QDEAR BOB: As a 67-year-old widow with several health issues that I have overcome, I feel fortunate to have a townhouse with neighbors who look in on me. My problem is my 33-year-old son. About a year ago, when I was in bad health, I thought it would be smart to add his name to my title as a joint tenant with right of survivorship to avoid probate after I died. I knew my son had been in an auto accident with injuries to the other party, but I thought he had adequate insurance. He recently had a $400,000 uninsured negligence judgment against him. His auto insurance had lapsed. He is essentially broke. Because he is co-owner of my townhouse, the plaintiff's lawyer threatens to put a levy on my home, which I own free and clear and is worth about $300,000. Is this legal? -- Frieda H.

ADEAR FRIEDA: The answer depends on state law where the townhouse is located. Most states have homestead and other exemption laws. You might not be fully protected because of the substantial value and equity in your home.

Your situation provides a valuable lesson for every homeowner. Adding a co-owner to the title to your home could be a costly mistake. Consult a lawyer to determine if you can avoid having that judgment lien enforced against your home.

DEAR BOB: When I bought my home in 1996, I made a low down payment and have been paying $97.97 each month for private mortgage insurance. In 2003, I requested PMI cancellation. The lender said I must have an appraisal at my expense by an appraiser it selects. I placed my PMI avoidance plan on hold because I thought I might sell. But now I don't plan to sell my home until at least 2006, when I expect to pay all my other debts. I have never been late with a mortgage payment and have excellent credit. Why can't I cancel my PMI premiums? -- Helen A.

DEAR HELEN: Although your letter fails to provide the current mortgage balance and your home's current market value, after eight years of homeownership in a rapidly appreciating market, I would be surprised if you don't have far more than 20 percent equity in your residence.

But you, not the lender, are primarily to blame for not insisting on PMI cancellation, which will save you almost $1,200 each year. If you have paid your mortgage on time for at least 24 months, your other debts are irrelevant. All you need do is hire one of the lender's recommended local appraisers, pay the appraisal fee and submit your information proving more than 20 percent equity to get your monthly PMI canceled.

DEAR BOB: My two sisters, along with our parents, held title to our parents' house. Our father died in 2002 and our mother died in 2003. We sold the house in 2004. Neither my sisters nor I lived in the house. Our parents paid $75,000 for it and we sold it for $130,000. What kind of taxes do we owe? -- Ruth J.

DEAR RUTH: Nothing. If you and your sisters were on the title for convenience to avoid probate after both your parents passed on, no capital gain or estate tax should be due. That is presuming your mother, from whom you inherited the house, did not leave a gross estate exceeding $1 million (increased to $1.5 million for deaths in 2004). Consult a tax adviser for details.

DEAR BOB: My neighbor has severely trimmed his tree, which is on his side of the boundary. It is heavy on my side of the boundary line. I fear a strong wind will blow his tree on top of my house. I have asked the neighbor to trim my side of his tree, but he refuses. What can I do? -- Theresia T.

DEAR THERESIA: The general rule is you can trim your side of the neighbor's tree that overhangs your property back to the property line. However, a rule of reasonableness applies. Don't trim the tree so severely that it dies. Then you could be liable to him for damages.

You can't force him to pay for the tree trimming. If I were you, I would trim that tree so it is not in danger of falling on your home.

DEAR BOB: My brother's son is a schoolteacher who doesn't earn enough money for a home down payment. He wants to buy a condominium. My brother offered to pay the down payment. Would it be best for my brother to take title in his name and later quitclaim the title to his son? What about gift tax? -- Don A.

DEAR DON: Your brother need not be concerned about federal gift tax unless he has given away more than $1 million in lifetime gifts, and that only to the extent those gifts have exceeded $11,000 per recipient per year. If your brother wants to make an outright gift of the down payment to his son, that's wonderful. However, if that gift exceeds $11,000 per year per recipient (he could give up to $22,000 if your nephew is married), then a federal gift tax return must be filed, although no gift tax will be due. Consult a tax adviser for details.

