DennisBeaverJune 30, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“Get it in WRITING” is a term we hear so often and with good reason. Today’s story is a good example of a “Happy Ever After” that never will be, only because my readers failed to convert verbal promises into a written agreement.

Our story begins near the small town of Three Rivers, in rural Tulare County, in an incredibly beautiful, forested section of California.

“My husband and I live near Three Rivers, which is adjacent to Sequoia National Park. It is one of the loveliest places on earth, and we moved here in 1985 with our young children. Virtually by accident, we found the perfect home to rent that was owned by an elderly couple, Sandy and Marie, who lived way out in the country on a large ranch.”

“We had the best relationship anyone could have with landlords. The rent could have been much more, but they never raised it, and when they came to town, we would all get together for dinner. Repeatedly over the years they assured us that this would be our home when they decided to sell it. As my husband is a contractor, we did all repairs and they purchased the materials. The house was built in the 50’s and sits on a two acre parcel of land.”

“In the mid-nineties, Marie died, and Sandy told us to get paperwork together and make a bid on the house. He seemed urgent, for some odd reason. We delivered a proposal to him, but before anything could be finalized, within days he suffered a stroke. His son called us and said that our bid was too low, and that the family did not want to deal with these issues at that time, as Sandy’s care was the most important thing. Sandy remained in a rest home for the next few years and died about 7 years ago.”

“In the meantime, the years passed. Our kids were in high school, and we all fell more deeply in love with this home and the beautiful area. One of the owner’s children took over and things changed 180 degrees. When we gave them receipts for material, our rent was raised. Today, this home and the land is worth a great deal of money, but whenever we raise the subject of buying it, we are told that the family isn’t interested in selling.”

“Do we have any legal recourse? Or, has our delay made it impossible to require them to sell the house to us?” e-mailed readers Sara and Kevin.

A Common Fact Situation

This fact situation is far more common than most people would think. It can be found in every casebook used at law schools throughout America. An oral promise to will, give away or sell a house is made, and then before the transaction goes through, someone dies, changes their mind, or nothing happens for years. Then, the would-be owner decides to attempt legal action.

Agreements that deal with an apartment, home, commercial building or vacant land generally must be in writing. The reason is that with something as valuable and unique as real property, to avoid fraud, “A” needs to prove there was a contract or agreement of some kind before he can successfully sue “B” to sell him that house.

But that’s not always the case. The Courts understand that most people do not know the law and there are instances where you can’t find a written contract, but where all the facts and circumstances certainly prove some kind of an agreement. So, if “A” can show-with letters, witnesses testimony, or the things he’s done to the property that are consistent with him acting just like an owner, it is possible to force a sale anyway. But as is so often the case, time is the worst enemy.

Important Questions to Ask

After receiving the e-mail from my readers, I phoned them and asked these questions:

(1) Do you have anything in writing from the couple that references your buying the house at some time?

(2) Are there neighbors or independent witnesses who overheard any of the promises made to sell you the property?

(3) Did you make improvements or repairs to the property that you paid for entirely by yourselves, or were you always re-reimbursed by the owners or their family members later?

(4) Finally, when did Sandy die? Was there a will? Was it probated? Did you state any type of a claim against his estate?

Here are the answers given:

“No, there never was a thing in writing that referenced us buying the house, and the agreements were strictly between us and them, with no one else ever present. Sandy and Marie always paid us back for the materials we purchased, and did not raise the rent, not once. Their children have done so repeatedly, however. Yes there was a will and the house was left to their three children. We were aware of a Probate, but did not see an attorney and did not file any documents with the Court.”

If we common sense our way through this situation, keeping in mind the importance of being able to prove some kind of an understanding for my readers to one day own this house, there is only one conclusion I can reach: They were renters, and legally nothing more, sadly.
We may ask, “Were all of those years wasted, expecting to one day own that house near Three Rivers?”

Able to see those magnificent Sequoias from their kitchen window, I think not. They raised their kids in one of the most beautiful places on earth, in a home filled with love, all made possible by an elderly couple who wanted them to stay and who never raised the rent.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.