Condominium Law

airbnbLaw Catching Up With Popular Airbnb Room Rental Website

With the promise of relatively easy money, Airbnb (Air Bed & Breakfast) is making innkeepers of many Greater Boston homeowners and even renters who are taking advantage of the popular website’s rental listing service. For those who don’t know already, Airbnb is a website where you can rent out one or more rooms in your home, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee. But with some homeowners earning upwards of $20,000/year on rental income, Airbnb raises a multitude of thorny legal issues in Massachusetts, including whether an innkeeper or rooming house license is required and whether guests qualify as tenants. Last year, a group of Brookline residents dropped a dime on a local homeowner who rented out rooms to foreign exchange students via Airbnb. According to Brookline Building Commissioner Dan Bennett, an owner may rent up to two rooms to two lodgers as of right, as long as there are no separate cooking facilities. If an owner wants to have another lodger, they would require relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, Airbnb’s website currently lists nearly 3,500 properties for rent in the Boston area — a 63% increase since July 2013. Some of the lodging arrangements offered cost less than $50 per night and involve little more than a bed, a key, and zero conversation. Others offer entire homes, bed-and-breakfast-intensity chitchat, and prices that can top $800 per night. Aspiring innkeepers are everywhere, from Dorchester to Revere, Boston to Somerville, advertising “treetop views,” “steps to the T,” “cozy penthouses,” even “lovely puppies.”

But with success has come negative attention from cities and towns that want to tax the lodging arrangements as they do hotels, from landlords with leases that prohibiting sublets, and from neighbors who don’t want strangers traipsing through buildings. There are also some horror stories popping up with Airbnb guests turning into squatters and refusing to leave. In New York City, the Attorney General is waging a publicized legal fight to get Airbnb host names and recover unpaid hotel taxes. 

Licensing and Registration Requirements

From a legal perspective, there is no doubt that Massachusetts municipalities will eventually be considering whether Airbnb qualifies as a rooming or lodging house, bed and breakfast or hotel for purposes of both regulation and taxation. Hey, you think cities will pass up a golden opportunity to increase tax revenue? No way.

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services recently opined in a memo that lodging of this type is subject to local licensure as a bed and breakfast. For now, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department has issued a temporary policy not to issue citations to homeowners while an internal group works on recommendations. A city policy is expected this fall, and as yet, no per-bed fee rate has been set.

The Licensing Board for the City of Boston requires a lodging house license if lodgings are rented to four or more persons not within the second degree of kindred to the person conducting the lodging. This license is an annual requirement and a lodging house is further required to keep, in permanent form, a register of the true name and residence of occupants for a period of one year. Lodging house license may require upgrades with smoke detectors and fire prevention systems which may be cost prohibitive for any Airbnb host.

The Boston Inspectional Services Department requires that a property be registered if it is to be occupied without the owner of the property present. This registration is done on an annual basis and inspection of the property is required on a five (5) year cycle by the Inspectional Services Department. This regulation applies to “a non-owner occupied room or group of related rooms within a dwelling used or intended for use by one family or household for living, sleeping, cooking and eating.” More information is available here.

In the suburbs, Airbnb may also run afoul of zoning by-laws which regulate whether a home is a single family or multi-family dwelling.

Taxes. The City of Boston excise and convention center taxes (together known as room occupancy taxes) may apply to an Airbnb listing. Refer to the Massachusetts Room Occupancy Tax Guide for more details. In addition, the Massachusetts excise tax may also apply. Refer to Section 64G(3) of the State Tax Code.

Guests Considered Legal Tenants?

Airbnb offers rentals for a daily, weekly or monthly charge. Whether a guest would be considered a legal tenant entitled to the vast protections under Mass. law depends primarily on the length of the tenancy. Under state law, if the premises is deemed a rooming house or lodging house, a rental for three consecutive months constitutes a tenancy at will which can only be terminated with a rental period notice of at least 30 days. Occupancy of a dwelling unit within a rooming house or lodging house for more than 30 consecutive days and less than three consecutive months may be terminated only by seven (7) days notice in writing by the operator of the rooming house or lodging house to the occupant. A daily rental is a grey area and would likely be considered a mere license. However, in all instances, the host must use court eviction proceedings to evict the guest, and cannot resort to self-help such as changing the locks, lest they be subject to liability.

Apartments

If you have the chutzpah of renting out a room in your leased apartment via Airbnb, the rental will likely violate your lease’s provision against sub-leasing and your landlord will not be happy. Most standard form apartment leases provide that any sub-lease must have the written consent of the landlord so the landlord can control who occupies the unit. Most landlords I know will not approve of an Airbnb rental situation, unless they are getting income and are assured of the security and safety of the situation. Renting out your apartment through Airbnb can violate your lease and subject you to a quick exist via eviction. From one legal question and answer website, tenants are already facing eviction for using Airbnb.

Condominiums

If you are renting out a room in your condo, Airbnb rentals may also conflict with condominium rules and regulations. I highly doubt your condominium association and fellow unit owners would be happy if a unit were turned into a revolving door of bed and breakfast guests. Most condominium documents provide for rules governing the type and length of rentals of units. Unit owners who violate these rules can be subject to fines, penalties and court action.

Mortgage and Homeowner Insurance Policy Ramifications

Most conventional single family and condominium Fannie Mae compliant mortgages contain a provision where the owner agrees that the mortgaged property will remain the borrower’s principal place of residence and not an investment property. Investment property mortgage typically carry a higher interest rate and are sold in a different category in the secondary mortgage market. Homeowners who make a practice of using Airbnb may unknowingly be violating their mortgage agreements by converting the property into in essence a rental property. The same holds true for a standard homeowner’s insurance policy. Turning your home into a bed and breakfast certainly raises a host of new risks for both the homeowner and the insurance company underwriting those risks. If there is an unfortunate accident involving an Airbnb guest, watch out because the insurance company could deny the claim due to converting the character of the insured property into a rental property.

What’s Next?

Airbnb is certainly a game-changing technology in the rental space. As is common with any new distruptive technology the law is just catching up. But the law will catch up and Airbnb hosts and guest must pay attention and comply with whatever regulations and law that are passed. Check back here for more developments as I will be monitoring the situation.

 

{ 0 comments }

ma-lowell-hamiltoncanal-2Wyman v. Ayer Properties:  SJC Holds That Economic Loss Doctrine Inapplicable In Condominium Construction Defect Claims

In an important ruling which will make it less difficult for condominium associations and trustees to seek redress for faulty or defective construction, the Supreme Judicial Court has jettisoned the “economic loss doctrine” in the condominium context and affirmed a $300,000 plus judgment against a Lowell based real estate construction company over faulty construction at a condominium. A link to the opinion can be found here.

The economic loss doctrine provides that a claimant must suffer some sort of property damage or personal injury in a negligent construction claim before being able to recover compensatory damages. The strict application of the economic loss doctrine in condominium construction defects was often the “magic bullet” used by insurance companies to defend these claims. Using some much needed common sense, the court held that the doctrine should not apply strictly in the condominium setting due to the peculiar nature of a condominium ownership structure with the association/trustees owning the common areas but with unit owners having contracts with the developer.

Going forward, condominium trustees will likely have more success in recovering their losses for defective construction against developers over common areas. On the flip side, insurance premiums for construction companies may rise due to the increased liability exposure.

{ 0 comments }

Decision Could Have Wide Impact Upon Marijuana Use By Tenants

The law on marijuana and rental housing remains clouded to say the least. And that’s no pun. This week on April 8th, the Supreme Judicial Court will consider the first of probably many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing. In this particular case, Boston Housing Authority v. Figgs (SJC 11532), the high court will assess whether a state housing authority may evict a subsidized tenant and terminate her federal housing benefits for the alleged possession of less than one ounce of marijuana — which is no longer a criminal offense in Massachusetts, but still a crime under federal law. With the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the rollout of the medical marijuana dispensaries and the conflict with federal drug laws, this case may have wide-ranging impacts upon the relationships of landlords, tenants, housing authorities and even condominium owners and trustees over the use of marijuana, both recreationally and medicinally.

