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apartment-balconySheehan v. Weaver: Strict Liability For Building Code Violations Does Not Apply To Residential Structures

I love being right.

Two years ago, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman issued a controversial ruling that an owner of a mixed used building was “strictly liable” for a intoxicated tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail in the case of Sheehan v. Weaver. In my prior post on this troubling case, I said “given the concerning expansion of liability in this case, look for this ruling to get appealed. Judge Kerman is a well-respected judge, and this decision is a close call, but I think he went a bit too far outside the legislative intent behind the law.”

Well, that’s exactly what the Supreme Judicial Court said in its ruling today which should provide some relief for residential landlords and their liability insurers.

Faulty Porch Guardrail

The landlord, David Weaver, owned a building with three residential apartments located above a commercial establishment. None of the apartments were owner-occupied. After a night of drinking, one of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. The connection of the guardrail to its post gave way because it was defective and in violation of the Building Code.

After a four-day trial in the Housing Court, a jury found for the tenant on the negligence claim, awarding approximately $145,000 after a 40% reduction for the his own fault. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages. With the strict liability, the landlord was on the hook for the full $242,000 verdict without consideration of the tenant’s own fault. The case went up to the SJC on appeal.

Interpretation of Building Code Statute

The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict liability, that is, liability without any consideration of the comparative fault of the injured, for any personal injuries caused by a building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The SJC ultimately agreed with the landlord that the structure where the tenant was injured was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. The court held that “what commercial and public structures listed in § 51 have in common is that they are places in which a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment, or other purposes.”

What this means is that owners of residential rental property will no longer have to worry about getting hit with a substantial strict liability award for injuries caused by building code violations. However, this does not mean that property owners should not take care of their buildings. They must, and they can still get hit with lawsuits for injuries occurring on their property due to failure to repair or maintain the premises in good condition. Indeed, in this case, the final result is that the tenant’s award will be reduced by about $100,000 but the landlord’s insurance company will still be on the hook for a $145,000 judgment plus 12% interest.

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Decision Could Have Wide Impact Upon Marijuana Use By Tenants

The law on marijuana and rental housing remains clouded to say the least. And that’s no pun. This week on April 8th, the Supreme Judicial Court will consider the first of probably many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing. In this particular case, Boston Housing Authority v. Figgs (SJC 11532), the high court will assess whether a state housing authority may evict a subsidized tenant and terminate her federal housing benefits for the alleged possession of less than one ounce of marijuana — which is no longer a criminal offense in Massachusetts, but still a crime under federal law. With the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the rollout of the medical marijuana dispensaries and the conflict with federal drug laws, this case may have wide-ranging impacts upon the relationships of landlords, tenants, housing authorities and even condominium owners and trustees over the use of marijuana, both recreationally and medicinally.

Oral arguments are available via live stream here. Legal briefs and filings in the case can be found here. A final opinion and ruling is expected this summer.

This case should also put the new Medical Marijuana Law into re-focus. Landlords have been increasingly anxious about how to manage and regulate tenants’ use of medical and recreational marijuana, if at all. The law not only grants qualified patients the right to obtain medical marijuana but it also allows patients the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a marijuana dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. There is a bill in the Legislature granting landlords the right to prohibit medical marijuana on rental property without fear of being sued for disability discrimination.

I’ll be monitoring this new and dynamic area of the law. It will surely be a hot topic in the next couple of years.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience Massachusetts landlord tenant and real estate attorney. If you are concerned or have questions about the new Medical Marijuana Law, please contact him atinfo@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

 

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eviction-not

Distressed Homeowners Lose Key Defense, While Foreclosure Purchasers Gain More Title Security

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court decided yet another important foreclosure case, U.S. Bank v. Schumacher (embedded below). The issue considered in Schumacher was whether a foreclosing lender’s defective 90 day notice to cure was a defense in a subsequent post-foreclosure eviction (summary process action) by the borrower. The SJC said no it was not a valid defense, as it should have been raised much earlier in the legal process in a separate action in the Superior Court.

Schumacher considered a 2007 law requiring that foreclosing lenders provide a borrower with a 90 day right to cure prior to starting a foreclosure proceeding. Before Schumacher, some trial courts had ruled that a bank’s failure to strictly comply with those requirements was fatal to a foreclosure sale. In such cases, even a post-foreclosure buyer of the property would have potentially defective title. From a title perspective this result was especially problematic since a bank’s compliance or non-compliance with §35A would not appear in the property’s title at the registry of deeds.

By holding that a defective cure notice is no defense to a post-foreclosure eviction, the SJC has made it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge the legality of foreclosures in eviction cases. On the flip side, the ruling will help buyers of foreclosed property as it makes their titles less susceptible to challenge by the previous owners.

U.S. Bank v. Schumacher (Mass. SJC 2014) by Richard Vetstein

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NIGHTCODE_CRR3The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code governs the minimal standards of fitness and conditions for human habitation of rental occupancy of property. Unfortunately, most landlords become familiar with the lengthy code only after tenants or the local Board of Health cites them for code violations. As a landlord-tenant attorney, I’ve created this comprehensive summary of the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code. Mind you, this does not cover every single provision,  just the important ones, in my opinion. Keep this handy guide on your nightstands in case you have insomnia! Seriously, this is important information for all rental property owners in Massachusetts.

