Search: Offer

ar123517806003655.jpgIs One Better Than The Other?

The first step in the purchase and sale of real estate in Massachusetts is the execution of an Offer to Purchase. Historically, agents and attorneys have used the Offer to Purchase Real Estate form generated by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board which has been around since the 1960’s. Recently, however, I’ve been seeing an increase in the use of the newer and more modern Massachusetts Association of Realtors Contract to Purchase Real Estate Form #501. I don’t think most Realtors, attorneys and consumers realize that these two forms have some critical differences, depending whether you are representing the buyer or seller. I’m going to outline the differences and similarities in this post.

  MAR GBREB
General Buyer Friendly Seller Friendly
Inspections Built-in, No $ Cap Addendum. Only Serious Issues, $ Cap
Mortgage Contingency Yes Yes
Representations Yes with waiver language No.

 

Buyer or Seller Friendly?

Both the MAR and GBREB offer forms are legally binding contracts to purchase and sale residential property in Massachusetts as I’ve written about here. They both have the basic and critical components for a deal:  identification of the property, price, deposits, good-through date, closing date, “good and clear record and marketable title” language, and P&S deadline, among other provisions.

The GBREB is clearly a more seller-friendly form, while the MAR form is definitely more friendly to buyers with some caveats that I’ll discuss below. Does this mean that if you are a buyer agent, you absolutely have to use the MAR form? No, but it may be a good practice to get into. Some agents are more comfortable with the older GBREB form, and that’s fine. They just should be cognizant of the differences in the two forms and how it may help or hurt their clients.

Inspection Contingencies

The first critical difference in the two forms is the inspection contingency. The MAR form has all inspection related contingencies (home inspection, pest, radon, lead paint, septic, water quality and drainage) built into the form, while the GBREB form uses a separate addendum for each type of inspection. The major difference, however, is what will trigger the buyer’s right to terminate the deal based on an inspection issue. The MAR form is extremely buyer-friendly, providing that the buyer may opt out of the deal merely if any of the inspection results are “not satisfactory.” You can drive a Mack truck through that open-ended language. The MAR form also has some often overlooked waiver language — (1) protecting Realtors from getting sued if the buyer does not conduct inspections, and (2) making it more difficult for a buyer to get out of the deal if she doesn’t provide timely notice of termination based on an inspection issue.

The GBREB form is far less buyer favorable, providing for an opt-out only for “serious structural, mechanical or other defects” the cost to repair of which is a dollar amount to be filled in (usually ranging from $500-$2500).

Mortgage Contingency

Both the MAR and GBREB forms give buyers a standard financing contingency, enabling buyers to obtain a firm loan commitment at “prevailing rates, terms and conditions” by an agreed upon date. The contingency language is almost identical in both forms, so there’s no issue here.

Representations/Acknowledgements

The MAR form has a modern provision confirming that the buyer has received all the various disclosures required by law, including the agency disclosure, laid paint, and Home Inspectors Facts for Consumers brochure. The GBREB does not have this provision. The MAR form also has some very agent-friendly waiver of representation/warranty language in this clause, providing that the buyer is not relying upon any of the Realtor’s representations, MLS or advertisting concerning the legal use, zoning, number of units/rooms, building/sanitary code status of the premises. However, I’m not sure this provision would pass legal muster in light of the recent SJC ruling in DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre holding an agent liable for misrepresentations concerning the zoning classification of property. Nevertheless, Realtors can use all the legal protection they can get in this litigious environment!

 Which Form Is Better?

There is no easy answer to this question. All things being equal, if I’m a buyer agent, I would go with the MAR form. (And buyer agents are typically the ones who are writing up the offers). The MAR form is more buyer-friendly while at the same time gives Realtors way more legal protection than the GBREB form. If I’m representing the seller and have the opportunity to select the offer form, I’ll go with the old-standby GBREB form for the simple reason that it will give the seller some more leverage in case of a home inspection battle. But I would still seriously consider trading up to the MAR form. I’ve embedded both forms below.

Agents, attorneys, readers what are your thoughts? Post in the comments below.

Also, if you are interested in joining the Massachusetts Association of Realtors or the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, click on the respective links. Both are great organizations and extremely helpful to new and established agents alike!

501 – Contract to Purchase Real Estate (c) 2012 – ID-WATERMARK

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redfin-logo-tag-webControversial New Internet Practice Raises Confidentiality Concerns & Realtor® Scorn

The internet based real estate brokerage company, Redfin, is now arming buyers and sellers with insight into the negotiations that take place when the firm’s clients submit winning — and losing — offers to buy a home. On its heavily trafficked website, the Seattle-based brokerage is now displaying “Offer Insights” detailing intimate details of negotiations surrounding offers that Redfin agents submit on listings. Redfin claims that buyers can opt out of the program, and no addresses are revealed before closing. (But, addresses are shown for sold properties).

Here is an example for two properties in Quincy, one where an offer was accepted and one where it was rejected:

redfin offer insights copy

Confidentiality & Ethical Concerns?

From a strategic and marketing perspective, this new idea is certainly creative, as it gives Redfin agents and their potential clients a competitive advantage over other agents and aids in providing transparency in the marketplace. However, posting details about private contractual negotiations raises some thorny legal and ethical concerns, and many non-Redfin listing agents are crying foul.

Some Realtors assert that the details of offer negotiations are private and confidential, and therefore, cannot be disclosed without the consent of all parties to the transaction, especially the seller. I don’t necessarily buy into that. I’m not aware of any legal confidentiality protection given to private contract negotiations — indeed they are 100% discoverable in litigation, at least in Massachusetts. A buyer and seller are in an adversarial position, so there is no special legal relationship between them warranting a duty to keep negotiations private.

I can see why a seller would be very upset to find out that the juicy details of negotiations are posted on the internet for the world to see. A seller may certainly want to know this before entertaining a Redfin offer. Moreover, a seller (and a creative attorney) could manufacture a tortious interference claim if a Redfin Offer Insight proves to interfere with a potential deal with another party. That’s a lawsuit for another day…

MLS Rules and NAR Code of Ethics

Some Realtors say that the Redfin practice violates Multiple Listing Service rules and the NAR Code of Ethics. Multiple listing services have rules for commenting on sites which contain MLS information. A seller may instruct her listing agent to disallow public comments on listings. A Redfin buyer’s agent could be in violation of MLS rules if he leaves remarks about the house or negotiation, according to some non-Redfin agents. It will be up to the particular MLS to enforce its own rules against agents; they have no legal effect per se.

The National Association of Realtors Code of Ethics prohibits Realtors from using confidential information of clients for the Realtor’s advantage or the advantage of third parties unless the clients consent after full disclosure. The catch is that “confidential information” is defined as whatever state law says is confidential.  As I said earlier, private contract negotiations are not legally confidential in Mass., so I’m doubtful this would apply.

In sum, the Redfin Offer Insight feature may well be legal, but tight-walks through the ethical rules governing MLS’s and Realtors. As long as they don’t disclose names or property addresses until the deal closes, I think it’s ok legally (in Massachusetts), and I do appreciate giving buyers as much market information as possible. On the flip side, it may put non-Redfin listing agents at a competitive disadvantage. Maybe that’s why they are crying foul?

Agents, what are your thoughts? Post your comments below.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a nationally recognized real estate attorney who writes frequently about legal issues facing the real estate industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Feldberg v. Coxall: First Case To Apply New UETA (Uniform Electronic Transactions Act) To Real Estate Transactions

“This case involves the intersection between the seventeenth century Statute of Frauds and twenty-first century electronic mail.” –Justice Douglas Wilkins

Massachusetts courts have been grappling with the question of “when is a deal a deal” for a long time. With the vast majority of communication in real estate now done via email and other electronic means, it was just a matter of time before a court was faced with the question of whether and to what extent e-mails can constitute a binding and enforceable agreement to purchase and sell real estate. The real estate community has been waiting a few years for a case like this to come down, and now it’s here.

In Feldberg v. Coxall (May 22, 2012), Superior Court Justice Douglas Wilkins ruled that a series of e-mail exchanges between the buyer’s and seller’s attorney, the last one attaching a revised, but unsigned, offer to purchase, arguably created a binding agreement entitling the buyer to a lis pendens (notice of claim). This is also one of the first cases applying the new Massachusetts E-Sign law to preliminary negotiations in real estate deals.

This is a very interesting and important decision for anyone dealing in residential real estate in Massachusetts. The immediate take-away is that now anything sent in an e-mail can potentially create a binding deal, even if no offer or purchase and sale agreement is ultimately signed.