Oral arguments are available via live stream here. Legal briefs and filings in the case can be found here. A final opinion and ruling is expected this summer.

This case should also put the new Medical Marijuana Law into re-focus. Landlords have been increasingly anxious about how to manage and regulate tenants’ use of medical and recreational marijuana, if at all. The law not only grants qualified patients the right to obtain medical marijuana but it also allows patients the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a marijuana dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. There is a bill in the Legislature granting landlords the right to prohibit medical marijuana on rental property without fear of being sued for disability discrimination.

I’ll be monitoring this new and dynamic area of the law. It will surely be a hot topic in the next couple of years.

__________________________________________

100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience Massachusetts landlord tenant and real estate attorney. If you are concerned or have questions about the new Medical Marijuana Law, please contact him atinfo@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

 

{ 0 comments }

NIGHTCODE_CRR3The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code governs the minimal standards of fitness and conditions for human habitation of rental occupancy of property. Unfortunately, most landlords become familiar with the lengthy code only after tenants or the local Board of Health cites them for code violations. As a landlord-tenant attorney, I’ve created this comprehensive summary of the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code. Mind you, this does not cover every single provision,  just the important ones, in my opinion. Keep this handy guide on your nightstands in case you have insomnia! Seriously, this is important information for all rental property owners in Massachusetts.

Scope

The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code is found at 105 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 410, which can be downloaded by clicking here. The Sanitary Code applies to all rental properties in Massachusetts including owner-occupied multi-families, rooming houses and temporary housing. The only exceptions are dwellings located on a campground and civil defense shelters.

Kitchen and Bathroom Requirements

The Code provides that every rental unit where common cooking facilities are provided shall contain a kitchen sink, a stove and oven and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. Each unit must include at least one toilet, one washbasin (which cannot be the kitchen sink) and one bathtub or shower in a separate bathroom. Privies and chemical toilets are prohibited except with Board of Health permission.

Potable Water

Landlords must provide “a supply of potable water sufficient in quantity and pressure to meet the ordinary needs of the occupant” either connected to town/city water or private well with Board of Health approval. The landlord may charge tenants for actual water usage if separately assessed and metered. Hot water must also be provided of not less than 110°F and no more than 130°F.

Heating

Landlords must provide for adequate heating in every habitable room of a rental unit including bathrooms. Portable space heaters and similar equipment are prohibited. Heating must be provided to no less than 68°F between 7AM and 11PM and at least 64°F between 11PM and 7AM, except between June 15 and September 15.

Natural Light and Lighting Fixtures

The Code requires at least one window in all rooms except the kitchen if less than 70 s.f. Lighting fixtures must be provided in all bathrooms. Two outlets must be provided in every habitable room, and sufficient lighting provided in all hallways, foyers, laundry rooms and the like. Buildings over ten units must have auxiliary emergency lighting. Screens must be provided for all windows on the first floor.

Maintenance Obligations

An oft-litigated area, the Code provides for maintenance obligations for both landlord and tenant. Landlords must maintain and repair whatever appliances he has installed in the unit. If a tenant has paid for and installed an appliance himself, however, he is responsible for maintaining it. Tenants are also responsible for the general cleanliness of toilets, sinks, showers, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances. So when the tenant claims there is mold in the bathroom, the landlord can argue that the tenant’s lack of cleanliness is the cause. Landlords must also exterminate any pest, insect or rodent infestation.

Asbestos and Lead Paint Materials

If there is asbestos material in the unit, the landlord must keep it in good repair, free of all defects, cracks and tears which would allow for the release of asbestos dust. Due to the liability exposure, it’s a good idea for any landlord to remove all asbestos materials. Lead paint is absolutely prohibited where children under 6 are occupying. See my previous posts on the Lead Paint Law for more info on this complex area.

Utility Metering

Owners must provide electric and gas service to tenants unless they are separately metered and billed to the unit and the lease provides for same. Separate water metering is permissible so long as the landlord gets written approval from the local Board of Health and complies with the metering requirements of General Laws chapter 186, section 22. For homes heated with oil, the owner must provide the oil unless it is provided through a separate oil tank servicing only that dwelling unit.

Minimum Square Footage

* 150 s.f. for the first occupant, and no less than 100 s.f. for each additional occupant
* Bedrooms — 70 s.f. for first occupant, 50 s.f. for each additional occupant
All ceilings must be no less than 7 feet.

Egress/Snow and Ice Removal

Property owners must keep all means of egress free from obstruction. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. Otherwise, landlords are responsible for snow and ice removal. Even if the tenant is responsible, the landlord could still face liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under recent Massachusetts case law.

Locks

Owners must install locks for every door of a dwelling unit capable of being secured from unlawful entry. The main entry door of a three unit dwelling or more must be installed with a automatic locking mechanism.

Smoke/CO2 Detectors

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors must be installed in accordance with the Mass. Fire Code.

Railings

Owners must provide safe handrails for every stairway, and a wall or guardrail on every open side of a stairway no less than 30 inches in height. For porches and balconies, a wall or guardrail at least 36 inches high must be provided. Between all guardrails and handrails, balusters at intervals of no more than 6 inches for pre-1997 construction, and at 4.5 inches for post 1997 construction must be provided.

Inspections and Code Violations

The Code provides that the local Board of Health or Inspector can inspect any unit upon the  oral or written complaint of an occupant. Inspections are supposed to take place within 24 hours of the complaint, but that rarely happens. The inspector will prepare a code violation form. Serious violations such as failure to provide heat or water must be corrected within 12 hours. Less serious violations should be corrected within 5 – 30 days depending on the type of violation. Violators have a right to a hearing before the board of health to contest any code violations.

Code violations are criminal proceedings and should not be ignored. Penalties can result in $500/day fines and even condemnation of the premises.

______________________________

100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. If you have been cited for violations of the State Sanitary Code or have questions about it, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

{ 1 comment }

massachusetts notary publicCourt Points Out Potential Problem with Standard Notary Acknowledgment Form

Could the the standard form notary acknowledgment clause used in virtually every recent Massachusetts deed, mortgage and other recorded instrument be defective in certain situations involving power of attorneys? That may be the result of a recent court decision by the First Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel in Weiss v. Wells Fargo Bank (click for link to case).

The ruling is causing quite a bit of angst in the real estate conveyancing community. Since Revised Executive Order 455 – Standards of Conduct for Notaries Public was passed by Gov. Romney in 2004, notaries public and attorneys have been using the approved notary acknowledgment form providing that the document is signed “voluntarily for its stated purpose. ” In the Weiss case, however, the court held that the notary acknowledgment of an attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney was defective as it failed to indicate that the principal has signed under “his free act and deed.

The facts in the Weiss case are rather unique so it may have limited effect. But it should serve as a wake-up call for notaries public, attorneys and lenders that the better practice may be to use a notary public acknowledgment with the “free act and deed” language as was common before the 2004 notary rules.

Practice Pointer:  Going forward, I recommend that real estate attorneys, notaries public and lenders should consider using “free act and deed” language in notary public acknowledgments. See below for form language. 

Fact of the Case: Botched Notarization With Power of Attorney

In the Weiss case, a bankruptcy trustee for Chicopee homeowners attempted to use his “strong-arm” powers to void a refinance mortgage. The borrowers took out a refinance loan on their Chicopee home with Wachovia Mortgage. They signed a limited power of attorney to enable a one Shannon Obringer (who I assume was a bank employee) to sign the mortgage. The actual signing of the mortgage occurred in Pennsylvania by a Pennsylvania notary (I assume at Wachovia’s offices). You know this wasn’t going to end well….

