Disclosures

I cannot believe I’m writing this post, but yes it’s true, the real estate market in Greater Boston, Massachusetts has now come full circle and bidding wars are back. Don’t believe me? Just read this Boston Globe article from today.

Now that bidding wars are back, buyers and sellers have questions, so we’ll try to answer them here. I’ve also asked a few local real estate agents to offer their expertise as well.

What Are The Legal Issues Surrounding Bidding Wars?

A bidding war arises when there are several competing offers for a listing at the same time. There are really no hard and fast legal rules with bidding wars. Contrary to popular belief, a private seller in Massachusetts is not legally obligated to accept the highest offer made during a bidding war. A seller can be as financial prudent or as irrationally arbitrary as she wants in deciding which offer to accept. A seller may decide to forgo the highest offer in favor of a lower offer due such factors as the financial strength of the buyer (i.e., a cash buyer), because the buyer waived inspections, or simply because the buyer wrote the sellers a lovely letter about how wonderful their home is! (Read on for one agent’s advice on letter writing).

Legally, an offer is simply an invitation to negotiate, and provides a buyer with zero legal rights to the property. An offer does not create a legally enforceable contract — unless it is accepted and signed by the seller.

For real estate agents involved in bidding wars, they have an ethical and fiduciary duty to get the highest and best offer for their sellers. There is nothing illegal about a seller or their agent creating a bidding war, so as to pit one bidder against each other. A listing agent is doing a good job for their client in creating such a market for a property. Ethically, a real estate agent must be truthful and honest when communicating with all prospective buyers and cannot make any material misrepresentations, such as lie about an offering price. Agents must present all offers to their clients, however, the ultimate decision to accept an offer always remains with the seller.

There are different ways to manage a bidding war, and again, there are no special legalities for it. Some agents will set a date by which all preliminary bids have to be in. If there are only two bidders, an agent can go back to the lowest bidder and ask if he or she would like to re-bid. An agent can continue that process until one of the bidders backs out. If there are more than two bidders, some agents will set a second round of bidding with a minimum price of the highest bid in the preliminary round. If no one bids in the second round, the agent can return to that high bid. Bidding wars are fast moving, so buyers need to be able to react quickly.

Generally, disgruntled buyers who lose out on bidding wars do not have a legal leg to stand on — unless their offer was accepted and signed by the seller or there is clear proof an agent lied about something important. That is why making your offer stand out in a bidding war is so important.

Buyers: How To Make Your Offer Stand Out In A Crowd

In a bidding war, buyers ask how can they maximize their chance to be the offer the seller accepts? Gabrielle Daniels, of Coldwell Banker Sudbury, offers this great advice on her blog, LiveInSudburyMa.com:

  • Make your offer STRONG. If you know that there are other offers on the property, make your offer financially strong as possible. If you believe the house is worth asking price, offer asking price. Forget about the TV shows that tell you to offer 90 percent of asking. That is ridiculous – UNLESS that is what the house is worth. Every situation is different. Every house is worth something different. There are no “general rules” about what to offer.
  • Be prepared. Have your pre-approval ready. Sign all of the paperwork related to the offer (seller’s disclosure, lead paint transfer, etc.) Write a check, leave a check with your agent. It is better than a faxed copy of the check. Don’t leave any loose ends.
  • Show some love to the house (and the seller). Write a letter to the sellers, tell them why you love the house and why you are the best buyer for the house. Sure, this is a business transaction, but it is one of the most personal business transactions in which you will be involved. Your real estate agent should be able to help you with this.

For more great tips for buyers involved in a bidding war, read Gabrielle’s post, Multiple Thoughts On Multiple Offers.

Sellers, How Can You Take Advantage of Bidding Wars

For sellers in a bidding war market, it all comes down to pricing, as Heidi Zizza of mdm Realty in Framingham explains on her blog, MetrowestHomesandLife.com:

I had a house listing in Natick this past year. The house valued out to around $620,000. We could have gone to market at $629,900 or $639,900 and had many showings that eventually would land us an offer around $610,000 or so. We figured that at that price it would take the average days on market which was (if memory serves correctly) close to 90 days. We decided to go to market at $599,900. The house got so much attention we had a HUGE turnout at the first showing/Open House and had 4 offers by that evening all competing and all over asking. The highest bid was $620,000 and we sold the property in one day. You too can do the same thing. Market your house at a price that is so attractive you will be best in show. Your buyers will let you know it, and you will definitely get an offer, maybe even several!

For those of us in the real estate business who have weathered the storm of the last 4-5 years, this is “all good” as we say! The more bidding wars, the better!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Renter’s Insurance Policy Raises Questions

I’ve recently become aware that some Massachusetts landlords are requiring that tenants procure their own policy of renter’s insurance as a condition of leasing. In fact, MSN Real Estate did a nice write up about the practice here. But I am also hearing about a dark side to this practice where some landlords have a kickback arrangement with the insurance provider where the landlord receives compensation for any policy taken out by a tenant.

Renter’s insurance is almost always a good idea, but under Massachusetts law, can a landlord require that a tenant get a policy (if the tenant doesn’t want one) and must it disclose a referral relationship with the insurance provider?