Vacant Lots In Sudbury

Feldberg, the buyer, was interested in purchasing 2 undeveloped lots in Sudbury owned by Coxall, the seller. The parties’ attorneys, via email, began negotiating the terms of the deal. (Apparently, brokers were not involved in the offer stage).

The buyer’s attorney e-mailed the seller’s attorney and attached a “revised offer with changes to reflect the conversations we have had today.” The revised offer appeared to be comprehensive inasmuch as it contained an agreed upon purchase price of $475,000 and a firm closing date. The email ended with the suggestion that both attorneys work “to have the final offer form finalized in time for my client [the buyer] to sign it and get deposits checks to you before the end of the day tomorrow.”

The seller’s attorney emailed back the next day, stating that “we must have a written approval letter from the bank today by 5pm and I think we are ready to go (I assume they will provide a closing date with the approval).  We are almost there.” That same afternoon, the buyer’s attorney provided a commitment letter from Village Bank with standard conditions.

Apparently, before the seller signed the offer, he backed off and refused to proceed with the transaction. The buyer sued, and sought a lis pendens, which is a notice of claim filed with the registry of deeds. In most cases, a lis pendens will prevent a seller from conveying litigated property to another buyer.

Statute Of Frauds Intersects With E-Mail

As Judge Wilkins eloquently noted, this case involves the “intersection between the seventeenth century Statute of Frauds and twenty-first century electronic mail.” The Statute of Frauds is the genesis of the saying “always get it in writing.” The ancient law, originating in England, provides that all real estate contracts must be in writing signed by the party (or agent) to be charged. In the “old” days, application of the Statute was quite simple. If there wasn’t a written agreement signed in wet, ink signatures, there was no binding deal. Now with e-mail it’s much more complicated.

As the judge noted, this is uncharted territory for the courts as there has been a dearth of precedent on point. The Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) provides that parties to a real estate transaction may consent to conduct the transaction electronically via email or electronic signature technology if they use such technology in their dealings (which everybody does these days). They even may even switch to a traditional hard copy agreement at the end of negotiations like Feldberg and Coxall did here. The UETA requires some form of “electronic signature.” The judge ruled that an email signature block or even the “from” portion of the email may constitute a valid electronic signature. Accordingly, the judge found that the buyer had made a sufficient case that a binding deal had been reached, despite the seller refusing to sign the hard copy offer. (Update: the case was settled out of court by the parties).

Take-Away: Emails May Come Back To Bite You

I think that some Realtors and even some attorneys have assumed that negotiations by email leading up to an offer are preliminary and not binding until the offer is actually signed by both parties. This ruling throws that conventional wisdom out the window.

What can you do to prevent your emails from creating binding obligations? Well, apart from not using email in the first place, one thing you can do right now is to insert a disclaimer in your email signature. Here’s one that I just came up with:

Emails sent or received shall neither constitute acceptance of conducting transactions via electronic means nor shall create a binding contract in the absence of a fully signed written contract.

Feel free to use it. Other than that, you need to watch what you say in your emails, especially when you represent a seller who is considering multiple offers. Make it clear and in writing from the outset that there is no deal until an offer is signed by both buyer and seller.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who’ specializes in real estate litigation. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

Feldberg, Et Al. v. Coxall ORDER on Plaintiff’s Emergency Motion for Endorsement of Memorandum of Lis Pende…

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Are There Liability Concerns For Accepting Back Up Offers?

My colleague Rona Fischman at the Boston.com Real Estate Now Blog had an intriguing question on the legalities surrounding accepting back-up offers. This question is especially timely with the rise of bidding wars in the Greater Boston real estate market. Rona asks:

I have been told that a back up offer cannot be presented to a seller because it is inducement to interfere with a contract in place (the accepted offer.) I have also been told that a back up offer must be presented, forthwith, like any other offer. Since I never list property, I don’t know which one is true. Can you give a legal and practical explanation for the blog?

Answer:  I do not believe that merely soliciting and presenting a back-up offer can give rise to a legal claim for interference with contractual relations as long as the seller does not break the existing contract with the buyer. Moreover, I believe that real estate agents have a legal and ethical obligation to present to their seller clients all offers made on the property, but it is the seller’s preference whether or not to solicit back up offers once he has already accepted an offer.

What Is a Back-Up Offer?

For those who do not know, a back-up offer is an offer made after the seller has already accepted and signed an offer to purchase with a buyer, in the hopes that the first offer will fall through and the seller will select the back-up offer. It is the seller’s decision whether to accept back-up offers at all. Back-up offers are common in bidding wars where there is frenzied competition for a well-priced property. Most buyers who submit a back-up offer will continue with their home search because the probability that their back-up offer is ultimately accepted is usually a long-shot.

Unlawful Interference with Contract?

Rona is worried that accepting back-up offers could expose an agent to liability for interfering with an existing contract. I don’t think she has much to worry about unless the seller tries to cancel the existing deal without legal right.

In the real estate context, the requirements to make out a valid claim for unlawful “interference with contractual relations” are the following:

  • There must be an accepted and signed offer to purchase between the buyer and seller which is sufficient to form an enforceable contract under Massachusetts law;
  • The competing buyer (making the back-up offer) must have knowledge of the contract;
  • The competing buyer must have intentionally induced or persuaded the seller not to perform its contractual obligations, i.e, not proceed with the transaction;
  • The interference was improper in motive or means; and
  • The plaintiff was legally harmed.

Under this legal definition, there is liability only where the seller unlawfully breaks the existing offer/contract with the first buyer. As a general matter, merely submitting a back-up offer (and not formally accepting it) will not support a legal claim because there has been no breach of the first contract.

A thornier question is what happens if the seller tries to wriggle his way out of the first offer in favor of a better offer? Those are the situations which often result in litigation and the filing of a lis pendens. I would advise any seller and their agent to consult an attorney before they try to break an offer or purchase and sale agreement with a buyer. On the other hand, if a buyer loses his financing and cannot proceed with the transaction, and therefore has defaulted on his contractual obligations, then it may be clear to accept a back up offer. It is always the prudent course to obtain a release and waiver from the first buyer before dealing with a back-up offer. I cannot stress this enough.

What Are Realtors’ Legal & Ethical Duties With Back-up Offers?

There are no specific legal rules surrounding back-up offers. The regulations governing real estate agents in Massachusetts provide that “All offers submitted to brokers or salespeople to purchase or rent real property that they have a right to sell or rent shall be conveyed forthwith to the owner of such real property.” If a listing agent is a Realtor©, they have an additional ethical obligation to “continue to submit to the seller all offers and counter-offers until closing … unless the seller has waived this obligation in writing.”

Back-up offers are on a slightly different footing than offers made while the property is still actively listed. I would say that if a prospective buyer makes an unsolicited back-up offer, that offer must be conveyed to the seller regardless of whether or not she has decided to accept back-up offers. The agent should not make the decision to decline an offer for the client. The seller may, of course, decide to not solicit back-up offers or to solicit them. Such a decision should be noted on the MLS. It’s always the client’s prerogative to solicit back-up offers. For agents, the safe practice is always to convey any offer which comes in, and to have the seller state in writing that she is refusing to accept back-up offers.

If you have any “war stories,” questions, or comments, please post them in the comment section below.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

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When you find out you have a major title problem that prevents you from selling or refinancing your home, have fun explaining to your spouse that for a fraction of the cost of your home you could’ve prevented it by buying title insurance.

Enhanced Owner’s Title Insurance Coverage

Available for a few years now, enhanced coverage policies offer vastly improved protection for common title problems at about a 10% cost over a standard coverage policy. (These policies run about $4 per thousand of purchase price). Enhanced coverage policies now cover some of the most common title problems facing Massachusetts residents. Realtors and mortgage professionals should be aware of the benefits of an enhanced coverage policy, and should recommend that their clients opt for the increased coverage. It’s well worth the small cost in premium.

Additional Coverages:

  • Appreciation in property value. Standard policies do not increase their coverage amount in a rising market as a home increases in value. The enhanced policy will increase coverage by 10% per year for 5 years up to 150% of the original policy limit.
  • Encroachments/adverse possession. Standard policies, to most homeowner’s chagrin, do not cover encroachments like a neighbor’s fence, wall or structure over a property line. Enhanced policies provide coverage for such encroachments, and also cover adverse possession–which occurs when an encroachment exists for 20 or more uninterrupted years. For more info on Massachusetts adverse possession, please read our post “Good Fences May Make For Upset Neighbors”.
  • Zoning/Subdivision/Building permit violations. Enhanced coverage policies now provide coverage if the property is not zoned for residential 1-4 family use, in violation of subdivision regulations, or if there is a defect or lack of a building permit. This is a tremendous benefit for commonly arising situations.
  • Easements. Enhanced policies offer coverage for easement encroachment situations such as deeded driveways, drainage easements, utility easements, beach paths, walking paths, etc.
  • Expanded Insured. Enhanced policies will now transfer to a spouse who gets property in a divorce, inheriting heirs, related family trusts and their beneficiaries.
  • Expanded Access Coverage. Enhanced policies now guarantee that your home as adequate vehicular and foot access over adequate streets or roads if there’s a title defect rendering your lot “land-locked.”