The pre-printed notary acknowledgment form on the mortgage was the approved MA Executive Order form, which the notary partially completed as follows:

On this 11 day of June 2007, before me, the undersigned notary public, personally appeared Shawn G. Kelley and Annemarie Kelley by Shannon Obringer as Attorney in Fact, proved to me through satisfactory evidence of identification which was/were ________________ to be the person(s) whose name(s) is/are signed on the preceding document, and acknowledged to me that he/she/they signed it voluntarily for its stated purpose.

Although there was some ambiguity from the wording as to who actually appeared before the notary and the notary failed to fill out the identification form blank space, the Court held that these were not necessarily fatal. However, the Court ruled that the language in the notarization that it was signed “voluntarily for its stated purpose” was fatally defective because it did not sufficiently demonstrate that it was the borrowers’ “free act and deed” by the attorney-in-fact’s signature, as required by Massachusetts statutory and case law. The Court went on to void the mortgage in favor of the bankrupt debtor.

New Notary Public Acknowledgment 

Going forward, I would consider using a notarization acknowledgment with the older “free act and deed” language in power of attorney signing situations. The 2004 acknowledgment should be ok for typical individual notarizations. Of course, you should consult with your title company, lender and/or attorney before notarizing in any tricky situations.

If you have any questions about notarization after this court ruling, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

{ 1 comment }

photo.aspx

Or What Happens When Condo Docs Suck…

A recent case handed down by the Appeals Court illustrates the fundamental importance of careful condominium document draftsmanship concerning what amenities are included within the definition of a “unit” — and the unintended results when deficient documents get in the hands of judges.

The case is Sano v. Tedesco (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 28, 2013) and concerned a Lynn condominium dealing with a large repair bill for its crumbling balconies. Half of the 8 unit building enjoyed their own private balconies. Faced with a substantial repair bill, the unit owners without balconies balked at paying the bill, arguing that the balconies were part of the units they served.

The problem was that due to poor draftsmanship, the master deed inconceivably made no mention of the balconies or the support beams. Left with little guidance, the court turned to the Mass. Condominium Act, which defines a unit as “a part of the condominium including one or more rooms, with appurtenant areas such as balconies, terraces and storage lockers if any.”  The judges ultimately came down the middle, ruling that each unit owner was responsible for repairs to their own balcony, but that the condominium trust was responsible for the support beams for each balcony. And even the three justice court panel couldn’t agree on that bizarre result! A dissenting judge thought that each unit owner should have been responsible for both the balconies and support beams.

I doubt any of the unit owners expected this peculiar result, with a split of responsibility over balconies and support beams. If the master deed was drafted properly in the first place with the balconies being designated as either a limited common area (with sole repair responsibility lying with the unit owner) or common area with an exclusive easement for each unit owner (with the responsibility on the condo trust), this confusing result would have been avoided. The moral of the story is make sure you hire a competent Massachusetts condominium conversion attorney who is experienced in drafting condo docs!

{ 0 comments }

hqdefaultSpecial Considerations For Drafting Two and Three Family Massachusetts Condominium Conversions Documents

Avid readers of this Blog know that I’m a huge Seinfeld fan. One of my favorite episodes was the “Serenity Now” episode where Kramer went a little nutty after being tormented by neighborhood kids, muttering “serenity now, serenity now” outside his toilet papered apartment. (Seinfeld buffs also know this as the episode where George beats Lloyd Braun in a computer sales competition). For your viewing pleasure, I’ve embedded the video below.

Serenity is a good topic when it comes to condominiums because condominium living can often bring out the worst in people. There have been some good ones in Massachusetts. I’ve written about the infamous case where a disgruntled unit owner dropped bags of dog poop labeled with the name of the condo board president in hallways and gave the “bird” to condo trustees. There are others, too many to mention here, where dysfunctional trustees have brought condominiums to financial ruin and chaos.

Despite this discordance, condominium conversions of two and three multifamily homes in and around Boston, Cambridge and Somerville continue to be a popular way to cash in on the hot real estate market. A lot of these homes are owned and occupied by extended families, some of whom stay in the new condominium, and some who leave for greener pastures. Smaller condominiums, however, can be a recipe for disaster without careful planning and drafting of the legal documents which govern them. I’m going to outline some important considerations in drafting Massachusetts condominium conversion documents which will put into practice the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The Master Deed

The Master Deed is where it all starts. Condominiums are a “creature of statute.” That is, they are a special legal form of property ownership enabled only through a special law called the Massachusetts Condominium Act, General Laws Chapter 183A. The owner of the property must “submit” the property into the condominium regime through the recording with the registry of deeds of a master deed.

The Master Deed sets forth what is part of the units and what is part of the shared “common areas.” Units are typically defined as all of the interior space from the lower surface of finished ceilings, surface plaster of walls and the sub-floor in, while common area consists of the innards behind the walls and buildings, the roof, most common HVAC/plumbing/heating systems, yards, and exterior of the home, among other things.

The use of “limited common areas” are especially useful in two and three family condominiums. Limited common areas are technically common area space but reserved for the exclusive use of the unit owner which it serves. Examples include private decks, porches, roof decks, parking spaces, and storage areas. The drafter can be flexible and provide that limited common areas must be repaired by either the condo association or the unit owner.

The master deed will often impose restrictions upon the use of units or rights of first refusal for the trustees or other unit owners. Care must be taken here to ensure that the units remain marketable while also protecting the serenity of unit owners. Rights of first refusal are discouraged these days.

Declaration of Trust and By-Laws

The second component of creating a condominium is the Declaration of Trust, also referred to as the By-Laws. The declaration of trust creates the condominium trust association and a board of trustees which govern the condominium.

For smaller condominiums between 2 and 5 units, the key is crafting the provisions so as to prevent dead-locking on major decisions. I almost always provide for super-majority voting on all major issues. For 2 unit conversions, I recommend unanimous voting on all major issues. And for all condos I use a mandatory arbitration clause to mediate any deadlocks.

In the case of non-payment of condo fees, which can be financial disaster for two and three unit condos, I provide for the right of the paying unit owners to be granted authority and power to start condo lien proceedings against the non-payor and recover attorneys’ fees and costs.

The declaration of trust should also contain all of the unique rules and regulations of the condominium. Important note: If these are not attached and recorded with the declaration of trust, they are not binding on unit owners. Rules should be drafted in consultation with the owners and can cover anything from satellite dishes, pets, smoking, signs, preserving architectural integrity, noise, quiet hours, parties, trash, etc.

The declaration of trust should also have standard Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac provisions which will ensure that future buyers can obtain conventional financing on their units.

Annual Budget, Condo Fees and Real Estate Taxes

The condominium should have a written annual budget and monthly condo fees established. A separate condominium bank account should also be set up with checks, deposit slips, etc. For small projects, the budget can be rather simple, encompassing the master insurance premium, water/sewer, landscaping, maintenance, and a small capital reserve fund. The monthly condo fee is calculated as the annual budget divided by the number of units divided by 12.

With respect to real estate taxes on a condo conversion, the building will continue to be assesses as a single dwelling until the tax assessor catches up to the conversion. A tax letter agreement should be prepared so that real estate taxes are prorated and properly assessed and paid by each unit owner after the conversion until each unit becomes separately assessed.

Also don’t forget that in the City of Boston, a “Trager” excise tax of $500 per unit starting with the second unit will be assessed on all new conversions. The master deed must have a “Trager” stamp before being accepted for recording.

Unit Floor Plans and Site Plan

All new condominium conversions must have prepared unit floor plans, and in Boston, a surveyed site plan. Unit floor plans will detail each unit’s gross living area, and delineate common areas, limited common areas, exclusive use spaces, and units.

How Much Does All This Cost?

Even for two unit conversions, the cost is a fair amount. Legal fees range from $2,500 – $5,000 and upwards, depending on the complexity of the project and the attorney. Recording fees and Boston excise taxes run over $1,000 and upwards. Architect and survey fees range from $2,500 and upwards. And you always get what you pay for, so keep that in mind!