Landlords Should Be Careful About Renter’s Insurance Requirement

In light of recent court decisions, landlords should re-examine the legality of a mandatory renter’s insurance policy requirement.  In the recent Hermida v. Archstone class action ruling, which considered amenity fees under the Massachusetts security deposit statute, the court held that landlords can only charge first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, and a lost key fee at the beginning of a tenancy, and no other types of fees. Any other type of fee or financial obligation required to be paid by the tenant at the beginning of the lease could be deemed illegal under the Mass. Security Deposit law, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 186, sec. 15B. Accordingly, landlord must be very careful about what and how much they charge tenants at the inception of leases, over and above the standard rent deposits and new key fee. At the very least, renter’s insurance should be optional, and any affiliate or kickback arrangement should be fully disclosed to the tenant. This still may not prevent a landlord from getting sued over a mandatory renter’s insurance requirement.

Renter’s Insurance Still Smart Choice

That said, I always recommend that tenants get their own renter’s insurance policy. It’s fairly inexpensive and provides protection to your personal belongings. Massachusetts law does provide for a minimum of $750 per unit for tenant relocation assistance due to fire displacement. However, that is not nearly enough for the average renter.

Has your landlord required that you purchase renter’s insurance? Have they disclosed any referral relationship? I’d like to hear from you. The practice may well be illegal.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Landlord Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Final product will be a combination of both the final Truth in Lending (TIL) form and the HUD-1 Settlement Statement — a dramatic change from the existing forms.

For the second time in as many years, the federal government is substantially overhauling two of the most important disclosures given to mortgage borrowers, the Truth in Lending Disclosure and the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The revisions are mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is in charge of re-designing and testing the new forms.

Most real estate industry professionals are unaware that these new changes are on the horizon. The new forms are expected to be implemented in 2013 after rule-making and industry comments are completed.

If you want to track the CFPB’s activity on these forms, I highly recommend the CFPB Monitor. The CFPB’s “Know Before You Owe” website also has updates and is pretty good for a government site.

Here is the new prototype HUD-1 Settlement Statement:

20120220 Cfpb Basswood Settlement Disclosure

What do you think about the new forms? At first, glance it is easier to read, understand and explain to borrowers. We’ll keep track of this important issue.

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Six Year Litigation Odyssey Ends With $872,000 Payout

After six years of litigation over a deceptive bait-and-switch condominium purchase scheme, a Cambridge couple has forced the listing broker in the deal to pay them $872,000 in compensation. The case is Oleg Batishchev v. Brenda Cote and others (click to download).

The case started in 2005, after the first time home buyers paid $683,385 for a condominium unit from Perception Ventures LLC. The couple believed they were buying a newly renovated unit on the right side of the building. Victimized by what the trial judge called a “preposterous fraud,” the developer, the listing broker and the seller’s attorney tricked them into buying a unit on the left side of the building which was beset with such substantial and egregious workmanship defects as to render it virtually uninhabitable.

After a two week jury trial by Attorneys John Miller and Jonathan W. Fitch of the Boston firm Sally & Fitch, the developer and his agents were held liable under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. The case dragged on through two appeals, and was finally concluded with the payment of $872,000 from the listing broker.

The couple had previously settled with the sellers’ lawyers for $150,000 and, following a one week jury trial on damages, had also received a damage award of more than $425,000 against their own closing attorney for her malpractice.

What troubles me most about this case is that the attorneys got caught up in this scheme, either intentionally (in the case of the seller’s attorney) or by failing to recognize the shenanigans going on (in the case of the buyers’ attorney). The lesson to be learned is that if there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

For more information about the case, read Sally & Fitch’s press release here.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Federal Judge Rules $475 Apartment Amenity Use Fee Violates Massachusetts Security Deposit Law

Some large apartment owners, such as Archstone Properties, have been charging tenants a separate “amenity use fee” for use of the community pool, workout room, media center and other amenities, or a separate “move-in” fee or pet fee. The fees can be rather hefty; several hundred dollars in many cases. Well, a federal judge recently struck down these fees as illegal under the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law. What’s more, the judge has allowed a class action to proceed against Archstone Reading apartment complex which may be on the hook for thousands if not millions in refunds to tenants. Other apartment complexes may have legal exposure if they used similar amenity use fees.

Massachusetts Amenity Fee Class Action

The case is Hermida v. Archstone Properties (D. Mass. Nov. 29, 2011). The case arose out of a $475 amenity use fee charged by Archstone Properties in their Reading, Massachusetts apartment complex. The judge ruled that under Massachusetts law, landlords can only charge tenants for: (1) first month’s rent, (2) last month’s rent, (3) a security deposit, and (4) a key installation fee. The additional amenity use fee is illegal, Judge Young ruled, if it is required, not optional, and charged up front, i.e, a condition to renting. Judge Young also approved the case for class action status.

The class action attorney handling the case, Matthew Fogelman, Esq., is also investigating whether other apartment complexes and landlords have charged similar amenity use fees, move in fees and/or pet fees, for potential class actions against those apartment complexes. If you were ever charged a separate amenity use fee, move-in fee, or pet fee as part of your rental lease, please email me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com and I will put you in contact with the case attorney. You could be entitled to a refund of several hundred dollars and possibly additional compensation.

Alert: Property managers are asking tenants to sign releases to get a refund of their amenity use fees. DO NOT SIGN ANY RELEASE OR WAIVER FORM UNTIL YOU HAVE CONSULTED WITH AN ATTORNEY. YOU COULD BE WAIVING YOUR RIGHT TO COLLECT THE MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF COMPENSATION.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

This post may be considered “attorney advertising.”

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The home inspection is one of the most critical aspects of every Massachusetts real estate transaction. Virtually every buyer in a standard purchase transaction (meaning not a short sale, foreclosure, or bank-owned property) will opt to perform a home inspection, and for good reason. You need to know whether there are any serious structural, mechanical or other defective conditions in the home before you close.

As always, I’m going to focus on the legal aspects of the home inspection as it impacts the overall transaction.

