In Florida, our Tampa Bay area homeowners are faced with a dilemma whether to claim the homestead exemption for their underwater homes. Historically, Florida homeowners have been allowed to keep or exempt $1,000 of personal property in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This isn’t much, and many homeowners had to pay the bankruptcy trustee to keep anything in excess of $1,000 per debtor. However, in the past few years, the Florida legislature passed Florida Statute 222.25(4) what is referred to as the “wildcard” exemption which allows an additional $4,000 exemption for personal property when the homeowner is not claiming the homestead exemption. Florida judges have determined that the exemptions can be stacked and now homeowners who do not claim the homestead exemption can keep up to $5,000 in personal property.
This year, the Florida Supreme Court in Osbourne v. Dumoulin, No. SC09-751 ruled that a homeowner can claim the wildcard exemption even though they are keeping their home when it has no equity. Some judges were already ruling in this manner. As a result, many attorneys began to claim the $4,000 wildcard exemption and avoided claiming the home as exempt. Trustees were not interested in the home because it had no equity so there was no need to claim the homestead exemption.
Seeing the profit potential, some companies have begun to contact the Chapter 7 trustees in the Tampa Bay area and offering to buy the bankruptcy estate’s interest in the homes where no homestead exemption is claimed. Their goal is for the approximate $2,000 that they pay the trustee, the real estate firm will then put the house up for a short sale where they make a few bucks, and charge the homeowner rent in the meantime. The homeowner gets blindsided when they intended to keep the home all along.