Real People, Real Problems and a Chance to Help
Three reasons why the law appeals to real estate attorney Willis Carpenter
Published in 2014 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 14, 2014
Q: How’s the real estate market looking now that we’re a few years away from the global financial meltdown?
A: I expect different real estate lawyers experience that differently. My clientele are people who buy and sell real estate, rent real estate, and things are certainly still slower than they were five years ago. But for other practitioners they may see an upswing. We have a lot of construction going on in the Denver area right now. I see a lot of construction cranes on the horizon. That’s good news.
Q: I’m curious if you felt the vibrations of the meltdown earlier than most.
A: As I saw it through the eyes of my clients, it seemed a very sudden happening, and maybe that was just because we were not sophisticated enough to see the bubble. Certainly there were people warning that this calamity was coming but nobody believed it—partly because everybody was making so darn much money. Real estate prices were high and brokers were pushing it and there was a good deal of avarice, and all of a sudden it’s like you turned a valve and the flow of dollars stopped.
It collapsed fast. It caught a lot of people [off guard], with big loans with subdivisions, say, where they’re selling lots, and all of a sudden they’ve sold five or six lots and they’ve got 100 to sell, and they can’t sell anymore. And the loan comes due. A lot of development loans are 10 percent and 12 percent interest, and that really eats you up. Pretty soon, you’re looking at bankruptcy. Or you may be able to make a deal with your lender for a deed in lieu of foreclosure, where you just give them back the property and the lender lets you off the hook for what excess you owe. The only trouble is, you have to pay tax in many cases on that forgiveness of debt. That’s a trap for a borrower who thinks, “Well, I gave them back the property, I’m out of it.” He is. Until April 15th.
Q: Is there a particular client or a case in your career that stands out for you?
A: One of my favorites is the lady who came into my office with her ex-husband. In the divorce action, she was awarded a six-unit apartment building as the only form of alimony. Then they got a notice that somebody else now owned the apartment building.
What happened was she had neglected to pay the taxes, and the building had been sold on a tax deed. It takes almost four years for that to happen so it wasn’t something sudden. But she didn’t own the building anymore and had no visible form of support. My partner Andy Klatskin and I investigated. The bottom line is we went to court and successfully set aside that tax deed because the treasurer, in issuing the tax deed, had not followed all of the rules. He had forgotten to send a notice to one of the six tenants in that building. That was enough for the district judge to set aside that tax deed and she got her property back. The city attorney in Denver, who was my opponent, said, “I’ve been here 14 years and there’s never been a tax deed set aside while I’ve been here.” Shortly after that, she became disabled and that was really her only support until she died.
Q: What issues do clients tend to consult you on?
A: There are a lot of real estate lawyers that do one or two things for one or two clients. I have a friend who does just leases. In my case, I do all kinds of things. I handle real estate disputes between neighbors. I do a lot of drafting of settlement agreements between disputing parties. I love doing ranch sales in Colorado—it involves so many different issues. And just a lot of incidental sales of businesses, commercial properties.
Q: What do you like about ranch sales?
A: Well, there are—in Colorado at least—water issues, and I know something about water rights and how to protect a client who is buying a ranch to make sure that the buyer gets the water. The value of the ranch really depends on the water.
Are they going to purchase the livestock, and if they’re not going to purchase livestock, what are they going to do with the ranch? Many of our ranch buyers are wealthy, they don’t need any livestock. They’d like to have a few bison roaming around, you know, and they’re only going to be on the ranch three or four weeks a year, so they’ve got to get a ranch manager to take care of it for them.
There’s the issue of the farm equipment. There are frequently issues of forest permits and federal grazing permits and sometimes state of Colorado grazing permits. Of course, one of the issues is title and minerals under the property. Personnel are an issue, too. Can you find a ranch manager? Are the cowboys going to stay for this new owner or take off? I seldom have one rancher buying a ranch from another rancher. I most always have a novitiate buying a ranch from a rancher: someone who doesn’t know which end of a horse gets up first. I usually provide some counseling there, if I think it’s appropriate to do so, because I do know something about owning a ranch.
A: I was raised on a ranch in western Colorado. We had that ranch in the family until 1996. My father passed away in 1980, so for 16 years I was the ranch manager. I was practicing law in Denver, I wasn’t over there shoveling manure out of the barn, but I had the checkbook. Fortunately, we had good people—good foremen, good workers at the ranch who stayed there for those years—and we were able to save the ranch.