Buyer Beware

Let’s start out with the legal framework for what, if anything, a seller and his real estate agent are required to disclose to a prospective buyer. Surprisingly to most buyers, a private seller has no legal duty in Massachusetts to disclose any type of information, good or bad, about the property (except for the presence of lead paint). This is called caveat emptor, or buyer beware. Real estate agents stand on a heightened legal footing. Under Massachusetts consumer protection regulations governing real estate brokers, a broker must disclose to a buyer “any fact, the disclosure of which may have influenced the buyer or prospective buyer not to enter into the transaction.”

Nevertheless, I always advise buyers not to rely or trust anything the seller or his/her agent says about the property. This is exactly the reason why most buyers will choose to get an independent home inspection.

Inspection Contingencies

The standard form Offer to Purchase (click for form) will include several inspection related contingencies: the general home inspection contingency, radon, lead paint, and pest contingencies. The buyer typically has between 5 and 10 days to complete these inspections. If the inspections reveals any problems requiring repair or remediation, the parties will negotiate repairs during this inspection period, and the agreement will be reflected in the standard purchase and sale agreement or sometimes a separate repair agreement which is signed around 14 days after the accepted offer. Typically, the Realtors do the heavy lifting on home inspection negotiations, and by the time it gets to the attorneys, there is an agreement in place.

The attorneys can craft the language for repairs. I always insist that repairs are performed by licensed contractors with evidence of completion provided prior to or at closing. Also, buyers should know that repairs provided in the purchase and sale agreement may trigger a second property inspection by the lender’s underwriters which could add another layer of oversight into the deal.

If the problems are so serious that the buyer wants to walk away from the deal, there is a mechanism for where the buyer provides notice to the seller and a copy of the inspection report. It’s very important to provide proper notice in order to get the buyer’s deposit returned. An attorney should be consulted for this situation.

Home Inspector License Requirements

Since 1999, Massachusetts has required that home inspectors be licensed by the state Board of Registration of Home Inspectors. You can search for home inspector licenses here: Massachusetts Home Inspector License Search.

Buyers should recognize the limits of the home inspection. The state regulations requires inspection of “readily accessible” components of a dwelling. Most modestly priced inspections are visual inspections of the property. The inspector is trained to identify defects in the systems of a house but cannot be expected to have x-ray vision. Moreover, property inspectors are not generally trained civil engineers. Structural defects and weaknesses may not be readily apparent, and may require follow up by a licensed structural engineer. In many cases, however, evidence of inappropriate settling or structural failure can be observed during a visual inspection. An experienced inspector will summarize the “big picture,” but inspectors are not required to identify the exact nature and extent of structural deficiencies. Regulations specifying the elements of a dwelling to be observed and reported on by the home inspector may be found here at 266 C.M.R. § 6.00.

Condominiums

When you buy a condo, you not only buy the unit, but the common areas such as the common roof, mechanical and HVAC systems, grounds, etc. Good home inspectors will ensure that the inspection of a condominium includes the common areas as well as the unit itself. The common area inspection may reveal deferred maintenance needs and inadequately performed repairs that may result in increased condominium fees and special assessments.

Radon

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established an “action level” of 4.0 pico-curies per liter (4.0 pCi/l) of radon present in indoor air. Although not established as an unsafe level, this figure has been established as the point at which protective measures are recommended. Prospective purchasers and home inspectors frequently use commercially available canisters to collect radon data. This method is cost-effective but may not give accurate results. The canisters are ordinarily placed for twenty-four to forty-eight hours in the basement and on the first floor of the dwelling. The canisters must be placed away from drafts and should not be disturbed. After the test period, the canisters are sealed and forwarded to a testing laboratory. Sometimes, the radon results are not ready by the time the purchase and sale agreement has to be signed. In this situation, the parties can either agree to extend the deadline or agree to a radon contingency.

If the radon results come back over 4.0 pCi/l, depending on the language of the radon contingency, the buyer can typically opt out of the deal altogether or require the seller to install a radon remediation system. Often the sellers will attempt to cap the cost of the system.

Pests

Most home inspectors are also qualified to perform inspections for wood-boring insects, such as termites, powder post beetles, and carpenter ants. All properties should be inspected for such pests. Properties financed by certain government-sponsored loan programs, such as the Federal Housing Authority, require a pest inspection as a condition of obtaining a loan. It’s a good idea to ask the sellers if they have an existing pest control contract that can be transferred to the new buyers.

Lead Paint

The Massachusetts Lead Law requires the buyer to be given the opportunity to inspect for lead paint. The seller or broker is required to provide potential purchasers of homes built before 1978 with the notification package prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Sellers and real estate agents are required by law to disclose any information about known lead paint hazards in their properties, and to provide copies of any documentation relating to the lead paint status of the properties (i.e., a lead inspection report or risk assessment report). The seller must grant a ten-day contingency period from the date the buyer receives the property transfer notification to conduct a lead paint inspection. If the buyer discovers lead paint in the dwelling during the inspection period, the contingency required by the statute permits the buyer to withdraw from the agreement without further obligation.

Although a seller is under no obligation to actually abate the lead paint, a lead-free house may be more valuable and marketable. This is particularly true for multi-family properties where tenants with children under six years of age may trigger the abatement requirements of the law. Sellers are required to provide any documentation they have of the estimated costs to abate the lead paint. Should a seller refuse to make a price concession based on the presence of a lead paint hazard, a buyer could argue that any subsequent buyer also should be made aware of the hazards and related costs. As a result, the availability of a lead paint inspection and cost estimate can become a powerful negotiating tool for the buyer.

