Homeowners in Middle Tennessee may be victims of real estate company accused of ‘preying off our elderly’

“She didn’t understand what she signed,” Sandtrell said. “She thought it was an honest loan for $985, that turned into thousands of dollars that she’ll have to pay back.”
Nationwide real estate warning: Homeowners in Middle Tennessee may be victims of real estate company accused of ‘preying off our elderly’
Published: Jul. 13, 2023 at 3:14 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - On shelves all over her Antioch home, Evelyn Ridley has pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, which are on proud display.

Sprinkled in between the photographs, are Mother’s Day cards given to her this past May. At 69 years of age, Ridley is the heart of her family, according to daughter-in-law Sandtrell Ridley.

“We love her dearly,” said Sandtrell. “She is just the sweetest person.”

But earlier this spring, Sandtrell says the family felt heartbroken, when Evelyn was blocked from selling her home due to a real estate deal with a Florida-based company called MV Realty, that Sandtrell says her mother-in-law never should have signed.

“She was trying to sell the home so she could retire,” Sandtrell said. “This has been a struggle for her, and this has been hard on her.”

It’s been hard on Sandtrell and her husband Issac, who moved into the home six years ago, to take care of Evelyn who is battling the early stages of dementia and can no longer read due to her health.

“That’s the reason we are here, to help her,” said Sandtrell. “And to have her taken advantage of in her state, it’s frustrating.”

Sandtrell and her family believe Evelyn was taken advantage of, because in January of 2022, when they were gone out of town on vacation, she says a salesperson with MV Realty contacted her mother. One night later they sent a company representative and a notary public to her home and convinced Evelyn to sign something called a Homeowner Benefit Agreement.

“She didn’t understand what she signed,” Sandtrell said. “She thought it was an honest loan for $985, that turned into thousands of dollars that she’ll have to pay back.”

But the agreement was not a loan and turned out to be a 40-year contract with MV Realty that gave the company the exclusive right to list her home for sale whenever Evelyn decided to put it on the market.

And while Evelyn did get paid $985, MV Realty was given a 6% commission if the home was sold, an amount doubling the commission that a seller’s agent typically gets.

The deal also prohibited Evelyn from listing the home and selling it on her own without paying the company, and the agreement also stated that it would still be enforceable against any of her heirs if they took title to the home during the 40-year term.

Sandtrell says her family had no idea the agreement even existed, until a week before she and Issac were going to buy the home, and help Evelyn use the proceeds to retire.

That is when Sandtrell says her mortgage officer called to say the couple could not get a loan on the home, because MV Realty had filed a Memorandum with the Davidson County Recorder’s Office that showed Evelyn was under contract with the company, and that document according to Sandtrell, acted like a lien against the home in her bank’s eyes.

“So, she couldn’t sell it to us, and that was a huge blow,” said Sandtrell. “So, we tried to call the company and see if they were willing to work with us.”

According to Sandtrell, MV Realty told her that Issac and she could have the agreement transferred to them and held against their title, or Evelyn could pay an early termination fee topping $25,000.

“That wasn’t anything we were willing to do, and none of us can afford the termination fee,” said Sandtrell.

“They’re preying off our elderly folks that have real property and may not have mortgages,” said State Representative Johnny Garrett. “And being a practicing lawyer, I deal somewhat in the real estate area, so this was an area that I was familiar with.”

Garrett first learned about MV Realty earlier this year after finding out that the state Attorney General in Florida sued the company for deceptive trade practices, a suit calling the company’s business practices a “scheme” that is “swindling” people out of their home equity.

Fearing MV Realty could target Tennessee homeowners, Garrett worked with real estate industry leaders in the state to fashion legislation that would curtail the company’s activities, and protect homeowners, by outlawing agreements like MV Realty’s that last more than one year.

“That is something that someone signing had no idea they were entering into a 40-year contract,” Garrett said. “And so, we acted very quickly, and passed this in probably four or five weeks.”

While the new law, known as the “Prohibition of Unfair Service Agreements Act” took effect in March of this year, and in certain cases opens offenders up to a statutory penalty of $10,000, the law is not retroactive.

Meaning it only prohibits 40-year exclusive listing agreements moving forward, and does not protect people like Evelyn, who signed with MV Realty before the law took effect.

Surveying property records with the Recorder of Deeds office in Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson, and Wilson counties, WSMV4 Investigates found more than 200 Memorandums filed by MV Realty, evidencing agreements with all of those homeowners that could bar them from selling their homes without first paying the company thousands of dollars.

“When I first took up the legislation, I wasn’t exactly sure if this was happening here,” Garrett said. “Now I understand that there’s several cases here that’s taking place that this law is designed to prevent.”

To combat that problem, Garrett says he is working through legislative options for the next session that could provide people already under contract with MV Realty some relief, like suing the company or striking the Memorandums the company has filed against homes in Tennessee from property records.

“It makes me mad, when someone like this can take advantage of folks,” Garrett said. “So, we are going to see what we can do to protect folks that may have been subjected to this particular activity by these bad actors.”

In the meantime, WSMV4 Investigates tried calling MV Realty’s home office to speak with a company representative and get an interview. After leaving multiple messages with the company’s answering service, we were finally transferred to a woman who would not identify herself but did say she was an MV Realty representative.

However, when we tried asking questions about Evelyn’s case and the company’s practices, the woman said, “No comment” and hung up the phone.

Less than an hour later, a person from MV Realty’s public relations firm called us, and while he said no one with the company would agree to an interview, they would send us a statement addressing our concerns.

In part, that statement says MV Realty’s commission “fee aligns with the standard market rate for virtually all residential real estate transaction commissions in Tennessee” and the company “has voluntarily and temporarily paused entering into any new agreements.”

The company’s statement went on to say it believes its program “fully complies to the law and benefits consumers who select MV Realty as their listing agent” and that it looks “forward to working with policymakers in Tennessee to address any concerns and continue this valuable program as an option to homeowners across the state.”

More importantly, however, MV Realty relayed to us in the statement that due to Evelyn’s illness, they would be voiding her agreement and releasing her from any obligations that would keep her from selling her home. That was welcome news to Sandtrell and her family.

“Oh God is good, and God blessed us with meeting you,” said Sandtrell. “You reached out to me offering assistance to help with this situation, and not many people do.”

Delivering the update to her mother-in-law and husband, Sandtrell said they would all sit down and talk about how they could move forward with their original plans, once they get paperwork that MV Realty told WSMV4 Investigates they would send releasing Evelyn from the agreement.

“We are going to get her life back on track to retire because she deserves to retire,” Sandtrell said. “And maybe now my husband and I can get our dream home too.”