What happens if the property you have under agreement is wiped out by a tornado, burns down or is otherwise subject to a casualty?
Yesterday’s horrific tornadoes — which leveled parts of Springfield and Central Massachusetts — demonstrate the power and fury of Mother Nature and how little control we have over natural disasters. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by the tornadoes….
The tornadoes were also a stark reminder to me that an extremely important part of my job as a real estate attorney is disaster planning. Although most buyers and Realtors don’t like to think pessimistically (and neither do I), we always have to plan ahead for the worst case scenario.
Which bring us to the topic of this post. What happens if the property you have under agreement is wiped out by a tornado, burns down or is otherwise subject to a casualty?
The Standard Form Casualty & Insurance Provisions
Let’s start with the basic concept that the buyer does not own the property until the closing occurs, money is exchanged and the deed/mortgage is recorded with the registry of deeds. The purchase and sale agreement is there to govern the parties’ relationship and the property from the time the offer is signed until the closing. The seller retains ownership and control over the property during this period of “under agreement.”
Seller Must Keep Property Insured
The standard form Massachusetts purchase and sale agreement contains two important provisions dealing with homeowner’s insurance and casualty. First, the standard form provides that the seller must keep the existing homeowner’s insurance coverage in place. A good buyer’s attorney will insert language that the “risk of loss” remains with the seller until the transaction closes, to ensure that if a tornado levels the home, that loss is the seller’s responsibility.
Second, the standard form spells out what happens if there is a casualty. If the house is deemed a causualty loss, the buyer has the option of terminating the agreement and receiving his deposit monies back. However, the buyer has the option of proceeding with the transaction and can require the Seller to assign over to the buyer all of the insurance monies available. Depending on the amount of coverage available and the cost to re-built, this may not be a bad situation, but it’s the buyer’s call.
As a “belt and suspenders” measure, I also add the following provision to my purchase and sale rider to ensure that the buyer is protected in case of a disaster:
Notwithstanding any provisions of this Agreement to the contrary, in the event that the dwelling and/or other improvements to the Premises are destroyed or substantially damaged by fire or other casualty prior to the delivery of the deed, the cost to repair which exceeds $10,000.00, BUYER may, at BUYER’S option, terminate this Agreement by written notice to SELLER, whereupon all deposits made hereunder shall be forthwith refunded, all obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this Agreement shall become null and void without further recourse to the parties hereto.
Although natural disasters are rare, a certain amount of disaster planning must be done for every Massachusetts real estate transaction. Think of a real estate attorney as part of your insurance policy to protect you in a worst case scenario.