Lead paint testing is typically not done as part of a standard home inspection, and must be separately arranged by a certified lead paint assessor.

Mold and Mildew

Mold and mildew are tricky subjects for home inspectors. The presence of excessive amounts of mold spores has been linked to asthma and other respiratory ailments and is claimed to cause permanent injuries. Mold grows in warm, moist environments and can be present behind walls and ceilings, in heating and cooling ducts, and in other difficult-to-inspect parts of a house or condominium building. As noted, although a building inspector cannot peer behind walls, a thorough inspection can detect water penetration, which is the precursor and necessary condition for a mold problem. Where mold is suspected, a buyer can always request that his home inspector be allowed to drill small exploratory holes to test for the presence of mold/mildew.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. Please contact him if you need assistance with a home purchase or sale.

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Realtors: You Must Independently Verify Property Information

In DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. (embedded below), the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently considered a Realtor’s duty to disclose and independently verify zoning information about a listing property.  The agent, relying on what turned out to be erroneous information supplied by his client, listed a Norwell property on Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and newspaper advertising as “zoned Business B.” The property was not in fact zoned for business use; it was zoned residential, thereby prohibiting the hair salon the buyer wanted to open at the property.

Despite the general disclaimer on the MLS system and in the purchase and sale agreement, the Court held that the Realtor could be held liable for misrepresentation and Chapter 93A violations due to providing this erroneous information.

The lesson to be learned for agents here is:

  • Never trust your client. I hate to say this, but when it comes to disclosures, it’s true.
  • Always independently verify information about the property from available public sources. Here, the agent could have simply gone down to the town planning office to verify whether the property was zoned commercial or residential. (The buyer or his attorney could have done so as well—this was a complete failure on all sides).
  • When it comes to zoning, which can be complex and variable, think twice before making blanket statements. Better to be 100% sure before going on record about whether certain uses are permissible. You can always get a zoning opinion from a local attorney.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate attorney who often advises real estate agents on their duties and ethical obligations. Please contact him if you need legal assistance regarding a Massachusetts residential or commercial real estate transaction.

Dewolfe v. Hingham Realty

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iStock_000003014021XSmal.jpgCaveat Emptor: “Let The Buyer Beware”

Caveat Emptor is an old common law rule which means “Let the Buyer Beware.” In plain English, it means that home buyers are on their own when it comes to the condition of the property. If there is a defect of any kind, it becomes the buyer’s problem, not the seller’s.

Most home buyers are unaware that in Massachusetts, with a few exceptions, the rule of Buyer Beware is still alive and well. That is why in the vast majority of transactions, buyers choose to have the property inspected by a licensed home inspector. And it’s also why there is a contingency in the offer or purchase and sale agreement giving the buyer the right to opt out of the agreement if there are serious issues.

But what happens if the home inspector misses a broken A/C unit, or the sellers concealed that the basement flooded, or the Realtor didn’t tell the buyers there was a Level 3 sex offender next door? These are all thorny disclosure issues.

Private Sellers: No Duty to Disclose

A private seller has no legal duty in Massachusetts to disclose anything about the property (except for the presence of lead paint). Yes, you read that correctly. He doesn’t have to say boo. Will that assist the buyer in selecting the home for purchase? Maybe not. But if the basement floods, the seller does not have to say anything about it.

A seller, however, cannot affirmative misrepresent a material fact about the property. That is, if the seller is asked a direct question, such as “has the basement ever flooded?” and he answers “never” when it has, he has lied and can be held liable for that.

Most agents will insist that Sellers fill out a Statement of Property Condition (see below) which will fully disclose just about every conceivable condition of the premises. However, the standard form does contain small print language purporting to limit the agent and seller from disclosure liability.

Real Estate Agents: Heightened Duty

Under Massachusetts consumer protection regulations governing real estate brokers, a broker must disclose to a buyer “any fact, the disclosure of which may have influenced the buyer or prospective buyer not to enter into the transaction.” This is somewhat of a subjective standard; what may matter to one buyer may not matter to another. If a broker is asked a direct question about the property, she must answer truthfully, accurately, and completely to the best of her knowledge. Further, a broker cannot actively avoid discovering the details of a suspected problem or tell half-truths. This is why most Realtors err on the side of full disclosure, as suggested in Bill Gassett’s blog.

As for that Level 3 sex offender living next door, I would advise the listing agent to disclose that fact. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that off-site physical conditions may require disclosure if the conditions are unknown and not readily observable by the buyer and if the existence of those conditions is of sufficient materiality to affect the habitability, use, or enjoyment of the property and, therefore, render the property substantially less desirable or valuable to the objectively reasonable buyer. I think a dangerous sex offender would be something a buyer would want to know about, wouldn’t you?

Home Inspectors

In 1999, Massachusetts joined a growing number of states that require home inspectors to be licensed. There is now a state Board of Registration of Home Inspectors. Home inspectors are now required to carry at least $250,000 of errors and omissions insurance. The board is empowered to suspend licensed home inspectors for violations of the statute or regulations and to impose civil penalties on persons purporting to conduct a home inspection without the required license.

A home inspector is one of the most important referrals your Realtor will give you. Most agents know which inspectors are great and which are terrible. If you are the unfortunate victim of an incompetent home inspectors, they can be sued civilly for breach of contract or negligence.

Massachusetts Sellers Disclosure//

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Does A Massachusetts Seller and Realtor Have A Legal Duty To Disclose The Existence of a Smelly Waste Water Treatment Plant?

