Bait 'n Switch
August 24, 2011 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I either need to drop it or get a lawyer. Tell me which one.

I saw a house for sale on a rather popular real estate website. It was being sold for $XXX and had been advertised there for about 3 weeks. I contacted the owner who is selling it by his own means rather than that of a real estate agent and told them that I accept his asking price, and I'd like to know how to get him the money.

He said I'd need to sign a contract of sale and was curious why I agreed without haggling. I told him I didn't want to waste time negotiating on a few percentage points as time is more important to me.

The owner said that their lawyers would contact me immediately. In the meantime, I stopped looking for a place as I was pretty confident about this and just waiting to pay him.

I received a letter from the lawyers 1 week later saying "We are acting as owners of this property which is advertised for YYY. We are advised that you are interested in purchasing it and would like details of your lawyers so we can prepare an appropriate agreement."

Here's the problem. YYY is a CONSIDERABLY different price than what XXX was. NOT so great at all. Are they taking advantage of me because I agreed to their asking price? Can they waste my time like that, which kinda screwed me a bit?

Is it worth it to get a lawyer or just drop it? Its worth it to me to get a lawyer even if I have to pay XXX plus a few extra lawyers fees...but I cannot even come close to YYY with or without lawyer's fees.

I tried to be as thorough and factual as possible. I can provide more details, but not many specifics until this issue is resolved.

Thanks in advance, mefites.

OH!!!! I *JUST* checked the original advertisement. They changed the price on that too...but I have the saved pages with the original price.
posted by hal_c_on to Law & Government (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is not legal advice, but if it was me before I went and hired a lawyer I'd send a letter back to the owner's lawyer (by certified mail) and say that you were interested in it XXX price only, and that this was the price at which it was advertised when you spoke with the owner. Attach printouts of the saved pages with the original price. I'd probably copy the owner on the letter.
posted by amro at 3:21 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

They are not obligated to sell it to you at XXX. You can't force them to, as you don't have a signed agreement - and even if you have a legally binding verbal agreement wherever you are, it's going to be really hard to prove that.

Write back, say "My original offer of $XXX stands. Let me know." And leave it at that.

Under no circumstances should you engage a lawyer to attempt to force a seller to sell to you. Being morally and/or legally right does not BEGIN to make up for the pain and cost of that attempt. Go find another house.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:21 PM on August 24, 2011 [17 favorites]

And yeah, I agree with DarlingBri that you never had a contract for the original price.
posted by amro at 3:23 PM on August 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hmmm, you never signed anything, you just gave them a verbal offer so a lawyer may find it hard to prove anything on your behalf. One thing I learnt, there are always other houses and these things happen for a reason. You're the one with the power as the buyer in a bad market. I would walk and consider that you dodged a bullet.
posted by Jubey at 3:23 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'd drop it. You agreed to the original price without haggling because you didn't want a hassle. Don't go looking for a hassle. You seem to have little effort invested in this; cut your losses.

Jubey, I think you'll find he gave the seller a verbal acceptance (which, as DarlingBri notes, is not an enforceable contract even if you can prove that the conversation took place; see the Statute of Frauds).

This is not legal advice and I am not your lawyer.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:25 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

The price listed was an invitation to deal, not a firm offer. They don't have to sell it to you and you're wasting your time and money to try to force the issue. (This may vary depending on your jurisdiction, but in pretty much every one I'm aware of you'd still be wasting your time and are better off without them.)
posted by katemonster at 3:34 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

By accepting the asking price, you (inadvertently?) made him think that he undervalued his house. Rather than relisting the house and finding a new buyer, he's trying to renege on his initial offer and hope you won't notice/still think it's worth it.

Because I'm a jerk, I'd probably write back and offer 5-10% less than your initial offer/his initial asking price, and tell him why. "You want to negotiate? Fine, here's MY new offer." It will probably have the same effect as walking away.

Not that anyone should be a dick for dickery's sake, but since he's selling by himself, he should learn that tactics like that aren't going to work out well for him in this market.
posted by supercres at 3:35 PM on August 24, 2011 [21 favorites]

My guess? When you accepted their offer with no debate, they freaked out and thought they had lowballed the price. so now they are trying to reposition the property at a higher price, hoping that you still recognize it to be a good deal, or maybe will be willing to negotiate them down a bit.

I would reiterate your offer, and if the decline, walk away for a while, as they sit and watch no offers come in on this heigher-priced property. Or maybe they will get offers, who knows? They are letting their perception of the demand set their price. In a sort of a dickish way, I suppose.