Do I Really Need Title Insurance?

The decision to get an owner’s title insurance policy is one of the most important choices you make in connection with your real estate transaction.

As part of every real estate transaction, the borrower/buyer is offered the opportunity to get an owner’s title insurance policy. (For refinances and purchases, your lender will require you to purchase a “lender’s” title insurance policy.) An owner’s title insurance provides the most comprehensive protection available for most every known type of title problem which could affect your property rights. I’m proud to say that every single one of my buyer clients have benefited from an owner’s title insurance policy at their closings, at my strong recommendation.

One needs only to look at the recent controversies over “robo-signing” and the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez defective foreclosure sales, which has stripped thousands of Massachusetts property owners of their property ownership rights, to see why an owner’s title insurance policy could be the best decision a home buyer ever makes. The unfortunate souls who declined owner’s title insurance are now left without legal title to their homes and looking at the prospect of spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to resolve their title issues with no guarantee of success. With a title insurance policy, the title insurance company will hire expert title attorneys to solve title issues at no cost to you, defend against any adverse claims, reimburse you for covered damages, and most valuable, issue affirmative coverage to enable a pending closing to move forward.

When you find out you have a major title problem that prevents you from selling or refinancing your home, have fun explaining to your spouse that for a fraction of the cost of your home you could’ve prevented it by buying title insurance.

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As we head towards a major deadline for the popular $8,000 home buyer tax credit, we’ve been asked a number of times by real estate agents and mortgage professionals whether buyers need a signed offer to purchase or signed purchase and sale agreement by the upcoming April 30th tax credit deadline. We’re advising that buyers need a signed purchase and sale agreement by the deadline, as explained below.

In order to qualify for the $8,000 federal home buyer tax credit, the IRS states that buyers need to sign a “binding contract” for the sale by April 30, 2010.

In Massachusetts, there is a two-part system for real estate contracts. The parties first sign an Offer To Purchase, then about 2 weeks later, they sign a more comprehensive Purchase and Sale Agreement. Under the Massachusetts case of McCarthy v. Tobin, a signed standard form Greater Boston Real Estate Board Offer To Purchase may be considered a valid and binding contract even though a purchase and sale agreement must be signed at a later date. However each transaction/offer is unique and may have contingencies or future considerations which take it out of this case law rule. And remember, most of these types of cases are litigated in the courts, so it’s really fact-specific.

Under IRS rules, to claim the $8,000 credit, the buyer will have to attach to their tax return a copy of the “binding contract” showing an execution date on or before April 30, 2010. We just don’t know whether the IRS will interpret a signed Offer To Purchase as a “binding contract.” There is no question a signed Purchase and Sale Agreement is sufficient. However, there’s a risk that the IRS could reject reliance on a signed Offer to Purchase or it could delay qualification for the credit. This is a new rule so we just don’t know how the IRS will interpret it, and that raises a risk.

Accordingly, the prudent approach is to have all buyers claiming the credit sign a purchase and sale agreement by April 30th.  That is what we are advising our buyers, their Realtors and loan officers. We are also now inserting a special tax credit provision in purchase and sale agreements protecting the buyer’s eligibility for the credit.

Of course, our office is well-equipped to get a Purchase and Sale Agreement completed and signed by the Friday deadline. We’ll be working around the clock this week for our buyers and sellers! Contact us at 508-620-5352 or by email.

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offer-to-pur3

Update (6/10/13): Battle of the Forms! Mass. Ass’n of Realtors vs. Greater Boston Bd. of Realtors Standard Form Offers

Update (10/3/15) New TRID Addendum

The Standard Massachusetts Offer To Purchase

The first step in purchasing or selling Massachusetts residential real estate is the presentation and acceptance of an Offer To Purchase. Most often, the buyers’ real estate broker prepares the offer to purchase on a pre-printed Greater Boston Real Estate Board standard form and presents it to the seller for review, modification, and acceptance. Attorneys are often not involved in the offer stage. However, in light of the legal significance of a signed offer and recent litigation over offers, buyers (and their brokers) and sellers may be wise to consult an attorney to review the offer.

An Accepted & Signed Offer Is A Binding Contract

Many sellers (and their brokers) are under the misconception that the offer to purchase is merely a formality, and that a binding contract is formed only when the parties sign the more extensive purchase and sale agreement. This is not true. Under established Massachusetts case law, a signed standard form offer to purchase is a binding and enforceable contract to sell real estate even if the offer is subject to the signing of a more comprehensive purchase and sale agreement. So if a seller signs and accepts an offer and later gets a better deal, I wouldn’t advise the seller to attempt to walk away from the original deal. Armed with a signed offer, buyers can sue for specific performance, and record a “lis pendens,” or notice of claim, in the registry of deeds against the property which will effectively prevent its sale until the litigation is resolved. I’ve handled many of these types of cases, and buyers definitely have the upper hand given the current state of the law.

There have also been recent court rulings holding that both email and text may constitute an enforceable contract even where no formal offer has been signed by both parties.

In some cases, the seller may not desire to be contractually bound by the acceptance of an offer to purchase while their property is taken off the market. In that case, safe harbor language can be drafted to specify the limited nature of the obligations created by the accepted offer. This is rather unusual, however, in residential transactions.

Home Inspection & Mortgage Contingencies

With the offer to purchase, I always advise buyers and their brokers to use a standard form addendum to address such contingencies as mortgage financing, home inspection, radon, lead paint, and pests. The home inspection and related tests are typically completed before the purchase and sale agreement is signed and any inspection issues are dealt with in the purchase and sale agreement. If they are not, there is an inspection contingency added to the P&S. See my post on purchase and sales agreements for that discussion.

The mortgage contingency is likewise critical. With mortgage loans harder to underwrite and approve, we are seeing loan commitment deadlines extended out for at least 30-45 days from the signing of the purchase and sale agreement. Always consult your mortgage lender before making an offer to see how much time they will need to process and approval your loan. The loan commitment deadline is one, if not the most, important deadlines in the contract documents.

In order to help finance the acquisition of said premises, the BUYER shall apply for a conven­tional bank or other institutional mortgage loan of $[proposed loan amount] at prevailing rates, terms and conditions.  If despite the BUYER’S diligent efforts, a commitment for such a loan cannot be obtained on or before [30-45 days from signing of purchase-sale agreement], the BUYER may terminate this agreement by written notice to the SELLER in accordance with the term of the rider, prior to the expiration of such time, whereupon any payments made under this agreement shall be forthwith refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease and this agreements shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto.  In no event will the BUYER be deemed to have used diligent efforts to obtain such commitment unless the BUYER submits a complete mortgage loan application conforming to the foregoing provisions on or before [2-5 business days from signing of purchase and sale agreement].

Any time the parties agree to an extension of any deadline in the offer (and the purchase and sale agreement for that matter) make sure it’s in writing.

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RDV-profile-picture.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate closing and conveyancing attorney and former outside counsel to a national title insurance company. Please contact him if you need legal assistance with your Massachusetts real estate transaction.

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Housing Court Issues Major Change to Procedures To Tackle Backlog of Cases, and Address Covid-19 Safety Concerns

With the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium set to expire on October 17, and barring an extension from Gov. Baker or the passage of a new moratorium, the Housing Court is preparing for arguably the most challenging period in its history. Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan has just released a set of new procedural rules to manage all pending and future cases in the “new normal” of a Covid-19 world. The new rules dramatically change how all cases will be heard in the Housing Courts, with the vast majority of hearings being conducted via video-conferencing technology instead of in-person. Facing a backlog of some 20,000 pending eviction cases and an unknown number to be filed once the Moratorium expires, the goals of these new procedures are to: (a) start moving pending eviction cases forward, (b) establish new procedures for the filing and case management of new cases, (c) encourage mediation and private agreements as much as possible to decrease the backlog of cases, and (d) above all, keep litigants and court personnel safe. The new rules also contain a new affidavit requirement under the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control. The new rules can be found here: Housing Court Standing Order 6-20: Temporary modifications to court operations based on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the expiration of chapter 65 of the acts of 2020 (eviction moratorium).

