Monday, Feb. 12, 2007 | She’s not house-hunting, but every weekend for nine months, Marti Ummel has been making trips to real estate offices in North County.

Ummel makes the trips in protest, asserting with printed signs that she and her husband were defrauded by a Re/Max associate in 2005.

She says she and her husband paid about $150,000 more than the recent homes in her Carlsbad neighborhood had sold for, a detail she says their Realtor neglected to mention. And because their Realtor, Michael Little, was associated with a Re/Max office in La Costa, she focuses her complaints on Re/Max International, the giant company, for using a brand name umbrella without, in her opinion, keeping its agents accountable.

So, she and her husband, Vern, take to the streets with their signs that say things like, “Caution, Beware: All Re/Max offices are independently owned,” and “It’s our money; we want justice.” The Ummels even filed suit in July, alleging, among other things, that Little concealed pertinent details that resulted in them paying a higher price than they would have otherwise. The suit also names Re/Max Associates, the parent franchise of 14 affiliated offices in San Diego County. Little was associated with that parent company, though operating independently, and the Ummels say they expected better service from a well-branded company. They’ve even taken their signs to the national Re/Max headquarters in Greenwood Hills, Colo., and the company’s California offices in Palos Verdes.

“Even though it’s always ‘buyer beware,’ you think that the Realtor is looking out for the client’s best interest,” Vern Ummel said. “You have to do your due diligence, but you can only work with the information you have. And we weren’t given the right information.”

Little’s lawyer, Jacqueline Oliver, declined to comment on the specific allegations against him because of the ongoing litigation, saying the debate should stay in the courtroom.

The Ummels’ story is of a couple who feel they’ve been wronged, and who want to keep this sort of situation from happening to anyone else. They’re taking their complaints and using them to hit a company where it really hurts — its reputation. And even the company says they are having some impact.

The Ummels admit that the house in question cost more than a million dollars. And after selling their former home in San Rafael, the couple needed only a $300,000 mortgage on the Carlsbad property.

“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” Marti Ummel said. “We can afford to get screwed. But there are other people who can’t.” And that’s why she’s carrying out her campaign, to alert home buyers that they should seek independent information to verify what their Realtor tells them.

In the heated real estate market that peaked near the end of 2005, real estate prices soared, and buyers often bid much higher than sellers had asked for. But they usually did so knowing what the comparable sales in the neighborhood had been. The Ummels say Little didn’t provide the appraisal of the property until a week before they closed the sale. And when it did come, it matched the seller’s asking price exactly, and was based on sales that actually had larger lot sizes and better amenities, Marti Ummel said.

The Ummels started working with Little, who also acted as their mortgage broker, in May 2005. They flew down from the Bay Area for two weekends of house hunting, and looked at more than 50 homes, Marti Ummel said.

On May 29, they made an offer on a four-bedroom, 3,697-square-foot tract home in the Serenada neighborhood in Carlsbad. The seller, Vicki Urzetta, was herself a real estate agent and had advertised a selling price of $1.175 million for the home. The Ummels made an offer at that price, and Urzetta countered with a $1.2 million price. They agreed to pay that, despite concerns that they hadn’t yet seen an independent appraisal on the property.

Marti Ummel said she asked Little to get an appraisal for at least a month before he finally requested it in July 2005. The Ummels’ copy of Little’s request for the appraisal shows double underlines and exclamation points next to the notes for the appraiser, John Contento: “Purchase price $1,200,000; Need yesterday — sorry!”

The Ummels claim this as evidence that Little influenced the appraisal so that they would feel more comfortable buying the home at that price. Another, almost identically sized, home on the same block had sold six weeks’ previously for $1.095 million, but the Ummels say Little didn’t tell them about it.

Marti Ummel said the only way she found out about the recent, lower-priced, sale was by looking at a flier dropped on her doorstep by another Realtor a few weeks after they’d closed the sale.

Roger Lopez, an appraiser who wasn’t involved in the sale, said that requests for price-matching aren’t uncommon for appraisers to receive. Because appraisers’ businesses depend on being asked to do appraisals by mortgage brokers, they sometimes feel “undue pressure” from the mortgage brokers to match the price they’re asking for.

“That doesn’t relieve the appraiser of the responsibility to do their job,” he said. “But there is a gray area because nobody’s perfect.”

The Ummels are in the process of settling suits with both Contento and Horizon Pacific Financial Inc., the mortgage brokerage Little was affiliated with when he made their loan. The hearing for that settlement, which seeks $20,000 from those two co-defendants, is scheduled for Feb. 23.

Under the current slow market conditions, work is less-than-plentiful for many real estate agents. A lot of times, the acquisition and retention of clients is a matter of perception and reputation. So, clients who enter a parking lot with picketers decrying the office’s integrity may consider taking their business elsewhere. And in pricey North County neighborhoods, losing even one client — assuming a 3-percent buyer’s agent commission on a $1 million home — could cost $30,000.

Oliver, also general counsel for the Re/Max Associates and Re/Max Distinctive Properties offices, said the Ummels’ picketing has had an impact on other agents working out of Re/Max offices, especially one at the junction of North Coast Highway and La Costa Avenue in Encinitas, where they picket most often. She said she had also considered alerting the judge in case so that the Ummels could be stopped.

“The Ummels have the right to free speech under the constitution,” she said. “We didn’t want to create an issue with giving their opinion.”

Oliver said she’d tried, unsuccessfully, to set up several meetings with the Ummels and Re/Max executives. But Jeffrey Hogue, the Ummels’ lawyer, said he and Oliver have gone back and forth on meeting times and logistics have proven difficult.

Hogue said a court date for the suits against Little and Re/Max Associates has been set for July 13. The punitive damages sought by the Ummels in the suit could total more than $250,000, Hogue said.

Marti Ummel said she may continue picketing even after the suit is settled. She wants more than money — she says she wants to make sure this situation doesn’t happen to anyone else.

“I will not stop picketing until we feel that Re/Max has been fair with us,” she said. “I could be doing this for five years.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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