____________________________________________

RDV-profile-picture.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a seasoned Massachusetts condominium conversion attorney. Please contact him at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

{ 1 comment }

With an abysmal 20% compliance rate, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department is giving Boston area landlords until August 31, 2013 to register their rental units under a new registration and inspection ordinance.  Under the recently-approved ordinance, every private rental unit in Boston was supposed to have been registered by Aug. 1.

According to Boston.com, since the registration period began on May 1, only about 26,150 units have been registered with the city, said department spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake. That represents less than 20 percent of the estimated 140,000 total units that are required to register.

Under the new ordinance, rental units will be inspected by ISD every five years. Owner-occupied dwellings with 6 or less units are exempt from the inspection requirements (but still must register). Rented out condominium units must register as well.

For more information about the City of Boston Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, read our prior post here.

Landlords who fail to register will be subject to fines and other action from the city, officials said. But, the city will likely use discretion in deciding whether to discipline landlords, according to Brian Swett, Boston’s Chief of Environment and Energy. “We’ll have to make an assessment as we get closer to Aug. 31,” he said. “If there are folks who are willfully not registering their properties that’s different from someone who hasn’t been informed about this yet by our outreach.”

More Information:  Register your rental unit online at Cityofboston.gov or download an application from the same site. The City has also posted a Frequently Asked Questions Page here.

 

{ 1 comment }

7076759_ac0f_625x1000Do Your Due Diligence!

Condominiums remain hot in the Greater Boston area, often the new starter home for the young professional buyer. I am also seeing quite a lot of two and three family homes in the Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville area being converted into condominiums. While condos are usually a great investment, buying one requires some unique due diligence. You must be satisfied that the condominium project as a whole is financially healthy and that you are not buying into a major “money pit.”

The role of the buyer’s attorney in a condominium purchase is to review the condominium documents including the master deed, declaration of trust/by-laws, budget and meeting minutes, if any. The documents, however, only tell so much of the story. What’s really important is what may be lurking behind those documents. Here are some good questions to ask:

  1. How much money is in the capital reserve account and how much is funded annually? The capital reserve fund is like an insurance policy for the inevitable capital repairs every building requires. As a general rule, the fund should contain at least 10% of the annual revenue budget, and in the case of older projects, even more. If the capital reserve account is poorly funded, there is a higher risk of a special assessment.  Get a copy of the last 2 years budget, the current reserve account funding level and any capital reserve study.
  2. Are there any contemplated or pending special assessments? Special assessments are one time fees for capital improvements payable by every unit owner. Some special assessments can run in the thousands. Others, like theBoston Harbor Towers $75 Million renovation project, in the millions. You need to be aware if you are buying a special assessment along with your unit.  It’s a good idea to ask for the last 2 years of condominium meeting minutes to check what’s been going on with the condomininium.
  3. Is there a professional management company or is the association self-managed? Usually, a professional management company, while an added cost, can add great value to a condominium with well run governance and management of common areas. Self-managed condos tend to have a higher incidence of dysfunction.
  4. Is the condominium involved in any pending legal actions? Legal disputes between owners, with developers or with the association can signal trouble and a poorly run organization. Ask whether there are any pending lawsuits.

Purchase and Sale Agreement Tips

Regardless of the answers you receive, my practice is to insert a comprehensive condominium verification provision in the purchase and sale agreement. This will make the seller go on the record as to some important aspects of the condominium financial’s health and should go a long way to ensure that the buyer is not stepping into a huge special assessment or other major financial catastrophe. If issues arise prior to the closing, this provision will give the buyer an “out” to terminate the deal and return the deposits.

Condominium Verification Information.  The Seller represents that, to the best of his/her knowledge, the following information is true and accurate as of the date of this Agreement  and shall remain true as of the date of closing:

    1. The condominium documents provided to the Buyer and/or available for downloading on the ____ County Registry of Deeds are true, accurate and complete copies of all documents recorded with the Registry of Deeds as of the date hereof and that no other documents and/or amendments which adversely impact the Unit being purchased will be recorded which have not been presented to the Buyer.
    2. The current condominium monthly fees are $_____ per month.
    3. Seller has not received any notice of nor is Seller aware of any special assessments for the Unit, whether or not assessments are due now or in the future, and Seller is aware of no immediate pending improvements, repairs or replacements or plans therefore which would likely result in a supplemental assessment or significant increase in the monthly common expenses for the Unit.
    4. In the event there are any supplemental assessments owed with respect to the Unit on the closing date, Seller shall be obligated to pay such assessments in full prior to closing notwithstanding any agreement by the organization of unit owners to allow such payments to be made in installments but only to the extend Seller’s lender agrees to allow said payment on the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Otherwise, Buyer may either agree to accept the obligation to pay said assessment or terminate the agreement by written notice to Seller within 5 days of receipt of notice of said assessment.
    5. The master insurance policy for the unit conforms with the requirements of the Condominium Documents.
    6. There is presently no litigation threatened or pending by or against the Seller, or the Condominium Association, which would cause the Condominium to not be in compliance with current secondary mortgage market guidelines.

The Seller shall promptly notify the Buyer of any change in facts which arise prior to the closing which would make any such representation untrue if such state of facts had existed on the date of execution of this Agreement.  The provisions of this paragraph shall survive delivery of the deed.

If you have any questions about purchasing a Massachusetts condominium unit, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

{ 1 comment }

images-10Overview of  “Standard” Changes to the GBREB Form Purchase and Sale Agreement

Missing mortgage discharges, problematic  probates, “Ibanez” foreclosure issues and other title defects are always an unwelcome surprise to a seller, their Realtor and attorney. But they are unfortunately a common part of life in the real estate conveyancing world. The “standard” purchase and sale agreement form commonly used by Realtors and attorneys (Greater Boston Real Estate Board) provides for what happens in a transaction if a title defect is discovered and cannot be cleared quickly.

The GBREB form, paragraph 10, which is still in widespread use, provides as follows:

If the SELLER shall be unable to give title or to make conveyance, or to deliver possession of the premises, all as herein stipulated, or if at the time of the deed the premises do not conform with the provisions hereof, then any payments made under this agreement shall forthwith be refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto, unless the SELLER elects to use reasonable efforts to remove any defects in title, or to deliver possession as provided herein, or to make the said premises conform to the provisions hereof, as the case may be, in which event the Seller shall given written notice thereof to the Buyer at or before the time for performance hereunder, and thereupon the time for performance hereof shall be extended for a period of thirty days.

The standard provision is, unfortunately, outdated and problematic. Accordingly, experienced Realtors and attorneys are taught to modify this provision from the outset as follows:

If the SELLER shall be unable to give title or to make conveyance, or to deliver possession of the premises, all as herein stipulated, or if at the time of the deed the premises do not conform with the provisions hereof, then any payments made under this agreement shall forthwith be refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto, unless then the SELLER shall elect to use reasonable efforts to remove any defects in title, or to deliver possession as provided herein, or to make the said premises conform to the provisions hereof, as the case may be, in which event the Seller shall given written notice thereof to the Buyer at or before the time for performance hereunder, and thereupon the time for performance hereof shall be extended for a period of thirty days.

These standard modifications ensure that the Seller is initially responsible for clearing any title defects and gives them 30 days in which to do so. If the Seller cannot clear the title defect within 30 days, then both parties have the option of terminating the deal and all deposits must be returned.

Limiting Seller’s Financial Exposure

To limit the seller’s out of pocket expenses to clear title defects, real estate attorneys representing the seller will often insert language such as this at the end of paragraph 10:

Reasonable efforts shall be defined as the Seller’s expenditure of no more than $________, exclusive of all voluntary encumbrances which secure the payment of money which Seller shall be obligated to remove.

The dollar amount is typically anywhere between $1,000 – $4000 depending on the purchase price.

Protecting The Buyer

On the buyer side, what happens if during the 30 day extension cure period, the buyer’s rate lock expires and interest rates are floating up (like now)? Experienced buyer attorneys will often insert the following language in their  riders:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if SELLER extends this Agreement to perfect title or make the Premises conform as provided in Paragraph 10, 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 or the Seller may elect to pay for same.

