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D.R. Horton to return mineral rights to Florida homeowners

By Michelle Conlin and Brian Grow

Dec 10 (Reuters) - D.R. Horton Inc is temporarily suspending its practice of reserving mineral rights beneath new homes it sells in Florida, according to a letter from the company to the office of the Florida Attorney General.

D.R. Horton, the largest U.S. homebuilder, also said it would offer to return to Florida homeowners mineral rights that it had kept in the past, according to the letter, which was sent on Friday.

The company said in the letter that it would revisit the mineral rights issue by Jan. 1, 2015 or when the Florida legislature considers it - whichever comes first.

"We appreciate D.R. Horton's response and are pleased that property owners will have the opportunity to have their mineral rights restored," said Whitney Ray, press secretary for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

D.R. Horton did not respond to requests for comment.

The move comes after an Oct. 9 Reuters story that revealed how homebuilders across America - including D.R. Horton, Ryland Group Inc, Beazer Homes USA Inc and PulteGroup Inc - had been hoarding mineral rights under new homes just as the United States was undergoing the biggest energy boom in recent times. Mineral rights set up the holder of the rights for financial gain when energy companies come calling.

Some homeowners said they were unaware when they bought their homes that they were only getting what was on top of their land and not the oil, natural gas, gold, water and other natural resources that lie below.

The Reuters story reviewed county property records in 25 states. In Florida alone, D.R. Horton has kept the mineral rights beneath more than 10,000 lots.

A month after the Reuters story, the Tampa Bay Times ran a similar story about D.R. Horton. The Florida Attorney General then met with the company on Nov. 20 to discuss the issue.

In the letter to the office of the Florida Attorney General on Friday, D.R. Horton said it would send letters to all affected homeowners, offering to return the rights by Jan. 31, 2014.

Last year, D.R. Horton made a similar move in North Carolina, where a group of homeowners contacted the state Attorney General's office after they discovered that they had unwittingly signed away their mineral rights when they bought their homes - just as the state was about to open its doors to fracking.

As part of an inquiry into the matter, the North Carolina Department of Justice sent a letter to D.R. Horton on April 12, 2012, asking for "a description of all oral and written disclosures made to home buyers," as well as the forms to back them up.

D.R. Horton said at the time that it intended "for its home buyers to be fully aware that the mineral rights under their lot have been severed and retained."

It said it instructed sales agents to disclose the reservations prior to signing a contract. It also said it disclosed them in the deed, title and sales contract.

A copy of a sales contract, reviewed by Reuters, showed it has a clause giving D.R. Horton "all geothermal energy and resources" located "on, in or under the lot."

"I think it is really nice that D.R. Horton is going to become a responsible dealer in real estate, and I would love to have my mineral rights back," said Alan Huerth, a homeowner at the Valencia Golf and Country Club in Naples, Florida and treasurer of its homeowners' association. Huerth bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home from D.R. Horton in December 2011. He says he never realized that the company had severed his mineral rights.

"It didn't even cross my mind."