Scope

The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code is found at 105 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 410, which can be downloaded by clicking here. The Sanitary Code applies to all rental properties in Massachusetts including owner-occupied multi-families, rooming houses and temporary housing. The only exceptions are dwellings located on a campground and civil defense shelters.

Kitchen and Bathroom Requirements

The Code provides that every rental unit where common cooking facilities are provided shall contain a kitchen sink, a stove and oven and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. Each unit must include at least one toilet, one washbasin (which cannot be the kitchen sink) and one bathtub or shower in a separate bathroom. Privies and chemical toilets are prohibited except with Board of Health permission.

Potable Water

Landlords must provide “a supply of potable water sufficient in quantity and pressure to meet the ordinary needs of the occupant” either connected to town/city water or private well with Board of Health approval. The landlord may charge tenants for actual water usage if separately assessed and metered. Hot water must also be provided of not less than 110°F and no more than 130°F.

Heating

Landlords must provide for adequate heating in every habitable room of a rental unit including bathrooms. Portable space heaters and similar equipment are prohibited. Heating must be provided to no less than 68°F between 7AM and 11PM and at least 64°F between 11PM and 7AM, except between June 15 and September 15.

Natural Light and Lighting Fixtures

The Code requires at least one window in all rooms except the kitchen if less than 70 s.f. Lighting fixtures must be provided in all bathrooms. Two outlets must be provided in every habitable room, and sufficient lighting provided in all hallways, foyers, laundry rooms and the like. Buildings over ten units must have auxiliary emergency lighting. Screens must be provided for all windows on the first floor.

Maintenance Obligations

An oft-litigated area, the Code provides for maintenance obligations for both landlord and tenant. Landlords must maintain and repair whatever appliances he has installed in the unit. If a tenant has paid for and installed an appliance himself, however, he is responsible for maintaining it. Tenants are also responsible for the general cleanliness of toilets, sinks, showers, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances. So when the tenant claims there is mold in the bathroom, the landlord can argue that the tenant’s lack of cleanliness is the cause. Landlords must also exterminate any pest, insect or rodent infestation.

Asbestos and Lead Paint Materials

If there is asbestos material in the unit, the landlord must keep it in good repair, free of all defects, cracks and tears which would allow for the release of asbestos dust. Due to the liability exposure, it’s a good idea for any landlord to remove all asbestos materials. Lead paint is absolutely prohibited where children under 6 are occupying. See my previous posts on the Lead Paint Law for more info on this complex area.

Utility Metering

Owners must provide electric and gas service to tenants unless they are separately metered and billed to the unit and the lease provides for same. Separate water metering is permissible so long as the landlord gets written approval from the local Board of Health and complies with the metering requirements of General Laws chapter 186, section 22. For homes heated with oil, the owner must provide the oil unless it is provided through a separate oil tank servicing only that dwelling unit.

Minimum Square Footage

* 150 s.f. for the first occupant, and no less than 100 s.f. for each additional occupant
* Bedrooms — 70 s.f. for first occupant, 50 s.f. for each additional occupant
All ceilings must be no less than 7 feet.

Egress/Snow and Ice Removal

Property owners must keep all means of egress free from obstruction. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. Otherwise, landlords are responsible for snow and ice removal. Even if the tenant is responsible, the landlord could still face liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under recent Massachusetts case law.

Locks

Owners must install locks for every door of a dwelling unit capable of being secured from unlawful entry. The main entry door of a three unit dwelling or more must be installed with a automatic locking mechanism.

Smoke/CO2 Detectors

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors must be installed in accordance with the Mass. Fire Code.

Railings

Owners must provide safe handrails for every stairway, and a wall or guardrail on every open side of a stairway no less than 30 inches in height. For porches and balconies, a wall or guardrail at least 36 inches high must be provided. Between all guardrails and handrails, balusters at intervals of no more than 6 inches for pre-1997 construction, and at 4.5 inches for post 1997 construction must be provided.

Inspections and Code Violations

The Code provides that the local Board of Health or Inspector can inspect any unit upon the  oral or written complaint of an occupant. Inspections are supposed to take place within 24 hours of the complaint, but that rarely happens. The inspector will prepare a code violation form. Serious violations such as failure to provide heat or water must be corrected within 12 hours. Less serious violations should be corrected within 5 – 30 days depending on the type of violation. Violators have a right to a hearing before the board of health to contest any code violations.

Code violations are criminal proceedings and should not be ignored. Penalties can result in $500/day fines and even condemnation of the premises.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. If you have been cited for violations of the State Sanitary Code or have questions about it, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

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IMG_2872This isn’t law related, but this is just too good of a story not to share with you. I conducted a closing for Derek and Jillian, a nice, young couple buying their first home, a condominium unit in Norwood. The closing itself was rather uneventful but what happened next was certainly not.

The happy new buyers, closing papers in hand, took the elevator down to the office foyer. I started walking back down the hall, but all of a sudden, I heard a female voice shriek then the sound of crying. Thinking something awful had happened, I raced down the stairwell only to find Derek on one knee with diamond in hand, proposing to Jillian in our office foyer! I’m happy to report that she did say yes! Of course I had them pose for a picture which I’ve posted here.

These are the moments which make me really proud and grateful to be a real estate attorney. It certainly put a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

I would love to hear from you readers about similar “love nest” stories. Feel free to share in the comment section.

Warmly, Rich

 

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I was honored to talk about boundary line disputes on this week’s Real Estate Radio Boston broadcast on WBZ 1030, hosted by Rick Scherer and Ali Alavi, Esq. The broadcast is below. Just click the Play button to listen! Or click on this link:  Real Estate Radio Boston | Richard Vetstein.

