the time, and so there is an offset of paid for services against the free services.  If owners ordered and paid for the services up to this point (vs. the agent), there would likely be a cost for the first stages that are currently offered free of charge if the house never sells.

Here in the Seattle Area we have OWNER’S Title and LENDER’S Title.  Owner’s Title Insurance is the manner in which an owner conveys “clear title” to the buyer.  The cost is based on the Sale Price and is paid for by the seller.  Lender’s Title is all about the buyer.  If it is a cash buyer, there is no Lender’s Title.  If the purchase is financed, then the buyer pays for that portion of the Title Insurance that insures the Lender and is based on the loan amount vs. the Sale Price.

RESPA – Basically RESPA provides that “the owner” gets to choose Title.  In this post I refer to “the owner” as the person who owns the property prior to closing.  Common pactice here is that the owner at time of listing the property “orders title”, at least Preliminary Title.  RESPA (Real Estate Settlement and Procedures Act) “entitles the homeowner to choose a title insurance company when purchasing or refinancing…”  and gives that right to the BUYER as “owner” and not the seller as owner.  In fact any seller who mandates the Title Company to the buyer is subject to a penalty of 3 times the cost of the Title Insurance.  This makes perfect sense in settlement States, but is a bit odd in in escrow States.   But it is what it is.  Back to common practice.

It would seem that the seller should CHOOSE and pay for Owner’s Title and the Buyer should CHOOSE and pay for Lender’s Title, simply due to the fact that the owner and listing agent need to review title information long before the buyer is a known entity.  Practical application and the law do not seem to be in sync here.  Most often the ACTUAL title policy is an automatic via the company that offered Preliminary Title.  To “perfect” the system, there should be a separate administrative charge for the Listing Packet and Preliminary Title that is paid by the seller, and a Buyer Election to choose the Title Insuror, without regard to who provided the a) and b) services.  My opinion, of course.

Up to this point, the agent needs to find the things the owner doesn’t often know about the property.  Or the agent needs to prove that what the owner BELIEVES is so, is accurate, which is not often the case.  We as listing agents are using Title Companies to ascertain liens, easements, encroachments, etc..  We don’t want to find out that the owner is incorrect AFTER the property is in escrow.  Often the owner thinks they own the driveway, when they do not.  By being in contact with the Title Company in advance of listing the property, we often find out that both owners own the driveway.  Sometimes and often four feet each.  In my most recent study of a soon to be listed property, the ownership of the driveway is 4 1/2 feet vs. 3 1/2 feet…odd but true.  Most owners do not know these things, or worse yet are WRONG about these things.  So in my book, misrepresenting the property (IMNSHO) is worse than worrying about waiting for the buyer to be a known factor, before consulting with a Title company. 

Still it is the buyer’s right, under RESPA to choose a different Title  Company later in the process, so the common practice of Preliminary Title moving straight to an ACTUAL POLICY, should not happen as it does, without the buyer’s direct election of Title Company.  From my standpoint this is MORE important in areas where the Title Company is also the Closing Agent…so let’s move on to “choosing escrow”, so you can see why I feel this way.

4) CHOOSING AN ESCROW COMPANY/CLOSING AGENT.  While the Listing Agent may have in the agent remarks field “Title Company X Order # X and Escrow TO BE X or Y”, the escrow company is not utilized or chosen (most times) in advance of the buyer’s offer.  Only Title services are needed prior to offer (with some exceptions).

Most reasonable people agree with me 🙂 that Title should be ordered by the Seller and Escrow should be chosen by the Buyer.

This post is probably going to open a big can of worms, but in the interest of Transparency, the resultant fallout is of value.  Most buyers and sellers get “whooshed” through the whole and very important process of Title and Escrow services.  So talking about it is important, even if we all don’t agree.

It is important to note that NEVER in the 18 years I’ve been in this business have I seen anyone choosing title and escrow services based on cost (or home inspection, or anything important to the process).  Given the relatively minor differences in cost, the small amount you save is not worth the anguish you might later face by having chosen based on cost vs. competency.

When there are five offers on a property, well making a big deal of buyer choosing escrow may not be appropriate.  No one wants to lose the house fighting over who is handling the escrow.  But often, even in multiple offer situations, the listing agent will understand that the buyr should chooses escrow, and Title Company too if they want to.  The problem with the RESPA rule is that if the buyer makes a big stink over  who chooses the Title Company in a multiple offer situation at time of offer, they may not get the house.  No one can prove that they didn’t get the house because of the battle over Title Company.  So for all practical purposes, seller chooses “all services” when there are multiple offers often wins, because of market conditions.

But with the market changing, it is important to highlight that common practice over who chooses should CHANGE when there is only one buyer in the room, and the “common practice” of a strong Seller’s Market should not continue into a balanced or buyer’s market.  That is one of the reasons I am writing this post at this time.  My biggest criticism of “common practice” is that agents do not make enough effort to swing it back and forth to match “market conditions”. 

Common Practice should reflect the actual needs of the buyer and the seller and change as market conditions dictate, and not simply be “the way we have always done it”.

Salvaging a dead transaction: when a client refuses to sign.

Never underestimate the power of a cup of coffee

A few months ago I met with a client at their home in the Woodinville area. After introducing ourselves to each other we sat down at the kitchen table and started going over paperwork and loan documents. The gentleman slowly started to go over the loan documents in a methodical manner which is not unusual. Prior to each signing appoinment one of the very first things I mention to our client is that I’m not in a rush and they can take all the time they need. I indicate that there are a few important documents they need to pay particular attention to while the other bulk of the loan package is a series of disclosures, much of which is boilerplate and typical of most lender loan packages.

Probably 15 minutes into the signing it was evident that the demeanor of the client was changing. Not only was the scrutiny of the documents going slowly but question after question started to flow, one after the other. The client decided to stop the appointment and make a phone call to his loan officer. After a brief discussion, the client hung up the phone and informed me that the transaction would be on hold.

Naturally, your mind starts to spin a bit and I sensed that the gentleman wanted to digest the information more carefully, perhaps without the pressure of anyone being present. I informed the client that it was not a problem and I would be in touch to schedule another time to mutually get together and sign the documents.

coffee cup

We’ve been in each other’s company for about an hour by this time and I told him to “not worry about the transaction, at least I met another new friend!” At this point the gentleman offered me a cup of coffee. Hmm. That sounded really good and was my invitation to build trust. We sat down at the table over the coffee. I’ve never had a better brewed latte—this guy really knew what he was doing. Silky smooth and wonderful. We started to discuss absolutely everything: his house, our families, kids, the real estate market, interest rates, etc….

The gentleman was from Turkey and it was another lesson in assisting clients from other cultures and the way in which you build trust. The rest is history. Three and a half hours later I had a happy client, happy customers (loan officer/agent), and signed documents in my hand ready for a funding package to be completed and overnighted to the lender.