DEAR BOB: My grandmother died in 2002. I am her oldest grandchild who she raised in her home. For more than 30 years, she often confirmed her intent for me to be sure her wishes were carried out for her home and belongings at her death. Those wishes were explicitly stated in her will. After her death, the lawyer asked us to meet him at her home for the reading of the will. We were all surprised when he handed us a sheet of his office letterhead stationery, which was signed by my grandmother one day before she left the hospital (she died two weeks later). What happened to her original will? The paper left her home to the lawyer to be used for a Meals on Wheels local charity, which is headed by his wife. Was this unethical? What can I do to get my grandmother's house back? I cannot afford to sue. One lawyer I consulted said Granny's lawyer might sue me for slander. Is there anything I can do? -- Ann T.

DEAR ANN: You need to find a good lawyer, presuming your grandmother's estate has not been closed and distributed. If you can't find a lawyer willing to take your case on a contingency basis, perhaps the local Legal Aid Society is willing to become involved. The situation you describe is a classic example of elder abuse. Most states now have laws on this issue. That lawyer preparing a new will on his letterhead, signed by your sick grandmother, distributing her estate to the favorite charity of the lawyer's wife, is unethical. However, if the assets have already been distributed to the charity, I suggest you forget the matter.

DEAR BOB: I recently bought a condo, and my girlfriend and I each paid half the closing costs. We will be living together and sharing expenses. During the mortgage process, the loan agent suggested I get the mortgage in my name alone because I am earning income and she is still in school and works part time. Although my name alone is on the title and on the mortgage, and we plan to marry in a year or two, can I add her to the title or do we have to wait until we marry? -- William I.

DEAR WILLIAM: You can sign and record a quitclaim deed to your girlfriend before you marry, but I do not suggest doing so. Much can happen between now and when you marry. Because you didn't need your girlfriend's income or credit to qualify for the mortgage, I suggest not adding her to the title until after you marry. Consult a lawyer for details.

DEAR BOB: I carry a senior citizen reverse mortgage with a $100,000 line of credit. The market value of my home is about $500,000. I pay a hefty private mortgage insurance charge each month. Because there is no default danger for the lender, as my house is worth far more than the mortgage balance, what is the lender insuring against? How can I get out of these payments?

-- Joseph I.

DEAR JOSEPH: You are being ripped off by your reverse-mortgage lender. I suspect you were conned into an FHA reverse mortgage without realizing the costs and limited benefits.

FHA reverse mortgages require payment of mortgage insurance fees for the life of the FHA reverse mortgage. Unless you are using that $100,000 reverse-mortgage credit line, I would end it by obtaining a home-equity credit line elsewhere from almost any local bank to pay off your balance.

Unfortunately, your situation is an example of how some reverse-mortgage lenders take unfair advantage of senior citizens just to earn a loan origination fee.

DEAR BOB: In a recent article, you said: "The best way to eliminate or at least minimize title risks is to always insist on receiving an owner's title insurance policy." What do you mean by "receive"? Do I just request a copy of the owner's title policy or should I ask the existing title insurance be transferred to me as the new owner? -- Mark S.

DEAR MARK: An owner's title insurance policy insures only the property buyer and his or her heirs. It cannot be assigned to future buyers.

Every person who acquires title to real estate should obtain his own owner's title insurance policy to be certain of receiving marketable title. The only exception occurs if you buy at a foreclosure or tax sale where title insurance is not available.

In some states, the buyer usually pays for his title policy. But in other states, it is the routine for the seller to buy the buyer's title policy. This custom can even vary by county, as it does where I live.

To illustrate, suppose your wonderful Uncle Jake gives you his property. It is important to also get an owner's title insurance policy, even if you pay for it yourself. The reason is that Uncle Jake might not realize he has unpaid liens, such as for property taxes, income taxes, judgment liens, or mechanic's liens, which you will be obligated to pay after taking title to the gifted property.

DEAR BOB: What is the best way to find an honest, reliable, trustworthy mortgage lender? -- Stephan V.

DEAR STEPHAN: The best way to locate a good lender, whether a mortgage broker, mortgage banker or loan agent for a direct lender such as a local bank, is personal recommendations from friends, business associates or a real estate agent you trust.

Don't necessarily select a mortgage firm advertising the lowest interest rate. There probably will be many conditions attached that make obtaining that low rate almost impossible.

Even if you don't get a rock-bottom interest rate, compare the annual percentage rate of mortgages offered by at least three local lenders before deciding which is best for you.