Tune into the broadcast every Saturday night from 8pm-9pm on WBZ 1030 AM. It’s a fantastic show!

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1240410_10152181877527492_1822384462_nJoint Committee on Housing Considering Tenant Abuse Reform

Yesterday I was honored to testify before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Housing Committee in favor of House Bill 1131, the Rent Escrow Bill. The bill will level the playing field between landlords and tenants and make Massachusetts more hospitable to rental property owners.

The bill prevents tenants from being allowed to withhold rent for minor or cosmetic property condition issues through the entire pendency of an eviction case. Instead, tenants would have to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account administered by the court or the attorneys until such time as the judge rules on the property conditions. Both landlord and tenant would have “skin in the game,” and it would cut way down on the expense and length of evictions.

For more detailed information about the bill please read my prior post:  Massachusetts Tenant Rent Escrow Bill Set To Pass This Term?

As a landlord tenant attorney who has handled over 5,000 evictions, I told legislators some horror stories about how “professional tenants” have victimized my landlord clients by creating minor code issues, withholding rent, then attempting to extort my clients out of thousands of dollars. It certainly appeared to resonate with the lawmakers and I even got a nice round of applause from the gallery after my testimony!

If you are a landlord, please contact your state rep and senator to support House Bill 1131. After many years trying to get this bill through, we may finally have the best environment to pass this much-needed reform to the eviction system.

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The Ice Dam Cometh!

by Rich Vetstein on February 19, 2014 · 1 comment

in Construction Law, Insurance, Safety

Massachusetts Ice Dam Treatment & Prevention

A little break from law stuff to talk about some important safety information. With up to a foot of snow on most Massachusetts roofs and a spring thaw on the way, there will be widespread ice dam and roof damage afflicting homeowners in the next weeks. I have a feeling it’s going to be very bad.

There are ice dams all over my roof. My son’s bedroom just sprung a leak. And I can’t get a crew out here to get on my roof until Friday at the earliest. (Sorry, but I’m not risking life or limb climbing up my ice covered roof!). I did use a roof shovel to clear a few feet of snow off the roof, but I need some professional help.

Here are some tips from my friend, George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction in Framingham (Tel:  508-875-0052) – whose roof clearing crews have been out 7 days a week. For folks closer to Boston, GF Sprague Roofing out of Needham is also good.

  1. Try to remove snow from the roof but only if it can be done safely. A roof rake or push broom can be used but may cause damage to the shingles. If it’s not possible to remove the snow safely, call a professional.
  2. Chisel grooves into the dam to allow the water behind it to drain off. This is a good emergency measure, especially if rain or a sudden thaw is coming. Be careful not to damage those shingles!
  3. Fill an old pair of your wife’s pantyhose with calcium chloride snow melt and lay it across the dam. It will help to melt the dam and also keep that area of the roof clear. DO NOT USE ROCK SALT! It may stain the roof and siding. It is best for small dams or prevention. It’s also a good idea to scrape the snow off the roof first.

To prevent ice dams in the longer term, keeping warm air from escaping into the attic is the first course of action. In addition to helping resolve ice dam issues, it will result in a more comfortable and less expensive to heat home.

Ice Dam Insurance Coverage

Very few insurance policies cover ice dam or snow removal from your roof or anywhere else on your property for that matter. However, certain cases of interior damage caused by an ice dam or roof collapse may be covered. As with any insurance claim, call the claims department immediately and take photos of the damage.

Good luck and happy raking and chiseling!

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eviction-notBill Would Curb Tenant Abuses of Eviction Process | State House Hearing Set For Feb. 25

For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. This may finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Two bills, H.B. 1131 and H.B. 1110, have made their way to public hearing at the State House for a February 25th hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

The bills are designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law, including the infamous “free rent trick.” The free rent trick works like this:  Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’  fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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mass ibanez titleShould Result In Much-Needed Inventory Boost To Housing Market

Good news to report for property owners saddled with toxic titles resulting from the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez foreclosure ruling. Massachusetts lawmakers are poised to pass into law a new bill aimed at legislatively clearing up all of these defective titles.

By way of background, properties afflicted with Ibanez title defects, in worst cases, cannot be sold or refinanced. And homeowners without title insurance have been compelled to spend thousands in legal fees to clear their titles, while some have not been able to clear their titles at all.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 1987, would render clear and marketable any title affected by a defective foreclosure after 3 years have passed from the foreclosure. Most of these toxic titles were created prior to 2009, so the vast majority of them will be cleared up.

The bill does preserve any existing litigation over the validity of foreclosures. The legislation does not apply if there is an existing legal challenge to the validity of the foreclosure sale in which case record notice must be provided at the registry of deeds. The bill also does not shield liability of foreclosure lenders and attorneys for bad faith and consumer protection violations over faulty foreclosures.

The bill has recently been passed by the Senate and now moves on to the House. Word is that it should pass through the House and on to the Governor’s Desk.

Shrewsbury State Senator Michael Moore and the Massachusetts Land Title Association have sponsored this effort for several years now. I have been supporting this effort as well.

This is great news for the real estate market. I don’t have firm numbers, but there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of these unsellable properties just sitting on the sidelines, and now they can get back onto the market. This is exactly what the inventory starved market needs.

(Hat tip to Colleen Sullivan over at Banker and Tradesman for passing along this important information).

