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Real Estate in the Movies

By: Michael J Posner

With the Maltz Theater bringing back Glengarry Glen Ross, I thought this would be a good time to look at how various real estate issues are portrayed in cinema. From bad salesmen, bad spouses, and bad ghosts, real estate has been a good issue as a backdrop to explore the relationship between individuals, from greed, envy and fear.

Glengarry Glen Ross

A classic Mamet play turned into an acclaimed picture, Glengarry Glen Ross tells the story of several real estate salesmen trying to keep their jobs in the seamy side of out of state land sales, cold calls and commission based sales. The name of the game is quality leads, those people who have expressed an interest in buying a timeshare, beach front land or a mountain or lake lot.

To motivate his employees, the owners of the office send in a foul mouthed consultant played by Alec Baldwin, who motivates the salesman with the classic line, "As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired." An all-star cast includes Jack Lemmon, as a washed out salesman, Kevin Spacey as the office manager who holds the keys to the best leads, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Al Pacino, the top closer, round out the cast.

The techniques used in the movie to sell the land are still used today. ABC, "always be closing" is a key technique to sell what most rational people would deem worthless property by finding a buyer’s weakness and appealing to buyer's vanity, greed, sexuality and the like. These sales pitches, with come-ons like a free week-end, glossy brochures, or dream vacation spot that is available today only are almost always an exaggeration, designed to convince people, on an emotional level, to part with their money. Always research carefully and consult with an objective professional before any real estate investment is the key to not making a bad deal you will later regret.


The Money Pit

Buying a home as-is is very common in Florida real estate. Essentially the buyer relies on two things, the duty of a seller to disclose material facts about a home that affect value (such as a leaky roof, electrical problems, broken pumps, etc.) and the home inspection which is supposed to detect most patent defects. In The Money Pit, two urban yuppies have an opportunity to buy a “valuable home” on the cheap, with a seller claiming desperation and need for a quick sale. After a quick tour with the owner, who has hidden numerous defects, they rush and buy the home without any professional inspection, only to find it needs hundreds of thousands in repair.

The film starred Tom Hanks and Shelly Long as the couple who buy the disaster and then watch as the multi-month long repair process, with pricey contractors, sanctimonious inspectors and an ex-boyfriend drive them apart. Since they were not married, their split could have had substantial legal consequences, but like most movies, they reconcile at the end, to provide us with the requisite happy ending.

As they say, if it is too good to be true, it probably is, and rushing to buy a home without proper seller disclosure and a professional inspection can leave you with your own money pit.


The War of the Roses

It is often said that marriage is grand but divorce is $100,000 grand. In The War of the Roses, the battleground is over the ownership of a house between a divorcing couple played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. During their marriage, they purchase an old mansion, which Turner spends years improving until it is near perfect. At that point, with the house remodeling distraction over she realizes she despises Douglas, and demands a divorce, with a further demand she keep the house because she made it what it is, despite his funds paying for the improvements.

Instead of agreeing, or selling the house, they commence a war, escalating when Douglas, after being thrown out, manages to move back in to the very house in dispute, escalating the war, as the two continue to battle, destroying the house in the process. Eventually, their fight leaves them hanging from a chandelier, which due to the weight crashes down and kills them both.

Since neither would agree to allow the other to keep the house, the only legal recourse should have been a partition, where a court orders the sale of indivisible property (like a single family home). Either one could bid, with the sale proceeds being split equally. This simple process would have spared their lives, and allowed the one willing to pay the most to keep the house. Or better yet, sign a pre-nuptial agreement deciding in advance who gets what if the end of the marriage occurs.


The Amityville Horror

A classic horror tale based on alleged real world events. In 1975, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. murdered his entire six member family in their home. The house remained vacant for over a year, and was then purchased for a bargain price by the Lutz family. Fulfilling her duty to disclose material facts that affect value, the Real Estate Broker disclosed the murders. The Lutz' moved in anyway and claimed they had to leave a month later due to claimed paranormal activity. They sold the rights to their experiences which led to a book, and twelve (yes, twelve) films, including the original 1979 version starring James Brolin and a 2005 remake with Ryan Reynolds.

The duty to disclose deaths, suicides and murders in homes is always a tricky issue. Generally isolated events of a non-heinous nature do not require disclosure if the disclosure would not affect the value as determined by a reasonable person. A mass murder as described in the movie less than two years ago does qualify as a must disclose issue. Florida law even protects sellers and realtors from having to make a disclosure, and buyers have no cause of action to sue “for the failure to disclose to the transferee that the property was or was suspected to have been the site of a homicide, suicide, or death or that an occupant of that property was infected with human immunodeficiency virus or diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.” F.S. §689.25.


Michael J Posner, Esq., is a partner in Ward Damon a mid-sized real estate and business oriented law firm serving all of South Florida, with offices in Palm Beach County. They specialize in real estate law and business law, and can assist buyers and sellers in loans and purchases/sales. They can be reached at 561.594.1452 or by e-mail at mjposner@warddamon.com

The opinions of any particular author are not necessarily the opinions of Attorneys' Real Estate Councils of Florida any of the local Real Estate Councils or Attorneys’ Title Fund Services, LLC.