Almost every day, I receive unsolicited emails with offers of property for sale. Great investment opportunity, they announce. Get rid of your landlord, or be your own landlord, they advise. And who would not like to have an asset that generates income periodically (if a rental property) with little or no effort? Or an asset that has the potential to double in value in a few short years? Let us not forget to mention being free from the whims of a landlord and his many demands.
The emails are enticing. Some of the offers are for undeveloped land and others are for developed property. Whichever is the case, before you part with one naira, there are things that you must do. The first thing to do when considering a transaction concerning property is to talk to a lawyer. It may seem unnecessary. You may feel that involving a lawyer at the early stage will slow down the process and make you miss out on a good deal. Please! Please!! Please!!! This is not the time to ask, “Wetin Lawyers Dey Do… Sef?” There is a reason why some of the procedures in land transactions are statutorily reserved for lawyers. They say that a stranger has big eyes but sees nothing. In the area of land/property acquisition, a non-lawyer is a stranger whose eyes are not trained for matters beneath the surface. The lawyer here is the son of the soil. He knows the customs of the land, he knows the secrets that will never be revealed to a stranger, so let him be by your side always in your dealings as you consider these great offers of property ownership. You do not want to end up buying a dispute or buying on terms that may lead to a dispute. Keep in mind also that the contract of sale presented to you by the vendor of the property is prepared by his own lawyer and will seek to protect his own interests. Do not be hasty in signing a contract without having it vetted by your own lawyer. And if a vendor is putting pressure on you to part with payment, that could be a red flag for certain issues.
There are three things that you must be assured of about the property that you are planning to buy: (1) That is has a good root of title; (2) That the person purporting to sell the property has the power to do so; and (3) That the property matches the seller’s description.
A good root of title. There must be documents to show an unbroken chain of title going back several years. There are statutory provisions for how many years are required and this depends on the location of the property. The seller must be able to show how the property has moved from the original owner into the hands of the current seller. Was the property a gift? If so, there must be a deed of gift. Was the property purchased from another owner who also purchased from someone else? Was the property state-owned property granted to the seller? These are questions that must be determined for your peace of mind and to avoid disputes after purchase. The answers are in the land registry, probate registry, court registry, and other places that only the son of the soil (your lawyer) has access to.
That the person purporting to sell the property has the power to do so. Apart from the risk of falling into the hands of fraudsters, there may be other circumstances where the seller acts under the mistaken assumption that he is authorised to sell the property. For instance, where the property is family or communal property, not just any member of the family or community has the authority to sell the property. Such sale will only be valid if done with the consent of the head of the family/community and the principal members of the family/community. I have heard of a situation where a grandchild, given a Power of Attorney to collect rents on the family property, attempted to sell the property based on the Power of Attorney. Remember that a Power of Attorney does not transfer title to land. Even though in practice, it acts as a substitute because of the difficulties in perfecting title documents, the transfer of legal title to property is not the primary purpose of a Power of Attorney. Usually, the Power of Attorney used in property sale transactions is an irrevocable one that grants powers for valuable consideration. In other words, the donee has parted with money or other valuable consideration in exchange for the powers granted in the Power of Attorney. The purchaser must ask questions about the property and get the history of the family/community involved to ensure that they are buying from a party who has the capacity to sell.
That the property matches the seller’s description. The only way to achieve this is to make a physical visit to the property. The description may say that the property is 1500 square metres in size when actually it is considerably less. The only way to detect that is a visit to the property with a professional who can measure its size. A visit to the property will allow the purchaser to assess the level of development in the area. This is important, particularly if the purchaser has immediate/short term plans to occupy the property.
In that case, the visit will reveal whether or not there are public utilities like water, electricity, etc., and good access roads to the property. The seller of developed property might tell you that your move- in date is in a month’s time and you get to the location and find that work has not begun on the development. A visit will also uncover environmental concerns such as flooding and erosion. It is important to make the visit before you decide whether to purchase or not, and at what price.
Caveat Emptor. Buyer Beware.