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Where-are-you-from-512x273Innocent Small Talk Apparently Illegal, According to Boston Fair Housing Commission

The seemingly innocent question posed by a Boston rental agent to Gladys Linder when they were searching for an apartment was “Where are you from?”

“Venezuela,” she answered.

Gladys and her husband went on to find an apartment a month later without further incident. But she found the question about her national origin insulting and upsetting.

This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.

Stokel filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, claiming that rental agent’s question was discriminatory and caused her to suffer fear, anxiety and sleeplessness over a three-year period.

Seriously?

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations make it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”

Although this was the agent’s first discrimination complaint and there was no discriminatory impact on the tenants at all, the Commission found that the question itself was unlawful and issued one of the largest penalties I have seen in recent years — $10,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $44,000 in attorney’s fees and costs and a $7,500 civil penalty against the broker — a whopping $61,500 in total liability for this single question, not to mention the tens of thousands the agent had to pay for defense legal fees.

The ruling can be found here:  Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, Mass. Appeals Court (Dec. 17, 2013).

Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense

The case went up on appeal, and fortunately the Massachusetts Appeals Court exercised some common sense and slashed the award, likely by more than half pending further proceedings. But the court let stand the commission’s ruling that the one innocuous question did indeed violate the discrimination laws. So the broker will remain on the hook for a sizable liability.

Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble with this ruling. It appears that the broker was simply engaging in some harmless small talk by asking the applicant where she was from. There was no evidence that the broker refused to rent to her or took any other discriminatory action against them. What if the applicant had a Southern accent and said she was from Alabama? That’s not illegal discrimination, but since she is from another county, it makes the question unlawful discrimination? Unbelievable! This is one of those cases where the anti-discrimination laws result in a totally absurd result.

So thank you to the Boston Fair Housing Commission for making small talk illegal. Unfortunately, the lesson to be learned from this case for rental agents and Realtors: Don’t ask a client where they are from. I kid you not. Only in Massachusetts…

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often consults with Realtors and rental agents on their legal and ethical duties. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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New-QM-rulesNew Four Letter Word In the Mortgage Industry

Say the word “QM” (short for Qualified Mortgage) to any mortgage banker these days, and watch their reaction. If they were smiling, they will stop. Better yet, lock the doors to prevent them from jumping off the nearest bridge.

“QM” refers to the new Qualified Mortgage rules passed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the Dodd-Frank Act which went into effect on January 10, 2014. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed as a response to the late-2000s recession, and has brought the most significant changes to financial regulation in the United States since the regulatory reform that followed the Great Depression.

Seeking to prevent the sub-prime meltdown earlier in the decade, the new QM rules — through stricter underwriting guidelines and debt-income ratios — require lenders to ensure that the borrower has the ability to repay the loan today and into the future. In exchange, lenders will be protected from borrower lawsuits.

According to a recent ComplianceEase study, 20% of today’s mortgages would not meet the new qualified mortgage standards and would be rejected. According to most loan officers who I’ve spoken to, the general consensus is that the QM Rules will make for even stricter underwriting, more loan application rejections, especially for the self-employed, and even higher interest rates for certain loans.

Debt to Income Caps
For a loan to be considered a qualifying mortgage, the borrower’s debt-to-income ratio can be no more than 43%. This means that if a borrower has $4,500 in gross monthly income, his total debt payments including his new mortgage cannot exceed $1,935 per month. Previously, some lenders had been willing to go up to 45%.

Fee And Term Caps
Lenders will be less able to make creative loans, as well. Loans that meet the QM rule can be no longer than 30 years in length. They also cannot have closing costs and fees that exceed a cap of 3% of the loan’s balance.

Self-Employed

Self-employed borrowers will also take a hit under the QM rules. In addition to two years of personal and business tax returns — the typical requirement and now the official standard — self-employed borrowers should also be prepared to produce a profit-and-loss statement and a balance sheet.  A declining income trend will require explanation, because lenders need to establish the stability and continuity of the income source. Although capital losses and net-operating-loss carry-overs cited on a tax return could previously be added back to the income, their re-inclusion under the new rules will make the loan a nonqualified mortgage. The problem for self-employed people, as always, is that they want to minimize their tax liability, but some of the ways they do so impact their ability to borrow.

Less Availability Of Higher Risk Loan Products

The QM rules will also have a negative effect on the availability of non-QM loans with higher debt to income ratios, stated income loans for self-employed, and over 30 year term loans. Non-QM loans will be subject to significant legal risk under the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule and the liability for violations is draconian, according to Jack Hartings, President and CEO of The Peoples Bank at a House hearing panel. Mr. Hartings also noted that non-compliance with QM rules could also serve as a defense to foreclosure if the loan is deemed not to be a QM loan and small community banks do not have the legal resources to manage this degree of risk. Thus these banks, he said, will not continue to make some of the loans they have made in the past such as low dollar amount loans, balloon payment mortgages, and higher priced mortgage loans.

Loan officers, I would love to hear your thoughts about the new QM rules. Realtors, were you even aware of these rules coming down the pipeline which may affect your buyers?

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Massachusetts-Short-Sales.jpgCongress Fails To Extend Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act for 2014

The ringing of the New Year may not be a welcome sound to distressed homeowners who were not able to complete short sales by the close of 2013. Unfortunately, Congress failed to extend the December 31, 2013 expiration of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, the federal law which makes short sale debt forgiveness non-taxable.