Dear Attorney Vetstein:

We purchased our first home in September. We were unfamiliar with the area and relied heavily on the realtor’s knowledge. After living there for a couple of weeks, we went outside to grill and there was a horrid stench to the air. We weren’t able to eat outside and couldn’t figure out where the smell was coming from. After a few times of this, we researched the area and found out that there was the town’s waste water plant behind what we thought was a house, but what was actually the office. We did a Google Earth search on the plant and it is quite large. We bought the house mainly for the large yard and were looking forward to bbq’s, planting a garden and in general spending a majority of our time outside as we had moved from the city.

Do we have any rights? Had the real estate agent or seller disclosed the existence of the smelly plant to us we would have never bought this house. We want to sell and fear that the home will be unsellable.

Your truly,

Worried About The Smell

Dear Worried,

While your Realtor did you no favors, I’m afraid that you (and your Realtor) should have driven around and investigated the neighborhood before you purchased this home.

Legally in Massachusetts, a private seller has no obligation to disclose anything to you about the home or nearby conditions. A seller can only get in trouble if he is asked a direct question and flat out lies about it. Since you did not indicate that you asked the seller the specific question of whether there were any nearby waste water treatment plants, you most likely won’t have any luck pinning this situation on the seller.

The Realtor, while standing on different legal footing, is also most likely not to blame legally. Under Massachusetts consumer protection regulations governing real estate brokers, a broker must disclose to a buyer “any fact, the disclosure of which may have influenced the buyer or prospective buyer not to enter into the transaction.” This standard, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that a Realtor must disclose every single conceivable on-site or, in this case, off-site condition which may impact the buyer’s decision to purchase. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that off-site conditions may require disclosure only if the conditions are “unknown and not readily observable by the buyer [and] if the existence of those conditions is of sufficient materiality to affect the habitability, use, or enjoyment of the property and, therefore, render the property substantially less desirable or valuable to the objectively reasonable buyer.” In that case, the court refused to hold a seller liable for the non-disclosure of toxic waste contamination at the nearby local elementary school which gave the seller difficulty selling previously.

The key factor here is that the waste water treatment plant is out in the open and obvious to anyone searching nearby. This situation underscores the importance of having a Realtor who knows the neighborhood and also doing your own basic due diligence, i.e, driving around the neighborhood.

I do sympathize with you plight. I’m not sure why the Realtor didn’t feel it was necessary (assuming he or she knew of the plant) to tell you about the stinky plant. It’s certainly something I would have wanted to know. You also didn’t tell me whether the Realtor was the listing agent or your own buyer’s agent. A listing agent’s duty is to the seller and getting the home sold. They do their best not to divulge too much info about the surrounding area, lest they get themselves in trouble (like this case). A buyer’s agent would be much more likely to advise you of problematic conditions like the plant (assuming they know about it). If they didn’t know about it, shame on them.

Sorry to deliver the “stinky” news…

Yours truly,

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.

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Annual Percentage Rate (APR), Amount Financed, Finance Charge, and Total Payments…the Truth In Lending Disclosure Statement is one of the most challenging disclosure forms to explain to borrowers at a Massachusetts real estate closing. I like to call it the “Confusion In Lending” Statement because the form is what happens when the government attempts to recalculate your interest rate and closing costs in a way most human beings would not even consider.

To explain the Truth In Lending Disclosure, we’ll use a dummy form for a $500,000 purchase transaction with a $400,000 loan (20% down payment), a 30 year fixed rate loan at 5.00% at a cost of 1 point.

Annual Percentage Rate

The confusion begins. The Annual Percentage Rate, or APR, as you can see is not 5.00%, which is the contract interest rate for the loan. Why? Because the APR does not use the loan amount for its calculations but rather the “Amount Financed.”

Amount Financed

And the confusion continues. The Amount Financed is not the $400,000 loan amount, but is about $6,600 less than the loan amount. That is because the Amount Financed equals the loan amount ($400,000) less prepaid loan and closing fees and payments. Fees included in the amount financed are: points, lender fees such as underwriting, process, tax service, mortgage insurance, escrow company fees, prepaid interest to end of closing month, and Homeowners Association fees. All of these fees are added up and subtracted from the loan amount to reach the Amount Financed figure. Note that depending on when the loan closes in the month, and fees from third parties such as escrow companies the Amount Financed will vary and therefore so will APR.

How The APR Is Calculated

Now that we have the Amount Financed, we can calculate the APR. For a 30 year fixed loan such as this, the true loan amount is amortized for the loan period using the interest rate. In our example $400,000 amortized for 30 years at 5.00% has a payment of $2,147.29 per month paying principal and interest.

To calculate the APR, we use the same payment –$2147.29 every month for 30 years– to pay off an Amount Financed of $393,372.22 (loan amount less costs) to reach an APR of 5.141%. So the APR is higher than the interest rate because the Amount Financed is lower than the loan amount for the same monthly payment and term.

ARMs–Adjustable Rate Mortgages

If you are taking out an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), you may as well just throw the Truth in Lending Disclosure out the window. The TIL is allowed to be based on the introductory interest rate through the entire life of the loan. Your adjustable rate mortgage, however, will reset its interest rate after 3, 5, 7, or 10 years depending on the type of product. There’s no way to predict where interest rates will be in the future, so the Truth in Lending Disclosure is inherently inaccurate for ARMs.