Housing Court Physically Open for Business, But Most Proceedings Will Be Virtual

The Housing Court will be physically open with limited staff and judges, but the preference will be for cases to be heard virtually. The court is presently using the Zoom platform quite effectively, and I assume it will continue to do so. For self-represented (pro se) parties who may have limited access to technology, the court will assist that person with the video-conferencing technology or offer a “suitable alternative.”

The old “call of the list” on Thursday morning hearing days with hundreds of people packed in hallways and courtrooms will now be a relic of the past, and is suspended indefinitely. Instead, going forward, the clerk’s office will schedule cases and hearings directly with the parties or their lawyers, with the vast majority being on Zoom. This includes mediations. Lawyers are required to continue to E-File new cases and all pleadings.

Rich’s Practice Pointer: However it plays out, it’s a safe bet to say that evicting anyone in Massachusetts going forward could take anywhere from 6-18 months. This makes mediation and private settlement agreements all the more attractive and cost effective for landlords.

Procedures for Pending Summary Process (Eviction) Cases: Two Tiered System

Pending cases will be scheduled for hearing in the order in which they were filed, i.e, earlier filed cases get priority. All tenant motions to vacate a dismissal or default for failure to appear between March 1, 2020 and the expiration of the Moratorium (Oct. 17, 2020) will be automatically granted by the court.

The rules established a new two-tiered system to move cases forward. In Tier I, a housing specialist (who is typically a trained mediator) will schedule the first court event by video conference or telephone call. The purpose of the first event will be to determine the status of the case, whether the CDC federal moratorium applies to the tenant, attempt to mediate/resolve the case, and explore the availability of any housing assistance. If the case does not settle, the housing specialists and the clerk will hold a case management conference to determine the next steps in the case and/or schedule the case for trial. For Tier 2, the clerk will schedule the next court event by written notice. While the rule provides that trials should be held as soon as practical but no sooner than 14 days after the first tier event, I would have to assume that getting a trial date will be several months away, given the huge backlog of cases caused by the Moratorium. The new rules provide that trials will be held by video-conference, with a “small sub-set being held in person,” as determined by the Clerk Magistrate and First Justice.

Procedure for New Summary Process (Eviction) Cases

In a major change from existing practice, new cases will not be automatically scheduled for a trial on the typical Thursday morning schedule. (The rules provide that lawyers should now put “TDB by court” in the Summary Process Complaint where the the trial date would typically be listed.) Instead, the clerk’s office will send out a notice of the first event, but the rules do not say when that will actually be. The clerk will also send out an information sheet with a resources available to assist the parties in resolving the case. Cases will then proceed based on the two-tiered system outlined above.

CDC Eviction Moratorium Affidavit Requirement

The rules provide that all new eviction cases for non-payment of rent must be accompanied by a new affidavit indicating whether the landlord has received a hardship declaration under the CDC Eviction Moratorium. For pending eviction cases, the plaintiff must file the CDC affidavit before the first tier court event. The court is coming up with the new affidavit form which will be available on the court website. I believe that this new requirement will be controversial because it may prejudice landlords since the burden of claiming a Covid-19 related hardship remains with the tenant under the CDC Order.

Executions (Move-Out Orders)

For those housing providers holding an execution for possession (move-out order) which has now expired, they may file a written request or motion for a new execution to issue, but they must file the CDC affidavit with it. These new executions will be issued administratively without a hearing. I would expect that tenants will be filing numerous motions to stay execution based on the Covid-19 pandemic, so we will have to see how the judges handle these.

Emergency and Injunction Proceedings

As it has done throughout the pandemic and Eviction Moratorium, the court will continue scheduling all emergency matters including those for injunctive relief (lockouts, condemnation, no heat, no water/utilties, access) or a motion for stay of execution. These proceedings will be scheduled virtually to the extent possible.

Jury Trials

All parties have a right to a jury trial in the Housing Court. Indeed, this is often used as a weapon by tenant attorneys to delay cases. The new rules provide that in-person jury trials with 6 jurors may resume on October 23, 2020, but I don’t see how this is achievable. I think getting a jury trial date will be many months down the road for most cases.

My Thoughts

Like any major change to court procedures, it will take some time for litigants and court personnel to adapt to these new rules. Over the course of the pandemic, I have participated in several Zoom hearings as well as mediations in the Housing Court, and they have worked out just fine. For the mediations, the housing specialists have used the breakout room feature so parties can discuss matters in private. Trials conducted via Zoom will be a different animal, and lawyers will need to come up with some best practices for them.

Another thing I’m certain of is that it will take longer to move an eviction case through a post-Eviction Moratorium Housing Court. Perhaps many months longer, especially where there’s a jury trial demand. The Court is facing an unprecedented backlog and situation with the pandemic plus the Moratorium, and it will take quite a long time for the court to make a dent in the backlog of cases — plus we don’t know how many new cases are on route. Whatever the actual number, it’s been 6 months since new cases were allowed to be filed. However, I vigorously dispute the narrative put forth by the CityLife/Urbana Vida folks that 100,000 evictions are imminent. That’s just unsubstantiated nonsense. At minimum, the CDC Moratorium may well delay a large number of non-payment cases until it expires on Dec. 31.

If you have any questions concerning an eviction or the Housing Court, please feel free to email me at [email protected].

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Legislation Would Temporarily Allow Video-Conferencing Technology For Attorney Notaries

Update: 4/23/20 — The bill (now Senate Bill 2645), has passed both Senate and the House, and will soon be on the way to the Governor’s desk where he is expected to sign the bill. Click here for my new post: Legislature Passes Remote Virtual Notarization Act for COVID-19 Emergency.

Update: 4/22/20 — The Senate has passed a new revised version of the Bill, now it moves on to the House where it is expected to pass.

The real estate legal community, including yours truly, have been working and lobbying tirelessly to address the various impacts of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis on real estate transactions and closings. One of the first solutions we proposed is legislation allowing for remote or virtual notarizations of deeds, mortgages and other closing documents so that buyers and sellers can sign documents in the safety of their own homes on their computers. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many folks are subject to the Governor’s Stay At Home Order or don’t feel safe traveling outside to an attorneys’ office for a real estate closing. Meanwhile, while the economy heads towards a recession, real estate is one of the few assets with available equity for consumers.

Under our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882), a licensed Massachusetts attorney may notarize legal documents using video-conferencing technology. There is a two-step process laid out in the legislation to complete the notarization process where the signer shows the attorney his/her state issued identification, sends the original signed documents back to the attorney, and then verifies the authenticity of the signed documents. Once that process is complete, the attorney can stamp the documents as notarized and must also complete and sign an affidavit attesting that all requirements have been met. Those notarized documents may then be recorded with the Registry of Deeds as valid, legal and binding recordable instruments. Additionally, the two video-conferences must be recorded and kept on file for 10 years. The bill would only be in effect during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.

The bill has widespread industry support from the Real Estate Bar Association (including the Probate Section), the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Twenty three (23) states have now passed remote notarization bills, including just recently due to the COVID19 crisis, including New York State, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, Virginia, Texas, and Nevada. Moreover, a nationwide bill has been proposed by the American Land Title Association.

There are a number of technology companies that offer end-to-end remote notarization systems and are approved by national title insurance companies and lenders. They include:

To our real estate partners and colleagues, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW! We need you to email or call your State Rep. and Senator and tell them you support our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882). To search for your state legislator, please click here.

Thank you! I will keep you posted as to developments and hopefully passage of the bill. Also many thanks to Attorneys Kosta and Nik Ligris on spearheading the bill!

Massachusetts Act relative to remote notarization during COVID-19 state of emergency. by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Closings May Proceed Forward Without Smoke Detector Inspection Certifications

Due to the Coronavirus Crisis, many local fire departments have been ceasing state mandated smoke detector inspections, which are required for real estate transactions to close. I’m happy to report that on March 20, 2020, after intense lobbying from the real estate industry, Gov. Baker issued an Emergency Order allowing for the deferral of inspections by local fire departments until the Coronavirus (COVID-19) State of Emergency is lifted. The Order is embedded below and can be found here: COVID-19 Order Permitting the Temporary Conditional Deferral of Certain Inspections of Residential Real Estate.

Inspections may be deferred only if the following requirements have been met:

  • The parties agree in writing that the buyer, not the seller, shall be responsible for installing approved smoke/CO detectors in the premises;
  • The buyer agrees as a condition of taking title to equip the premises with approved detectors immediately after the closing
  • The state required smoke/CO detector inspection must be conducted no less than 90 days after the Mass. COVID-19 State of Emergency is lifted.