If there’s no extension, the short sale market will be decimated. I just closed a $600,000 short sale yesterday, just under the deadline. But if that same deal closed tomorrow, it would have resulted in an over $30,000 tax bill for a distressed homeowner who could in no way afford to pay that.

Last year, Congress rushed to extend the law during negotiations about the fiscal cliff but only through the end of 2013. Lawmakers and housing advocates argue that the rule hurts those who are already financially strapped. Since 2009, more than 220,000 homeowners have sold their houses for less than they were worth through a short sale with help from a government program. There are more than 6 million homes still underwater across the country, according to a third-quarter report from research company CoreLogic.

At the federal level, there are three bills — two in the House and one in the Senate — that call for the law’s extension. One of the House bills enjoys strong bipartisan support, with 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans on board. The Senate bill — which would extend relief through 2015 — is sponsored by Senators Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, and Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada. Stabenow sponsored the extension last year.

To her credit, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has been lobbying hard for the extension of the debt relief provision.

Don’t be surprised if short sales slow down considerably and go into a holding pattern while folks wait to see if Congress will extend the law. Let’s hope Congress acts on this important matter.

If you have any questions about short sales, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Foreclosure2-300x225.jpgHousing Courts Will Likely Face Increased Caseload

Giving an early Christmas present to distressed homeowners, the Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a foreclosed upon homeowner may challenge a bank’s title and foreclosure sale irregularities through counterclaims in a post-foreclosure eviction in the Housing Court — rather than being forced to file a separate equity lawsuit in the Superior Court. The case is Bank of America v. Rosa, SJC-11330 (Dec. 18, 2013).

The high court also held that the Housing Court has jurisdiction to hear other counterclaims against foreclosing lenders, including fair housing, consumer protection (Chapter 93A), and HAMP related claims.

The likely impact of this ruling will be that the already busy Housing Court will now be “Ground Zero” for foreclosure related litigation. Foreclosed property owners will have more weapons to delay and prevent being evicted after foreclosures.

Overall, while the ruling seeks to protect the rights of foreclosed property owners, it has the potential to delay the housing recovery in Massachusetts. The longer folks who don’t pay their mortgages are allowed to live rent free in their foreclosed houses, the more the housing market suffers. There are plenty of creditworthy buyers and investors willing and able to buy up and rehab these foreclosed properties. Letting them sit and blight neighborhoods doesn’t help anyone in the long run. Just my opinion…

The ruling is embedded below. (Click for link).

Bank of America v. Rosa

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massachusetts notary publicCourt Points Out Potential Problem with Standard Notary Acknowledgment Form

Could the the standard form notary acknowledgment clause used in virtually every recent Massachusetts deed, mortgage and other recorded instrument be defective in certain situations involving power of attorneys? That may be the result of a recent court decision by the First Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel in Weiss v. Wells Fargo Bank (click for link to case).

The ruling is causing quite a bit of angst in the real estate conveyancing community. Since Revised Executive Order 455 – Standards of Conduct for Notaries Public was passed by Gov. Romney in 2004, notaries public and attorneys have been using the approved notary acknowledgment form providing that the document is signed “voluntarily for its stated purpose. ” In the Weiss case, however, the court held that the notary acknowledgment of an attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney was defective as it failed to indicate that the principal has signed under “his free act and deed.

The facts in the Weiss case are rather unique so it may have limited effect. But it should serve as a wake-up call for notaries public, attorneys and lenders that the better practice may be to use a notary public acknowledgment with the “free act and deed” language as was common before the 2004 notary rules.

Practice Pointer:  Going forward, I recommend that real estate attorneys, notaries public and lenders should consider using “free act and deed” language in notary public acknowledgments. See below for form language. 

Fact of the Case: Botched Notarization With Power of Attorney

In the Weiss case, a bankruptcy trustee for Chicopee homeowners attempted to use his “strong-arm” powers to void a refinance mortgage. The borrowers took out a refinance loan on their Chicopee home with Wachovia Mortgage. They signed a limited power of attorney to enable a one Shannon Obringer (who I assume was a bank employee) to sign the mortgage. The actual signing of the mortgage occurred in Pennsylvania by a Pennsylvania notary (I assume at Wachovia’s offices). You know this wasn’t going to end well….

The pre-printed notary acknowledgment form on the mortgage was the approved MA Executive Order form, which the notary partially completed as follows:

On this 11 day of June 2007, before me, the undersigned notary public, personally appeared Shawn G. Kelley and Annemarie Kelley by Shannon Obringer as Attorney in Fact, proved to me through satisfactory evidence of identification which was/were ________________ to be the person(s) whose name(s) is/are signed on the preceding document, and acknowledged to me that he/she/they signed it voluntarily for its stated purpose.

Although there was some ambiguity from the wording as to who actually appeared before the notary and the notary failed to fill out the identification form blank space, the Court held that these were not necessarily fatal. However, the Court ruled that the language in the notarization that it was signed “voluntarily for its stated purpose” was fatally defective because it did not sufficiently demonstrate that it was the borrowers’ “free act and deed” by the attorney-in-fact’s signature, as required by Massachusetts statutory and case law. The Court went on to void the mortgage in favor of the bankrupt debtor.

New Notary Public Acknowledgment 

Going forward, I would consider using a notarization acknowledgment with the older “free act and deed” language in power of attorney signing situations. The 2004 acknowledgment should be ok for typical individual notarizations. Of course, you should consult with your title company, lender and/or attorney before notarizing in any tricky situations.