Explaining the Truth in Lending Disclosure is one of the many functions of a Massachusetts real estate closing attorney. In other states which aren’t required to use closing attorneys, they will not explain these complicated forms to you.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Closing Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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haunted_houseDisclosure Obligations For Haunted Houses

On Halloween eve, I thought I would delve into the spooky topic of haunted houses and disclosure issues. Massachusetts real estate brokers struggle to sell homes tainted by shocking murders, suicides, or even suspected “haunted houses” filled with paranormal activity. These “stigmatized” properties are particularly difficult to deal with as they raise unique valuation problems and disclosure issues.

No Disclosure Rule

Under Massachusetts law, real estate brokers and sellers are under no legal obligation to disclose that a property was the site of a felony, suicide or homicide, or has been the site of an alleged “parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon,” i.e., a haunted house. Thus, buyers are on their own to discover these types of stigmas.

Here is the law, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93, section 114:

The fact or suspicion that real property may be or is psychologically impacted shall not be deemed to be a material fact required to be disclosed in a real estate transaction. “Psychologically impacted” shall mean an impact being the result of facts or suspicions including, but not limited to, the following:

(a) that an occupant of real property is now or has been suspected to be infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or any other disease which reasonable medical evidence suggests to be highly unlikely to be transmitted through the occupying of a dwelling;

(b) that the real property was the site of a felony, suicide or homicide; and

(c) that the real property has been the site of an alleged parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon.

No cause of action shall arise or be maintained against a seller or lessor of real property or a real estate broker or salesman, by statute or at common law, for failure to disclose to a buyer or tenant that the real property is or was psychologically impacted.

An easy way to determine whether a house is truly “haunted” is to hire Ghostbusters. No seriously, Google the property address and the last few prior owners and see what comes up. If there was a murder or suicide–or even ghosts– it should reveal itself.

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The new Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act, buried in the fine print of the much publicized Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act contains strict new rules aimed at preventing another sub-prime mortgage collapse.

Overview: What Is The Impact To Mortgage Lenders and Originators?

The Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act certainly changes the regulatory landscape for mortgage originators who focused on high-risk, sub-prime lending, setting tougher new standards and creating new federal remedies for consumers victimized by deceptive and predatory lending. Stripped down, the Act puts the onus on mortgage lenders and originators to ensure, based on verified and documentation information, that borrowers can afford to repay the loans for which they have applied. Pretty novel idea, huh?

The new law essentially codifies good underwriting practices by requiring consideration of a borrower’s “credit history, current income, expected income the consumer is reasonably assured of receiving, current obligations, debt-to-income ratio or the residential income the consumer will have after paying non-mortgage debt and mortgage-related obligations, employment status, and other financial resources other than the consumer’s equity in the dwelling or real property that secures repayment of the loan.”

I don’t see anything in these rules that a financially prudent lender wouldn’t have already implemented in its underwriting processes. Lenders should not be placing borrowers into loans they are doomed to fail.

I’m sure these new rules will result in a few more disclosures and forms, but I don’t see this making a major impact on the conventional residential lending industry. If mortgage professionals think otherwise, I’d love to here from you. Well, onto the details:

New Minimum Mortgage Affordability Standards

The new law essentially outlaws many of the characteristics of the classic sub-prime, predatory mortgage loan, by requiring that:

  • The mortgage provides that regular periodic payments do not result in an increase of the principal balance of the loan or allow the consumer to defer repayment of principal.
  • The mortgage does not result in a balloon payment (a scheduled payment that is more than twice as large as the average of earlier scheduled payments).
  • The income and financial resources relied upon by the lender have been verified and documented.
  • The underwriting process for a fixed loan is based on a payment schedule that fully amortizes the loan over the loan term, taking into account all applicable costs.
  • The underwriting process for an adjustable rate loan is based on the maximum rate permitted under the loan for the first five years and a payment schedule that fully amortizes the loan over the loan term, taking into account all applicable costs.
  • The mortgage complies with guidelines and regulations related to ratios of total monthly debt to total monthly income or alternative measures of a borrower’s ability to pay.
  • The mortgage has total points and fees amounting to no more than 3 percent of the total loan amount.
  • The term of the loan does not exceed 30 years.

It would appear that this new law would prohibit so-called “no doc” “no income verification” loans.

The new law also imposes on lenders a duty to verify amounts of income or assets that the lender relies upon to determine the consumer’s ability to repay the loan. Again, a novel idea…In order to “safeguard against fraudulent reporting,” lenders are now required to use IRS  transcripts of tax returns.

New Loan Origination Standards

The new law requires that lenders be qualified and registered as mortgage originators under the applicable federal and state laws. The significance of this registration procedure is that all loan documents will require the inclusion of the mortgage originator’s unique identifier, which is to be provided by the National Mortgage Licensing System and Registry. This will enable tracking of the bad guys.

“Steering Incentives” Prohibited

The Dodd-Frank Act will prohibit lenders from “steering” borrowers into more costly loans. It will prohibit mortgage originators from mischaracterizing the credit history of a consumer or the residential loans available to the consumer for purposes of making the loan. Mortgage originators are also prohibited from discouraging consumers from seeking a residential mortgage loan from another lender when the former is unable to suggest, offer, or recommend a loan that is not more expensive.

Predatory Loans Banned

Mortgage originators are prohibited from steering consumers to residential mortgage loans that have “predatory characteristics or effects.” “Predatory characteristics,” include equity stripping, excessive fees, or abusive terms.

Yield-Spread Premium Bonuses Outlawed

The Dodd-Frank Act also imposes new compensation limitations by prohibiting yield-spread premium bonuses, a practice, regulators argue, tends to increase the total cost of the loan to the borrower. Yield spread premiums (YSPs) are fees paid by a lender to a mortgage originator for placing a loan in a certain loan program.