(on preview, what supercres said)
posted by misterbrandt at 3:37 PM on August 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

It depends on what you want. If you want the house enough to risk offering to pay the original price, plus lawyer's fees, plus your time to wear the owner down enough to accept or original offer, then do that. If that's not worth it to you, then let it go.
posted by rtha at 3:39 PM on August 24, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, also...none of it was "verbal". Everything was done over email/letter so there is documentation to demonstrate everything.

Thanks for the info so far, guys.

I'm just wondering why the hell they can advertise something for one price...and then change it dramatically.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:40 PM on August 24, 2011

IANYL...In Texas and many other states, contracts relating to real estate must be in writing and signed by the maker. It is called the "statute of frauds". You might look to see if it is the same in your jurisdiction. I would doubt emails satisfy the signature requirement, but your lawyer could answer this definitively since I can't.

Also, you may just want to call the seller's lawyer or owner to make sure the number was just not a clerical error.
posted by murrey at 3:47 PM on August 24, 2011

I second murrey. Make sure it wasn't simply a mistake or misunderstanding. Lawyers fuck up constantly.
posted by mullacc at 3:59 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Texas, for real estate deals gone bad, many times the buyer will be entitled to "specific performance" as a remedy, i.e., the court says 'you sell him that house right now, Mister.' It's because the supposedly unique character of houses, etc., and you can't just go out and get the same exact thing at the same or better price if the seller screws you out of it. So if you really want the house, maybe just go talk to a lawyer and, if you've got a contract (which he will determine), you may be entitled to this remedy. But I can't tell where you are, so this could be way off.

Not your lawyer, etc.
posted by resurrexit at 4:02 PM on August 24, 2011

(I don't think you have a contract, btw.)
posted by resurrexit at 4:03 PM on August 24, 2011

IAAL, INYL, TINLA. The fact that his response was to have a lawyer draft everything and for you to have your own lawyers look at it suggests that there was not yet a meeting of the minds. But even if you could pursue it, why would you? Most likely, you will be paying a high cost to litigate such an issue. Litigation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, with no certain result, and even less certainty as to whether you'll even get your fee bill paid. Many moons will pass, and you will have to add to your expense the cost of rent which you may or may not recover...

You should review this with an experienced attorney in your area familiar with real estate transactions so you can know your rights. But I am not sure that I would be willing to treat this as anything more than a counteroffer and I'd keep looking until you get a deal inked and escrow is opened. The alternative is costly and stressful.

But there's no reason for you not to attach copies of the original advertisement, and reiterate your offer, or start haggling. Definitely have an attorney review the transaction and make sure your other due dilligence is done (i.e., title search, title insurance, inspections, etc.)
posted by Hylas at 4:04 PM on August 24, 2011

Admiral Hancock... I know, that was my point! No signed contract.
posted by Jubey at 4:05 PM on August 24, 2011

Well, apparently now there was documentation, but either way, this much drama so early in? Eh, walk away.
posted by Jubey at 4:06 PM on August 24, 2011

Response by poster: Well, apparently now there was documentation, but either way, this much drama so early in? Eh, walk away.

Yeah, I know. But this is a financial decision to me, not a social one. There are people who would do the legwork, I'm just wondering if this is worth my $$ investment.

Litigation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, with no certain result, and even less certainty as to whether you'll even get your fee bill paid.

I know. But they totally wasted one week and they screwed me over when I tried to make it an easy situation for them. I just can't believe someone can do that over such a huge decision.

Thanks for your help, though.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:13 PM on August 24, 2011

But this is a financial decision to me, not a social one.

I think what people are getting at is that there are numerous ways further into the process whereby the seller could make things difficult for you. This does not bode well for the rest of the sale going smoothly.

The 5-10% I (only half-jokingly) suggested would reimburse you for the uncertainty he has introduced into the deal.
posted by supercres at 4:18 PM on August 24, 2011

Litigation is silly, but getting your lawyer to send a reply that reiterates your original offer probably would be worth it. I'm sure they are just trying to game you.

Like all contracts, it ain't over until the closing. Even if you had a binding contract of sale, they usually have ways for either side to back out. Buyer can back out for the price of the earnest money, and the seller can back out by returning that money, possibly plus some penalty.
posted by gjc at 4:25 PM on August 24, 2011

Go to the courthouse or wherever real estate deals are recorded and see whether "the lawyers" or somebody else bought it from the original owner between the time you offered him the money and the time you heard from them.