If you have any questions about notarization after this court ruling, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Joseph-S.-Berman-198x300Governor’s Council Crucifying Berman Over His Affiliation With Jewish Social Justice Organization

I rarely get involved in politics or judicial nominations, but recents events surrounding the judicial nomination process at the Governor’s Council of well-respected Boston attorney Joseph Berman has led me to take action.

As you may have read recently in the Globe and Herald, Mr. Berman’s Superior Court nomination is being held up by a group of councilors who have objected to his affiliation with the Anti-Defamation League, a storied Jewish social justice organization formed in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The councilors have severely criticized Mr. Berman for the ADL’s prior (and now reversed) stance on the Armenian genocide.

As Mr. Berman repeatedly explained at his hearing, he was a vocal critic of the ADL’s prior policy, advocated for its change, and considered resigning over the issue. I also believe the events in Armenia were genocide and that the ADL did a lot of damage over its policy. Led by Mr. Berman, the New England Chapter of the ADL, however, ultimately reversed its position.

Mind you, this is the same Governor’s Council with a member who voted no on the appointment of Barbara Lenk to the SJC because she’s openly gay.

As Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly has editorialized, the councilors have reached a new low, taking the position that membership in a social justice organization holding a controversial political stance disqualifies an otherwise qualified candidate from judgeship. Both the Globe and Herald have issued editorials extremely critical of the Council’s actions, calling it a “Ship of Fools” and “manufacturing madness.”

Before this controversy, I actually didn’t even know Joe personally, but I was so upset about what I read, that I started to do research and then write emails to the council members, as well as having a dialogue with Joe as well.  I also took the time to listen to the audio of the nomination hearing. I can tell you it is shocking, reminding me of a McCarthy era witch-hunt. Listen for yourself here.

Joseph Berman has a great reputation and superlative skills and experience.  Joe’s bio is here:  http://www.lgllp.com/joseph-s-berman/.  We need more judges like Joe who have a strong business and technology background as the bench has been increasingly populated with former district attorneys and public defenders who lack the skills and experience in today’s  complex technology and business world.

Sometimes you see an injustice and you think, “well, there’s nothing I can do.” I thought that as well, initially, then I was inspired to take action. But the Council won’t change their minds until they hear from you. That’s where you come in.

Please consider sending an email to the council members who are still opposing Joe’s nomination. You can simply cut and paste the email below or write your own.

I thank you in advance for doing something small to correct an injustice. Next post, we’ll be back to real estate!

************

To: ocipollini@aol.com, jubinville@comcast.net, twklaw@aol.com, jcaissie@caplettelaw.com, albanom@the-spa.com

Dear Councilors, I write to support the nomination of Joseph Berman to the Superior Court. I have reviewed Mr. Berman’s credentials and there is no question in my mind that Mr. Berman is eminently qualified to serve in the Superior Court, as the Governor and your fellow council members have concluded.

However, I understand there has been some controversy surrounding Mr. Berman’s affiliation with the Anti-Defamation League and its previous national political position on the Armenia Genocide. As the Boston Globe recently reported, Mr. Berman was a vocal critic of the policy and ultimately the ADL reversed its position. Regardless, you cannot hold one position of a national organization against one individual who is affiliated with it who does not share that same viewpoint.

We need more judges like Joe who have a strong business and technology legal background as the bench has been increasingly populated with former district attorneys and public defenders who lack the skills and experience in today’s increasingly complex technology and business world.

I would hope that you will reconsider your position on Mr. Berman and give a favorable vote in the upcoming hearing.

/s/ Name, address

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CFPB.pngCFPB Issues Long Awaited “Know Before You Owe” Mortgage Disclosures, Replacing Truth in Lending, Good Faith Estimate, and HUD-1 Settlement Statement

As part of a continuing overhaul of the home mortgage market, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today issued a final rule to bolster fairness and clarity in residential lending, including requiring a new good faith estimate of costs for homebuyers, Truth in Lending disclosure and a new HUD-1 Settlement Statement.

The new Loan Estimate will replace the current Good Faith Estimate (GFE) and the current Truth in Lending Disclosure (TIL). The new Closing Disclosure will replace the current HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The new forms are embedded below.

The real estate industry will have 20 months to implement the new disclosures, by August 1, 2015. The CFPB website has a summary of the new rules and disclosures here.

Initial Impressions, Did The CFPB Finally Get It Right?

Overall, I would say that the forms are a major improvement over the existing disclosures, especially the Truth in Lending disclosure. I always joke that the Truth in Lending disclosure should be called “Confusion in Lending” (which usually gives the borrower a chuckle) as it’s nearly impossible to explain even for a trained attorney and sophisticated borrower. That may be rectified now with the new forms — although I still may employ the joke!

The new HUD-1 Closing Disclosure is a longer and more involved form, but it basically just reorganizes all of the information now contained in the current 3 page HUD-1 Settlement Statement, and it appears to be easier to read and explain at the closing table.

The CFPB says that the new forms will replace the existing forms, resulting in a decrease in pages to review — which is a minor miracle in and of itself. A common complaint from borrowers is the sheer number of forms and disclosures signed at the closing, so this is welcome news.

