Condominium Law

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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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.


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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!

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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.

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Credit: Boston Globe

Mayor Menino Targets Eyesore Satellite Dishes

Consistent with his reputation as the “urban mechanic,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino, along with the City Council, want to pass a new ordinance to clean satellite dish clutter on residential properties in Boston. As reported by the Boston Globe, the proposal would require the removal of all obsolete satellite dishes and ban new installations from facades and other walls facing the street, unless an installer can prove there is no other place to get a signal. Dishes would have to be placed on roofs, in the rear, or on the sides of buildings. East Boston Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who has spearheaded the effort, says that this ordinance will help “save the character of our neighborhoods.’’

Ordinance May Run Afoul of FCC Rules

The proposed ordinance, however, may face legal challenge by the satellite dish industry and affected satellite subscribers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that state or local laws are invalid if they unduly impair the right of a subscriber to receive satellite programming on a one meter dish installed on property within owner or renter’s exclusive use or control. For a person living in a multi-dwelling unit, an area such as a balcony, patio or garden not shared with other tenants would be considered property within the individual’s exclusive control. Under the FCC rule, the only two situations where restrictions are permissible is if (1) the restriction is necessary for a clearly defined, legitimate safety objective; or (2) it is necessary to preserve a historic building.

A Solution: Building Wide Equipment

Granted, the satellite dishes covering buildings in many neighborhoods isn’t the nicest thing to see. See Cambridge Street in Allston, for example. However, since the proposed ordinance is concerned predominantly with aesthetics and not any legitimate safety concerns, it may not survive judicial review.

The FCC rules do, however, permit and encourage building-wide community satellite facilities so all residents can get a strong signal without cluttering up the facade of a building with a myriad of dishes. Perhaps the Mayor and the City Council can work with the satellite providers on getting funding for this equipment rather than waste taxpayer money defending a questionable ordinance.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and zoning attorney. Mr. Vetstein frequently represents Boston residents and companies in zoning matters before City of Boston zoning and licensing boards.

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Lenders Given 30 Days For Short Sale Decisions

Well, someone in government has been listening to the chorus of complaints about lenders taking too long to make short sale decisions. In a *rare* move of federal government housing competence, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to impose new guidelines which should accelerate short sale decisions. The new rules require that short sale lenders make a decision on a short sale within 30 days of a complete application, and if more time is needed, they must give weekly status updates. This will make short sale agents, sellers and buyers much happier. The new requirements go into effect June 15.

However, how much of an impact this will have on national short sales remains to be seen. Freddie Mac has jurisdiction over a small percentage of short sales, mostly HAFA short sales as well as a limited number of traditional short sales, totaling about 45,000 last year. (Bank of America did over 150,000 short sales last year, by comparison). This is certainly a step in the right direction, and hopefully will lead to more regulatory pressure on the big banks to speed up short sales.

I asked expert short sale negotiator, Andrew Coppo of Greater Boston Short Sales, for some commentary on this news, and he has a more tempered reaction:

It is no secret that both lenders and loan servicers have made continued efforts during recent months to vastly improve their short sale approval time-frames. As someone who exclusively negotiates short sales, I think it is important to note that the new Freddie Mac regulations don’t include any penalties or sanctions for loan servicers or lenders who fail to comply. What’s more, the new rules appear to only require short sale lenders to “make a decision on a short sale within 30 days of a complete application, otherwise they need to send weekly updates.” Most lenders will simply comply with the new requirements by sending out a weekly letter stating that the file is incomplete and request more short sale documents from the homeowner (most lenders already do this). Lenders could also comply with the new rules by simply making an unreasonably high counter-offer. What most people fail to realize is that most lenders, such as Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, and GMAC all utilize an automated short sale processing software, known as Equator, that enables them to approve a short sale in as little as 30 days. The majority of short sales that take more than 60 days to get approved do so because the person submitting the paperwork fails to submit a complete package or the lender “loses” a portion of the submitted paperwork. While the new guidelines are a step in the right direction, without any sanctions or penalties I don’t see them having much of an effect on the time in which the lenders and loan servicers process short sale requests. 

The text of the press release (which can be read in full here) is below:

In an effort to make the short sale process more transparent, Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC) is updating its timelines and also requiring servicers to provide weekly updates when decisions take more than 30 days after the receipt of a complete application for a short sale under the Obama Administration’s Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternative (HAFA) initiative or Freddie Mac’s traditional requirements. All decisions must be made within 60-days.  Today’s announcement marks the newest part of the Servicing Alignment Initiative (SAI) Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae launched in 2011 at the direction of their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to set consistent servicing and delinquency management requirements. Last year Freddie Mac completed 45,623 short sales, a 140 percent increase since the housing crisis began.