I wouldn't put it past many a lawyer I've known to step between a naive client and a buyer when they see a really sweet deal, or to give a friend the opportunity to do so.

In that case, they may not have done you any wrong, but they probably at least mistreated their client, and that may give you some leverage.
posted by jamjam at 4:43 PM on August 24, 2011

I'm just wondering why the hell they can advertise something for one price...and then change it dramatically.

But they totally wasted one week and they screwed me over when I tried to make it an easy situation for them. I just can't believe someone can do that over such a huge decision.

Getting emotional over this is not going to help. Buying a house isn't like buying a sandwich; the asking price is a starting point for negotation, it's not a price tag. Asking prices change all the time. They didn't "screw you over". You're overreacting in a huge way here.

Maybe the lawyers just goofed up and told you the wrong price, maybe the owner decided he'd undervalued and upped the asking price, maybe something else happened. Whatever. It doesn't matter at all.

Tell them you are willing to buy the house at the original offering price of $XXX. If they accept that offer, great. If not, you're in the like best buyer's market in the history of ever, so go find a different place.

Even after you have a contract for sale at an agreed price, there's going to be a lot of haggling -- the inspection will turn up problems, there will be negotiations over who has to pay for them, there will be disagreements over what fixtures are included or not... it's a long process with plenty of opportunities for both buyer and seller to act like lunatics and get vindictive over trivial amounts of money and can you tell I'm a week from closing on a house myself?

The best way to stay sane during the process is to rise above it. Decide what you're willing to pay, offer that, don't get drawn into thoughts about but they should have done THIS instead of THAT because they are WRONG and this way lies madness. Just look at the number after the dollar sign; that's all that matters.
posted by ook at 4:47 PM on August 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: hal_c_on, you have every right to be pissed. The Vendor is being an asshole. But here is your legal position.


You had OFFER + (provisional) ACCEPTANCE subject to the execution of a formal agreement, i.e., not acceptance at all. Your verbal agreement is most likely not binding.

Had you been able to sign a formal written agreement, you may have been able to enforce the agreement (i.e., complete the purchase). However, right now, you have no case whatsoever, in any form.

Here's what I would do. Respond to the lawyers with the background to the matter, as you laid it out here, i.e.:

[ Thank you for you letter...etc.

On [date 1] I saw the property advertised at $X.

On [date 2] I contacted the Vendor personally and offered to purchase the property at $X. At that time, the Vendor accepted my offer and advised that his lawyers would contact me to arrange a contract for sale for the purchase price of $X.

My offer to purchase the property for $X remains unchanged. Please let me know if your client accepts my offer.

Regards,...etc. ]

You don't need a lawyer for that first step. But frankly, it just sounds like the Vendor got greedy.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:59 PM on August 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

tl;dr - reiterate your offer. If they don't accept, let it go and keep looking.

No one has cheated you, you've lost nothing, this is just business.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:05 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I don't think it's worth it to get a lawyer in this case. The wasted time and money you'd incur wouldn't be worth it unless you a) Had a written and signed legal contract and b) Really wanted the house so much that you'd already spent money in anticipation of moving.

It sucks that he dicked you around, but some people are just shitty like that. Let go of your hurt feelings and move on. Buy a house from someone with integrity who deserves your money. Tell this guy to piss off; he just lost a sale. His house will no doubt languish even longer at the new, overly-inflated sale price. I agree with Jubey in that you've probably dodged a bullet; if he acts like this before the sale, just imagine what kind of crap he could pull after the papers are all signed.

(And if you want to give him a taste of his own medicine, write to the relevant people at the real estate website where he's listed his house and share your experiences with this guy. They may be interested in protecting other users of their site from types like him and have their own form of punishment to mete out.)

P.S. In the future, try to think of buying negotiable items like cars and houses like a game of poker: never tip your hand. It'd be awesome if everybody were as honest as you though.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 5:09 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe they got better offers (for a little less than YYY) and want to see if you'll beat them. It happens.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:42 PM on August 24, 2011

Litigation would likely take quite a while, and I suspect you want this settled sooner rather than later. Without real estate agents, stuff like this can happen more easily. Litigation can cost you a lot of money if you're unsuccessful, and sometimes even if you are successful.

You want the house at the originally advertised price. Contact the owner and say so. Dear _, I agreed to the advertised price of XXX. I'm still interested in buying the house at that price, and on these terms (attached). I agreed to the asking price because I wanted a prompt sale with minimal hassles. I've resumed my search, but haven't located a new house yet. Please contact me if you're interested in selling your property at XXX. Then walk away.

