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Real Estate Law Made Simple: An Interview with John White, Attorney at Law

By John White

Tell us a little bit about your experience, firm's history and the areas of law that you practice.

I grew up in Asheville, but left to attend college at Duke University in 1998 and then law school at Columbia in 2002. That coincided with the beginning of an incredible revitalization in downtown Asheville and West Asheville. It seemed that every time I returned home for a summer break or a holiday, new stores and restaurants had opened downtown. New neighborhoods were being built throughout the county and old neighborhoods in West Asheville and Montford were being rehabilitated and gentrified. Factories like Gerber were torn down and replaced with new commercial and retail spaces. I saw downtown and West Asheville go from boarded-up to bustling in the eye-witness equivalent of freeze frame photography.

After law school, I worked at a large firm in New York City doing corporate litigation and bankruptcy work. Before long, I realized it was time to come home to Asheville. I bought a house in the area and moved home a few years later. I then started my own practice focusing on real estate and trusts and estates work. I take on a few litigations to keep things interesting. It's been an incredible, rewarding experience going from a big city litigation practice to a smaller, home town practice. Now I get to know many of my clients and their families, and I get to help people buy or build their dream homes.

What types of residential transactions does your firm typically handle?

We handle all types of residential transactions: first time homebuyers, growing families buying bigger homes, retirees downsizing to condos or townhomes, vacation home buyers, and those people who have decided to build their dream home from the ground up.

What are some reasons that people buying a home would want to consult with a lawyer?

The maxim caveat emptor (buyer beware) is good advice for homebuyers. I recommend that almost every buyer obtain a title search and title insurance before buying real estate. Without one, you just do not know if you are going to get good title (or if there is an easement through your living room or front yard). Lenders require title searches and title insurance policies before closing on a mortgage precisely because real estate is just too risky without them. Moreover, unlike many states in which title companies perform real estate closings, an attorney is normally required for any real estate closing in North Carolina.

Can you briefly explain the process of working with a lawyer to purchase residential property?

Sometimes clients contact us early in the process- before making an offer to purchase, to get advice, particularly about homeowners association issues or restrictive covenants that may affect the property they are considering. More often, in our experience, clients, real estate agents, and lenders contact us after the purchase contract has been signed and request we begin our title examination and obtain a title insurance commitment. That is always required when someone is obtaining a mortgage to buy the real estate. At my office, we take it from there. We perform the title search, obtain a title insurance commitment, and coordinate issues with the lender, buyer, and the real estate agents to make sure we close on the client's schedule if at all possible.

Are there any state laws about transferring property ownership that most people aren't aware of, but should know?

There are too many to recount here--real estate law is complex. One problem area is property transfers to minors, whether directly or through probate (i.e., inheritance). Because court approval is necessary to sell real property that belongs to a minor, there are significant expenses and delays to everyone involved when it becomes necessary or desirable to sell the real estate.

Another issue I have seen, which can be very costly to fix, involves property transfers by an attorney-in-fact (someone having a power of attorney). Often spouses or children will obtain a power of attorney for their loved one and consistent with everyone's expectations, transfer real property to themselves or others for tax or Medicaid planning purposes. Because the law limits an attorney-in-fact's authority to give gifts without specific language in the power of attorney, those transfers may not be valid. I have seen situations where no one discovered that the property transfers were void until after everyone involved in the transfers had died and their heirs were left to sort it out!

When it comes to the actual buying process, what is one of the biggest mistakes you've seen new homeowners make?

Because most new/first-time homebuyers are taking out a mortgage to purchase the home, they usually have real estate agents and an attorney to help them avoid really BIG mistakes. However, for people that have not bought or sold real estate often, there is often questions of what items in a home are conveyed with the real estate. I have seen intense, last minute arguments over whether a stove, refrigerator, or light fixture would be removed or left in the home. Even curtains sometimes become a major issue at the closing table. These are matters that good real estate agents normally cover with their buyers and sellers during the contract negotiations, but not always. If a buyer expects a refrigerator to stay or if a seller wants to take their antique Tiffany light fixture with them, they should discuss it with their agent and make sure it is stated in the contract.

What's the best way for people to reach you and your firm?

Although my office is high-tech in many ways, we are old-fashioned about communications. We prefer the phone. We find it builds better relationships with clients, agents, and lenders, and it is usually more efficient to have a five minute conversation by phone than send five emails back-and-forth over an issue. Clients also just feel better when they can talk to me or my assistant directly. We can be contacted by phone at 828-490-4027. Even though we like the phone, we are also happy to be contacted by email at reception@jkwhitelaw.com. We will respond from our personal email accounts. We hope everyone will visit us on the web at www.jkwhitelaw.com or www.ashevillerealestateattorney.com.

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