Globe Magazine Writer and Landlord Supports Rent Escrow Legislation

917BdkbVovL._UX250_Elizabeth Gerhman, a writer for the Boston Globe Magazine and owner of two rental units, is fed up with how the Massachusetts legal system favors tenants over landlords.

In her article Think It’s Tough to Rent? Try Being a Landlord, she describes that

“In just five years as a rental, the other [unit] — which has hardwood floors, granite countertops, and a $1,200 dishwasher — has been a nightmare, with tenants who bounced checks, didn’t pay their rent, and threatened to call the building inspector over, among other things, a loose toilet seat, a missing outlet cover, and, I’m not kidding, a bedroom that is allegedly 0.389 of an inch too small. The tenant who detailed these horrific, slum-like conditions also threatened to take me to court over some food that had spoiled when the refrigerator broke — which is what prompted the intimidation tactics in the first place.”

As landlord groups have been arguing for years, one of the major problems with the current system is that Massachusetts has no rent escrow law. Under the present system, a tenant can withhold months of rent for any cosmetic or minor problem with the unit until the eviction case is resolved, leaving the landlord unable to pay their mortgage. We call that the “free rent trick.” As Ms. Gerhman correctly points out, “with an average judgment of about three months’ rent, this can be a real hardship for house-poor landlords. And once a landlord does evict a tenant who owes back rent, he or she must pay to move the tenant’s belongings out of the apartment in addition to three months’ storage costs.” As I was quoted in the article, many landlords opt for “cash for keys” deals to avoid huge losses during an eviction.

A rent escrow law would require any tenant who withholds rent to simply pay it into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired and the eviction case is resolved. 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. The “free rent trick” would be gone and landlords less likely to get left holding the money bag.

Sounds fair? Tell that to your state legislators who have been sitting on rent escrow bills for over a decade.

New rent escrow bills return to the Legislature this session as House Bill 1654 sponsored by Rep. Chris Walsh and House Bill 1112 sponsored by Rep. Brad Jones. Both bills are expected to get hearings at the State House this spring. I will keep you posted.

Personally, I think a fair legislative compromise would be for landlord groups to support the Housing Court Expansion bill under the condition that a Rent Escrow Bill is passed along with it. That would be a win-win for both sides.

In the meantime, please email and call your local state rep and senator and tell him or her you are in favor of these bills. If you have any tenant horror stories, make sure you include those as well. Also, consider joining your local chapter of the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association or Masslandlords.net. Both organizations will be coordinating legislative efforts on the rent escrow bill and other landlord legislation. Lastly, please share this article and the Globe Magazine article on your Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and email blasts!

SJC Puts The Nail In Popular Foreclosure Defense Strategy

Foreclosure2.jpgAbate v. Fremont Investment & Loan:  High Court Rules That “Try Title” Procedure Only Available After Foreclosure Auction Completed

After Deutsche Bank foreclosed his Newton home, Thomas Abate brought a lawsuit in the Land Court challenging the foreclosure under the “try title” procedure under General Laws chapter 240, sections 1-5. Seeking to invalidate the foreclosure, Mr. Abate utilized the popular defense of attacking the assignment of his mortgage from MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) to Deutsche Bank. After several months of legal wrangling in the Land Court, Judge Robert Foster dismissed Abate’s challenges to the MERS assignment, and dismissed his try title claim. Abate then appealed to the SJC.

Prior to the SJC’s ruling, there was confusion in the foreclosure setting regarding the proper method to determine whether the property owner had legal standing to bring a try title case and whether the owner must bring the case before or after the foreclosure. Putting the proverbial nail in this particular foreclosure defense coffin, the SJC held that a borrower can only use the try title procedure after a foreclosure has been concluded, not before. The Court also ruled that lenders can seek to test borrowers’ legal theories and dismiss these claims very early in the proceeding on a motion to dismiss. The net result is a blow to foreclosure challengers — borrowers must wait until after a foreclosure is completed to bring a lawsuit; and it will be easier for lenders to dismiss claims challenging mortgage assignments and the foreclosures based on such assignments.

I asked preeminant foreclosure defense Attorney Glenn Russell for his thoughts on the ruling, and he said this:

Well from a homeowner’s perspective I have to say that I was hoping for a different outcome, however it’s not all bad. Bottom line, borrowers cannot use try title unless the auction happened, or they can make argument that there never was a legally valid mortgage, or one is trying to enforce a void mortgage, or one that has been discharged. The key thing is that a homeowner cannot bring a try title claim (standing under the “first step” of the try title action), unless the mortgage is foreclosed.