Additional Liability for Mortgage Originators

The Act imposes liability on mortgage originators who fail to comply with these new minimum standards. It provides the penalty of triple damages plus the costs of suit and reasonable attorneys’ fees. Watch out for class actions here!

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A Special Guest Post By Gabrielle Daniels Brennan, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Sudbury, MA. Check out her Blog, Living in Sudbury www.liveinsudburyma.com!

Similar to the obsession over Massachusetts real estate and addiction to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is our addiction to The Bachelor / The Bachelorette TV series. Many of us really didn’t want to admit that we were glued to the TV/DVR on Monday nights, or that we conveniently didn’t want to make plans, for fear of missing this show. For those who have much better things to do than to watch, the series revolves around a single bachelor or bachelorette (deemed eligible) and a pool of romantic interests (typically 25). The Bachelor/Bachelorette then go through a *grueling* series of dates with the pool of potential mates, weekly-elimination style, with the winner getting the “final rose” and possibly a marriage proposal.

As a busy Metrowest Massachusetts Realtor and an admitted fan of the show, I can attest that the process that each Bachelor and Bachelorette go through to find *true love* can be easily translated to the real estate home buying and selling process.

Buying & Selling Real Estate Is A Lot Like Matchmaking

Buying and selling a house is serious business. For most, you are buying or selling your largest single asset. In addition to needing data and supporting information to make a sound business decision, there is tremendous emotion that goes into the process. Getting married is more serious (well, to some), but the process is comparable. At the end of the day, if you have grown out of a house, you can sell it. Not as easy in a marriage.

There are so many commonalities between matching Bachelors/Bachelorettes and Home Buyers/Sellers. There is no such thing as a “typical” transaction/relationship. When representing either side, it’s so important to understand the people and what makes each person tick. On the Bachelor, the first night cocktail party actually makes a lot of sense from a home buying perspective. So often, on the first day out with a Realtor, a home buyer will see everything that fits the criteria “on paper” that they think they want in a house. Just because you want a 4 bedroom/2.5 bath Colonial, doesn’t mean you will like all of them. Many get eliminated from consideration on the first day. Unlike the show’s host, Chris Harrison, my job is to understand why you eliminated specific suitors and to make sure that you aren’t introduced to any more!

The Bachelor/Bachelorette Desperately Need A Real Estate Agent!

Jake & Vienna, (c) ABC, The Bachelor

If The Bachelor or The Bachelorette producers are truly serious about helping its “star” find love, I think that Host Chris Harrison should behave more like a Buyer’s Agent during the next season of The Bachelor. For those of you who already appreciate and understand the true value of Buyer’s representation, you are one step ahead. For those of you who think you are getting “a deal” without Agent representation, I have 3 words for you: Jake and Vienna.

Last season’s Bachelor, Jake, had no help. Vienna, his now former fiancée, was the pretty house with the nice big kitchen and partially finished basement. She is the house that is lived in, a house that is ready for you to entertain in. But there isn’t much upstairs. Bedrooms are small, possibly mold in the attic, the poor quality roof needs to be reshingled every few years, ice dams in the winter, and the garage door doesn’t close (catch my drift?).  As soon as the season ended, so did they.

If, like a Real Estate Agent, Chris Harrison were acting in the best interest of the Bachelor/Bachelorettes, it would have been his responsibility to not only introduce the Bachelor/ette to the appropriate suitors matching their needs, but to:

  1. Assess the TRUE value of each suitor (house)
  2. Give the Bachelor/ette some history about the suitor and the suitors’ family (neighborhood/community)
  3. Provide information that would reveal any work that has been done to the house, before it came on the market, along with permits, etc.
  4. Work with the Bachelor/ette on their financing – will they be able to afford their choice? What will it cost to maintain the relationship?
  5. Disclose any and all research about their history. If any liens (restraining orders) are in effect, this would be important to know
  6. Very importantly – negotiate EVERYTHING on behalf of the Bachelor/ette
  7. Manage the home inspection (home visits) – make sure the Bachelor/ette is asking the right questions
  8. Make sure that everything proceeds smoothly prior to and at the closing (Fantasy Suite and beyond…)

Getting That Final Rose (The Keys)

Ali & Roberto, (c) ABC, The Bachelorette

Bottom line is that your Real Estate Agent is there to guard and protect your real estate purchase and your wallet. We want you to be as sure about your decision as Ali seems to be with this season’s winner, Roberto. We aren’t here to tell you how to decorate or to follow you around a house like the helicopter date in Bora Bora. We are here to guide you, to tell you if we feel you are making a mistake (Jake and Vienna). To negotiate for you. To point out the big issues that we see while you are ogling the gorgeous marble in the master bath (Ed & Jillian). If you want someone to agree with everything you are doing, bring your BFF along. It could be the most dramatic home purchase process ever or it could be truly enjoyable and exciting (Trista and Ryan).

When buying a home, you don’t want to make a mistake. You don’t want to second-guess anything (Jason & Molly). As Real Estate professionals, it’s our preference that you don’t show up on the cover of US Weekly in tears (or the equivalent). If you decide to buy or sell on your own, don’t come crying to us “After the Closing” when you realize that you overpaid for the house that has taken 3 years to sell or that your Buyer couldn’t get their financing and now you can’t close on your purchase (Brad Womack). We would rather be handing you the final rose at your closing.

