Real Estate Q&A: What Are My Legal Options After Handshake Deal Over Vacant Lot?

(TNS)—Q: In 2014, I struck a deal to buy my neighbor’s vacant lot behind their house. We shook hands in front of a witness. According to our deal, I immediately wired the money to his account and paid the property taxes yearly. Last week, I noticed a for sale sign on my lot. I called him to ask what was going on, and he told me that it was already under contract. He offered to give me my money back. I want to keep my lot. Do I have a legal leg to stand on? — Peter

A: You do have options to keep your lot, but they are limited because of your handshake deal.

The “statute of frauds” is a legal doctrine that tries to protect people from dishonest behavior by requiring certain agreements, including those involving the purchase of real estate, to be in writing.

That said, like most rules, there are exceptions. One exception to the statute of frauds is when one party does what they promised to do.

In your case, you wired the purchase price to your neighbor. You completed the performance of your obligations by doing that, and your neighbor should have deeded the property to you.

Even if you had only paid part of the purchase price, you could still sue your neighbor to require him to finish the deal, what lawyers call “specific performance.” You would still need to pay the rest of the purchase price.

Avoiding this situation is part of the reason that deeds are recorded in the public land records.

Since you do not have a deed, you can still lose your interest to an unsuspecting purchaser.

You need to act fast and find an experienced local attorney to help you get your lot put into your name.

Gary M. Singer is a Florida attorney and board-certified as an expert in real estate law by the Florida Bar. He practices real estate, business litigation and contract law from his office in Sunrise, Fla. He is the chairman of the Real Estate Section of the Broward County Bar Association and is a co-host of the weekly radio show Legal News and Review. He frequently consults on general real estate matters and trends in Florida with various companies across the nation. Send him questions online at www.sunsentinel.com/askpro or follow him on Twitter @GarySingerLaw.

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