How To Sell a Property That is Not Yours
Monday Jan 30th, 2023
Recently there have been a few cases that have made the news regarding fraudsters who were able to sell properties they didn’t own, without the knowledge of the actual owners. To most, this is an unsettling feeling that it could even be possible, but let’s look into what went wrong.
This case involved a couple who were out of the country to work abroad for an extended period of time and had rented the property with the intention of moving back into the home eventually. The individuals who sold the property used fake ID to impersonate them, and the new homeowners had already taken possession of the house when the original owners realized that their mortgage no longer appeared under their list of accounts on their online banking home screen.
While it is unclear whether the couple who posed as the sellers were the tenants, or whether the property was vacant at the time of the sale, here are some things to look out for if you are going to be away for an extended period of time:
- Have all property tax bills, mortgage communication, or copies of utility bills sent to you directly (not to the rental address) and if you are not physically present to collect/monitor the mail, have someone do it for you
- Have someone perform a routine check of your property (if vacant, check your homeowner’s insurance policy as they will indicate the frequency your property must be inspected while you are away, in order for a claim to be valid should something occur)
- Minimize the “broadcasting” of your travel plans if possible or limit the number of people who know that you are away for an extended period
- Have a neighbour keep an eye on the activity at your property while you are away
In this situation, the alleged perpetrators posed as tenants and rented the property using falsified documents and references. Weeks after the lease started, someone posed as the homeowner and hired a real estate brokerage to represent them with a sale. The house was staged and advertised for sale, generating multiple offers, and fortunately, the family of the elderly homeowner discovered the listing and was able to stop the sale from concluding.
The due diligence that is needed to screen potential tenants has increased significantly in today’s environment. There are even service providers out in the market that will create false employment records, paystubs and reference letters, for those who are looking to improve their chances of getting a rental application accepted. You really have to know who is moving into your property and who you are entering into a tenant-landlord relationship with.
We would encourage our landlords to setup the start of a lease on the right foot. This would include:
- having the rental property in a good state of repair
- arranging for the rental property to be professionally cleaned between tenants
- meeting the tenants in person at the start of the lease
- checking in with the tenants during the move-in process to ensure that they are setup with what they need and are familiar with the features of their new home
- regular communication
- annual walk-through inspections
A regular Google search of your property address wouldn’t be a bad habit to add to this list – this will alert you to any unwanted activity such as having your property being listed for sale or even for short-term rental. If you are not able to perform these tasks in person, assign the responsibility to someone else that you trust, or a property management company.
After realizing that condo maintenance fees were no longer being deducted from her bank account, one homeowner who had moved back to her home country and left her Toronto condo vacant, discovered that her unit had been sold without her knowledge. Someone had gained access to the unit, hired a realtor, had the unit staged for sale (while also incorporating the true owner’s existing furniture), and then sold the unit.
Perhaps Toronto’s new vacant tax will minimize the number of vacant properties in the city, however the same tips apply here:
- if you are going to leave your property vacant for an extended period of time, have someone check on it often
- In a condo, let property management know that your unit is currently unoccupied – any requests to change locks or obtain access to the unit should be flagged to the owner
It should be noted that all 3 cases involved absentee owners and identity theft. Investigators have stated that these fraudsters are professionals – they identify the opportunity, may have inside knowledge of someone’s personal or financial situation (typically target properties that have a small or no mortgage) and then hire actors who pose as the sellers/owners. Realtors, lawyers and mortgage professionals are all required to collect ID from those involved in transaction, however are sometimes the victims of fraud themselves.
Lastly, title insurance will cover the financial loss covered by title fraud (which these examples would all fall under) however the time it takes to resolve is lengthy and you are only covered up to what the property was sold for, not what it was worth. Often to ensure a quick sale, properties are listed below market value, and sometimes sold at a price that is less than what the property is worth. Not to mention the poor unsuspecting buyer caught in the middle of all of this – it likely doesn’t sit well with most people, knowing that they were part of an operation where their current home was “stolen” from someone else. The real estate, mortgage and legal industries are all looking into potential changes that will help to minimize these instances from happening, but in the meantime, everyone must ask some more questions and carefully examine the details within every real estate transaction.
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