This language will ensure that the buyer doesn’t wind up floating up the interest rate river with an untimely rate lock expiration. This situation has come up rather frequently over the last several months as interest rates have increased dramatically.

This is just one, albeit a very important, part of how an experienced real estate attorney works up the purchase and sale agreement. I will do some more posts on other aspects of the P&S Agreement. Stay tuned!

___________________________________________

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate closing attorney with offices in Framingham and Needham, MA. He can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508.620.5352.

 

{ 1 comment }

seinfeld-kramerOne of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is the one where Kramer tries to explain to Jerry how tax write-offs work. “It’s all a write-off!” exclaims Kramer who, not surprisingly, had no idea what he was talking about. I’ve embedded the Youtube video below.

With the April 15 tax deadline quickly approaching, let’s talk about some of the taxes, deductions, and “write-offs” arising out of a Massachusetts residential real estate purchase and sale. (Disclaimer: I am neither a CPA nor tax attorney, so consult your own tax professional for specific questions).

Real Estate Property Taxes

Every Massachusetts municipality levies a real estate property tax on residential property. Indeed, the real estate tax is the primary revenue producer for most towns with a limited commercial tax base. The real estate tax rate is set by the local board of assessors and is keyed to the assessed value of your land and home, which is often less than the true market value.

Real estate taxes are generally tax deductible if you itemize your deductions on IRS Form 1040, Schedule A. At closing, the closing attorney will ensure that all real estate taxes are paid up and allocated between buyer and seller as of the closing date. If the end of the fiscal quarter is approaching, most lenders will require that the buyer pay the upcoming real estate tax bill in advance.

Most lenders these days require an escrow account for the payment of real estate taxes, and the mortgage company will actually send the payment to the assessor. However, the homeowner should check the actual property tax bill to calculate the exact amount of real estate taxes paid for the year.

Rich’s AdviceIt’s very important to keep a copy of your HUD-1 Settlement Statement on file (and for your tax preparer). Also, get a copy of your loan amortization schedule for reasons I’ll discuss later.

Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction

The mortgage interest tax deduction is typically the largest tax deduction taken by a typical homeowner. The deduction applies to interest paid on a qualifying mortgage for both a principal residence and a second home. It also applies to home equity lines and second mortgages subject to some limitation, discussed below.

If you paid any points for getting a mortgage, they may also be tax deductible, either the year paid or over the life of the loan. This applies to both purchase loans and refinances. (Check your HUD-1 Settlement Statement). The same is true for PMI — mortgage insurance premiums. They remain tax deductible for 2012 and 2013 thanks to the Fiscal Cliff Bill.

Cash out refinances and equity lines have some special rules. If you use the money for a car, a vacation, college tuition, etc., then you can deduct your interest on loan amounts up to $100,000. If you borrow more than $100,000, the interest on the excess is not deductible. However, if you use the money to make improvements on your home, then the money is treated for tax purposes as though it’s part of your home mortgage … so you can deduct all the interest, along with your mortgage interest, as long as the total amount you’ve borrowed doesn’t exceed $1 million plus $100,000.

Consult IRS Publication 936 for more information on the mortgage interest deduction.

Rich’s Advice:  At closing, I advise new buyers to speak to their accountant about whether they should recalculate their W-4 withholdings in light of their new mortgage and corresponding tax deductions. This is where that loan amortization schedule comes in very handy. New buyers often have substantially more tax deductions than before becoming homeowners, and thus, they can adjust their withholdings so they can keep more of their take home pay every week, instead of giving Uncle Sam an interest free loan!

Massachusetts Property Transfer Tax

Sometimes called deed stamps, transfer tax or excise tax, Massachusetts home sellers must pay a tax on selling their property. For every Massachusetts county except Barnstable and the Islands, the tax is $4.56 per thousand of the purchase price on the deed. So for a $500,000 sale, that’s a whopping $2,280 tax bill. There is considerable debate among tax professionals as to whether this tax is deductible on your federal and state return. It’s best to consult your tax preparer.

Capital Gains On Sale

If you sell your home for more than you paid for it, you have a capital gain, and in theory you have to pay capital gains tax. However, in most cases, you don’t have to pay taxes on the first $500,000 of capital gain on a home (or $250,000 if you’re married and filing separately). To get this special treatment, you have to have owned the home and lived in it as your primary residence for two years out of the last five years prior to the sale. Even if you didn’t own and live in the home for two full years, you might still be able to exclude some or all of your capital gain; you just won’t be eligible for the full $500,000 exception.

Other Closing Costs

Unfortunately, most of the typical real estate closing costs are not tax deductible. This includes lender origination fees, credit report, flood certification, homeowner’s insurance, appraisals, attorney fees, title abstract, title insurance, county recording fees, and real estate commissions.

__________________________________________

RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who helps people buy, sell and finance residential real estate. If you need assistance, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

{ 0 comments }

Lara Gordon, Coldwell Banker

Put Your Best Offer Forward & Get Pre-Approved Beforehand, Advise Local Experts

Well, it’s official now. With buyers back in droves, an abnormally low inventory of good properties, and bidding wars popping up all over the place, the Greater Boston real estate market has now made full circle into a seller’s market. As the Boston Globe recently wrote, the market is “desperately seeking sellers.”

images-11For prospective buyers in a seller’s market, the strategies to succeed and find your dream home are very different from just a year or two ago. To help you navigate these unfamiliar waters, I’ve asked Cambridge-Somerville Realtor, Lara Gordon of Coldwell Banker, and Brian Cavanaugh, Senior Mortgage Banker at RMS Mortgage, to join me in this “round-table” discussion about how buyers can succeed in a seller’s market. Lara and Brian were both featured in this month’s Boston Magazine Best Places to Live 2013.

Q: Laura, what are you seeing out there on the streets in terms of inventory, pricing, and respective bargaining power between buyers and sellers? Has the tide really shifted back to sellers?

A: (Lara Gordon) Yes—in a very big way. When sellers have 5-10 offers to choose from, which is typical for most listings in Cambridge & Somerville right now, they are really setting the terms, and some buyers are willing to accommodate just about any request they make, from waiving the inspection to offering a sale-and-lease-back if the seller needs time to find a new place. My listing at 27 Osgood Street, Unit 7 in Somerville (pictures to the right) is a good example — 6 bids.

Q:  Lara, I’m hearing about bidding wars on well-priced, good condition properties. What are you seeing out there, and what’s your best advice on getting that winning bid?

A: (Lara Gordon) I always tell my buyer clients this: if you know you’re going into a multiple offer situation, you should put your best foot forward from the start. Some people feel nervous about coming in high on their offer, thinking they need to leave some room to come up during negotiations, but that is a mistake. If a seller receives one offer that is significantly stronger than the others, they may well accept it without going back for a “best and final” round.

lr-mls

And again, price is just one aspect of the offer, so have a good pre-approval from a respected lender, do the best you can with the downpayment, be willing to work with sellers’ preferred dates, and make sure your agent is “selling” you as a knowledgeable buyer, reasonable to deal with, and committed to seeing the transaction through.

Q:  What do buyers need to do in terms of making their best and most competitive offer? Are we back to buyer’s writing a personal appeal to sellers and that sort of thing? 

A: (Lara Gordon) Some buyers do write letters to sellers, but it’s the list agent’s job to keep them focused on the strengths of the respective offers, so an emotional appeal really only gets a buyer so far. Buyers really need to put their best foot forward. This starts with price, downpayment, a solid pre-approval from a respected lender, tight contingency dates and as much as possible accommodating the sellers’ preferred timeframe for closing. Beyond that, list agents and sellers are looking for a deal that will proceed smoothly and will “stick” through closing, so buyers’ agents really need to “sell” their clients as educated on the market, realistic about the home inspection and committed to seeing the deal through.

