Murky land sale puts woman's home at risk
ST. PETERSBURG - Charlene Thomas chose her new home, in part, because it had a spacious backyard where her children could play. But now, a bankruptcy trustee for a former owner of the property claims the land underneath Thomas' home was sold illegally and belongs to the trust. "I love my house," Thomas said. "I love my land. I want my land. It's scary to hear there's a possibility that I may lose my house because this is my dream, to own my house." Thomas paid $140,000 for the home in 2007, and the land was included in the price. The trustee, Angela Stathopolous, has sued Thomas and sent documents warning she could be ejected from the property.How it all happened illustrates how hectic property closings were during the housing boom and why it's so important to buy title insurance. The builder, New Millennial Homes, also is named in the lawsuit. Executive Keith Collins says his company is a victim, too. "There were no issues that came up with anything that said something would cloud this title," Collins said. "This is about a clouded title, and that never came up." Court documents show New Millennial paid $14,000 for the land in 2005, and no one objected to the sale. Shortly after Thomas bought the home two years later, she began getting letters from the trustee, and she was named in a lawsuit the next year. She said she was assured by attorneys and the builder that it would all be cleared up. Nothing happened with the suit for a year. Then, last month, the trustee filed court documents saying she intended to move forward with taking back the land. Keith Mather, an attorney for the trustee, said he couldn't comment on the case but has asked the court for a mediation meeting with Thomas and the builder. The trustee's position, according to the lawsuit, is that an owner who ended up filing for bankruptcy fraudulently transferred the land to a family member so it wouldn't be taken by the court. That person later sold it to New Millennial. The trustee maintains that the land always was supposed to go to the trust and never should have been sold. So what about title insurance? Anyone buying a house with a mortgage is required to purchase title insurance. A title search is supposed to catch this kind of thing. Thomas closed her sale through Tampa's Fuentes and Kreischer Title Co. Fidelity National Title holds her title insurance policy. Kathy Anderson, with Fidelity, said the company just learned of the problem this week and sent the information to its claims department for an investigation. Ron Donalson, a long-time Tampa title agent, said it's unusual for a bankruptcy trustee to try to reclaim property so many years later. The former property owner filed for bankruptcy in 2003. If it's found that the title company really did miss something big, Donalson said, that's unusual, too. But that's what title insurance is for, he said. Once a mistake is made with respect to a title, Donalson said, it's easy for that error to be repeated the next time the property is sold. "They just took the policy forward, and in searching it forward, they may not have picked up on the prior problem," Donalson said. Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting in Deerfield Beach said he agrees Thomas' dilemma is unusual. But he added he's not surprised by it, given that both sales were during the housing boom. "I'm hearing more and more of this sort of thing," McCabe said. "I think a lot of liens and judgments weren't caught because title agents were so busy." Donalson says it's unlikely the trustee really wants Thomas' home. He thinks the trustee is just looking for money. Fortunately for Thomas, her title insurance policy should cover it. But first, a judge will have to decide if the trustee has any right to the property. "I did everything I was supposed to do here," Thomas said. "I shouldn't have to deal with this."
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