Marty Ummel feels she paid too much for her house. So do millions of other people who bought at the peak of the housing boom. What makes Ummel different...
CARLSBAD, Calif. — Marty Ummel feels she paid too much for her house. So do millions of other people who bought at the peak of the housing boom.
What makes Ummel different is that she is suing her agent, saying it was all his fault.
Ummel claims that the agent hid the information that similar homes in the neighborhood were selling for less because he feared she would back out and he would lose his $30,000 commission.
Real-estate lawyers and brokers say the case, which goes to trial in North County Superior Court on Monday, is likely to be the first of many in which regretful or resentful buyers seek redress from the agents who found them a home and arranged its purchase.
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“When your house appreciates $100,000 in the first six months, you’re not quite as concerned that maybe the valuation was $25,000 or $50,000 off,” said Clifford Horner of the law firm Horner & Singer. “But when your house goes down, you ask: ‘Who might have led me astray here?’ “
As prices spiked, buyer’s agents and brokers became popular as sounding boards, advisers and negotiators. The National Association of Realtors estimates they are now involved in two-thirds of all residential purchases.
That makes this the first housing collapse in which large numbers of buyers had a real-estate professional explicitly looking after their interests. The Ummel case poses the question: In a relationship built on trust, where promises are rarely written down and where — as in this case — there is no signed contract, what are the exact obligations of these representatives in guiding their clients through a sizzling market?
“Agents have a lot of fiduciary duties, but they don’t make money unless they close the sale,” said Joel Ruben, a real-estate lawyer in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “In an inflated market, there are built-in temptations to cut corners.”
The defendant in the Ummel case is Mike Little, a veteran agent with ReMax Associates. He will argue that Marty Ummel, who brought the case with her husband, Vernon, is trying to shift the blame for the couple’s own failures of research and due diligence.
“They simply didn’t do what is expected of a knowledgeable, sophisticated buyer, and are now looking for someone other than themselves to take responsibility,” Roger Holtsclaw, an agent who was hired by Little as an expert witness, said in a court deposition.
The Ummels may be on the leading edge of the law, but they are unlikely to be alone for long. With the market falling, many homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. And many of those deals involved brokers who are required to carry professional liability insurance, presenting a tempting target for angry buyers.
“If you put someone into a property at the top of the market, you look really bad if it goes down,” said K.P. Dean Harper, a real-estate lawyer in Walnut Creek, Calif. “There are a lot of letters going out from lawyers to real-estate agents saying, ‘My client would never have purchased if you had properly evaluated the market conditions and the value of the property.’ “