Q:  Brian, I hear that buyers are coming to you at all hours and weekends for pre-approvals. When buyers come to you for mortgage approval, what sort of documentation should they have ready to go and how quickly can you close loans these days?

ex-mlsA: (Cavanaugh). Well, I’ll start off by staying that the pendulum has definitely swung around. When the market favored buyers, you would go look for houses, get an offer accepted then go to your mortgage banker for an approval. Now it’s the other way around. You need a mortgager approval in hand when you are out looking for homes. And that means from the start you need a very firm grasp on exactly what you can afford, how much to put down, etc. You need to work with a mortgage banker with a strong grasp of Fannie and Freddie guidelines.

As for the paperwork, you need 2 years of tax return and W2′s, 30 days of pay-stubs, one year of bank statements, statements for your 401ks, IRAs, and investment accounts. A lot of first time buyers use gifts of downpayment from their parents, which are particularly tricky. I tell them to get those monies into your account ASAP. You will need a gift letter executed by all parties involved and verification of funds.

Currently, we can close a single family loan in 45 days, and a condo purchase in about 60 days, since condo mortgages require more extensive FNMA approval.

Q:  How much are sellers looking at buyers’ financing? Are cash buyers winning out over financed buyers? What are the ways to ensure a seller that a financed buyer is of no greater risk that a cash buyer?

A: (Lara Gordon) Cash is definitely an advantage in that it takes one element of risk out of the equation. For sellers in a rush to close, a cash deal is also appealing because it can close a lot faster than when a lender is involved. But if timing isn’t a big deal and there are good comps for the property, there’s no reason a seller shouldn’t consider a good offer from a buyer who will finance. Of course, the size of the downpayment has become increasingly important as bidding wars drive prices up and appraisals become a concern.

Q: How are you dealing with contingencies in a seller’s market? Are buyers waiving inspection or even financing?
A: (Lara Gordon) There are certainly buyers out there waiving both financing and inspection contingencies, but it’s not always a good idea. While it’s fine for buyers to waive the financing contingency if they’re prepared to pay cash, I personally, would never advise someone to forego a home inspection. The key is to approach it as educational and a way out in case of a major issue, and not as a tool for renegotiating the price.

A: (Vetstein) I’m going to weigh in on this topic as it deals with legal issues. I would STRONGLY advise a financed buyer to resist the temptation to waive the financing contingency in the hope that it will make an offer more attractive. In this day and age of strict underwriting and frequent delays, this is simply a recipe for losing your deposit. I don’t care if a handful of lenders have told you that your file is a slam dunk — you could get laid off a few weeks before close and you’d be DOA for the closing. Same goes for the inspection contingency. Sellers know that buyers want to check the home’s bones beforehand. Trust me, it will cost you a lot more money down the line if you wind up buying equivalent of the “Money Pit.” Tightening the deadlines, that’s fine. Waiving them, that’s just asinine.

A: (Cavanaugh) I would echo Rich’s sentiments. In this day and age of tight lending guidelines, I would hate to see a buyer lose his deposit because he was under the assumption that he could qualify for a mortgage he really couldn’t qualify for. Again, talk to your mortgage banker before you make the offer.

Q: Last question guys. I always recommend that my buyers use a Realtor. But please tell the readers exactly why having a Realtor can greatly increase your chances of succeeding in a seller’s market?

A: (Lara Gordon) I’m glad you asked this question, Rich, because some people think that they will do better if they go directly to the list agent, but given the nature of the market right now, it just doesn’t make sense to try to go it alone.

A: (Cavanaugh). When my borrower works with a Realtor, it always makes the transaction run smoothly. I operate under a “team” concept with the agents, so I’m used to constant contact with both the buyer and listing agent to ensure we get access for the appraisal and all the documentation in place for the loan commitment and closing. When there’s a team of professionals involved in a transaction, it’s a win-win for everyone.

A: (Vetstein) A low inventory/seller’s market is precisely why you want a Realtor who knows the market inside out and can be your salesperson/spokesperson on your side. In a market where perception is everything, I think it’s fair to say that a listing agent/seller will take you more seriously if you are working with a top notch Realtor, rather than sauntering solo into an open house in your Bean duck boots. Not to mention that the buyer does not typically pay an agent commission in Massachusetts. Also, selfishly, working with a client with a Realtor is less stressful for the attorney.

Q: Lara and Brian, any final words of wisdom as we head full bore into the busy spring market?

A: (Lara Gordon) I guess I’d just like to acknowledge that this is a tough market for buyers, and I totally understand the stress and frustration many people are feeling. In an ideal world, you’d find a great house, take some time to think things over, maybe visit a few times, then make a fair offer in a non-competitive situation, and you’d have a new home. But buyers need to accept the reality of the market we’re in: we’ve got low inventory and high demand, and you won’t necessarily get the first house you bid on. Maybe not even the second or third. But if you are qualified financially, have realistic expectations, are patient and persistent, and know how to play the game, you will ultimately find a home.

A: (Cavanaugh). I would urge would-be buyers to talk to a mortgage banker as early as possible in the process. We still have near all time mortgage interest rates. Affordability may never be as good as now, so hang in there in terms of bidding wars and a seller’s market. RMS Mortgage is well known brand and people either know me by reputation or have worked with me. So you have some instant credibility with the listing agent who can vouch for a smooth and successful transaction, and that’s very important in this seller’s market.

Thank you to Brian Cavanaugh and Lara Gordon for a great round-table discussion! Lara can be reached at lara.gordon@nemoves.com or 617-245-3939. Lara blogs at Cambridegville. Brian can be reached at brian.cavanaugh@rmsmortgage.com and 617-771-5021. Brian blogs at Smarterborrowing.com.

{ 5 comments }

brownstone1

Update:  Registration Extended Until Aug. 31, 2013

The Boston City Council and Mayor Menino’s Office have passed a sweeping new rental property registration and inspection ordinance which is now effective for the year 2013. The new ordinance requires, among other things, that all rental property owners register with the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), and are subject to inspections every 5 years. Details of the new ordinance are summarized below.

Who is covered?

All rental property owners, regardless of state residence, must register their rental properties with ISD. This also includes condominium units which are rented out. Excluded from the inspection requirements (but not the registration requirements) are owner-occupied buildings containing no more than 6 units, licensed lodging houses, government owned or operated housing.

What are my registration obligations?

Landlords are required to register with ISD no later than July 1 of each year. A fee of $25/unit will be charged. All non-resident owners must designate a Boston-based resident agent to accept service of process on the owner’s behalf.  You can now register online at Cityofboston.gov or download an application from the same site. The City has also posted a Frequently Asked Questions Page here.

When will my rental property get inspected?

ISD will inspect rental properties at least once every 5 years. ISD intends to first inspect the “problem” properties which have a history of code violations. Landlords will receive a notice from ISD about the inspection. Landlords have the option of having an outside “authorized inspector” perform the inspection at the owner’s expense. Annual inspections conducted by the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and similar government programs will be accepted by ISD. For most buildings, the inspection fee is $75 for the first two units, and $50/unit thereafter.

Are there any new signage requirements?

Yes. A sign of not less than 20 square inches must be posted adjacent to the building’s mailboxes or other conspicuous location. The sign must contain the contact information of the landlord and property manager, if any.

My property has been cited for violations in the past. Will this be a problem?

It could be. The new ordinance has a new classification for “Problem Property” if:

  • the police have been called to the property at least 4 times in one year; or
  • 4 or more noise complaints; or
  • 4 or more ISD complaints for unsanitary conditions/code violations

Problem Properties must be inspected every year and the owner must submit a management plan to address the issues.

How do I coordinate the inspection with my tenants?

A tenant is entitled to “reasonable advance notice” before an inspection. If access is denied, the landlord must notify ISD within 7 days, and if ISD verifies same, the landlord will be exempted from inspection for 1 year. Tenants are entitled to a copy of all inspection reports.

I am buying a rental property. By when does the new owner need to register?

