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News from the Legislative Session

At this year’s Legislative session, Florida Association of Realtors® (FAR) lobbyists counted numerous law changes that will benefit property owners, renters and the real estate market in general. These bills must still be approved by the governor, but here are the highlights:

Property tax reforms: HB 909 by Rep. Peter Nehr (R-Tarpon Springs) will help local businesses that are feeling the impact of extraordinary property tax increases. It also changes the makeup of the value adjustment board in each county to include property owners, giving citizens more say in property assessments.

Property insurance reforms: The so-called Homeowners’ Bill of Rights (SB 2860 by Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-N. Palm Beach) seeks to:

Extend the rate freeze for Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state’s insurer of last resort, to January 2010;

Allow single-family residential properties and condos with a replacement value of up to $2 million into the Citizens insurance pool;

Require Citizens’ policyholders of property located in wind-borne regions and with an insured value of $500,000 or more to disclose the windstorm mitigation rating to prospective buyers;

Increase fines for violations of the insurance code and for unfair trade practices by private insurers;

Extend by one year to January 2010 a provision that requires insurers to get state approval before raising property insurance rates;

Require insurers to notify state regulators 90 days before dropping more than 10,000 homeowners’ policies in one year;

Require insurers to use state-approved hurricane risk prediction methods.

Affordable health insurance: FAR lobbyists worked hard to convince legislators to support SB 2534 by Sen. Durell Peaden (R-Crestview),  which changes current law to allow insurers to offer no-frills insurance coverage for as little as $150 a month to nearly 4 million Floridians. Small businesses with up to 50 employees may participate in a cafeteria-like plan that gives consumers a choice in the type and amount of coverage they can afford. Individuals will also be able to purchase basic health coverage.

Affordable housing funding: Lawmakers allocated $303 million from the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Funds to fund housing assistance programs for moderate- and low-income Floridians ($60 million more than the cap imposed by lawmakers in 2005). Unfortunately, lawmakers also swept $250 million from housing trust fund reserves to make up for shortfalls in the state budget.

Department of Business & Professional Regulation (DBPR) reforms:  HB 601 by Realtor and freshman Representative Matt Hudson (R-Naples) is a 151-page bill that contains numerous changes to programs under the DBPR, including repeal of Florida’s Uniform Land Sales Practices Act. It also increases real estate broker eligibility requirements from 12 months to 24 months.

Help for foreclosure fraud victims: HB 643 by Rep. Clay Ford (R-Pensacola) requires foreclosure rescue companies to enter into a written contract with consumers that spells out services provided, payment terms and total charges, and provides a three-day right of cancellation period. The bill also bans foreclosure consultants from demanding payment before promised services are delivered.

Mortgage fraud crackdown: HB 743 by Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R-Miami) raises the penalty for involvement in a mortgage fraud scheme from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony. Those found guilty could now face up to 15 years in prison. Law enforcement agencies will also be required to notify county property appraisers when fraud has or could artificially inflate the value of the property. Based upon a conviction of mortgage fraud or other fraud affecting the value, property appraisers will now be allowed to reassess all properties affected by fraud.

Prohibition of private transfer fees: SB 464 by Sen. Dave Aronberg (D-Greenacres) and HB 391 by Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) outlaw the practice of private transfer fees, a costly problem for future homebuyers.

Renewal of the Florida Forever conservation program: Slated to expire in 2010, SB 542 by Sen. Burt Saunders (R-Naples) extends the state land-buying program to 2020, with $5.3 billion in bonding authority over that 10-year period. In this year’s budget, the Florida Forever program has $300 million to spend on land acquisition and includes money to buy conservation easements on agricultural land (rather than fee simple title) and conserve working waterfronts, like historic fishing docks.

Finally, the state budget provides funding for Everglades restoration ($50 million), two new appraiser positions within the Division of Real Estate to ensure Florida appraisers meet federal guidelines, and combating unlicensed activity ($400,000).

There were a few disappointments this session. The state budget raises the filing fee for evictions from $75 to $265, the first increase in 20 years. And SB 482 by Sen. Rudy Garcia (R-Hialeah), an effort strongly pushed by Rep. Gary Aubuchon (R-Cape Coral) via HB 699 to prevent the Legislature to divert more than $7 million in trust funds to general revenue next year, got derailed by an amendment in the final two hours of the session.  

To find out more, visit the Legislative Center at