Q: Is it still a functioning ranch or is it now a vacation home?
A: I’m glad you asked. I ended up in 1996 selling the ranch to the Nature Conservancy. We put a conservation easement on the ranch and the Nature Conservancy owns it outright, and they keep it for a northwest Colorado headquarters and a demonstration project. They bring in schoolchildren and they have meetings there, and they try to show, you know, how the river that runs through it should be managed and how the meadow should be managed. It still bears the name Carpenter Ranch, and the family still goes over for a reunion once a year. They’re very gracious and invite us back. So it’s almost like having the ranch but not having to operate it.
Q: How many acres?
A: I think we sold 890 acres to the Nature Conservancy. The ranch was many, many times that size, and was sold off gradually. All the Nature Conservancy bought were headquarters and the lands on one side of the Yampa River. It’s an irrigated ranch; it’s all hay and irrigated pasture.
Q: It’s where you grew up, right? What kind of chores did you have?
A: At our ranch, we put up a lot of hay. Working in the hayfield is one place where a young boy can take a man’s place with a—in my day—team of horses. Now a tractor.
I’ve milked a lot of cows. We had four or five cows, and they had to be milked twice a day. My father was also a lawyer; we didn’t live or die by what happened to the ranch, but we ran it like a real ranch and we had a wonderful herd of registered purebred Hereford cattle that were well-known in this part of the country. That was my father’s signature.
Q: What kind of lawyer was your father? A general practitioner?
A: Yes, and he was a politician, too. He was county attorney, he was town attorney, he was district attorney, and he was in the Colorado Legislature. He had a lot of political contacts. He wasn’t a full-time lawyer like I am; he was always doing other things.
Q: You came of age during World War II. Did you anticipate going?
A: I certainly thought I would be going. Later I did go into the service, but I was able to go to college and law school before I went into the service. I went into the Navy just a couple months before the end of the Korean War.
Q: Why real estate law?
A: The clients tell you where to go.
Q: In more ways than one.
A: Yeah. I talk to law students a lot, and I say I’m glad you’re specializing in this particular thing and that’s what you want to do, but make no mistake: When you get out and practice, you will practice what your clients bring to you. I was a general practitioner. I did divorces, I did probate, I did litigation, I did injury cases. I did everything for nearly 10 years before one day I was able to tell myself, “Yeah, now I’m a real estate lawyer. … No more divorces.”
Q: You went away to college and law school: Princeton and then Harvard. Why did you return to Colorado to practice?
A: Well, as I said, I was a member of the bar before I went into the Navy, and Colorado was where I could practice. In the Navy, I was stationed in Pearl Harbor for three years and I loved Hawaii. I actually thought, you know, maybe I’d like to stay there. But getting admitted to the Hawaii Bar—this was before Hawaii was a state—you had to, as I remember it, go to California to take some kind of a preparatory course, which had fishing rights and things that I didn’t know anything about, and it was just too easy to go back to Colorado. My law firm held a job for me, so when I came back to Denver, I had a job.
Q: When you began practicing, how did it differ from what you had anticipated? Or did you know what it would be like since your father was a lawyer?
A: I didn’t know what it was going to be like but I thought I’d follow my father’s advice. He said, “Go to law school, it’s the best training for whatever you want to do.” But I disliked law school very much. I hated every minute of it, frankly. And I thought, “Well, I’m not going to be a lawyer.” Then after I got my degree, I thought, “Well, you ought to at least try to pass the bar,” and once I passed the bar, I said, “Well, you ought to practice and see whether you like it or not,” and within one month I knew that that’s what I wanted to be. I loved it. I’ve never considered anything after that.
Q: What was it that you loved about the practice of law that wasn’t in law school?
A: Real people, real problems and a real chance to help somebody—to apply your knowledge successfully and help somebody. I don’t know that there’s any bigger reward in life than that. Whether you’re a doctor or a nurse or an accountant, if you can do what you do best and help someone with that knowledge, that’s a terrific reward. That’s what the law was for me. It was not names on a piece of paper on a case I’m reading in law school. These are people sitting in my office saying, “I’ve got this problem. Can you help me?”
This interview has been condensed.