We (real estate attorneys) are drafting up new compliance agreements and language for Offers and Purchase and Sale Agreement to comply with this new Order. Please email me at [email protected] for assistance.

Massachusetts Gov. Baker CO… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Significant Impacts Hitting: Registry and Court Closures, Closing and Financing Delays, Social Distancing, School Closings, Quarantine Potential

As I was writing this post tonight, Gov. Baker ordered the shutdown of all schools through April 6, closed down restaurants and bars, and is banning gatherings over 25 people. Also announced tonight is the shut down of all Trial Court facilities on March 16 and March 17, which includes the Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries of Deeds. We are now hitting the tipping point, and going forward there will be substantial impacts on the real estate and legal industry.

I first wrote about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic five days ago. Seems like an eternity ago. As of that writing (data as of March 9), there were 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. As of tonight March 15, cases have over quintupled with Johns Hopkins reporting 3,722 confirmed cases and 61 deaths. With the well publicized testing delays, the real number of cases are likely far higher.

Registry of Deeds Impacts

As mentioned above, Gov. Baker just ordered the closure of all Trial Court facilities for Monday March 16 and Tuesday March 17. Both Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries are housed in Trial Court facilities so they will be closed for those two days. I spoke to Maria Curtatone, Registrar of Deeds for Cambridge Middlesex South, and she indicated that this may well be the precursor to widespread shutdown of all registries of deeds and courts throughout the state. We will await further announcements on that.

Update (3/17/20) — Suffolk and Cambridge are closed to the public until at least April 6. Currently, they are both still processing electronic recordings for recorded land. All Land Court recordings and plans must be sent in by overnight or regular mail.

We have just received a chart below showing current Registry status:

I remain concerned, however, that all Registries will be forced to shut down and will not offer in person, mail or electronic recordings. If that occurs, we will see a potentially catastrophic impact to real estate in Massachusetts. Title insurance companies have assured its attorney agents that they will offer “gap coverage” in case recordings are delayed. This coverage offers insurance coverage between the time of the physical closing and the time of actual recording of documents at the registry. However, it remains to be seen how this will play out. Will mortgage payoffs still be processed even though deeds will not be recorded? Will sellers allow buyers to get keys and move into homes if deeds aren’t recorded and their sale proceeds are held in escrow? We will need to work through these issues.

I am also concerned if COVID-19 starts hitting closing attorney offices. If a lawyer or staff member is infected, it could result in the quarantine of their entire office, essentially shutting it down for some time.

COVID-19 Contingency Provision

In my previous post, I discussed a new COVID-19 Impact Clause for Offers Purchase and Sale Agreements. (Sample language below). It is imperative that these clauses are used in both Offers and PSA’s. It’s also very important that all parties and their attorneys work together cooperatively throughout this crisis, acknowledging that there will likely be substantial impacts and delays. The goal, as always, is to get to the closing and complete the deal, by any means necessary.

COVID-19 Impact Provision. The Time for Performance may be extended by either Party by written notice for an Excused Delay which materially affects the Party’s ability to close or obtain financing. As used herein an Excused Delay shall mean a delay caused by an Act of God, declared state of emergency or public health emergency, pandemic (specifically including Covid-19), government mandated quarantine, war, acts of terrorism, and/or order of government or civil or military authorities. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if the Time for Performance is extended, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.  BUYER may elect, at its sole option, to obtain an extension of its mortgage commitment or rate lock. Notwithstanding the foregoing, said Extension shall not exceed [insert number of days].

Virtual and Remote Closings

Another impact that we are already seeing is that parties to the real estate transaction are afraid of traveling outside their homes right now (or even being visited at home) and being in contact with other people, especially those who are high risk. My colleagues and I are working on an emergency executive order for Gov. Baker to sign which would temporarily authorize remote or virtual closings using such technology as Zoom and Docusign.

For more information on this please read my new post, Massachusetts Remote Notarization Bill Filed in Legislature

Court Closings

Update (3/17/20): The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered that, because of the public health emergency arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning tomorrow (March 18, 2020) and until at least April 6, 2020, the only matters that will be heard in-person in Massachusetts state courthouses are emergency matters that cannot be held by videoconference or telephone. Each of the seven Trial Court departments, in new standing orders to be issued today, will define emergency matters for their departments.  As a result of the SJC order, courthouses will be closed to the public except to conduct emergency hearings that cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing.  Clerk’s offices shall remain open to the public to accept pleadings and other documents in emergency matters only.  All trials in both criminal and civil cases scheduled to commence in Massachusetts state courts between today and April 17, 2020, are continued to a date no earlier than April 21, 2020, unless the trial is a civil case where the parties and the court agree that the case can be decided without the need for in-person appearance in court. Where a jury trial has commenced, the trial will end based on the manifest necessity arising from the pandemic and a new trial may commence after the public health emergency ends. Courts, to the best of their ability, will attempt to address matters that can be resolved or advanced without in-person proceedings through communication by telephone, videoconferencing, email, or other comparable means.

A link to the SJC Order OE-144 is here.

In addition to the closings on March 16-17, the Massachusetts Court System announced over the weekend major “triage” changes reducing the number of persons entering state courthouses. These rules are effective Wednesday March 18, 2020. A link to all of the new changes can be found here — Court System Response to COVID-19. A summary of each court and respective changes are as follows:

Superior Court — All jury trials postponed until April 22. Motions handled by individual judges with preference for telephonic hearing and postponement where necessary to limit number of people entering courtroom. Emergency matters may proceed normally. The new Standing Order 2-20 can be found here.

Housing Court — All cases including evictions (except emergencies) postponed until after April 22. Matters may be heard earlier upon a showing of good cause. New Housing Court Standing Order is here.

Probate and Family Court — Trials postponed until May 1. Motions and pre-trials heard telephonically or postponed until after May 1. Modification complaints won’t be heard until after May 1. New Probate and Family Court Standing Order 1-20 is here.

District Court — No jury trials until after April 21. All criminal appearances rescheduled for 60 days, and no earlier than May 4. Arraignments and Bench trials may proceed. The new District Court Standing Order is here.

Land Court — All trials postponed until after April 21. All other motions and proceedings shall be held telephonically at judge’s discretion. Registration of title documents should not be done in person. Mail or email is now preferred. (Not sure how that will work). New Land Court Standing Order 2-20 is here.

Appeals Court — Oral argument for March will be telephonic.

Supreme Judicial Court — Please see the Court’s website.

As you can glean from the changes, virtually all trials are being pushed out through the end of April. Motion hearings are court specific with telephonic hearings being substituted for in-person hearings. Of course, if the courts are all shut down, all bets are off. With no staff, the courts will not even be able to handle new filings. The system would just stop in its tracks, except for the most emergency of matters.

Lender/Financing Delays

This week we will see if there are any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. I am seeing some smaller mortgage companies moving to remote employee staffing. I’m also hearing about appraisal delays. If there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. I think it’s inevitable that we will be seeing lender delays moving forward.

Municipal Closings

I am also hearing of closings of municipal departments, which may affect the availability of final water/sewer readings and possibly smoke detector certificates. Title 5 inspections could also be impacted.

25 Person Social Gathering Restriction

New restrictions on crowd sizes that Gov. Charlie Baker issued on Sunday, March 15, could upend open houses. The restrictions banned gatherings of 25 or more people. Brokers seemed to anticipate a possible drop-off in attendance, even before Baker’s restrictions and despite strong numbers the past couple of weeks. “Next week may be a different story,” Jason Gell, a Keller Williams broker and president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, said on March 12. “Unfortunately, any decline in open houses or listings is likely to make the conditions for buyers even more difficult.”

Social Distancing, School Closures and Possible Lockdown

The impacts of COVID-19 are manifesting not necessarily in the actual infection and sickness of patients (which I’m not discounting at all) but all the measures we are taking to “flatten the curve.” I want to urge all my readers that COVID-19 could wind up being the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu and should be taken as seriously as life and death. If you can work from home, do that and don’t go into the office. If you can arrange for remote employee access, please do that. Take advantage of technologies like Zoom, Docusign and Dotloop. Please keep your kids at home. No playdates, family gatherings or hang-outs. They say we are only 2 weeks behind Italy and you see what’s going on there. Stay safe! More updates to follow as I get them.

