As gas and food prices shot up this past summer, Brian Oliver was desperate for some extra cash to tide him over until his next disability payment. So when he found an offer for no-interest cash while searching for a loan online, he jumped at it.

“They said, ‘We’re going to give you $400 and you don’t have to give it back,’” said Oliver, 64. “‘We just want to be your real estate agent.’”

What the Baltimore resident says he missed in the fine print was that by accepting the cash, he was granting the company, MV Realty of Maryland, LLC, the long-term exclusive right to list his modest Park Heights rowhome. If he sells with someone else, he stands to owe the company thousands of dollars.

The length of the agreement: 40 years.

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Oliver is one of hundreds of Maryland homeowners who have signed “homeowner benefit agreements” with MV Realty since the company incorporated in Maryland in late 2021 — agreements that lawyers, real estate professionals, and consumer advocates have described as predatory and deceptive.

The company has locked homeowners across the state — many perhaps enticed by the cash offer without a full understanding of the agreement — into decadeslong agreements breakable only by paying a “termination fee” equal to 3% of the home value as estimated by the company. If a homeowner, or any heir — on purpose or by accident — does break the agreement, the termination fee is secured by a lien on the property.

“If they would have told me, ‘You’re locked into this for 40 years,’ I would have said, ‘I’ll see you later,’” said Oliver. “If they’d have told me, ‘In order to get out of this contract, you’ve got to pay me 3% of whatever the total home value is,’ I would have said” — he paused — “some nice words. But you didn’t tell me this up in the beginning.”

In a statement, MV Realty spokeswoman Diana London wrote that “the terms are, in fact, written in plain English and always signed in the presence of a notary.”

London added that the agreement Oliver signed clearly disclosed its 40-year term and his obligation to use MV Realty as his agent and pay 3% of the sales price or home value if he failed to do so.

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“Of the thousands of payments we’ve made upfront, only a tiny percentage of those homeowners have expressed confusion about our agreements,” she said. “And we work hard with each homeowner, when those situations present themselves, to try and refamiliarize them with the agreement they signed and how we can make it right together.”

But consumer advocates worry that homeowners’ options are severely limited once they sign on the dotted line: The agreements require that disputes be settled by arbitration rather than in court, a process that research shows is more likely to resolve in a company’s favor. They also require homeowners to waive their right to participate in any class action lawsuit or any class relief.

“What they’re receiving in terms of consideration is so small compared to the rights that they’re giving up. The inequities are just so great,” said Rebekah Lusk, a Maryland attorney who practices real estate law. “It’s an absolutely predatory agreement.”

Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that spotted the agreements in an unrelated public records search, said that her organization reviews property records regularly and had never before seen an agreement like this. “This is not how a real estate business typically operates,” said Milli.

Roughly 400 of these agreements have been recorded in city and county land records across Maryland, but it’s likely that many more have been signed. It can take a couple of months for a completed agreement to be recorded in local court systems.

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In exchange for signing the agreements, many homeowners have received just a few hundred dollars. The average payment received by Baltimore homeowners in the 35 full agreements available in public land records was just $662.26.

In Baltimore, the vast majority of affected homes are located in predominantly African American neighborhoods on the east and west sides of the city. The majority of the homes with recorded MV Realty agreements in Baltimore city are valued at below $300,000 each, according to estimates from the real estate service Zillow, with nearly half valued below $200,000. In surrounding counties, MV Realty’s estimated home values range from $200,000 to, in a couple of instances, over $1 million.

So far, a limited number of Maryland homeowners have actually completed sales with the company. According to a search of Bright MLS’ real estate listing service conducted by Live Baltimore on Oct. 18, MV Realty had sold just eight properties in the state since incorporating late last year. The company this week told The Banner it had recorded 18 closed listings in Maryland.

Real estate professionals say the companies’ practices fall far outside industry norms.

“It’s just unacceptable,” said Al Ingraham, director of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. “Our goal is to get people in Baltimore City to be homeowners instead of renters,” efforts that he said could be impeded by practices like MV Realty’s that “deter people from doing that or penalize people who do.”

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Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos shares the concerns about the company’s practices.

“These folks are preying on people who just need $300 to get through the month to pay for medications,” said Ramos, whose office has identified two constituents with MV Realty agreements recorded in city land records.

Company has 30,000 agreements across the country

MV Realty, which operates in 33 states, was formed in 2004 in South Florida by real estate broker Amanda Zachman. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the company began executing its “right to list agreements,” of which the company has secured 30,000 across the country, according to London.