So after several key rulings in favor of foreclosure victims in the earlier part of the decade such as the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, the SJC has issued several pro-lender decisions of recent vintage. Is this a sign of foreclosure fatigue or are the justices merely following the law? Maybe a bit of both…

With the economy improving as well, the net effect is likely to be less foreclosures and less legal challenges to them — which will only continue to boost an improving housing market.

A link to the Abate v. Fremont Investment & Loan (SJC-11638) opinion can be found here.

The Landlords Strike Back! AG’s $38,000 Craigslist Rental Discrimination Penalty Struck Down

NickCLRAttorney General’s Office Accused of Smearing Local Landlords In Press

A Craigslist rental ad posted online for merely 8 days turned into a complete nightmare for a Melrose father and son who claim that Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office ran roughshod over their rights and tried to smear their reputations in the local newspapers. After a five year legal saga, the landlords, Nicholas Keramaris (pictured right) and George Keramaris, fought back and won, convincing the Appeals Court to overturn a $38,000 civil penalty and attorneys’ fees assessed against them.

“Apartment Is Not De-Leaded”

The Keramaris family trust owns a 20 unit apartment building in Melrose. All of the units originally contained lead paint, and five of the apartments have been deleaded. One of the leaded units became available for rent, and Nicholas Keramaris, who is also an attorney, researched the lead paint laws prior to posting an advertisement on Craigslist stating “Note that this apartment is not de-leaded, and therefore it cannot be rented to families with children under six years old.”

A Melrose mother, who did not have a child under six and who did not attempt to rent the advertised apartment, filed a complaint with the MCAD about the ad. (This could have been a dummy renter employed to find fair housing violations). Once the landlords were notified of the complaint, they took the ad off Craigslist. It ran for a grand total of 8 days.

1379349493000-martha-coakleyAG’s Office Steps In

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office then stepped in and filed a civil action for discriminatory rental practices, seeking penalties and damages under the state Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. According to the Keramaris family, “from the day that the Assistant Attorney General assumed responsibility over the case, he insisted on collection of steep penalties as a condition for settlement. Also, the Attorney General’s office publicly smeared us through repeated press releases while the case was pending. Our request for the Attorney General’s office to stop issuing negative press releases was described as a “non-starter” for settlement negotiations. Therefore, this very simple case, which involved a relatively benign violation, dragged on for almost five years.”

Award Struck Down

Despite the fact that the ad ran for only 8 days and no one was actually harmed, the Attorney General was able to persuade a Superior Court judge to assess an aware of nearly $38,000 in penalties and attorneys’ fees. Unwilling to accept this unjust result, the Keramaris family appealed and got the justice they deserved.

Employing some well needed common sense, the three judge appellate panel concluded that although the ad technically violated the lead paint discrimination statute, any harm done was minimal and did not rise to the egregious level of a Consumer Protection Act violation. In a rare ruling, the judges ruled that the lower court abused its discretion, finding that this was nothing but a good faith mistake by landlords who were not intentionally setting out to violate the law. The Appeals Court ultimately stuck down the entire award, leaving the Keramaris family with justice, albeit after 5 long years and I’m sure thousands in legal fees.

Where’s the Discretion?

I have handled numerous rental discrimination cases involving the Attorney General’s Office. The one thing I can say is that they often have a very one sided view of cases and suffer from tunnel vision. They also hardly ever exercise their discretion to back down. It’s usually all or nothing. I would like to see them try to see both sides of the coin in future cases and be more open to negotiated settlements. Maybe this ruling will encourage that. I won’t hold my breath though.

And lastly, I’m curious if the Attorney General will issue a press release announcing that the Appeals Court overturned this award? I doubt it.

Selecting A Home Improvement Contractor: Interview With Real Estate Radio Boston

Vetstein Guest CardI was delighted to talk about recent legal issues surrounding home improvement contractors, including my best tips on selecting a contractor, on the Real Estate Radio Boston show hosted by Mortgage Banker Rick Scherer and Attorney Ali Alavi. Just click the Play button below to listen!

Tune into the show every Saturday night from 8pm-9pm on WBZ 1030 AM. They also have podcasts on the link above. It’s a fantastic show with very knowledgeable guests, and of course, great hosts in Rick and Ali.

This Saturday night it’s “Can’t Miss Radio” with Stan Humphries, the Chief Economist for Zillow. Tune in Saturday night 8pm on WBZ AM 1030.

Link to interview:  https://soundcloud.com/rich-vetstein/richard-vetstein-interview-real-estate-radio-boston-3215

Dam You Winter, Bring On the Spring Market!