-Rich

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Parties Who Negotiated Past Purchase and Sale Agreement Deadline Waived It, Court Rules

The Massachusetts Appeals Court just came down with a ruling which should be a cautionary tale to everyone in the residential real estate business. It’s an interesting fact pattern, but not necessarily unusual. For those with short attention spans, the Court held that the standard deadline to execute the purchase and sale agreement is not necessarily a hard deadline. Rather, the deadline can be waived by the parties if they negotiate beyond the date, even without a formal extension in place. The Court also held that where the property is owned by several individuals, even if only one of those individuals sign the offer, this is not necessarily fatal to the deal.

Ferguson v. Maxim, Mass. Appeals Court, 18-P-1081 (Nov. 6, 2019)

In the case, the buyer, David Ferguson, and the seller, Joyce Maxim, signed the standard form Offer to Purchase put out by the Massachusetts Association of Realtors for the sale of residential property in Leominster. (For my post comparing the MAR form with the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, click here). It turns out that title to the property was actually held by a group of five individuals including Maxim, but we will get to that in a few. As is standard, the Offer provided that the parties would enter into a standard form purchase and sale agreement by a specific deadline. However, the seller’s attorney did not sent out a draft PSA until after the deadline, and negotiations continued well past the deadline without any issue raised by the parties or their attorneys. Both attorneys had suggested formalizing an extension of the PSA deadline at various times, but a formal extension agreement was never signed. At some point the seller’s attorney tried to cease the negotiations acknowledging that “we are well beyond our [PSA] date.” A week later, the buyer’s attorney tried to resurrect negotiations and save the deal. Further negotiations ensued between the parties, but they were abruptly stopped by the seller’s attorney who stated that the deal was for all intents and purposes dead.

Mr. Ferguson, the buyer, was naturally upset, and sued, seeking an order of “specific performance” to enforce the deal, based on well established law that an offer to purchase is a legally binding contract for the sale of real estate. (Read the case if you want to learn about various procedural issues that arose in the case with respect to the buyer’s obtaining a lis pendens and the seller’s special motion to dismiss under the lis pendens law.).

Two Important Take-Aways

The important take-aways from the ruling were twofold. First, the Court ruled that the typical deadline to execute the purchase and sale agreement is not always a hard deadline. Some people may be surprised to here that, but under Massachusetts law, a deadline in any contract can be “waived” by the parties words, actions, or conduct. Here, the Court said that a waiver of the deadline could be found where the seller’s attorney didn’t provide the draft PSA until after the deadline and the parties freely negotiated well past the deadline, even without a formal extension in place. Second, the Court also held that where the property is owned by several individuals, only having one of those individuals sign the offer is not necessarily fatal to the deal. If there is evidence that the signatory had apparently authority to sign for the others, or that the sellers ratified the offer, then the contract could be enforced. So now the buyer’s case will continue on for trial. Interestingly, during the pendency of the case, the sellers sold the property to another party. If the buyer is successfully, that new buyer is going to be very unhappy because his transfer will be voided! He may want to lawyer up himself.

Let’s Play Monday Morning Quarterback!

Now, what could have been done differently in this case to avoid the bad result for the seller? For starters, the seller’s attorney should have delivered the draft PSA on time. Once the parties started negotiations after the PSA deadline, they were in “no man’s zone” and that can only come back to hurt the sellers. Deadlines need to be taken very seriously, and sharp lawyers will always send out emails or other written reminders of them, and reserve their rights to terminate an agreement if the parties blow past a deadline without a written extension in place. The buyer’s attorney played this correctly, and didn’t push on the deadline issue because the law would favor his client on the waiver issue (which it ultimately did).

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Local Loan Shark Stopped In His Tracks

by Rich Vetstein on September 14, 2019

NEW CASE ALERT: Our Firm Files Lawsuit Against Local Predatory Lender, Charging 50% Interest and Attempting to Evict Local Family

On Monday, a new client came into my office with an unbelievable story. My client had some financial difficulties and was in pre-foreclosure with his second mortgage holder. Looking for some unconventional solutions, he was introduced to a local “hard money” private lender who offered a workout loan to stop the foreclosure. This lender sold him on a $50,000 loan, with 50% interest rate with a 6 month balloon payment. 

Under the Massachusetts criminal usury law, however, a lender cannot charge more than 20% interest without first registering with the Attorney General’s Office. This private lender was not registered. That was the first red flag. The next red flag was that in addition to a standard mortgage, the private lender demanded that my client (and his wife) take the highly unusual step of signing over a “reverter deed” to their house, as additional security. Under duress, my clients signed the deed.

Only days later, the private lender recorded the deed, thereby becoming the record owner of the clients’ home, then, unbelievably, started eviction proceedings against my client and his family. Mind you, the loan was not even due for payment until March 2020. The lender appeared to have pulled a fast one over the local district court judge, and was able to get an eviction move out order. (My client did not have the means to retain counsel, unfortunately). The loan shark also sent threatening text messages like “TELL YOUR KIDS THEY ARE MOVING OUT!!!”

On the eve of the sheriff’s move out, I filed a multi-count civil action against the private lender, alleging predatory and illegal loan shark activities and unfair debt collection practices. I was able to get a temporary restraining order to stop the eviction, as well as a lis pendens (notice of claim), in order to rescind the loan and the deed.

This family of four can now sleep knowing they won’t be thrown on the street. And my father has come up with a new nickname for me….Robin Hood Vetstein. I’ll take it! I will keep you posted on developments. Hopefully, the Attorney General’s Office will take interest in this lender. If this story sounds familiar, please contact me…I do not want to divulge the lender’s name here on this platform, but I would be happy to provide it to you privately.

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Accurate Court Data Shows The “Eviction Crisis” Is A Fallacy

You may have noticed the featured article in Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine on the supposed “eviction crisis” in Massachusetts. Titled “As rents soar in Boston, low-income tenants try to stave off eviction,” investigative reporter Jenifer McKim cited inaccurate court statistics to create the false narrative that thousands of innocent tenants are being thrown out on the street by greedy landlords. Using this fallacy, McKim then advocates for a new legislative proposal giving all tenants (but not landlords) a “Right to Counsel” i.e, free legal representation courtesy of the Massachusetts taxpayer. I’m not a fan of the term “fake news,” but it is really justified here. Where do I begin?

McKim first claims that “eviction initiations in Massachusetts spiked in 2008, following the Great Recession. Each year since then, landlords have sued about 40,000 heads of household across the state seeking to evict them, according to data gathered by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.”

Well, she’s totally wrong and does not know how to read court statistics. Take Fiscal Year 2018 for example. Housing Court publicly available data shows 29,684 summary process cases filed. Summary process is how Massachusetts defines an eviction case. There were about 10,000 other types of cases filed in Housing Court (code violations, search warrants, small claims and civil money actions) but those are not evictions. So she’s already off by 10,000 cases or 25% of her cited data. To the extent she’s using district court filings, one would have to determine whether those were residential or commercial. Commercial evictions are always filed in the district court. Making that important distinction would entail physically reviewing each case file which she didn’t do. So you can’t reasonably rely on that data either.

Second, one would also have to account for Housing Court’s recent expansion to statewide jurisdiction which has increased its filings while district court filings are down. Actually as you can see from the PDF linked above, summary process filings in Housing Court were trending down and level from ’14 to ’15, to ’16 and to ’17, but then slightly up for ’18 (by only 6% or so) because of the statewide jurisdiction enactment. Eviction filings in District Court were down about 10% in 2018. So McKim is being intellectually dishonest if she’s attributing the slight bump in Housing Court filings in ’18 as some sort of trend of increased evictions. The overall trend has been down and level, as you can see below in the chart I quickly created. Sure doesn’t look like a crisis to me…

Then McKim makes the most egregious inaccurate statement: “The state doesn’t track how many of these have resulted in actual evictions, but the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found that in 2016, there were roughly 15,708 forced removals in Massachusetts — an average of nearly 43 a day. That’s about double the number of evictions in 2005, before the housing bubble burst…”

This is another totally bogus statistic. She’s right, the state does not track the number forced removals (accurately called a levy on an execution for possession). Researching that would entail physically reviewing every single eviction case in the state — 6 separate Housing Court divisions and in our roughly 80 district courts. Did Princeton University send a small army of interns checking every case file for 2016? That’s the only way they could accurately conclude that there were 15,708 “forced removals,” however they are defining that. So I was curious and did some research. After some digging I found the Princeton Eviction Lab’s Report on Methodology, and no surprise, their researchers relied on online available statistics, and as McKim acknowledged, you cannot see if there was a forced move out from the basic online data. I can tell you that in my 20 years of experience handling thousands of evictions, forced move outs are around 1-2% of all cases. It is the rare exception indeed because it costs landlords no less than $3,000 for movers and storage costs. The vast majority of cases are either default no-shows or negotiated move out agreements.

