When homes are sold in Maryland, lenders are required to have the check on the table for the seller at the time of the settlement. In Virginia, lenders have to disburse the payments within one day of the settlement. Across the nation, settlement payments are carried out in much the same fashion.
But in the District of Columbia, there is no law specifying any time period in which lenders and settlement agents must pay a home seller.
As a result, sellers in the District typically must wait to be paid anywhere from one to 14 days after the closing date.
Such practice angers some in the real estate industry, who say the delays cause unnecessary problems to sellers moving out of town or to those who are forced to postpone settling on a new house because they have not received payment from their original sale.
Critics of the tradition of delaying payment -- called a dry settlement in the industry because no money changes hands -- charge that lenders keep the money for the extra days for investment purposes. Lenders also profit on occasion because the home buyer is charged interest on the new mortgage from the day of settlement, even though no money has passed from the lending company to the seller.
Last month, a District couple settled the sale of their $140,000 Capitol Hill town house on a Thursday.
"We were told the check would be ready by the following Monday," said the home seller, who requested anonymity. "There was really nothing I could do but wait." However, it wasn't until Wednesday that the settlement company issued the check, which then took until the following Monday to clear -- 11 days after the closing of the house.
The seller said that while he and his wife had already settled on their new house, "that doesn't mean we didn't need the money."
The settlement law firm, Beckett, Cromwell and Myers, "explained to me that the delay was the luck of buying the house in the District," the seller said.
What seems odd is the length of time it took to receive the check, the seller said. "Somebody is making off with some money here," he said.
Bernard Kanstoroom, a real estate attorney with Beckett, Cromwell and Myers, said the Capitol Hill owners' complaint "of not having the funds is the result of not having a law as in Maryland." He denied charges by some in the industry that settlement law firms are as much to blame for the delays as the lenders.
With no requirement on lenders to disburse the settlement funds within a specific timetable in the District, "it may be to their advantage to drag their feet," said Kanstoroom, who added that a law is "urgently needed to prevent abuses" in settlement cases.
Legislation prohibiting lenders from delaying payment to home sellers has floundered in the City Council for nearly three years. First introduced in 1983 by City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), the Real Property Wet Settlement Act would require lenders and settlement agents to disburse loan funds to sellers within one day of settlement on the sale of a residential building.
The legislation was reintroduced last year, and roundtable discussions were held last week before the council's consumer and regulatory affairs committee. Markup on the bill has not yet been scheduled.
Mayor Marion Barry's administration is supporting the legislation. Carol B. Thompson, director of the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said at the hearing that the measure would provide "certain safeguards" for District home sellers.
Thompson added, however, that the law should apply not only to mortgage lenders and settlement companies, "but also should require that documents from owners and brokers be in place at the time of settlement . . . so that disbursements can be made timely."
She also said the legislation should not be limited only to real estate sales with fewer than four residential units, as the bill currently states, because ". . . the experience of abuse in this area is not limited to single-family settlements, but exists where large sums of money are held to float for personal benefit."
Some District real estate brokers also favor a shorter turnaround time for sellers to receive their money.
"Many sellers are angry that they can't get their money at the time of settlement, and I don't blame them," said John Pagones, a real estate agent at the Georgetown branch of the Millicent Chatel firm, who added that home sales should be treated like other transactions in the economy.
"You buy a car and you get the car, you buy a potato and you get the potato," Pagones said. "This is a huge transaction that you don't get your money right away from."
Pagones said most agents are familiar with the slower-paying mortgage lenders and settlement companies and therefore advise their clients to avoid them. He added that it is also customary in the District to forewarn sellers that their settlement check won't be available at the time of closing.
Settlement companies voiced mixed sentiments on requiring a shorter payment timetable. Samuel R. Gillman, president of District Realty Title Insurance Co., called the bill "ridiculous," adding that delays in paying the seller rest with all the parties in a house closing.
He added that bills that require lenders to pay a seller at, or very soon after, settlement, such as in Maryland and in Virginia, don't put enough responsibility on the home buyer or seller to make for a quick transaction. In such cases, "the only one penalized is the poor lender," Gillman said.
But Mark Lowbar, owner of Homeowners Guardian Title Co., said that while settlement payment delays are not a major problem, "some lenders do play games."
He said that, after a closing, some lenders take a few days to process the settlement documents, which allows them to "run up interest" on the seller's money. "With enough loan cases, they could make a lot of money," Lowbar said.
Mortgage lenders interviewed said that delays in issuing checks are the result of the time it takes to process the necessary paperwork, not to reap any profit.
Gloria Anselmo, a vice president with Carey Winston Mortgage Co., which handled the District couple's settlement, said her company normally issues settlement checks within 48 hours if there are no mistakes in the documents.
"It's not as if we say, 'Oh, let's sit on this for 11 or 12 days," Anselmo said. "We do not hold onto the money for any reason whatsoever." She said her company also does not charge the home buyer interest on a mortgage until the seller has been paid.
Anselmo said that if there are mistakes in the settlement documents, "the attorney is usually reluctant to admit if any of those defects are his fault. . . . They always blame it on the mortgage company."
Anselmo added that she is in favor of the legislation that would require a quicker timetable for issuing settlement funds. "Overall, there's a little more conscientious attitude with wet settlement," she said.
Alan Morrison, an attorney and director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, rejected the argument by lenders that paperwork delays push back the time it takes for a home seller to receive a settlement check.
"They could do the paperwork before settlement," said Morrison, who represented a client a few years ago in a class-action suit over the issue of delaying settlement checks. The D.C. Superior Court refused to hear that case. "It's just not fair," Morrison said. "When you sell your house, you deserve to get your money."