3 Business Day Rule May Be Problematic

As Bernie Winne of the Massachusetts Firefighters Credit Union testified at the announcement hearing today in Boston, the new requirement that the Closing Disclosure (new HUD-1) be provided to the borrower within 3 business days of the closing may pose a problem in some transactions and will certainly result in a major adjustment in current practices. There are often last minute changes in closing figures, seller credits, holdbacks, payoffs, etc., which result in last minute changes. Hopefully, the CFPB will realize this in the upcoming implementation period and relax the rules in certain circumstances. There has already been significant chatter on Twitter and the blogosphere about this new requirement.

Another encouraging note was CFPB Director Cordray’s comments today about the agency pushing for more electronic closings. Fannie Mae has done squat to push e-closings, so hopefully CFPB will take the lead in this important area!

Loan Estimate Disclosure

  • The new Loan Estimate will combine the disclosures currently provided in the Good Faith Estimate and the initial Truth in Lending statement.
  • Lenders must provide the Loan Estimate 3 business days after an application is submitted by a consumer, excluding days that the lender is not open (e.g., Saturdays).  However, it is not clear based from materials available thus far when a consumer has submitted sufficient information to constitute an “application.”
  • The Loan Estimate will conveniently provide for the monthly principal and interest payment, projected payments over the term of the loan, estimated taxes and insurance (escrows), estimated closing costs, and cash to close.
  • It will provide for a Rate Lock deadline.
  • The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) appears on page 3, despite requests by consumer advocates that it appear in a prominent location on the first page.  In addition, it appears that the Bureau did not adopt the proposal to revise the APR calculation to include more items in the finance charge and thereby potentially increase the number of loans that would fail the Qualified Mortgage’s points-and-fees test or would be treated as “high cost” or “higher priced.”

Closing Disclosure

  • The Closing Disclosure will combine the disclosures currently provided in the HUD-1 settlement statement and any revised Truth in Lending statement. It is now a 5 page document compared to the current 3 page document.
  • Critically, the Closing Disclosure must be provided at least 3 business days before the closing. Lenders and closing attorneys will have to adapt to this new requirement as currently we usually get the final HUD approved by the lender 24-48 hours before the closing.
  • Page 1 of the Closing Disclosure carries over much of the Truth in Lending information previously found in the TIL form.
  • Page 2 and 3 replicate the existing HUD-1 Settlement Statement (pages 1 and 2) outlining the fees and closing costs, adjustments, and commissions charged to the buyer and seller. It also contained a more extensive section on Cash to Close which will be helpful to explain.
  • Page 4 contains a nice easy-to-read section on the escrow account which is often challenging to explain to borrowers.
  • The last page is similar to the current page 3 of the HUD-1, providing a quick summary of the loan terms, interest rate, total payments and APR.

CFPB Loan Estimate

CFPB Closing Disclosure

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CFPB.png

Updated 11/20/13: CFPB Issues Final Mortgage Rules and Disclosure Forms (click here for more info)

A long awaited regulatory and compliance announcement may be coming to Boston next week.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has announced that on November 20, 2013, it will hold a field hearing in Boston on the “Know Before You Owe: Mortgages” rules. Industry experts predict that CFPB will announce its long-awaited new Truth In Lending (TILA)-RESPA integrated disclosures final rule and forms.

The new rules and disclosures will result in another dramatic change in the Truth in Lending, Good Faith Estimate and HUD-1 Settlement Statement used by lenders and attorneys in residential purchase and refinance transactions. A new “Loan Estimate” would replace the current Good Faith Estimate (GFE) and the current Truth in Lending Disclosure (TIL). A new Closing Disclosure would replace the current HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Our prior post on the new closing disclosures can be found here.

The event will feature remarks by CFPB Director Cordray and testimony from consumer groups, industry representatives, and members of the public. The event will be held at the Back Bay Grand, Back Bay Events Center, 180 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116. If I’m lucky enough to get an invite, I will be there and will report back on what happens.

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We had a great turnout today for our Massachusetts Real Estate Market Report, again presented and moderated by veteran real estate reporter Scott Van Voorhis of Banker & Tradesman and Boston.com. Scott writes for the well-known Boston.com Real Estate Now Blog which is an invaluable resource.

For this installment, we added a little twist, holding a panel discussion and interactive Q&A with Ali Corton of Real Estate Executives Boston West, Chuck Silverston of Prudential Unlimited in Brookline and Dee Reddington of Bank of Canton. Ali was representing the ‘burbs. Chuck was representing the urban, Boston-Brookline market, and Dee was giving the lender perspective. We were live tweeting the event at Twitter #marealestate where you can check out the live stream.

Some take-aways from the presentation and discussion were as follows:

  • As reported just about everywhere, the Massachusetts real estate market remains very strong
  • Year over year, 16% increase in both sales volume and sales prices
  • The government shutdown has had no demonstrative effect on the market, nor on the lending environment
  • Lack of buildable land, desirability of the Greater Boston market (as always) has resulted in high demand, low inventory environment.
  • Inventory is down 30% over 2012 (which was down over 2011), putting upward pressure on prices and demand. Bidding wars common for well-priced, good quality homes in desirable communities. This is creating a frenzied dis-equilibirum in certain markets which isn’t necessarily healthy.
  • The low inventory is the “new normal.” Get used to it.
  • Interest rates are forecast to dip down a bit heading into spring market 2014, with eventual rise through the remainder of 2014 and 2015.  Overall, the interest rate environment remains very favorable to buyers and the market as a whole.
  • First time home buyers must be open to fixer-uppers and not updated homes. Otherwise, they will be in very tough competition for move-in condition homes in the good towns.
  • Lenders are doing loans for low credit (FICO 620 range) borrowers. ARMs making comeback.
  • Chuck pointed out the “Patriot Effect” for open houses on Sundays. People are staying home to watch the game. Advises trying open houses on Saturdays.
  • Ali Corton says that Metrowest sellers are routinely getting asking price or very close to that right now, and will continue to do so while inventory remains low

We are interested in hearing your thoughts on today’s market. Feel free to post your comments below!