ISD must be notified of the sale of any rental property 30 days after the closing, and the new owner must register with ISD within this 30 day window. Within 90 days of closing, the new owner must complete any pending inspection or submit an application for approval of an alternative inspection plan.

__________________________________________

Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Greater Boston landlord tenant attorney who represents rental property owners throughout Boston and Massachusetts. You can contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

{ 6 comments }

realtor mag copyI wanted to share a recent article I authored for Realtor Magazine which was published in their January/February 2013 edition. The article is based on the Massachusetts court opinion in Feldberg v. Coxall, which I wrote about previously in this post. The court ruled that under recently passed electronic signature laws, emails between agents or attorneys could form a binding agreement even where there was no signed offer or written purchase and sale agreement. That’s a scary proposition for any agent! In the article, I suggest using a disclaimer in your email signatures to avoid having emails come back to bite you.

{ 0 comments }

alg-domestic-violence-illustration-jpgUnder the new Massachusetts Domestic Violence Act recently signed into law, victims of sexual assault and stalking have the right to break their leases without significant financial penalty, have the landlord change their locks, and other important protections. The important provisions of the new law are as follows:

  • In order to break a lease, victims are required to provide notice to landlords that they were subject to a sexual assault or rape or under imminent threat of same within three (3) months of the incident
  • Landlords may request supporting documentation such as a police report or restraining order (which they must keep confidential).
  • Provided the tenant victim provides the proper notice, she will be relieve of financial liability for 30 days or one full rental period of rent, plus a return of any last month’s rent and security deposit.
  • The new law applies to anyone in the renter’s household.
  • Victims of sexual assault or stalking may require that the landlord change the unit’s locks within 48 hours at the tenant’s expense. If the landlord fails to act, the tenant may change the locks herself.
  • If the perpetrator of the sex crime or threat is a household member (i.e., spouse/boyfriend), the landlord may authorize the lock-out the perpetrator by changing the locks and withholding the new key.
  • Landlord’s who comply with the new law are generally absolved from liability to the perpetrator.
  • Noncompliance with the new law can result in damages equal to 3x the rental amount, plus payment of the tenant’s legal fees, which may be set off against any unpaid rent.

The bill, as finally passed, was signed off by both tenant and landlord industry groups, after several years of debate. A link to the new Massachusetts domestic violence law can be found here. 

__________________________________________________

RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who frequently advises landlords on their legal obligations under Massachusetts landlord and tenant law.

{ 0 comments }

mortgage-interest-deductionBoon for Massachusetts Homeowners

More good news for Massachusetts homeowners coming out of Congress’ late night passing of the Fiscal Cliff Bill. The mortgage interest tax deduction — which was reportedly on the Congressional chopping block — was untouched by Congress, leaving it in place. This is huge for the middle class, and especially for house-poor Massachusetts homeowners who tend to have larger mortgages than the rest of the country.

Congress also extended the tax deduction for private mortgage insurance (PMI) payments through December 31, 2013. Homeowners who were not able to put 20% down must typically pay for private mortgage insurance which protects lenders in case of a borrower default. PMI payments remain tax deductible for 2013 under the Fiscal Cliff bill, providing another tax break for Massachusetts homeowners.

_________________________________________________________

100316_photo_vetstein (2)Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who writes frequently about new legislation concerning the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

{ 2 comments }

Case Law Report:  Wyman v. Ayer Properties, LLC (Massachusetts Appeals Court, December 12, 2012).

ma-lowell-hamiltoncanal

Condo Construction Defect Claims Now Easier To Bring

In an important opinion which will make it easier for condominium associations to seek redress for faulty or defective construction, the Appeals Court has entered a $300,000 plus judgment against a Lowell based real estate developer. A link to the opinion can be found here.

Ayer Properties rehabilitated a vacant mill building on Market Street in Lowell, converting it into condominiums in the mid 2000’s. After the units were sold out, the new board of trustees discovered several aspects of faulty construction, including defective windows, deteriorating exterior brick masonry façade, and a leaky roof.  At the end of an 11-day jury-waived trial, a Superior Court trial judge awarded compensatory damages of $140,000, but eliminated well over $100,000 of the association’s claimed damages based on a legal defense called the economic loss doctrine.

The economic loss doctrine provides that a claimant must suffer some sort of property damage or personal injury in a negligent construction claim before being able to recover compensatory damages. The strict application of the economic loss doctrine in condominium construction defects can be quite harsh, often eviscerating thousands of dollars in damages simply because of the peculiarity of condominium ownership – the legal division and separation between common element property and individual unit owner property.

Justice Mitchell Sikora of the Appeals Court used some much-needed common sense and dispensed with the economic loss doctrine in the condominium construction defect setting:

We therefore hold that a condominium unit owners’ association may recover damages in tort from a responsible builder-vendor for negligent design or construction of common area property in circumstances in which damages are reasonably determinable, in which the association would otherwise lack a remedy, and in which the association acts within the time allowed by the applicable statute of limitations or statute of repose.

The impact of this decision will make it less difficult for condominium associations and trustees to sue and recover all damages against developers for construction defects. We could also see an increase in construction defect claims over faulty construction in the future.

______________________________________

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced condominium and construction litigation attorney. Please contact him at 508-620-5352 or rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

{ 0 comments }

Massachusetts Homeowner’s Insurance Coverage for Hurricane Damage

Although Massachusetts was spared a direct hit by Hurricane Sandy, there are widespread reports of flooding and property damage. Whether the damage to your home from Hurricane Sandy is covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy depends on the source of the damage. Typically, damage caused by wind, downed trees and power outages are covered. However, flooding caused by rain or surface water is typically not covered. I will explain each below.

Wind Damage/Downed Trees

The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy typically covers damage caused by wind — including broken windows, torn roofs and any interior damage from trees or limbs falling into the home. (If a tree falls onto a car, many comprehensive auto policies will cover the damage.)

Some policies, however, require that homeowners pay a hefty deductible before homeowners’ insurance policies kick in for wind damage — often 1% to 5% of the total amount the home is insured for.

Power Outages

The hurricane has left hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts customers without power. Homeowners’ insurance policies typically cover any property damage caused by electrical outages due to a hurricane. Some policies will even reimburse you for spoiled food.

Flooding and Water Damage

Flooding — defined by insurers as any water that rises from the ground or from the sky, including tidal waves — is typically not covered by Massachusetts homeowner’s insurance policies. If your home has flooded due to coastal ocean storm surge, rising streams, ponds or wetlands or from surface water, your homeowner’s policy will unfortunately likely not cover the damage.

To get reimbursed for hurricane flooding damage, homeowners would have already secured federal flood insurance. The average flood premium is about $600 annually, but rates go up to nearly $6,000 for the highest-risk coastal properties, according to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Homeowners who live in flood zones usually have flood insurance already: Many lenders won’t provide these home buyers with a mortgage unless they’ve signed up for flood coverage. These homeowners can rest (relatively) easy; if their home floods, flood insurance will pay for that damage. Those unlucky homeowners in the interior parts of the state aren’t so lucky.

Condominiums

Hurricane damage to condominiums raise special concerns. The coverages are typically the same as outlined above, however, there is usually a question as to whether the master condominium insurance policy or the HO-6 homeowner policy will be the primary policy in play. That depends on whether the damage originates from a common area or inside a unit and the particular provisions of the master deed and by-laws.

Serious Damage

If a home becomes so damaged that it’s uninhabitable, most standard homeowner policies will pay for a family’s living expenses — including lodging and food — while the house is being repaired.

Making An Insurance Claim

As with any insurance damage claim, my advice has always been document, document, document. Take photos and video of the damage. Keep all receipts for fans, blowers, wet vacs, sump pumps, repairs, new windows, etc. Be prepared to wait for the insurance companies to process the thousands of claims arising from Hurricane Sandy.

Liability For Fallen or Downed Trees

Given all the trees and branches which fell across New England, the pressing question of the day is, clearly, who is responsible if my neighbor’s tree or tree branch fell on my house, car, shed, patio, grill, etc. during the storm?