This seller has made it clear that he's not to be trusted. There might be lots of hassles and delays, and extra costs even if he accepts the price. Being willing to walk away from a purchase has always worked well for me.
posted by theora55 at 6:42 PM on August 24, 2011

The reason he changed the price from XXX to YYY is because you accepted without haggling. He took this to mean "my asking price is too low."

I would advise the approach others have stated; respond to the lawyers saying "I spoke with your client regarding purchase of the property at the price of XXX, as advertised on [date]. Should your client reduce the asking price back to the previously-advertised price, please contact me and we can discuss this matter further."

Then drop it.
posted by davejay at 7:28 PM on August 24, 2011

I just can't believe someone can do that over such a huge decision.

You'll learn it the hard way - when large sums of money are involved, a lot of otherwise normal people just become crazy. And the games played in the dating scene are as nothing to the games played in the real estate scene. I've had a guy who was supposed to be working with me to find a place turn out to be using me to lowball the owner on a property in order to assist some unknown third party.

Money makes people very, very sleazy.

Don't fight lawyers with lawyers, just stay firm on your offer and let them come crawling back (you own the market right now).

Or better, let him know that you offered him his asking price in exchange for you not having to waste your time on negotiations. His lawyers however are currently wasting your time with prices other than the one agreed too, and having to jump through hoops makes the deal less attractive to you, so your new offer is 1% less than his initial asking price, and if games are going to be played about it, you're not interested.

Be prepared to walk, even though it sucks that they wasted your time, but know that you have the power, and reclaim your satisfaction, in the use of that power. I think that not trying to haggle on price gave him the false sense that you were desperate (because everyone else is playing these stupid lying games). You need to show that what you actually were, was honest, and he can either play ball, or lose.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:36 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IAAL. IANYL. TINLA.

Although most states have a statute of frauds (requiring certain agreements to be in writing to be enforceable), in Florida (and perhaps elsewhere) a series of exchanges can add up to an enforceable writing. A lawyer has to review your email exchanges with the seller to see if that the case.

The writing (or writings, in this case) have to contain the essential terms of the deal. For a property purchase and sale, this would include at a minimum the identification of the property, the purchase price, the financing terms. If the deal is contingent on a later prepared and agreed to written contract, then all you have is an agreement to make an agreement.

The letter from the lawyers is fishy "acting as owners of the property"?
Look up the property appraiser's website (if your county has one) or official records under the seller's name to see if ownership changed hands. Unlikely in one week. Maybe they meant "we act on behalf of the owners of the property." Sloppy.

Also keep in mind that, incredibly, people do not always tell their lawyers the whole story.

If I were writing back, as a non-lawyer, I might write that
there has been a misunderstanding because I understood [the seller you dealt with] was the owner of the property and I advised that I am interested in purchasing the property for $XXX, the original asking price as indicated Z publication, on page Y, in the ___ dated issue (copy enclosed).
[Owner] accepted my offer and we agreed on a few more terms in our emails dated ___, ___, ___, and ___, as well as in my letter to him dated _____ and his response dated _______.
If you represent [Owner] with respect to the sale of this property, please forward to me a contract for the purchase and sale of the property located at [address] for the agreed upon sale price of $XXX, incorporating the following terms [Owner] and I agreed to in the communications detailed above, to wit:
down payment
closing date

Don't enclose copies of your written exchanges with the owner. They either send you a draft contract at the $XXX price (lawyer up for that phase, pls) or they back down completely. Either way, depending on the statute of fraud caselaw in that state, it might force the lawyers to review the Owner's written exchanges with you to see if he's exposed himself to a suit for specific performance. All on his dime, mind you.

Good luck. Sometimes lawyers are a good reality check on people trying to overrreach.
posted by Jezebella at 7:47 PM on August 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Let us know how it all turns out. . .
posted by Sassyfras at 9:00 PM on August 24, 2011

Drop it. If right out of the gate they are pulling a somewhat 'bait and switch' who knows what will happen after you'd enter anything binding with them? Real estate transactions are filled with such detail that if they can't be honest upfront, then they are going to continue to game them down the line.

I wouldn't even bother to contact them again to "clarify" your original offer. Run like hell away from this trap, use your energy to find a genuine deal at the price point you want.
posted by kuppajava at 9:30 AM on August 25, 2011

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