News Facts

  • Freddie Mac’s new short sale timelines require servicers to make a decision within 30 days of receiving either 1) an offer on a property  under Freddie Mac’s traditional short sale program or 2) a completed Borrower Response Package (BRP) requesting consideration for a short sale under HAFA or Freddie Mac’s traditional short sale program.  (BRPs are standardized assistance applications developed as part of the Servicing Alignment Initiative.)
  • If more than 30 days are needed, borrowers must receive weekly status updates and a decision no later than 60 days from the date the complete BRP is received.  This will help servicers who may need more time to obtain a broker price opinion or a private mortgage insurer’s approval on a BRP or property offer.
  • In the event a servicer makes a counteroffer, the borrower is expected to respond within five business days. The servicer must then respond within 10 business days of receiving the borrower’s response.
  • Freddie Mac will use the new timelines to evaluate servicer compliance with the SAI and its own servicing requirements.
  • Freddie Mac completed 45,623 short sales in 2011, a 140 percent increase since 2009.  Overall, Freddie Mac has also helped more than 615,000 distressed borrowers avoid foreclosure since the housing crisis began.

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Richard Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts short sale attorney. For more information, please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup or 508-620-5352.

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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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Tips For Massachusetts Real Estate Cash Buyers & Sellers

As Yogi Berra once humorously said, “cash is just as good as money.”

This is especially true in real estate transactions where a cash buyer is often perceived as better and less risky than a mortgage financed buyer. (Please note that we often encourage buyers to obtain a conventional mortgage where possible given the federal tax benefits through the mortgage interest deduction and also because of the low interest rates available).

What Is A Cash Buyer?

The term cash buyer means a buyer who plans to buy real estate without using a mortgage. The term can also apply to a buyer who plans on using a mortgage, but doesn’t plan on using a mortgage contingency with the purchase contract. (This carries significant financial risk, which we typically do not recommend except for rare instances).

Cash Deals On The Rise In Mass. and U.S.

Massachusetts cash real estate transactions have risen considerably in the last few years, as reported by the Boston Globe. Cash sales accounted for a surprising 34% of all Massachusetts residential real estate transactions in 2011, according to data provided by the Warren Group. According to the Globe, cash buyers include baby boomers downsizing to Boston condominiums with profits from the sales of their suburban houses, well-off parents purchasing homes for college-age children, and investors seeking discounted properties they can rent or sell. They are turning to cash for various reasons, including tighter lending guidelines that have made mortgages less attractive, dwindling bank financing for investment properties, and a volatile stock market that has sent people looking for other places to put their money.

Frequently Asked Questions For Cash Transactions

If you are a cash buyer, or considering selling to one, you may ask whether the transaction will proceed the same way as in a mortgage based transaction and whether there are any other special considerations involved. The short answer is that the transaction, for the most part, will proceed in the same manner, and often with a shorter time-frame than a mortgage financed deal, but there are a few special considerations that a cash buyer needs to be aware of, which I’ll outline below.

Do I Need A Real Estate Agent?

Absolutely. A cash buyer needs a real estate agent for the same reasons a financed buyer needs one. Those reasons include market knowledge and savvy; skilled negotiation; being a critical liaison between the parties; and keeping the transaction and all the players on target for a successful closing. Plus, as with all transactions in Massachusetts, including cash, the seller, not the buyer, pays for the real estate commission.

Do I Need A Real Estate Attorney?

Yes, it’s not only the smart choice but it’s the law. Massachusetts law now provides that only licensed attorneys can conduct real estate closings. In mortgage backed transactions, the lender will assign a closing attorney (who is often the same attorney working for the buyer) to close the transaction. With a cash transaction, however, there’s no lender, and thus, no lender appointed closing attorney to rely on. So a cash buyer must select his or her own attorney to close the transaction.

A cash buyer’s attorney will act as the closing attorney and legal “quarterback” on the deal, having the ultimate responsibility for the vast majority of legal work on the transaction. Here is an outline of all the responsibilities which will fall upon the attorney for a cash buyer:

  • Reviewing and editing the draft Purchase and Sale Agreement (“P&S”)
  • Drafting a “Rider” to the P&S to provide additional protections to the Buyer
  • Negotiating the P&S with the Seller’s attorney
  • Keeping the Buyer updated throughout the negotiations
  • Advising the Buyer about the provisions in the P&S
  • For condominiums, reviewing the condominium documents, including the Master Deed, the Declaration of Trust, and the Operating Budget
  • Conducting a 50 year title exam;
  • Ordering the Municipal Lien Certificate and Seller’s Payoff Statement(s)
  • Reviewing the 6(d) Certificate, Smoke Cert and Unit Deed
  • Preparing the HUD Settlement Statement
  • Procuring an Owner’s Policy of Title Insurance and Declaration of Homestead
  • Preparing Documents for Closing
  • Conducting the Closing;
  • Receiving and Disbursing Funds at Closing
  • Conducting final title run-down then recording the Deed, MLC and Homestead.
  • Post closing issues: mortgage discharge tracking, payment of outstanding real estate taxes

Without an attorney, the cash buyer is simply lost. I would never recommend that the buyer hire the same attorney who is representing the seller. Not only is this a huge conflict of interest, but the seller’s attorney allegiance will rest with the seller, not the buyer.

Do I Need Title Insurance?