Under Massachusetts law, an owner of a healthy tree which falls during a hurricane or storm is generally not liable for any damage because the law considers this an “act of nature” for which no one is legally liable. Thus, if your neighbor’s tree has fallen on your house or car, you will have to make a claim under your and/or your neighbor’s homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage.

On the other hand, if the neighbor’s tree was diseased or decayed, was known to be at risk of falling and the neighbor ignored it, there could be negligence and liability. Either way, if you have homeowner’s insurance, the insurance companies will sort out fault and blame.

Local Insurance Claims Numbers

Acadia Insurance (800) 691-4966
AIG (Global Energy) (877) 743-7669
Chartis (formerly AIG) Private Client Group 888-760-9195
Andover Companies: Cambridge Mutual & Merrimack Mutual (800) 225-0770
Chubb Group (800) 252-4670
Commerce (800) 221-1605
Fireman’s Fund (888) 347-3428
Great American (888) 882-3835
Guard Insurance Group (888) 639-2567
Hanover Insurance (800) 628-0250
Hartford Insurance (800) 327-3636
Hingham Mutual (After hours claims) (800) 972-5399
Mass. Property Insurance Underwriting (800) 851-8978
Trident (After hours claims) (800) 288-2502
Tower (877) 365-8693
Quincy Mutual (800) 490-0047
Safety Insurance (800) 951-2100
Selective Insurance (866) 455-9969
Splash Program (Emergency Pollution related claims) (866) 577-5274
Splash Program (Emergency Non-Pollution related claims) (800) 746-3835
Travelers Personal lines:
(877) 425-2466
Commercial:
(800) 832-7839
Utica National (800) 216-1420
Vermont Mutual (After hours claims) (800) 445-2330
Zurich/Maryland (800) 565-6295

____________________________________

Richard Vetstein is a Massachusetts real estate attorney. If you have any property damage questions, please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

{ 1 comment }

Condo Sales May Get Slight Boost, But Financing Rules Remain Tight

Responding to lender, condominium association and consumer outcry that the existing FHA condominium lending guidelines are too strict, the Federal Home Administration (FHA) on September 13, 2012 announced a round of changes which will hopefully make it easier for borrowers to qualify for FHA condo loans. The full FHA announcement can be found here.

While some of the changes are a step in the right direction, I think overall they are a mixed bag, as FHA left some of the most onerous provisions intact. I’m skeptical that these new changes will have a major impact on condominium sales, but of course, any loosening of the strict requirements is a good thing.

Condo Fee Delinquency Rule Increased to 60 Days Overdue
FHA is softening its stance on delinquent monthly condo fees and home owner association (HOA) dues. FHA is now allowing up to 15% of a project’s units to be 60-days delinquent on condo fees, up from just 30 days delinquent under the prior rule. This change acknowledges the depressed economy which has caused many condo unit owners to have trouble paying their condo fees. This is definitely a good change.

Expanded Investor Purchasing Allowed
Under the new rules, investors can come in and buy more units in a project than they could previously. They can now buy up to 50% of the project units, up from just 10% before, but with an important caveat:  the developer must convey at least 50% of the units to individual owners or be under contract as owner-occupied.

Owner Occupancy Limits and Total FHA Financing Percentage Unchanged
The biggest disappointment of the new rules is that the main impediment to FHA condo financing remains unchanged, and that’s the 50% rule. Before any new buyer can obtain FHA financing, 50% of a project’s units be sold to third party buyers. This is what I’ve called the Catch-22. FHA provides the most first time home financing, so how can a developer expect to sell out his project if he cannot offer initial FHA financing? Doesn’t make any sense. I agree with the National Association of Realtors and the Community Association Institute on this one. Get rid of the 50% rule or decrease it to 25% or less.

Another restriction that hasn’t changed is the number of units that can have an FHA-backed loan. Only half the units can have FHA financing, so a borrower can’t get FHA approval if his unit would put the number of FHA financed units over 50%. That limitation remains unchanged, and that’s a killer for a lot of projects.

Spot Approvals Remain Dead
Mortgage lenders used to love FHA “spot approvals” which could by-pass the involved standard FHA approval process in order to get individual unit financing. Problem was is that they love spot approvals way too much, and they got abused. Ah, a few bad apples ruin it for everyone. FHA did not resurrect spot approvals from the dead on this go-around. Maybe they will be back when the economy gets better.

More Commercial Space OK
Projects can also have more space devoted to non-residential commercial uses than before. You see this a now in Boston with Starbucks and a bank office on the ground floor of a new condominium building. Up to this point, only 25% of project space could be used for commercial purpose. Now 50% of the project can be commercial, although certain authority for approval is reserved for the local FHA office. This will benefit the newer mixed use projects in urban markets.

Fidelity Insurance Coverage Required

Important for all condominium professional management companies. If the condominium engages the services of a management company, the company must obtain its own fidelity coverage meeting the FHA association coverage requirements or the association’s policy must name the management company as an insured, or the association’s policy must include an endorsement stating that management company employees subject to the direction and control of the association are covered by the policy. This is a substantial change to the previous requirements that required management companies to obtain separate fidelity insurance for each condominium.

______________________________________

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts condominium attorney who regularly advises condominium associations on FHA certification issues. Please contact Mr. Vetstein at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.


{ 1 comment }

Worcester Diocese Allegedly Pulled Out of Deal Over Possibility Of Gay Marriages at Mansion

James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, married business partners from Sutton, had been searching for the perfect property for nearly two years when they discovered Oakhurst, an aging mansion on 26 beautiful acres in Northbridge. The former retreat center, which was affiliated with the Diocese of Worcester and had been on the market for some time, would be the ideal spot for their next venture: an inn that would host weddings and other big events, as reported by the Boston Globe. When the Diocese of Worcester unexpectedly dropped out of negotiations with them in June, Fairbanks and Beret were shocked — and flummoxed. Then, they say, a church attorney inadvertently forwarded their broker an e-mail from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, chancellor of the diocese, advising a church broker that he was no longer interested in selling to Fairbanks and Beret “because of a potentiality of gay marriages” there.

Sullivan wrote: “I just went down the hall and discussed it with the bishop.  Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we are not interested in going forward with these buyers. I think they’re shaky anyway. So, just tell them that we will not accept their revised plan and the diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language.”

Today, the gay couple filed what could be a landmark lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court against Sullivan, the bishop, the church’s real estate agent, and the nonprofit retreat center, the House of Affirmation, alleging they discriminated against Beret and Fairbanks on the basis of sexual orientation in the course of a real estate negotiation, violating state law. A copy of the Complaint in Fairbanks, et al. v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, et al. is embedded below.

A spokesperson for the church told the Globe that the church, as a matter of policy, will not sell properties where Masses have been celebrated to people who plan to host same-sex weddings. The church will not sell to developers who plan to transform them into abortion clinics either, he said — or to bars, lounges, or other kinds of uses that church officials deem inappropriate. “We wouldn’t sell our churches and our properties to any of a number of things that would reflect badly on the church,” he said. “These buildings are sacred to the memory of Catholics.”

In an even more ironic twist, the Diocese previously used the mansion for a retreat center for pedophile priests, according to Banker & Tradesman.

Watching this case play out will certainly be very interesting both from a legal and political perspective. Massachusetts — the birthplace of gay marriage — is one of the few states in the country which outlaws housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. One of the questions will be whether the Church is covered under the anti-discrimination law given their historical stance against homosexuals and gay marriage.

Also, as I pointed out to a reporter covering this story, the church could have negotiated a restriction on the future use of the property, which is common for sales involving open space, recreational use and such. It appears that the church did not do this, but instead came up with a pre-textual reason after the fact to support their decision not to proceed with the sale due to the gay marriage issue. We will be monitoring this interesting case!

_____________________________________

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney with offices in Framingham and Needham, Mass. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Complaint | Fairbanks v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, Mass.

{ 0 comments }

Real Time Analytics