According to the deed on microfilm at the Prince George's County courthouse, Harold and Frances Michael sold their Marlboro Meadows house on Sept. 26, 1977, to Lawrence and Billy Moss for $51,500. The transaction was attested to, the document notes, by a woman named Gail F. Shipley and a lawyer named Joseph V. Kneib.
But deeds, almost universally regarded as gospel, can be deceiving. In this case, involving a house in a 10-year-old subdivision northeast of the county seat, the Michaels actually sold to a Realtor who, in turn, sold to the Moses.
The house at 3515 Eyre Drive South that Lawrence and Billie Moss bought is one of three on the same block that were transferred in 1976 and 1977 by white families to Realtors to black families. In these two years, Eyre Drive South shifted from majority white to predominantly black.
In the three resales -- out of 18 on the block in the two-year period -- the white homeowners had sold their properties at less than market value to Realtors who, in turn, sold to black buyers at full or near-market price. In the process, the Realtors reaped gross profits of $7,822, $10,400 and $7,500.
The second of these transactions, where the Realtor took possession of the property, went unrecorded in two instances. Not only was the transaction hidden, but the Realtor did not pay the 2 percent transfer tax the law appears to require in all such transactions.
The law, however, contains a loophole, says Francis X. Pugh, assistant Maryland attorney general and advisor to the state's real estate commission.
"The tax is not on the transfer but on the document offered for record," he said. "We're stuck with the statute the way it is worded."
Agents acknowledge that such transactions occur from time to time in Maryland but are generally frowned upon by the industry.
Subdivisions such as Marlboro Meadows, with documented white flight, provide fertile ground for such sales. In two of the three cases on Eyre Drive South, the original sale was triggered by racial feelings in a changing community.
"In effect," says John Kennedy, a black resident of Eyre Drive, "the seller paid for his fears. He paid forrunning away from the boogeyman."
Prince George's residents have been paying for such fears for more than a decade, as large numbers of black families began buying into neighborhoods beyond the Beltway that had once been exclusively white. In Marlboro Meadows, one result has been sluggish appreciation in the last two or three years, land records indicate.
Old fashioned blockbusting, which often resulted in a drop-off in house values was rampant in the county during the 1960s. Blatant scare tactics that are now outlawed were regularly practiced then.
"The moment a black family moved in," recalled Rep. Gladys N. Spellman (D-Md,), "the real estate agents got busy."
Whites were told that blacks were coming and that their homes would rapidly lose value, according to housing specalists. To avoid this loss, whites were urged to sell and the faster the better. The more sales, the more real estate commissions were made.
Until the early 1970s, Washington's daily newspapers published classified ads for homes that included racial references, such as "private white home," even though the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 made such phrases illegal. Even after this was stopped, the papers'listed some classifieds for suburban properties under District of Columbia headings, a not-too-veiled attempt to attract blacks to certain suburban neighborhoods.
Carol Rende, who studied marketing patterns for the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, said the blacks have often been steered to Prince George's -- and even to specific neighborhoods there -- when they begin looking for houses in the suburbs.
Steering is also illegal, but increasingly blacks comprise more and more of those either asking to see or being shown houses in certain neighborhoods.
"When I was selling my house in Marlboro Meadows," recalled Ezel Silver Jr., a government engineer who moved from Eyre Drive North in 1977, "I automatically assumed the Realtor would be bringing no white couples into my house, and that was the fact."
Around the same time that Silver, who is black, first put his house up for sale in 1976, the Micahels did so, too, at the other end of the street.
"Let's say the neighborhood changed too rapidly for me," said Michael, who is chief building engineer at the National Gallery of Art. "It came right up in the block real fast."
The michaels' house languished on the market for a year with two real estate firms. During this time, they had to forfeit two contracts on new homes when they couldn't sell their house.
Finally, they signed a "guaranteed sale agreement" with Nyman Realty Co. Under this arrangement, Michael agreed to sell the home he and his wife bought in 1971 to Nyman for $43,678, or 80 percent of its appraised value of $55,000, if Nyman failed to find a buyer in 90 days.
The sale to Nyman took place Sept. 26, 1977. The day before, the Mosses were shown the Michaels' house in Marlboro Meadows by a black agent from Nyman's Camp Springs office. The Michaels, meanwhile, had been dealing with a Waldorf-based white agent working for Nyman.
Michael later complained that Neyman "never showed it to anybody. My wife kept calling the agent. He said he was working on it." By the time the Mosses saw the house, the Michaelsstill owned it but had moved to Charles County.
Three days after Michaels completed the sale of their house to Nyman, the Mosses agreed to buy the house from Nyman for $51,500. The Mosses went to settlement in Camp Springs Dec. 23. The deed saying they bought the house from the Michaels was recorded five days later.
The Michaels' contract on their new Charles County home, also with Nyman, hinged on their signing a guaranteed sales agreement with the same firm on the Meadows house. Nyman, according to settlement lawyer Kneib, benefitted only from the two sales commissions.
