NOTE: All the names in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Domenika Johnson came home from work one evening to find a For Sale sign in her front yard. Surely, this was a mistake. Maybe the realtor meant to put it on the property next to hers. It was vacant, and Domenika had not seen anyone coming or going there in years – for as long as she lived there, actually. In the mailbox, she had a letter from a real estate company. The first line made her heart sink. The property you are occupying belongs to someone else, it read. This could not be. Her property? Her home? She bought it with her own savings 15 years ago. She only had 5 years left on the mortgage. In that moment, Domenika felt panic come over her. What was going on? What could she do? Where could she turn? As she spent the next few days trying to sort out what was happening, her home was auctioned off and sold.
She came to South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) with little hope. It was too late, she thought. The closing was taking place a couple days later. Her home was gone. But she was determined to keep fighting, she just needed help. The first step for us was to ensure that the auction sale would not be finalized. We filed for a temporary restraining order, asking that the court delay the closing until a hearing could be held to determine what happened and to whom the property really belonged. Our motion was granted. Our attorneys and paralegals started working on piecing together the rest.
The “rest” soon became clearer. Domenika’s lot came from a couple who were developing their land back in the 70s. At that time, a home was to be built on Lot 13. The lot next to it, Lot 12, was to be vacant. Due to circumstances that we may never know, the home was actually built on Lot 12. This was never reflected in any records. All the records showed Lot 13 as having a house on it and Lot 12 as vacant and unimproved. In reality, Lot 13 was vacant and unimproved, and Lot 12 had a house on it. For over 20 years, despite numerous ownership changes, property valuations and surveying, the mistake was never noted or corrected. For over 15 years, Domenica had been living in and paying mortgage and taxes on a house, which according to the official records did not exist. Home Money LLC bought Lot 12 at a tax sale for less than $1,000. It was advertised as “unimproved”. Since there was a house on that lot, they were now trying to flip it for $40,000.
Domenika was in danger of losing everything, only because of a recording error four decades prior, and a predatory business that was trying to make a quick buck. Home Money LLC was trying to use every legal loophole to speed up the sale and finalize the deal. SCLS, too was trying to exhaust every legal remedy to keep Domenika in her home. Court action, legal motions, community partner involvement, settlement offers – we tried everything.
Although we were prepared for a long trial and felt confident that law and fairness were on our side, we wanted to resolve it as quickly as possible to allow Domenika a peace of mind. In the nick of time, we were able to find a buyer for the unimproved, vacant lot. With that money, we were able to settle the case with Home Money LLC. Domenika got to keep her home. The records were changed to reflect the reality. She now legally owns Lot 12 with a house on it.
Her angels, as she calls us, have helped keep Domenika in her home. We are also grateful for a grant from Bank of America, which allowed us to accept this case. Domenika was slightly above our regular income guidelines, but she was far from being able to afford an attorney. We could not have accepted her case if not for this specific grant from Bank of America which allows us to take accept some clients in certain circumstances who are over income.