DEAR BOB: Due to a job transfer, my wife and I plan to list our home for sale in a few weeks. My employer gave us the option of either accepting the "low-ball" purchase price of their corporate relocation consultant, or selling our home on our own. The price offered by the relocation consultant is a joke, but we can accept it for up to 120 days if our home doesn't sell. That's fair. Our problem is selecting the best agent to get our listing. My wife is best friends with a real estate agent whose firm wants an exclusive listing, which will not be placed into the local multiple listing service. In return, we pay only a 4 percent sales commission. However, having read your articles for many years, you often say the MLS is the most powerful sales tool a realty agent has. What do you think about the agent's exclusive listing where that firm refuses to cooperate with other agents or put our listing on the Internet at www.Realtor.com?

-- Ivan H.

DEAR IVAN: I would avoid that real estate agent. The agent and the brokerage firm want to get both ends of your home sale. That's good for the listing agent, but bad for you as the home seller. As a seller, you want maximum market exposure to home-buyer prospects.

It is important for home sellers to interview at least three successful agents who sell homes in your vicinity. Study their comparative market analysis forms to determine your home's probable sales price.

Also, call those agents' recent sellers and ask, "Would you list your home for sale again with the same agent and were you in any way unhappy with that agent?" With all that information, you should have a good idea which agent should get your listing.

DEAR BOB: My friend and I bought a condo as tenants in common. We both moved in and have lived there about 10 months. Then he fell in love, married and moved into his new wife's house. Since then, I've been paying all the expenses. We're still friends, but he refuses to sign a quitclaim deed to me, even though I am willing to buy out his equity, which is going up at the rate of about 2 percent per month. How can I get him off my title? -- Rick R.

DEAR RICK: You need to file a partition lawsuit. There is no way you can force your co-owner to sign a quit-claim deed to you. Consult a lawyer for details.

DEAR BOB: How old must I be to qualify for that $250,000 home-sale tax break you often mention? I will be 55 in November. Will I then qualify to sell my house and claim up to $250,000 tax-free profits?

-- Audrey H.

DEAR AUDREY: Your age has nothing to do with qualifying for the Internal Revenue Code 121 principal-residence-sale tax exemption up to $250,000 (up to $500,000 for a qualified married couple filing jointly). All you must be able to prove is you that owned and lived in your principal residence an aggregate two of the five years before the sale. Consult a tax adviser for details.

DEAR BOB: Recently I have received several mortgage solicitation letters from mortgage brokers offering to refinance my home loan at a lower interest rate with a lower monthly payment. They seem to have accurate details about my current mortgage, such as its interest rate. I called one of these lenders and was rudely treated on the phone. How do they get my mortgage information? Are they reliable? -- Baron W.

DEAR BARON: Don't be misled by those mortgage solicitation letters.

Various firms research recorded home mortgage information and sell those lists to mortgage brokers and other lenders who then solicit you to refinance.

Most of those mass mailings are bogus. Until a reliable, local lender makes you a written loan commitment, you have nothing.

The best way to refinance is by first contacting your existing lender to learn its best refinance terms. Then compare those terms with those offered by at least two other local lenders, preferably firms recommended by friends and business associates who have recently refinanced.

DEAR BOB: As a professional surveyor for 16 years, I want you to know you are correct that a survey by a licensed surveyor is not always accurate. I work for a large firm where we get assignments of many different types. The worst are the fence boundary disputes. Even when a fence has been in place for many years, it does not always show the true legal boundary between two parcels. Also, just because one owner has a survey, it might not be accurate. Surveyors make mistakes and some are incompetent.

-- Derek H.

DEAR DEREK: Thank you for sharing your information. I've often suggested that when a neighbor says he has a professional survey, the adjoining neighbor obtain his own survey from another surveyor to verify accuracy.

DEAR BOB: We bought our home about four years ago. At that time, we obtained an owner's title insurance policy. It didn't disclose anything out of line. However, we recently learned the city sewer goes underneath our back yard, about four feet from the property line. Neighborhood rumor is the city might have to replace this old sewer and dig up all our back yards. Is the title company liable to us for failure to disclose this easement at the time of our purchase? -- Ruby R.

DEAR RUBY: Possibly, but you will need to prove damage for the title insurer's error in failing to disclose a properly recorded underground easement. You might want to notify the title insurer of its possible liability. But filing a claim at this early date might be premature unless you can prove actual damages.

Readers with questions should write Robert J. Bruss at 251 Park Road, Burlingame, Calif. 94010, or contact him via his Web page, www.bobbruss.com.

{copy} 2004, Inman News Service