The apparent paper profit of $7,822 -- the difference between what Michael received and what the Mosses paid three months later -- became a $200 paper loss on Nyman's books, Kneib said.
He said the shrinkage included Nyman's $3,000 commission, $335 the firm paid itself for "managing" the property, points on Moss's Veterans Administration-insured mortage and interim expenditures for taxes, mortgage payments, utilities and maintenance.
The Michael settlement was held in Kneib's Waldorf law office. Not only weren't the Mosses in the room -- they had already seen the house but their settlement was yet to come -- but the "witness" wasn't there either. Kneib later explained that the "witness," an employee named Gail Shipley who was in an adjoining room, was considered to be "constructively present."
The deed finally recorded in the county courthouse appears to be certified beyond question by a stamp saying "that this instrument has been prepared under the supervision of the undersigned, who is an attorney duly admitted to practice."
But as Kneib and others explained it, the certification is merely a device to prevent non-lawyers from preparing settlement papers. "It does not certify that the public record reflects the transaction," Kneib said.
With the property belonging to Nyman but unrecorded that way, the Michaels say they received a "late notice" for two months' back payments on the Eyre Drive property. Michael referred the mortgage company to Nyman. Leo B. Iserman, Nyman vice-president, declined to discuss the entire transaction.
"If Nyman had gone broke," said Washington consumer attorney Benny Kass, "the Michaels would have been subject to the (Eyre Drive mortgage) liability and could have lost their (new) house."
The guaranteed sale agreement, Kass said, could discourage Realtors from finding buyers, safe in the knowledge that they can acquire the property for less and then turn around and sell it for more.
Kneib said he saw nothing unusual or unethical about the whole transaction He called it a device to accommodate the seller, not the Realtor, and argued that no transfer tax should be paid if the Realtor is acquiring the property for resale.
"It's questionable -- let's put it that way," said Charles G. Chambers, executive director of the Maryland Real Estate Commission, before referring a reporter to the attorney general's office for a formal opinion.
"The practice of not going to deed is a device that is used to avoid payment of transfer taxes," said Paul Fowler, executive vice president of the Prince George's Board of Realtors. "It's probably not ethical. The proper procedure is to go to deed."
The very hidden nature of the practice makes it difficult to determine how widespread it may be. "I can't say how common it is," said Fowler. "I know about it through rumor and speculation."
In another Eyre Drive deal, the deed, at the courthouse says that on Nov. 17, 1976, Roy S. and Patricia A. Stamm sold their home for $52,000 to Marven E. and Gladys N. Turner.
Both families did, in fact, go to settlement the same date on the property at 3603 Eyre Drive South, but not with each other.
Stamm, a Prince George's policeman long intent on moving back to his native St. Mary's County, had his home up for sale for a year without success. Finally, he signed what was described as a "guaranteed sales contract with Mike Casey Realty.
The contract was signed Sept. 17, 1976. On that date, Stamm sold his property to Casey for $41,600. Under the terms of the agreement, the property was then Casey's to sell, with the profit all going to the realty firm.
Although the pre-printed contract signed by the Stamms was headed "Guaranteed Sales Contract --" normally understood to guarantee a sale to the Realtor only if the Realtor fails to find an outside buyer -- Casey said the agreement constituted "an outright sale to us. . . . On the date we contracted with the Stamms, they were out of it."
Less than a month later, on Oct. 13, the Turners signed a contract to buy the property from Casey for $52,000.
Why wasn't Stamm's sale to Casey recorded and transfer tax paid on the deal?
"It was not a transfer of ownership," Casey contends. "Equitable title," a legal phrase meaning an interest in a property that would be recognized as such in a court but not necessarily recorded, "doesn't matter," Casey said.
Now resettled in St. Mary's, Stamm remains somewhat puzzled by the whole transaction. "I thought I got the shaft on the deal myself," he said. "I didn't quite understand everything that happened with the Realtor."
In the case of 3510 Eyre Drive South, the recorded title passed from Michael J. and Kathryn S. Thornell on Jan. 2, 1976, to the Douglas Realty Co., for $39,000, and then to Robert L. and Anne Robinson eight months later for $47,500. Douglas paid taxes on the interim transaction.
Mike Tornell had been an Air Forceofficer attached to the surgeon general's office in the Forrestal Building. He and his wife say they became unhappy with the Meadows when the population ratio shifted from what Thornell described as a "good racial balance" of 60 percent white and 40 percent black to a majority of black families.
The Thornells first put their house on the market in October 1975, at a price in the upper $40,000s. "We didn't seem to be getting traffic through there," said Michael Thornell, 38, whotook a job as director of equipment planning for a Minnesota medical facility.
Unable to sell their property through a conventional listing, the Thornells signed a guaranteed sales agreement with Douglas. The realty firm purchased the property at less that its appraised worth when the agreement expired.
"It was a help to them," said the Douglas agent who handled the sale. "I've seen Douglas take a loss helping people out."