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Predictions On the Spring Real Estate Market from a Panel of Local Experts

“There’s no curb appeal if there’s no curb!” — Rona Fischman, 4 Buyers Real Estate

We are less than a week away from March, which usually signals the beginning of the frenzied spring real estate market in Massachusetts. However, unless you’ve been hibernating with the bears up in Maine, there’s a slight problem. We have snow. Lots. Of. Darn. Snow. The winter has wrecked havoc with everything, and that includes the real estate market.

Boston Magazine is bullish on the spring market, but what do the real experts think? I put the questions to my network of experienced local Realtors and mortgage professionals. I asked them if the snow will push back the traditional start of the spring market? What are inventory levels in your area? Do you have sellers waiting for better weather before they list? Are buyers waiting or are they trudging thru the snow to view listings? Do your see the spring as a buyer or seller market? Loan officers, where do you see rates and products this spring?

Here’s what they said, and don’t forget to clink their websites for more info.

ali-corton“I’m seeing a very sluggish start to 2015. Snow, cold temps, ice dams and the general malaise that’s set in on our region are all factors. I hear buyers are getting preapprovals and a few select properties have received multiple offers. But, overall it’s been slow and until sellers get houses prepped for market the buyers will wait on the sidelines.” — Ali Corton, Realty Executives Boston West, Framingham

Inman_Sep14_600x-144054“Inventory is definitely down here in Cambridge & Somerville — today we have just 31 active singles/condos/multis in Cambridge, compared with 46 last year on 2/26. In Somerville, we have 27 active listings today, compared with 40 last year. Granted, even those 2014 figures are really pathetic, as we’ve been dealing with extremely low inventory for the past several years, but this year is an extreme case. Funny thing is, those agents who are putting their sellers’ homes on the market are seeing plenty of traffic at open houses and showings, receiving multiple offers, and getting record-high prices, so I don’t know why anyone is hesitating to list.” — Lara Gordon, Coldwell Banker, Cambridge/Somerville

danielsteamsidebar2“The market in Sudbury is certainly slower than a typical winter market, but there are plenty of buyers hoping to take advantage of low rates and opportunities with motivated sellers. Like with any market, homes in popular price points that are prepared and priced right, are selling quickly and in some cases, resulting in multiple offers. Buyers aren’t as hesitant to go through the process now as Sellers are. Sellers are hesitant for many reasons, lack of curb appeal – which in many cases, great curb appeal adds value to the house, the thought of buyers trudging through their houses with snow on shoes (even though it’s always requested to remove shoes), ice dam damage, the thought of moving when the desire to hibernate is much more appealing and last but certainly not least, the liability involved in having a house on the market when snow/ice/icicles can potentially cause harm can be scary for homeowners. The Spring market should be strong, with plenty of pent up demand and after the winter of ’15, more city buyers looking for a beautiful garage with a nice house attached!” — Gabrielle and Carole Daniels, Coldwell Banker Sudbury

heidi-zizza amyuliss2“Definitely slower right now than usual. The market reports are quiet. I think everyone is tired of the snow and I have properties with ice dams affecting closing dates etc… I think Spring is going to POP everyone is going to be excited about warm wetaher but expect some wet basements….The market is just stagnant. Sellers want to sell but feel as if their home is not ready to be shown. Buyers jump on MLS everyday looking for new listings but slim pickings. If we could only get them all on the same page.” Heidi Zizza and Amy Uliss, mdm Realty, Framingham

Rona.red-shirt“Inventory in the Somerville-Cambridge metro area has been low for two years. This February, it was very low. I am anticipating another seller’s market, but less drastically uneven in 2015, compared to 2014 and 2013. This winter is likely to push people to move. I anticipate that people who planned a move in the next 2-4 years may jump sooner. City dwellers who struggled to park and find places to pile snow are anxious for off-street parking and some land. Over-housed suburban residents will sell to right-size into managed condos (where someone else hounds the plow guy to get there.) Retirees may head for warmer climes sooner. We all complain; home owners can do something about it. I suspect that inventory levels will become more even by late spring. Sellers will delay putting their houses on the market until after the snow is melted and their roof and ceiling damage is repaired. I have heard of two transactions that fell through because of ceiling leaks. There could be more stories about this, since so many houses have sprung leaks.” — Rona Fischman, 4 Buyers Real Estate Cambridge

bcav.png“Will there ever be a better time to buy a home? Mortgage rates are very close to 2 year lows today, and I expect them to stay down in this range thru 2015.  I think we see the 30 year fixed traded in the 3.75% to 4.25% for most of 2015.  This is still at a historical low at 4.25%. Continued economic weakness overseas, Banks/Lenders closing loans quicker and lowering their fees contribute to low mortgage rates all year folks!” — Brian Cavanaugh, RMS Mortgage Boston

