QMy brother bought a vacant lot in Florida in the 1960s, and I have owned it since his death. I am a 77-year-old widow and would like to sell the property. Without any solicitation or inquiry on my part, I recently received an offer through the mail to buy the lot. It came from a California company, and I wondered why it would be interested in Florida land. But the company offered an attractive price -- more than I have since been advised is realistic -- so I called its 800 number and was promptly faxed an agreement. This spelled out the price and a statement that I would receive my proceeds check within one month. I signed the agreement and returned it.
About two weeks later, I was advised that the California company was doing a title search and that everything was going well. However, I subsequently received another letter indicating that it was not going to buy the lot. On the same date that I received the rejection letter, the company sent me another "offer to buy," which was similar to the first letter I received.
Do you think I have any recourse against the California company?
ANo. I think that you may have been the victim of a possible fraud. I strongly suggest that you immediately contact the recorder of deeds in the county where your lot is located to make sure that you still own it.
I am concerned that you may have inadvertently signed a document -- such as a power of attorney -- that would give the California company the right to transfer your property.
To file a lawsuit, you have to allege first that there is a valid, binding contract and second that the contract has been violated. There are three legal requirements for such a contract: offer, acceptance and consideration.
In your case, the California company made you an offer. You did accept the agreement. As for consideration, generally some money has to be involved, such as an earnest money deposit. Apparently, no money changed hands between you and the company. However, consideration can also involve your taking some action (or refraining from taking some action) based on the agreement. In your case, you relied upon what you thought was a valid contract and refrained from attempting to sell the property to anyone else. A court of law might find that this is sufficient to constitute consideration.
Your lawyer will have to review the situation to determine whether this was a "clean" contract or whether it had any contingencies -- any way for the company to get out of the deal.
Now, assume that you have a binding contract. You live in Maryland, the property is in Florida, and the company is based in California. You may be able to sue them in Maryland, based on what is known as the "long-arm" rule. This basically says out-of-state parties who do business in your state can be sued in your state. However, the law requires that the out-of-state party has "sufficient contacts" within your state. At the present time, we really do not know how many such offers -- how many contacts -- the California company had in Maryland.
You could also file suit in Florida or California, but that would require you to spend a lot of money retaining local legal counsel and possibly having to travel periodically to that state for court-related events.
Based on the low value, as you described it, of your lot, I cannot recommend filing suit.
However, you definitely should file a complaint against this company in all three jurisdictions, as well as with the Federal Trade Commission here in Washington. Maryland, Florida and California all have attorneys general, and your complaint should be addressed to those offices.
This company may be a valid, honest operation that wanted to purchase your lot but discovered problems -- such as title glitches or environmental concerns. From what you have told me, however, the company does not meet the "smell" test. This sounds to me like a scam, possibly designed to get personal and financial information from you. I hope that you did not give any personal information to this company, such as your Social Security number or your bank account information.
Every day, our e-mail boxes are flooded with potentially dangerous proposals: a bank asking you to confirm your account, a mortgage lender saying you have been approved for a ridiculously low loan that you haven't even applied for, a credit-counseling company offering to clean up your credit standing -- or perhaps the son of a deposed Nigerian official asking if you are willing to funnel millions of dollars through your bank account and get a large percentage as your commission.
The best guidance in all these cases is caveat emptor -- let the buyer (or, in your case, the seller) beware. Remember, if you receive an offer that looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington lawyer. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address.