On my dad’s side of my family, my father (Jim Brincefield), my grandfather, (“Pappy” Brincefield) and most of my uncles (Elvin Brincefield, Carey Brincefield and Tom Innes), spent their entire working lives in one phase or another of the homebuilding and real estate development business. On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather (Louis A. Spiess) practiced law in D.C. for more than 50 years.
When I got old enough to begin working (Pappy and Dad felt that was when I was about 12 years of age), I started out as a water boy on a construction site where Pappy was the superintendent, one of my uncles was a carpenter, another was a finish contractor, another was responsible for the brick work and my dad handled the plumbing and HVAC.
Pappy and Dad naturally assumed that I would go into some aspect of the real estate development business when I grew up, so they thought it was important to give me a good education in all of the various construction trades. Consequently, throughout my boyhood years, I worked, at one time or another, as a plumber, steam fitter, bricklayer, painter, ditch digger, “gofer” or whatever other type of workman they happened to need on that particular day. As my skill in each particular trade developed past the apprentice stage to the level of a reasonably capable journeyman, they would switch me to another trade where I would start over as an apprentice. This was very educational in more ways than one. Not only did I learn a number of different trades reasonably well, I also learned that it is cheaper to employ apprentices than journeymen. (This, I was told, was primarily due to the fact that apprentices make a lot more mistakes than journeymen. Actually, as I have grown older and wiser, I have learned that this observation has pretty much held true in just about every other type of work I have known as well.)
After I graduated from high school and began college, my work assignments tended to involve more paper shuffling, which was okay with me because it was, basically, indoor work with no heavy lifting. Having tried to dig ditches in frozen dirt and having unclogged waste lines under a house in the heat and humidity of a Washington August, I knew I was headed in the right direction.
Still, Dad felt it was important to continue to broaden the scope of my education in real estate. So, by the time I got out of college, I had also acquired a real estate broker’s license. Of course, since Dad had paid for the exam and the license, he felt that the term “independent contractor” did not really fit my particular situation, so the company kept all of the commissions I earned and I got paid my customary salary as an employee of the company. (Over time, I noticed that my salary was a lot less than what my share of the commissions would have been. I learned a lot from Dad.)
My mother’s side of the family was, basically, horrified at the education my father’s side of the family was giving me. (I suppose the antagonism was exacerbated somewhat by the facts that my dad’s family were all Baptists and Mom’s family were all Catholics and that Mom and Dad had gotten divorced shortly after I was born.) The prospect that I might end up in a career in which I came home for dinner every night with dirt under my fingernails weighed heavily on their minds.
I think it was at some point during college that I realized that the only way in which I could maintain good relationships with both sides of my family was to somehow find a job in which I could combine my familial heritages. Thus was born a real estate lawyer.
After graduating from law school and practicing for a few years, I began to realize that, notwithstanding the best intentions of both sides of my family, there were some glaring gaps in my education. The liberal arts degree (with a Major in English and a Minor in Philosophy) that I had earned from Georgetown (primarily at the urgings of mother and her family) had left gaping holes in my knowledge of business management and financial matters. I became most acutely aware of this when I noticed that my checkbook never seemed to balance at the end of the month no matter how careful I had been with my entries. I was also shocked to realize that some of my real estate clients actually expected me, an expert in real estate law and real estate construction techniques, to actually know how to read and understand a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement.
I guess, in truth, I also had concluded that it might be a good idea to get some professional training in business management and finance so that I didn’t have to go through another 20 years of on-the-job training to learn how to manage a law firm effectively and profitably. So, it was back to school for a master’s degree in business administration in real estate and finance.
Having now been practicing real estate law for over 25 years and having been involved, either as a principal or attorney, in just about every aspect of real estate, I think that one of the most important things that I have learned is how complex it all really is. I find that, in almost every transaction, it is impossible to draw upon only one or two or three areas of my experience and education. Even the transactions which appear to be most routine and commonplace, like the purchase of a home, require drawing upon knowledge and experience gained in many different fields.
For example, experience in the construction process makes you realize how important it is for a home buyer to have a qualified independent inspector go through a house to look for defects. The M.B.A. courses that I took and the time that I spent consulting to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board taught me the nuances of real estate finance and how the practices of mortgage lenders impact on the homebuying process. With respect to the real estate brokerage aspects of the transaction, having been a real estate agent and broker, and having represented many of them over the last 25+ years, you develop a certain sensitivity to the conflicting interests that constantly pull and tug at them as they try to fit together the pieces of a transaction in a way that satisfies the inevitably conflicting interests of a buyer, a seller, the real estate agent and the agent’s company (and, potentially another agent and the other agent’s company as well).
Finally, in addition to all of the above types of training and experience, the knowledge gained in more than 25 years of practicing real estate law pulls together and then adds to all of the training and experience gained in all of these other fields.
I am constantly amazed that, in the face of all of these disparate disciplines and complex bodies of expertise that must be involved and coordinated in even the most routine residential real estate transaction, most transactions appear to go forward with apparently minor amounts of delay, frustration and adverse results. It is a tribute to the professional skills of all of the various actors involved that each of them does his or her job with such a high degree of skill that serious problems seem to occur in only a minority of transactions.
Realizing the many diverse professional skills required to bring off even the most routine transaction successfully, however, does emphasize how difficult it is for any one person to possess the comprehensive knowledge and skill needed to anticipate, identify and avoid all of the potential problems that can crop up in the purchase of a home. It came as no small shock to me one day when I realized that I might be one of the few people around who really had the training and experience required to do so.
It then occurred to me that it might be of some benefit to potential homebuyers if I would try to put down on paper some of the Big Mistakes that I have seen folks make time and again over the last 30 or 35 years. With that thought, the idea for this booklet was born. I know that my goal was a worthy one but I can only hope that my efforts at achieving it will prove to be of some benefit to you.
James C. “Beau” Brincefield, Jr. has been a practicing real estate lawyer since 1966. He also holds a Masters degree in Business Administration in Real Estate and Finance and has served as the Chairman of the Real Estate Sections of the Virginia, District of Columbia and Alexandria Bars. Before becoming a lawyer, Mr. Brincefield held a real estate broker’s license. He has been active in real estate construction, development, marketing, property management and finance in the Washington metropolitan area for many years.