Gabrielle Daniels Brennan, Tel: 617-320-8150 Email: gabrielle.daniels@nemoves.com

Sudbury Wayland MA Real Estate

Carole Daniels & Gabrielle Daniels Brennan

The Team of Daniels and Daniels

Carole Daniels and Gabrielle Daniels Brennan are the #1 real estate team in Sudbury. As a top producing, award winning Mother/Daughter team, Carole offers over 31 years of successful Real Estate Sales and Marketing experience. Daniels and Daniels are #30 in New England and within the top 1% of Agents internationally. Gabrielle and Carole have been a team for 7 years. Prior to Real Estate, Gabrielle spent over a decade in sports and event marketing for ESPN, The Olympics, Coca-Cola, Arby’s and NIKE.  They work 24/7 for their clients and love what they do. For more information go to: www.liveinsudburyma.com.

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If the condominium project that you are buying into is involved in any pending litigation over construction or its common areas, chances are you will not be able to obtain a conventional loan under newer, strict Fannie Mae condominium lending guidelines. This is not good for condominium buyers, lenders, unit owners desiring to sell and condominium associations.

Fannie Mae underwrites the vast majority of mortgages in the United States today. Reacting to the condominium market meltdown, Fannie Mae (FNMA) substantially overhauled their condo underwriting rules, effective Jan. 1, 2009. The new rules require a 70% sell out threshold for new construction project, tough rules governing condominium finances, and new insurance requirements, among other tighter standards. The net effect is that condominium lending has gotten substantially more difficult to obtain, and the real estate industry and some lawmakers aren’t happy about it.

Pending Litigation Involving Safety, Structural Soundness or Habitability

The new guidelines exclude condominium financing for “projects in litigation, arbitration and mediation that arises out of a dispute as to safety, structural soundness or habitability.” Fannie Mae underwriters now look closely at any pending litigation involving the condominium, especially concerning its construction and common areas. I’ve seen several loans denied and canceled recently over pending condo litigation, regardless of the merits of the lawsuit. According to the Fannie Mae FAQ, if the litigation is minor and covered by insurance, lenders can ask Fannie for a waiver or exception.

So how can buyers and realtors protect themselves here?

  • First, prior to signing the purchase and sale agreement, make sure you ask the seller and the listing broker (preferably in writing to create a record) whether there is any pending litigation involving the condominium. Realtors should follow up with the board of trustees or management company. Attorneys can obtain access to the state trial court database to search for pending litigation.
  • If there is pending litigation, borrowers need to inform their lender, and get an answer whether this will affect the financing.
  • If you cannot get an answer by the signing of the purchase and sale agreement, use a clause in the agreement where the seller certifies there is no pending litigation (and assessments) affecting the condominium.
  • Buyers’ attorneys should also use a catch-all Fannie Mae contingency clause which gives the buyer an out if the condominium ultimately is Fannie non-compliant. This should give some additional protection to the buyer, especially where these issues often arise on the eve of closing and after the loan commitment deadline.

The Pendulum Has Swung The Other Way

What’s troubling about the new rules is that many condominiums are involved in litigation, some of which is meritless or frivolous unit owner suits. A lot of lawsuits are covered by the condominium master insurance policy so there is little risk of real loss. That Fannie Mae would summarily deny financing to these condominiums is disturbing to say the least. Overall, I believe that the pendulum has swung way too far. I wrote about this back when the rules were first implemented (still our most popular post), and it’s still true. But it’s the reality. Buyers and their advisers need to be aware of the situation.

Helpful Links:

Fannie Mae Condominium Review FAQ

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haunted_house-1.jpgThe well maintained 4 bedroom Colonial in a North Shore suburb with a great backyard looked nice enough thought “Debbie,” the buyer. However, she was dismayed to learn from neighbors after closing on the property, that the prior owner had committed suicide in the house. The real estate agent never advised her of this, and she says she would have never purchased the home if she had known this.

In Massachusetts, real estate brokers struggle to sell homes tainted by shocking murders, suicides, or even suspected “haunted houses.”  For real estate brokers, sellers and buyers, these “stigmatized” properties are particularly difficult to deal with as they raise unique valuation problems and disclosure issues.

“Haunted Houses”

Under Massachusetts law, however, real estate brokers and sellers are under no legal obligation to disclose that a property was the site of a felony, suicide or homicide, or has been the site of an alleged “parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon,” i.e., a haunted house. Thus, buyers are on their own to discover these types of stigmas—however, a quick Google search on the property address or prior owner may have revealed the prior suicide in “Debbie’s” case.

Power Lines, Cell Towers & Underground Gas Pipelines

Less notorious, but equally challenging, are stigmas such as high tension power lines, cell towers, high pressure underground gas pipelines, landfills, nearby sex offenders, former Army bases, and other environmental concerns. These are much more challenging to handle, and are becoming increasingly prevalent.

While there is an ongoing debate whether electric and magnetic radiation emitting from powers lines and cell towers are harmful to humans, there are studies suggesting that buyers perceive them as health hazards and will drop asking prices accordingly. Neighborhood opposition to cell towers and new gas lines are becoming increasingly widespread, vocal and well-organized. Also, virtually all power lines and gas pipelines running over property will carry with them recorded easements which typically restrict building near the lines. Depending on the proximity of the lines, these easements may impact potential home additions and backyard activities such as pool installations, etc.

Buyers need to be cognizant of the impact of all potential stigmas, whether well-publicized or not. For most off-site conditions, Realtors and sellers are under no legal obligation to disclose them to buyers. Buyers, you need to do your due diligence. Check the town assessors maps (often available online), registry of deeds information, the Mass. sex offender registry, use the internet and Google Maps to verify any potential impacts on the property, and drive around the neighborhood. You’d be surprised what you’ll find.

Helpful links:  National Ass’n of Realtors Field Guide To Stigmatized Properties

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