So the truth is that there is nowhere near 43 forced removals per day in Massachusetts, as McKim claims. Not. Even. Close.

Also, the number of evictions has not “doubled” since 2005, as McKim states. In 2005, there were approximately 30,000 total eviction cases filed (and this includes commercial cases which cannot be carved out without reviewing the case files). In 2018, there were about 40,000 total cases filed (again, this includes commercial cases). So McKim is off by 20,000 cases. And of course, the vast majority of all eviction cases are resolved amicably between the parties, without the need for a forced move out. I find it incredulous that highly regarded Boston Globe investigative reporters would be so sloppy with these critical statistics which are publicly available online.

Lastly, Ms. McKim interviewed me for a solid hour on this story, but only used a small snippet of my extensive commentary on the issue, pertaining to how I’ve been physically threatened by tenants in Housing Court. Yes unfortunately this is true. But I’ve been practicing in the Housing Courts for 20 years now and I gave her a small treatise of information which she ignored for her article. Ms. McKim also extensively interviewed Doug Quattroci, the Executive Director of the largest trade association for landlords, MassLandlords.net. Mr. Quattroci has led our lobbying efforts to level the playing field for landlords and offered extensive data on the topics Ms. McKim was writing about. None of Mr. Quatrocci’s comments made it into the article. Contrast that with paragraph upon paragraph dedicated to the tenant side of the story. I e-mailed Ms. McKim about all of these inaccuracies and her response was “feel free to write a letter to the editor.” I gave her an “LOL” on that one!

Ms. McKim’s article was certainly not fair and balanced, in my humble opinion. I guess we can’t expect that from the Boston Globe these days, can we? How sad.

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New Occupancy Tax, Statewide Registry, Insurance Requirements, and Inspections

At the very end of 2018 without much fanfare, Governor Baker signed into law a bill regulating and taxing short-term rentals. The new law provides for new taxes, a statewide registry, insurance requirements, and inspections varying by town/city. It becomes effective on July 1, 2019.

Overview of Requirements
The new law expands the state’s hotel and motel tax to include the short-term rental of homes (condominiums, single family, multifamily, etc.). This applies to Airbnb, VRBO, and all other short term rental platforms. The tax applies to all rentals for a period of 31 days or less, regardless of whether the rental is for recreational, vacation, personal, or business use. The burden is on the owner to collect and remit the taxes to their local town/city and the Mass. Dept. of Revenue, which is expected to issue guidance later in the year.

Tax Structure
The short-term rental rate varies by locality and is the total of the following rates:

  • State: 5.7%
  • Local: up to 6% (Boston 6.5%)
  • Cape Cod & Islands: includes additional 2.75% to fund Cape Cod and Islands Water Protection Fund
  • A community impact fee of up to 3% may be assessed locally on professionally managed properties (Owners of two or more units in one town).

The law requires regulations to minimize the administrative burden on tax filings for those who only rent their unit five (5) months or less each year.

Are there any exemptions in the law?
The tax imposed by the new law does not apply to properties rented for fewer than fourteen (14) days per calendar year. It is important to note that these properties are still subject to the other requirements of the law, such as insurance and registration.

When will this law take effect? 
July 1, 2019

What about the 2019 rentals I already booked? 
The law exempts from tax any 2019 rental that is booked on or before December 31, 2018. Rentals booked on or after January 1, 2019 for stays on or after July 1, 2019 will be subject to the tax. We anticipate that the Department of Revenue will issue guidance on how to handle the tax on bookings made on or after January 1, 2019.

Does this apply to the units I rent? 
As stated above, the new law applies to all rentals for a period of 31 days or less. Ordinary rentals, such as an annual lease or a tenancy-at-will are not covered. The new law applies regardless of whether the owner rents the property themselves, hires a rental agent to rent the property, or uses an online platform to facilitate the rental.

Do I need to collect the tax? 
Most likely, yes. The law requires intermediaries (which includes rental agents who post the property for rent online) who enter into a written agreement with the owner or operator to collect rent or facilitate the collection or payment of rent on behalf of the operator to collect and remit the tax. The Department of Revenue will issue regulations to clarify how often the tax should be remitted to the Department. This also means that an agent who does not collect or facilitate the collection of rent on behalf of the owner or operator does not need to collect and remit the tax.

Do I need to carry insurance for the listed properties?
Yes. Owners are required to maintain $1 million dollars in liability insurance to cover each short-term rental. The coverage is required to defend and indemnify the owner or operator and any tenants in the building for bodily injury and property damage. Realtors may elect to offer insurance coverage as part of their services but are not required to.

Before offering a property for short-term rentals, a hosting platform (including Realtors) must provide notice to the owner or operator that standard homeowners or renters insurance may not cover property damage or bodily injury to a third-party arising from the short-term rental.

Do the properties need to be registered with the state or city/town? 
Each rental unit will need to be listed with the state short-term rental registry. Additionally, each city and town is permitted to create a registration requirement for short term rentals. Check with your municipal government office for details.

Are there any inspections required? 
Cities and towns may implement a health and safety inspection requirement and set the frequency of inspections. Short-term rental operators are required to cover the cost of inspections and will likely face a fee to cover registration costs as well.

What are some best practices I can apply as the new law gets implemented? 

  • Owners and rental agents should disclose to prospective renters that any booking made on or after January 1, 2019 may be subject to a tax and that the tax rate may change before the rental period.
  • Develop a policy to verify the number of units owned by each client in a municipality and that those units are properly insured.

The Mass. Association of Realtors has provided the following documents to help manage short-term rentals: an updated Short-Term Rental Lease, a Community Impact Fee Form, a 14-day Exemption Form, and a required Insurance Disclosure Form. These documents can be found at marealtor.com/ShortTermRentals

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Third Lawsuit Filed In Widespread Forgery Scheme

by Rich Vetstein on September 17, 2018

Convicted Felon, Allen Seymour of Oxford, MA Named Again In Forgery Lawsuit

As a Special Attorney General Grand Jury hears evidence of a sophisticated real estate fraud conspiracy orchestrated by convicted felon, Allen Seymour, and his alleged accomplices, my firm has filed the third lawsuit for another victim of this predatory scam. The suit, filed in Middlesex Superior Court on behalf of two Somerville homeowners, alleges that Seymour approached them with a bogus reverse mortgage plan then forged two quitclaim deeds purporting to sell their home out from under them, flipping it to well known Boston real estate investors. One of the deeds was purportedly signed by a dead woman, and the other may have been stamped with a stolen notary public seal.

As a result of the lawsuits filed by my office and cooperation with the Attorney General’s office, Seymour was recently arrested in South Carolina, and was arraigned in Brookline District Court on June 18, with bail set at $2.5 Million. Seymour’s scheme is to approach elderly or naive homeowners who are in foreclosure, and offer them a “foreclosure rescue” loan or a bogus reverse mortgage. Using the alias “Richard Chase” to hide his true identity, Seymour persuades the homeowner to sign legal paperwork, then uses forged deeds and purchase contracts to flip the properties to investors, pocketing the money. The two other lawsuits involve properties in Brookline and Cambridge, where Seymour and his associates (one allegedly including a Newton Police officer) have allegedly absconded with millions of dollars in sale proceeds. We are aware of several other transactions where Seymour and his partners were involved.

These cases are being discussed around the Greater Boston real estate bar, with several leading Massachusetts title insurance companies on the hook for insuring these fraudulent sales.

If you have any information concerning Mr. Seymour or any of these transaction, please email me confidentially at [email protected]

Fox 25 News Report below

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Property Owners Vehemently Opposed to “Right of First Refusal” Proposals Giving Tenants Up to 240 Days to Purchase Rental Properties For Sale

In an effort to stem the affordable housing problem, cities like Cambridge and Somerville are exploring giving tenants a legal right to purchase the homes and apartments they are renting when owners go to sell them on the open market. The concept is a “right of first refusal” which would be triggered when the owner lists the property for sale and gets a bona fide offer from a third party buyer. Under the Cambridge proposal embedded below, a tenant would have up to 240 days to put down a deposit, obtain financing and close on the purchase, and would also have the right to assign the contract to a non-profit housing trust for affordable housing. The proposed law would apply to all rented single family homes, condominium units, multifamily and apartment buildings except owner two-family residences fully owner occupied or with one of the units occupied by the owner’s immediate family. (These definitions are somewhat unclear).  

Somerville State Senator Denise Provost originally filed a Tenant Right to Purchase Bill with the Legislature, but it did not move past committee. Now, Cambridge and Somerville are considering Home Rule Petitions to pass their own Right of First Refusal laws. If these proposals gain traction, they could spread to other cities and towns like Boston.

