It's the biggest purchase of your life: Murphy's law applies

February 06, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

Prove you're married, the man across the table ordered the newlyweds.

David and Anne Laband stared at him in disbelief. He showed his ring; she showed hers. They mentioned the church and offered up her sister, the maid of honor, as a witness. Not good enough, the settlement officer said on settlement day.

At another settlement table, on another settlement day, Eva Whitley saw a line in the contract mentioning something about trees and shrubs, the tagged ones.

Eva and her husband, Jack Chalker, didn't pay much attention -- they hadn't seen any tags -- and moved into their rancher on an acre and a half near historic Uniontown. Six months later, the former owner's real estate agent called about the trees and the shrubs. Someone would be over in a bit to dig them up, if the couple didn't mind. It was planting season, after all.

Others, like Raymond and Nancy Kellar of Bel Air, know how trying settlement day can be, what with the settlement officer quitting just before they were to sell the house in Rosedale, grabbing their file as he left and dropping out of sight.

For many, this is the day of delivery on the American dream, owning their first home or moving up to a bigger one. To get there, homebuyers scheme and save, polish tarnished credit, cash in savings bonds and pack all possessions into cardboard boxes. It's a day to cut off the gas, electricity and phone, call in the movers, schedule the baby sitter and take off from work. Some try to squeeze two settlements into a single day, selling a house and then buying one. Timing is everything on a day planned to the minute. But timing is often just the first thing to go haywire.

Closings should happen merely as an afterthought, settlement officers say. Most work should be done, qualifications for a loan checked, home inspected, insurance policy written, title searched. A well-prepared homebuyer should need to do no more than sign his name dozens of times and hand over a large check. But too often, the American dream turns less than dreamlike.

Divorce court

Eleven years later, Anne Laband still feels the chill of that damp March day.

She'll always remember the date she and her husband, David, settled on their single-family home in Catonsville. It was March 18, 1983 -- one month to the day after her wedding. They took the day off and planned to move their belongings after the settlement, from Mrs. Laband's Reisterstown apartment, from her husband's apartment in Arbutus. They were buying a home from a couple going through a divorce.

"When we got to settlement, both parties were there, sitting on opposite sides," recalls Mrs. Laband. "When you walked into the room, you could feel the tension. They did not want to look at each other and wouldn't talk to each other. The lawyers and agents were doing the talking."

As they were about to sign the papers, the settlement officer asked for the Labands' marriage license.

"We just looked at them," said Mrs. Laband, who was never told to bring the license. It was packed in one of the boxes. She suggested calling in her sister and maid of honor, who lived near the Towson office of Guardian Title, as a witness to the marriage. "But we had to produce the license."

The woman selling the home sat and fumed and glared at her ex-husband.

"I am not leaving here without my money," she said, as the Labands headed for the boxes in the Arbutus apartment.

The Labands, who have since moved to Salisbury, where Mr. Laband chairs the Department of Economics and Finance at Salisbury State College, found the license in time to settle and move late that night.

They were too worn out, however, to open a housewarming gift -- a bottle of champagne.

Settlement officer disappears

When the settlement file on Raymond and Nancy Kellar's homebuyer disappeared along with the settlement officer, all the title work had to be redone in less than a week.

Settlement day came, a double dose for the Kellars. They planned to close on the sale of their house in Rosedale, then settle on a two-story Colonial in Bel Air. Movers had arrived and started loading the van when the Kellars' buyer called. Because of the delay at the title company, the buyers couldn't possibly settle that day.

That stuck the couple in a position of having to close on their new house without having sold their old one. Fortunately, the people from whom they were buying trusted that they would get their money later.

"We went to settlement without any money, a dry-settlement, buying a house with no money," says Mrs. Kellar, a personnel associate with a workers compensation company. "The settlement officer was not happy, and questions arose as to who would be responsible for insurance."

The sellers ended up buying two extra days of insurance.

"They felt confident our sale would go through," Mrs. Kellar says, "and gave me the keys to the house they still owned."

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