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Real-Estate-AgentsReviewing this blog, it occurred to me that I’ve never written about real estate agency and designations, which is one of the more confusing aspects of real estate law. I think all the new disclosures and regulations imposed by the Board of Real Estate, while well-intended, have made this area unnecessarily complicated. I’ll try to explain agency in plain English.

Massachusetts Mandatory Licensee Consumer Relationship Disclosure

The Massachusetts real estate brokerage industry is highly regulated by both state law and regulations, as well as local and national codes of ethics. Under state regulation, once you sit down with a Massachusetts real estate agent to discuss a specific property, the agent should give you a form called the Massachusetts Mandatory Licensee Consumer Relationship Disclosure. The disclosure form describes the five types of agency relationships between and among buyer, seller, and agent:

Seller’s Agent – This is typically known as a listing agent. The real estate agent represents only the seller, not the buyer. The listing agent owes the seller undivided loyalty, reasonable care, disclosure, obedience to lawful instruction, confidentiality and accountability. However, a listing agent must disclose all known material defects in the real estate to buyers.

Open Houses:  Open houses are often the cause of disputes as to agency and commissions. Under Mass. regulations, at any open house the listing agent must conspicuously post and/or provide written materials explaining to attendees the relationship they may have with the agent conducting the open house. If a buyer is working with an agent (but the agent is not present at the open house) it’s a good idea to write the name of the agent’s name and leave the agent’s card at the sign-in, otherwise the listing agent could be considered the procuring cause of the buyer which could cause a dispute down the road.

Buyer’s Agent – A buyer’s agent works for the buyer only. The agent owes the buyer undivided loyalty, reasonable care, disclosure, obedience to lawful instruction, confidentiality and accountability. Like a listing agent, a buyer’s agent must disclose any known material defects in the real estate. Some agents are exclusive buyer agent’s and do not take on listings. An advantage of using a buyer’s agent is that you can be assured the agent will work only for you, the buyer, and will have no relationship with the listing agent’s office, as is common with designated and dual agencies described below.

Designated Seller’s and Buyer’s Agent – This type of agency occurs when a listing agent refers an agent working in the same office to represent the buyer. So, two agents in the same office are representing both sides of the transaction. The happens a lot when an unrepresented buyer is introduced to the property at an open house, and the listing agent will refer the buyers to a fellow agent in her office. This is usually the smart and prudent choice to avoid the conflicts inherent in being a dual agent representing both buyer and seller, discussed below. Both buyer or seller must agree to a designated agent agency in writing. The designated agent owes her client the same duties and obligations discussed above.

Dual Agent – A dual agent represents both sides of the transaction — buyer and seller –but can be a risky proposition. The upside for the agent is that he or she keeps the entire commission, but the agency can be fraught with potential conflicts of interest. Dual agency is allowed only with the express and informed consent of both the seller and the buyer. Written consent to dual agency must be obtained by the real estate agent prior to the execution of an offer to purchase a specific property. A dual agent shall be neutral with regard to any conflicting interest of the seller and buyer.

Non-Agent Facilitator – This is the rarest of all agencies. When a real estate agent works as a facilitator that agent assists the seller and buyer in reaching an agreement but does not represent either the seller or buyer in the transaction.

What is a “broker” vs. a “salesperson”?  Under the Massachusetts regulations governing real estate agents, a real estate broker runs the real estate office and is the broker of record, overseeing the transactions of all salespersons (agents). A broker must complete 40 additional hours of education and must work for a broker for at least three (3) years before they can move on to licensure as brokers. A broker is responsible for accepting and escrowing all funds, such as a deposit placed on the purchase of a home, and for finalizing transactions. A real estate broker must supervise any transactions conducted by a salesperson. Every local real estate office, even the large ones like RE/MAX, Century 21 and Coldwell-Banker, will have a broker/office manager in charge of the office. The small, independent real estate offices are typically operated by a single broker, with perhaps a handful of salespeople.

real estate salesperson is what most folks consider real estate agents. When a person first passes their real estate exam, they become a “salesperson.” A salesperson must be affiliated with, and work under, a broker, either as an employee or as an independent contractor, under the supervision of the broker. A salesperson can not operate his own real estate business. A salesperson also has no authority or control over escrow funds.

What Is A Realtor®? A Realtor is a real estate broker or salesperson who is a member of the National Association of Realtors and has agreed to conduct herself under the comprehensive NAR Code of Ethics. Not all real estate agents are Realtors. Membership in the NAR gives a Realtor full access to the entire Multiple Listing Service providing a national database of all sold and listed properties. Realtors can also file complaints against each other and the organization accepts complaints from consumers. Complaints can affect membership status and fines can be levied against agents who are found guilty of wrongdoing by a multi-member panel of their peers. The NAR does not have the ability to suspend a real estate licenses–that action can only be accomplished by the Mass. Board of Real Estate.

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RDV-profile-picture.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney with over 15 years of experience. If you have any questions regarding real estate agency, please contact him at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

Massachusetts Mandatory Licensee Consumer Relationship Disclosure

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