Avid readers of this Blog know that I’m a huge Seinfeld fan. One of my favorite episodes was the “Serenity Now” episode where Kramer went a little nutty after being tormented by neighborhood kids, muttering “serenity now, serenity now” outside his toilet papered apartment. (Seinfeld buffs also know this as the episode where George beats Lloyd Braun in a computer sales competition). For your viewing pleasure, I’ve embedded the video below.
Serenity is a good topic when it comes to condominiums because condominium living can often bring out the worst in people. There have been some good ones in Massachusetts. I’ve written about the infamous case where a disgruntled unit owner dropped bags of dog poop labeled with the name of the condo board president in hallways and gave the “bird” to condo trustees. There are others, too many to mention here, where dysfunctional trustees have brought condominiums to financial ruin and chaos.
Despite this discordance, condominium conversions of two and three multifamily homes in and around Boston, Cambridge and Somerville continue to be a popular way to cash in on the hot real estate market. A lot of these homes are owned and occupied by extended families, some of whom stay in the new condominium, and some who leave for greener pastures. Smaller condominiums, however, can be a recipe for disaster without careful planning and drafting of the legal documents which govern them. I’m going to outline some important considerations in drafting Massachusetts condominium conversion documents which will put into practice the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The Master Deed
The Master Deed is where it all starts. Condominiums are a “creature of statute.” That is, they are a special legal form of property ownership enabled only through a special law called the Massachusetts Condominium Act, General Laws Chapter 183A. The owner of the property must “submit” the property into the condominium regime through the recording with the registry of deeds of a master deed.
The Master Deed sets forth what is part of the units and what is part of the shared “common areas.” Units are typically defined as all of the interior space from the lower surface of finished ceilings, surface plaster of walls and the sub-floor in, while common area consists of the innards behind the walls and buildings, the roof, most common HVAC/plumbing/heating systems, yards, and exterior of the home, among other things.
The use of “limited common areas” are especially useful in two and three family condominiums. Limited common areas are technically common area space but reserved for the exclusive use of the unit owner which it serves. Examples include private decks, porches, roof decks, parking spaces, and storage areas. The drafter can be flexible and provide that limited common areas must be repaired by either the condo association or the unit owner.
The master deed will often impose restrictions upon the use of units or rights of first refusal for the trustees or other unit owners. Care must be taken here to ensure that the units remain marketable while also protecting the serenity of unit owners. Rights of first refusal are discouraged these days.
Declaration of Trust and By-Laws
The second component of creating a condominium is the Declaration of Trust, also referred to as the By-Laws. The declaration of trust creates the condominium trust association and a board of trustees which govern the condominium.
For smaller condominiums between 2 and 5 units, the key is crafting the provisions so as to prevent dead-locking on major decisions. I almost always provide for super-majority voting on all major issues. For 2 unit conversions, I recommend unanimous voting on all major issues. And for all condos I use a mandatory arbitration clause to mediate any deadlocks.
In the case of non-payment of condo fees, which can be financial disaster for two and three unit condos, I provide for the right of the paying unit owners to be granted authority and power to start condo lien proceedings against the non-payor and recover attorneys’ fees and costs.
The declaration of trust should also contain all of the unique rules and regulations of the condominium. Important note: If these are not attached and recorded with the declaration of trust, they are not binding on unit owners. Rules should be drafted in consultation with the owners and can cover anything from satellite dishes, pets, smoking, signs, preserving architectural integrity, noise, quiet hours, parties, trash, etc.
The declaration of trust should also have standard Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac provisions which will ensure that future buyers can obtain conventional financing on their units.
Annual Budget, Condo Fees and Real Estate Taxes
The condominium should have a written annual budget and monthly condo fees established. A separate condominium bank account should also be set up with checks, deposit slips, etc. For small projects, the budget can be rather simple, encompassing the master insurance premium, water/sewer, landscaping, maintenance, and a small capital reserve fund. The monthly condo fee is calculated as the annual budget divided by the number of units divided by 12.
With respect to real estate taxes on a condo conversion, the building will continue to be assesses as a single dwelling until the tax assessor catches up to the conversion. A tax letter agreement should be prepared so that real estate taxes are prorated and properly assessed and paid by each unit owner after the conversion until each unit becomes separately assessed.
Also don’t forget that in the City of Boston, a “Trager” excise tax of $500 per unit starting with the second unit will be assessed on all new conversions. The master deed must have a “Trager” stamp before being accepted for recording.
Unit Floor Plans and Site Plan
All new condominium conversions must have prepared unit floor plans, and in Boston, a surveyed site plan. Unit floor plans will detail each unit’s gross living area, and delineate common areas, limited common areas, exclusive use spaces, and units.
How Much Does All This Cost?
Even for two unit conversions, the cost is a fair amount. Legal fees range from $2,500 – $5,000 and upwards, depending on the complexity of the project and the attorney. Recording fees and Boston excise taxes run over $1,000 and upwards. Architect and survey fees range from $2,500 and upwards. And you always get what you pay for, so keep that in mind!
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a seasoned Massachusetts condominium conversion attorney. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 508-620-5352.