Massachusetts appeals judges have been mighty busy this summer issuing real estate decisions. From the forced removal of condo buildings to toxic mold, to foreclosure eviction defense, it’s been no summer vacation in Massachusetts real estate law.
Handed down today is a case right from a first year law school property exam, Hurtubise v. McPherson, embedded below.
As most real estate professionals know, contracts for the sale of real estate must be in writing and signed by the party to be charged, i.e, the seller. This is a rule of law going back to English common law and is called the Statute of Frauds which can be found in the General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 259, Section 1. As with most black letter law, there are a few exceptions to the general rule, and this case is a textbook example of the “detrimental reliance” exception to the Statute of Frauds.
Hand-Shake Land Swap Agreement
Here are the facts of the case. Hurtubise and McPherson owned adjoining tracts of land in the town of Templeton. Hurtubise operated a storage business on his property. He wanted to build an additional storage shed along the border between his property and McPherson’s property. Hurtubise realized that he could not meet the setback requirements of the local zoning code unless he acquired land from McPherson. Hurtubise approached McPherson, explained his need, and proposed a land trade, offering to convey to McPherson a portion of the front of his (Hurtubise’s) property in exchange for the portion of McPherson’s land at which Hurtubise intended to erect the new storage shed. McPherson agreed to the proposal and the parties shook hands.
Hurtubise proceeded with his plans for construction of the new building. He obtained a building permit and began to excavate along the border of McPherson’s lot. During the seven to eight weeks of construction, Hurtubise saw McPherson at the site. McPherson never objected to the location of the new building. Hurtubise eventually constructed a 300 x 30-foot storage shed for $39,690.
After construction, McPherson objected and accused Hurtubise of taking more land than he initially had represented. McPherson informed Hurtubise that an exorbitant payment of $250,000 would resolve the dispute which Hurtubise refused to pay. McPherson then notified the town that Hurtubise’s new building encroached on his property. The town’s building commissioner revoked Hurtubise’s building permit and ordered him to cease occupancy of the storage shed. After McPherson threatened to demolish the building, Hurtubise brought suit to enforce the oral agreement.
Exception To Written Contract Rule
As mentioned above, to be enforceable, real estate contracts for the sale of property must be in writing and signed by the seller, at minimum. As Judge Mitchell Sikora wrote in the opinion, “however an equitable qualification puts some flexibility into the joints of the Statute.” An oral agreement for the sale of land can be valid if the party seeking enforcement, in reasonable reliance on the contract and on the continuing assent of the party against whom enforcement is sought, has so changed his position that injustice can be avoided only by specific enforcement. In non-legalese, this means that if you start a construction project and spend thousands of dollars upon the promise of a land deal, albeit not in writing, you may be able to enforce that promise.
Because Hurtubise just sat by idly and watched McPherson construct his shed at considerable cost without objection, the court ruled that he couldn’t then complain there wasn’t a written agreement, in an attempt to wriggle out of the land swap deal. The court then ordered Hurtubise to convey McPherson the land necessary to build the shed.
This case is one of the very few instances where a court has upheld an oral hand-shake real estate agreement. The take-away: make sure your real estate contracts are always in writing and signed!
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous real estate contract breach cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me if you are dealing with a Massachusetts real estate contract legal dispute.