Several months into the pandemic, Roy Brightwell received an email that he thought might help him get back on his feet.

The 70-year-old Tarpon Springs, Florida, resident had spent nearly three years fighting off foreclosure. Then in March COVID-19 arrived, and he was laid off from his job as an insurance salesman.

At the time, “it was hard to find the money even for food,” he said.

So when a company called MV Realty offered to pay him $879 on the spot, it seemed like a godsend. All he had to do was agree to list his home with them if he ever decided to sell. Brightwell signed the contract without a second thought.

Two years later, his home has been foreclosed on and MV Realty may be able to collect around $9,000 from the sale, leaving him nothing.

Brightwell is one of countless homeowners who has ended up in legal trouble with MV Realty after breaking a contract signed with the company. The Delray Beach, Florida, real estate brokerage uses quick cash to entice homeowners into signing restrictive agreements that make it difficult for them to transfer the titles to their own homes without using MV Realty as their agent or forking over a hefty fee.

MV Realty is being investigated by the Florida Attorney General’s Office, but so far no action has been taken.

The company claims that it spells out all the conditions before homeowners sign and that most clients have no complaints. MV Realty’s “Homeowner Benefit Program” pays clients up to $5,000 for the exclusive rights to list their homes, said Rachel Antman, a spokeswoman for the company.

“MV Realty is investing in future business,” the company’s website says. “This way, you receive cash upfront, and MV Realty gets the opportunity to represent you in the future if you decide to sell. It’s a win-win!”

But critics say homeowners often don’t realize that the fine print locks them into a 40-year binding agreement.

“The magnitude of this problem is so big,” said Matthew Weidner, a St. Petersburg attorney representing a client who’s being sued by MV Realty. “This is a situation where we really need regulators to step in and do something because it’s going to choke court dockets and impact people for decades to come.”

Even if the homeowner dies, the contract is passed on to whoever inherits the property. If a homeowner lists their house with a different agent or even if they’re forced to sell in a foreclosure auction, MV Realty can place a lien on the house and collect 3% of the property’s value.

MV Realty has filed suit against at least 40 homeowners in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties since 2018. In most cases homeowners end up paying the lien.

“It’s a very dense contract and the devil is in the details,” said Weidner.

“I have not found anything explicitly illegal in (the contract),” he added. “It feels wrong. It feels like people are being taken advantage of. But they signed the contract.”

Brightwell and his late partner, Michaela, moved into their four-bedroom home on Biarritz Circle in 2000. Born in England, Brightwell had traveled all around the world and expected Tarpon Springs to be his last stop. Now that he’s lost his home, he’s not sure he can afford to stay.

Brightwell violated his contract with MV Realty in December when he listed his home for sale with a different brokerage. This prompted MV Realty to file suit and place a lien on the house.

Antman with MV Realty said they again offered Brightwell the chance to list with them but he declined.

Up until that point, Brightwell said he had forgotten all about the contract he signed. He only listed his home as a last ditch effort to avoid foreclosure. Though he was able to find a cash buyer, ultimately the deal fell through when the buyer discovered the lien from MV Realty.

Brightwell was expecting to get some money from the foreclosure sale. But Citi Mortgage, Brightwell’s homeowner association and MV Realty have all filed motions asking the judge to disperse the remaining $12,662.56 to them. The judge has not yet made a decision.

“They’ve left me without a nickel,” Brightwell said.

Kylie Mason, a spokesperson for the Florida Attorney General’s office said that her office had received 16 complaints about the company since 2020. She said there was an active consumer protection investigation but declined to provide details. The Tampa Bay Times reviewed the complaints and found they were similar to those raised by Brightwell.

A man knocked on Largo resident Katherine Ziems’ door in October 2019 and offered her $550 to sign up for the Homeowner Benefit Program. Looking back, “I should have known it was too good to be true,” she said.

When she went to sell her home in February, she said she vaguely remembered signing the agreement with MV Realty but that she couldn’t find the paperwork, so she just shrugged it off. Then, after she put the home on the market with another realtor, she was hit with a lawsuit from MV Realty.

Antman said MV Realty called Ziems to remind her of the agreement but Ziems disputes this. Rather than try to fight what seemed like a losing battle, she decided to pay $5,000 from the sale to satisfy the lien.

Another client, Debra Harrell, said she tried to sell her home with MV Realty and still ended up in trouble with the company.

In June 2020, she signed up for the Homeowner Benefit Program and received $802 for the rights to list a rental property she owned in Tarpon Springs. She contacted MV Realty in the fall and they assigned her an agent.

Harrell said the agent made no effort to help her. Eventually, Harrell found a cash buyer. She asked her listing agent to set up a showing but said the agent never followed through.

Eager to close the deal, Harrell said she found a different agent who agreed to represent the buyer and draw up the contract. Though Harrell said the paperwork for the sale included MV Realty as the listing agent, the company filed suit for breaching the homeowner agreement.

Ultimately, the case was dismissed and MV Realty walked away with 3% commission.

Harrell said the experience made her question whether MV Realty’s priority is to sell homes or to turn a profit from broken contracts.

“Nobody reads the fine print and they know that,” she said. “It’s a really sleazy way of doing business.”

Nearly 30,000 homeowners have signed up for the Homeowner Benefit Program since it started in 2018, according to Antman. To date, MV Realty has sold 700 homes through the program.

“The vast majority of (Homeowner Benefit Program) homeowners” who sell their homes through MV Realty are happy with their service, said Antman, “as evidenced by MV’s high ratings on Zillow and the Better Business Bureau.”

Antman said MV takes each complaint seriously and works with relevant entities like state attorney generals to resolve them.

To avoid complaints, she said MV Realty makes the conditions of the Homeowner Benefit Program clear to homeowners and gives them three days to rescind the agreement. She added that most homeowners who violate the agreement simply forgot they signed. In that case, MV Realty contacts the homeowner to remind them of the listing agreement.

Wes Shaw, a spokesperson from the National Association of Realtors said the organization could not comment on members’ business models but added that it “believes that consumers should be fully informed before entering into any agreement, especially one as important as selecting a professional to represent them in the home selling process.”

He urged homeowners who believed they had been wronged by a business to file a report with their state attorney general’s office or other relevant agency.

Brightwell was initially given a month to move out, but was able to get the deadline extended to Aug. 26. Up until the last minute, he was still scrambling to pack up his belongings and find a place to go. After his electricity was shut off, he knew his time was up.

“I’ve been living in this place for twenty two and a half years” he said. “To just have to hand off the keys this afternoon is not going to be pleasant.”

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