Contract Concerns: How land installment agreements can be trouble for unsuspecting buyers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Willie and Nora Adams had finally found a place to call their own.

"We had planned on living in it ... you know, forever," said Willie Adams of the three-bedroom, brick house in the Sea Isle Park community of Memphis.

It was 2015, Adams said, and they saw a for sale sign in the yard.

"So we decided we'd purchase the house."

"Purchase," Adams would soon learn, wasn't an accurate description of the deal he signed.

"Being in the house about, almost a year, we decided we'd go to the bank and try to get us a loan, you know do some touch ups in the house you know."

Adams says it was the banker who told him the house he was living in didn't belong to him.

"It was like a shock went through my body. I couldn`t believe it."

For Adams, it didn't make sense.

He said, "I thought everything was on the up and up."

He showed WREG the documents which included words like mortgage, and interest.

Adams explained, "It said we were purchasing the house, how much it would cost, and how much it was going to be a month."

The couple was also paying property taxes and homeowners insurance.

The stack of papers signed during the transaction included a HUD-1 and even a Truth In Lending Disclosure.

"I called the people that we were supposed to be getting the house from and they told me a whole different story!"

Those owners, a Lousiana-based company called HS Property Owner, or Home Servicing, bought roughly 50 properties in Memphis in 2014, including the one on White Station Road where the couple lived.

"They told me, 'Well Mr. Adams, we were just a loan.' I said, loan, I said, that ain't what the paper said and that wasn't the agreement!"

"The problem with these contracts when you step back and look at them is, it's almost like they're designed to fail," said Matthew Jones, an attorney with Memphis Area Legal Services.

The agency helped the couple wipe out the debt accumulated after they moved out of the house and stopped making monthly payments.

Jones says what the couple signed is perfectly legal, but the truth is buried in the fine print.

"That's why these are risky for the consumer," said Jones.

It's called a land installment agreement — a transaction that allows buyers to bypass the bank and make payments directly to the seller.

Jones explained, "You don't buy the property, it's not transferred into your name, but you promise to pay all of this money over so many years and at the end of it, they'll transfer the title to you."

However, one report which called the agreements "toxic transactions" said the deals rarely make it that far.

Critics say sellers aren't in it for the long haul, but rather the constant flow of cash from tenants, many of whom are low-income, who move in and out after things go sour in the properties, which are often in poor condition.

Jones said of the homes, "They can't be rented, they can't be sold in the traditional manner."

In addition to possible poor conditions, Jones also says land contracts don't provide the same protections for people living in the properties.

For example in a sale, buyers get an inspection.

Under a lease, there are requirements to keep the properties in a habitable condition, even mandates for tenant rights during an eviction.

"All of that sort of goes out the window in these situations," he said.

With no laws governing land installment deals in most states, including Tennessee, Jones says every detail comes down to the individual contract.

According to Adams' contract, the seller could kick them out after missing a payment by more than 30 days.

"Mr. Adams' contract was for 30 years, just like a 30-year mortgage. So imagine in the 29th year he missed one payment and then got his 30-day notice and couldn't make that payment, he just lost 29 years worth of payments."

Adams says he signed the deal at a local restaurant.

While possibly not obvious to a new buyer, Jones says the location and not having an attorney present are red flags.

But Jones says the biggest, is tricky language buried in the contract.

One section titled "Postponement of Sale" reads "agreement shall not be deemed a sale, but rather ... an agreement of occupancy."

Jones added, "It puts the burden on the person that's signing it to know that it's there."

Willie and Nora Adams are now renting another house, but moving past the ordeal, they said, wasn't easy.

"Very frustrating to do that, when you got your hopes and dreams in this house that you purchased or spent a lot of money in."

Adams says he's convinced, he and his wife aren't the only ones that signed what he considers a bad deal.

"It's going on every day but people just don't realize they're being deceived."

Unlike other purchases, land installment contracts aren't recorded at the Register of Deeds Office in most counties.

Jones says having a document that's not a public record also poses a problem.

Consumer advocates have been pushing groups like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take a closer look at land installment contracts.

WREG reached out to the broker who handled the Adams contract. He said by email that he is no longer employed by HS Property Owner and the company is out of business.

Most of the houses HS Properties bought in 2014 were sold off to a New York Investment firm, Apollo Global Management.

A representative for Apollo said the company no longer maintains an investment in the properties.

Records show the properties now in the name of a trust.

The "Toxic Transactions" report called Apollo "a major player" in the land contract business and stated the company partnered with Baton Rouge based, Home Servicing to sell homes on land contract.