Property owner groups vehemently oppose these proposals. A similar proposal was passed in Washington, D.C, and the Huffington Post has exposed how it’s been an abysmal failure and abused by tenants. As the HuffPost, writes, “some tenants are using [the Act] to extract money from landlords, should a landlord decide to sell a building. At present, TOPA is holding up or blocking real estate transactions, causing grief for developers and homeowners and victimizing low-income residents stuck living in buildings owners are unable to sell but forced to maintain at a financial loss.”

I agree that this would be a terrible idea and extremely unfair to Massachusetts property owners. No, it’s not just terrible. It’s crazy and socialist. First, any sale of rental property is always subject to an existing tenancy or lease. That’s been the law in Massachusetts for centuries. So renters are already protected from displacement. Second, the proposal would wreck havoc on the local real estate market and skew free market dynamics. The Cambridge law would give tenants with no skin in the game 8 months to purchase a property. That’s 3 real estate cycles! Knowing that any offer would be subject to a tenant right of first refusal, investors would avoid making offers for occupied properties for sale, or would reduce offering prices, thus chilling sales. Tenants would be able to “flip” their right of first refusal to local nonprofits for affordable housing, walking away with a tidy profit. There are much better ways to create affordable housing than this idea.

Update (3/6/18): After Owner Outcry, Cambridge City Council Votes Down Proposal

Cambridge MA Tenant Right of First Refusal Home Rule Petition by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Mass. Lawmakers: Tax and Regulate Airbnb Rentals

by Rich Vetstein on June 27, 2017

Proposal: 5%-10% Tax, Plus Comprehensive Regulations

Like Uber and Lyft, is the law finally catching up with the new economy-disrupting technologies for the real estate industry like Airbnb? The answer is yes if Massachusetts legislators have their way. Today, Massachusetts House legislators are holding a hearing on a new bill which would tax and regulate Airbnb and other short term rentals. The proposal is House Bill 3454 (click to read). The proposal would impose a new excise tax between 5% – 10% on short term rentals, depending on whether the host rents his/her own residence, is a “commercial host,” or the rental is professionally managed.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, Airbnb, the largest of such rental sites, reports that it logged about 592,000 guests in Massachusetts last year. Had those stays been subject to the state’s hotel tax rate of 5.7%, that would have added an estimated $15 million to the Commonwealth’s coffers. The availability of such easy tax revenue may be too much for legislators to pass up this year, although a similar effort failed at the last minute last year.

Airbnb is happily sharing these calculations because it wants to be taxed, and this week it’s airing a new TV commercialabout the issue. Now don’t think for a second that this is some kind of benevolent new-economy thing. Guests, not Airbnb, pay the tax! Taxation is also a form of legitimization for these online portals.

The House proposal would also establish a comprehensive regulatory and safety scheme on Airbnb rentals, similar to that imposed on bed and breakfasts and other small local lodging facilities. Local towns and cities would be permitted to restrict certain types of short term rentals, the number of rental days allowed, require business licenses and a housing registry, and make the host obtain liability insurance of at least $1M in coverage. Violations of the new law carry a stiff fine of up to $1000/day for the illegal rental period.

The proposal has received much attention in recent months as hearings have been held across the state. The Massachusetts Association of Realtors has come out in opposition to the bill, as with many Airbnb hosts who rely on this source of additional income.

I will keep up with developments, so check back here from time to time.

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Mortgage Lender Wins Stunning Ruling Challenging $103 Million Fine

Characterizing Director Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as the “single most powerful official in the entire U.S. Government, other than the President,” a federal appeals court ruled yesterday in the case of PHH Corporation v. CFPB, that the CFPB’s organizational structure and authority to impose fines violates the due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The surprising 101-page ruling called into question the Director’s authority to impose certain fines and the agency’s authority to enact rules and regulations, although future appeals are likely. The agency, the pet project of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has long been criticized by the banking industry and congressional Republicans as wielding too much power.

PHH, a mortgage lender, made national headlines when it challenged Director Cordray’s decision to tack on a $103 million increase to a $6 million fine initially levied against PHH for allegedly illegally referring consumers to mortgage insurers in exchange for kickbacks in violation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. The case was one of the first times that a company fought back against the CFPB, the governmental agency championed by Elizabeth Warren and congressional liberals after the Bush era financial crisis and the Dodd-Frank Act.

In a unanimous decision, a three judge panel of the federal appeals court governing Washington D.C. ruled that the CFPB’s current structure allows the director to wield far too much power, more than any other agency in the entire U.S government. “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency,” the judges reasoned.

The fallout remains unclear, but certainly this ruling gives opponents of the CFPB heavy ammunition to challenge the agency on its decisions and rule-making authority. The Mortgage Bankers Association welcomed the decision and the clarification the decision presents for RESPA. “MBA is gratified that the court has issued an extremely thoughtful opinion.  It addresses all of the key issues raised by the PHH case, including the proper interpretation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, the need for due process including reasonable statutes of limitations and the very constitutionality of the CFPB itself,” MBA President and CEO David Stevens said.

The National Association of Realtors also welcomed the decision’s clarity surrounding marketing service agreements, which are clearly a target of the CFPB. “Today’s decision offers much-needed clarity on the legality of marketing service agreements, and makes clear that MSAs are compliant with RESPA provided that payment for goods and services actually furnished or performed are made at fair market,” said NAR President Tom Salomone. “We’re hopeful this will address any uncertainty moving forward and offer a clear road ahead for any of our members who have entered into MSAs with settlement service providers,” Salomone continued. “We will continue to monitor this case and the further appeals that are likely, and continue to communicate to Realtors on what this means for them and their business.”

I have been a vocal critic of the CFPB’s massive revision to the closing and settlement disclosure statements which went into effect last year. While there is no indication that the new Closing Disclosure and Loan Estimate will go away, this ruling will hopefully make the agency think twice about going over the top with future rules and regulations.

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AR-160427630Eisai, Inc. v. Housing Appeals Committee: Master Plan Conflict Does Not Trump Need For Affordable Housing

Chapter 40B — the state’s so-called “anti-snob” affordable housing law — has pitted developers vs. towns and neighbors in contentious fights over affordable housing projects. It’s one of the most controversial laws in the state, with opponents seeking to reform or repeal the law in recent years. In my home town of Sudbury, for example, there are “Oppose Sudbury Station” signs all over town, in opposition to a planned 200+ unit development in the middle of the historic town center.

While battles rage on the local level, Massachusetts courts have been rather tough on 40B opponents and boards who oppose projects. Last month, in another setback to Chapter 40B opponents, the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Eisai, Inc. v. Housing Appeals Committee (June 20, 2016), allowed a controversial Andover 40B project to proceed over the local ZBA’s denial of the permit on grounds that the town master plan is a local concern that trumps the need for affordable housing.

In the Eisai case, an Andover developer filed a 40B Comprehensive Permit application to build a 248-rental-unit project within an existing office and industrial park. The local zoning board of appeals denied the application on the ground that the “proposed project is inconsistent with decades of municipal planning, economic development strategies, and planning with owners and tenants of the abutting industrial properties[,] . . . most notably, the rezoning of the locus and abutting properties to accommodate and develop a modern, competitive, and viable industrial park and industrial center.” On appeal by the developer, the state Housing Appeals Committee, a state agency which hears appeals of 40B permits, reversed and ordered the local board to issue the Comprehensive Permit. The case was further appealed to the Superior Court, which upheld the permit, then to the state Appeals Court.

The important aspect of the appellate ruling was the Court’s endorsement of a new reformulated four factor test announced by the HAC under which the ZBA must offer more evidence of local concerns to outweigh the regional need for affordable housing. On its face, the reformulated test requires boards to provide a greater amount of more specific, higher quality information in order to tip the scale in favor of upholding the master plan and denying a 40B project.

Project opponents must now demonstrate the following:

  1. The extent to which the proposed housing is in conflict with or undermines the specific planning interest.
  2. The importance of the specific planning interest, under the facts presented, measured, to the extent possible, in quantitative terms . . . .
  3. The quality . . . of the overall master plan (or other planning documents or efforts) and the extent to which it has been implemented. A very significant component of the master plan is the housing element of that plan (or any separate affordable housing plan). The housing element must not only promote affordable housing, but to be given significant weight, the Board must also show to what extent it is an effective planning tool. . . .
  4. The amount [and type] of affordable housing that has resulted from affordable housing planning.

Faced with the new, reformulated test, my prediction is that local boards and 40B opponents are going to have a much tougher time opposing 40B projects.

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