The agreements have prompted a rash of complaints and legal action across the country. In August, a former employee in Kansas who grew concerned that the practice was unethical sued the company, alleging that he was fired because he did not “support the program in its current form.” The company filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.

In June, a Texas woman sued the company under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, saying the company repeatedly called her with an offer of $702 to list her home. In August, a federal judge issued a default judgement against the company, awarding the homeowner $2,000.

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“We have been hearing about them from all over the country and the business model seems to be the same everywhere,“ said Sarah Mancini, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “I really do think that either a state AG or a federal agency needs to go after this company on a broad scale.”

After receiving numerous consumer complaints that the homeowner benefit agreement was unfair and unclear, the Better Business Bureau, a national consumer protection nonprofit, launched an investigation of the company and requested voluntary cooperation to address the complaints. In one such complaint posted on the Better Business Bureau’s website, a homeowner wrote that they were unable to take out a loan to upgrade their roof without owing MV Realty the $12,500 termination fee.

“This is a totally unfair way of doing business,” the homeowner wrote, adding that they had offered to return the upfront fee to MV Realty, but that the company refused. In response, MV Realty blamed the homeowner’s mortgage company, which it said was unwilling to work with MV Realty.

In August, the company responded to the Better Business Bureau by detailing the terms that it said are listed in both the agreement and additional documentation that homeowners receive upon signing. In addition, the company has taken steps to improve customer communication, it said in a statement to The Banner, such as “[increasing] our direct communication telephone numbers for clients to be able to communicate with us easily and quickly.”

Still, complaints and negative reviews have continued to stack up on the consumer protection website.

Meanwhile, the company quietly brought that same business model to Maryland, with 34 agents currently registered in the state.

So far, consumer concerns in Maryland have been muted: Neither the state attorney general’s office nor the Maryland Real Estate Commission has received consumer complaints. The Better Business Bureau has received just one complaint in Maryland, from a Prince George’s County resident who became concerned about the program after signing an agreement in July, but said they were unable to reach an agent on the phone to rescind it.

But regulators appear to be taking notice. In a statement, Joe Farren, a spokesman for the state real estate commission, wrote that the office “is not only tracking this issue, but actively seeking solutions.”

While the business model “does not appear to conflict with existing law,” Farren wrote, “it does present potential harm to consumers,” especially to heirs who may be unaware of the agreement until they’ve already initiated a sale with a different agent. Those heirs may become subject to the termination fee or face legal action from MV Realty.

While the state real estate commission affirmed the likely legality of the agreement, some attorneys say it raises legal questions. They note, for example, that a judge could find that the agreement is effectively operating as a loan, putting the company out of compliance with state regulations.

‘For $900, I had no choice but to use them’

With most of the homeowner agreements in Maryland having only been finalized in recent months, some participants may not yet fully understand what they signed. But for some who have, it has left them outraged.

Dorothy Smith signed a homeowner benefit agreement in June after receiving a call out of the blue from an MV Realty agent. With money tight as a result of some recent medical expenses, the offer seemed like just what she needed. But when she received the check for nearly $1,800, it occurred to her that perhaps it was too good to be true.

“A real estate company, or anybody for that matter, is just not going around giving out money that you don’t have to pay back — that was a red flag,” said Smith, of Prince George’s County. A friend suggested she send the check back, prompting the company to terminate the agreement.

When Emma Beall tried to sell her son’s home in Cecil County after he died in February, she was shocked to learn that she didn’t have a choice when it came to how to list the property. A few months before he died, her son, Jason Matthew Beall, had signed an agreement with MV Realty that required not only Jason, but also his heirs to use the company as their listing agent.

“For $900, I had no choice but to use them,” Beall said, citing the amount she recalls that her son had received from MV Realty.

Beall learned about the agreement when she asked her son’s real estate agent to help her sell the house. The broker conducted a public records search to pull the deed, as she always does before listing a property. The results were far from typical.

“I’ve seen people be obligated to another broker — a year, six months contract sometimes,” said the broker, who asked not to be identified because of concerns about the impact on her business relationships. “The 40-year part I had not seen before.”

For Beall, listing the property with MV Realty went smoothly. The house sold within a couple weeks for $315,000, a price that felt fair to both Beall and the broker. But Beall said that the lack of choice, and concerns that the company may have taken advantage of her son and others, left her frustrated.

“I can’t tell you if it was for the electric bill, the water bill or whatever,” Beall said of her son’s need for the $900 payment. All she knows is that he was desperate, and she can only assume the same of many others who sign the agreements.

“They’re not looking at the long term until something happens,” Beall said, “and the people that are left have to deal with it and have no choice.”

This article has been updated.

Banner reporters Nick Thieme and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.