284083_1902949570525_2002933_n“I have a few buyers and we have been walking thru knee deep and higher snow just to see some of these homes, agent’s don’t shovel thier listings nor do their sellers. I had one agent tell me the door would be open only to get there and walk through waste deep snow to find the door was locked and we could’nt see the house. I have buyers looking but the lack of good homes currently on the market is frustrating.” Sherry Stone-Graham, Touchstone Partners, Chelmsford

1631571.jpg“Even though we’ve had a “delayed winter” by having bulk snowstorms pretty much all at once instead of spread out throughout the last few months, it has slowed the market down in Southborough and Westborough although it hasn’t halted it entirely. There are 25 houses in varying price bands in my hometown of Southborough to choose from, with about 20% of them being in the over $900,000 range and just about 16% being in the $350-400,000 band. Despite the snow and the varying inconveniences that come along with it, over the last 45 days there were still 11 houses that are pending sale, which in my opinion still a positive sign. Interestingly enough, in neighboring Westborough, although the population exceeds that of Southborough and the snowfall hasn’t been much different, there are currently only 13 houses actively for sale, although the same 45 day period there were 15 pending sales. The majority of the active Westborough listings are in the $1M+ range, with the second highest in the $700-800k range. Ten of those pending sales ranged from the $200,000-400,000 price point, which may show that there is a definite need for inventory in those price bands to balance out the market.” — Jennifer Juliano, Keller Williams, Southborough-Westborough

1003349_10152067454786102_1832678940_n“With Janet Yellin’s recent speech, we may see rates start to step up by June, 2015. Just recently the international and domestic markets played theme park as they see-sawed back and forth causing rates to jump between about 3/8 over the last 3 months. However, in comparison to 1 year ago today, rates are still about 1% lower. So, bring on the inventory consumers.” — Jeff Chalmers, contact_katherine-newGuaranteed Rate, Norfolk

“My sellers in Winchester, Arlington, Woburn, Stoneham, and Melrose are waiting until the snow is more manageable. Homeowners are extremely preoccupied (and rightly so) with protecting their current homes. The more immediate demand is for ice dam removal!” — Katherine Waters-Clark, Arlington

779_photo“There were a few days where it was impossible to show in Boston. Otherwise things haven’t really slowed too much! In addition The Spring market seems to be beginning early as I am seeing more and more listings hitting the market. All in all the Boston real estate market remains extremely strong!” — Craig Anne Lake, Luxury Residential Group LLC, Boston

1688078.jpg“Bristol, Plymouth and Norfolk counties, lots of buyer calls and showing through the snow. Open houses averaging 3-4 families, inventory extremely low, prices going up, new construction permitted but held back from snow, sellers asking me to call back in March/April to list. My prediction is a sellers market first half of year then based on inventory to demand we will see if it equals out. Right now we are doing print materials, polishing off the listing and buyer presentations and balancing with rest and entertainment because April 1 st the flood gates are going to open and you better be rested and in shape to work extremely hard building your inventory and business to bring you through next winter with no worries. REST, AIM. FIRE!” — Dan Gouveia, Keller-Williams, SouthCoast

10014301_10152691646478077_8626708505441128924_o“I am in the Franklin area and the snow has definitely pushed back potential sellers, but the buyers are out there! They are looking, going to Open Houses and acting now while rates are low and PMI just went down as well. My advice would be to clean off that snow and get your house on the market now while inventory is low.” — Amber Cadorette, Keller-Williams Franklin

1765406.jpg“I agree, buyers are definately out going to open houses even with the record breaking temps and snowfall! I think the prediction that interest rates will be increasing next year has a lot to do with it. Personally, I don’t feel sellers are waiting for spring to list their homes. I listed two properties today (Northbridge) and will be listing another (Needham) next week.” — Anita Bertone, Keller-Williams Wrentham

“Buyers are swarming anything new to the market priced well – I have had multiple offers on my recent listings. The snow is NOT stopping the buyers so sellers should not wait till Spring when inventory will be better whicimages.aspxh usually lessens the value of their home. Supply and Demand…Little Supply + High Demand = More $$$ in Seller’s pockets!” — Anne Silverman, Realty Executives Boston West

Thank you to all the contributors to this post, especially Gabrielle Daniels who came up with the creative title! I’m sure this will be a much-read and much-shared article in the coming months. Let’s hope that this Ice Age ends soon and we can start buying and selling homes!