As we always recommend, yes! There are two types of title insurance policies: lender’s and owner’s. In a cash transaction, there will be no lender’s policy, and the owner should always opt to obtain an owner’s  owner’s title insurance policy. We’ve written extensively about owner’s title insurance here. It’s especially important in this day of paperwork irregularities with mortgage assignments and discharges, robo-signing, and botched foreclosures.

When Do I Need That Cash Again?

As with all transactions in Massachusetts, a cash buyer will put down between $500 – $1,000 with the Offer and 5% of the purchase price with the signing of the purchase and sale agreement. With no mortgage lender involved, the cash buyer must realize that at the closing they must have liquid funds for the remaining “cash to close” (usually hundreds of thousands) in the form of a cashier’s check or bank check at the closing. Accordingly, the cash buyer must make all investment withdrawals, transfers and receipt of gift funds well in advance of the closing date. Since cash deals proceed much quicker than financed deals, my advice to cash buyers is to have all necessary cash in hand and in a no-risk account when the purchase and sale agreement is signed. Don’t stick your cash in some stock fund which crashes weeks before the closing.

What Happens If I Have Second Thoughts or Don’t Have Enough Cash To Close?

This is where the cash buyer is at more risk than the mortgage financed buyer who has the benefit of a mortgage contingency. If the mortgage buyer cannot obtain financing within the agreed upon deadline, he can opt out of the deal with no penalty. By contrast, after signing the standard purchase and sale agreement, the cash buyer is locked in to going forward with the deal with little, if any, wiggle room to get out. Generally, if the cash buyer has to default, he will lose his deposit (5% of the purchase price). So for any cash buyer, make sure you don’t get any buyer’s remorse!

Best of luck on your Massachusetts cash real estate purchase

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. and Marc Canner, Esq. are experienced Massachusetts real estate cash buyer’s attorneys. They can be reached by email at info@titlehub.com or 508-620-5352.

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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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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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Part 2 of a two part series. For part 1 on filing the Complaint, Venue and Discovery click here.

Expert Testimony

We left off in our last post at the discovery state of litigation. We covered fact discovery of witnesses, but we didn’t address an important component of most real estate litigation cases: experts.

Expert testimony is required when you need to explain to a judge or jury a technical area of the case which is outside the general knowledge of a “regular” person. Experts in a Massachusetts real estate lawsuit can range from appraisers, construction experts, land surveyors, title attorneys, land use planners, civil and wetlands engineers, traffic planners, and handwriting experts. Needless to say, experts are expensive, charging several hundred dollars per hour on an engagement. But they are vitally important. In Massachusetts state court litigation, parties must disclose before trial an expert’s qualifications and a general summary of what the expert will testify to at trial, including his methodology. For litigators like myself, preparing and cross-examining experts is often quite an intellectual challenge and one of the “fun” parts of a trial.

Dispositive Motions

Often in real estate litigation, the case can be decided by way of a “dispositive motion” by the judge prior to trial. In this procedure, called a motion to dismiss or summary judgment, the important facts of the case are undisputed, and the judge can decide the case based on the law. The lawyers will prepare detailed motions, affidavits, and legal briefs, and there will usually be a lengthy hearing before the judge. This procedure will also avoid the need for a trial, saving litigants a much expense. Judges, however, can take a long time deciding a dispositive motion. Months to even a full year is not unheard of.

Pretrial Conference

If the facts of the case are hotly disputed, the case will be set down for a trial date at the pre-trial conference. At the pre-trial conference, the attorneys meet with the judge to discuss readiness for trial, witness lists, expert testimony, unusual legal or evidentiary issues, and the status of settlement talks, if any.

Obtaining a firm trial day these days is pretty much a moving target. It really depends on the county. Middlesex Superior is pretty good at giving firm trial dates, while Norfolk County is not, in my experience.  The Land Court gives out firm trial dates, but has no juries. Prepare to wait several months after the pre-trial conference to get a trial date, which will probably be rescheduled at least once. Massachusetts courts have been beset with budget cuts which has negatively impacted the speed of the courts’ docket. Justice moves slowly in the Commonwealth.

Settlement/Mediation

Given the huge costs and delays of litigation, this is a good place to talk about settlement and mediation. I always explore settlement possibilities of a case early on. If a case can be settled early, both litigants can avoid significant legal expenses and can usually craft a better resolution than a judge or jury can. But clients often come to me very upset and emotional about the situation, so talking settlement may be perceived as “caving in” to the other side. It is not, and clients usually see the light once they get a bill or two from my office.

Mediation is a non-binding settlement process where a neutral mediator (usually a retired judge or experienced attorney) will mediate the dispute between the parties in a structured manner. Both sides get to tell their sides of the story, then the mediator will usually separate the parties into different rooms, shuttling back and forth attempting to broker the peace. There is a cathartic and healing process that often occurs during mediation where parties have a chance to express their anger, resentment, and feelings which can greatly assist the settlement process. Also, the settlement itself often can be much more flexible and creative than what a judge or jury can render after a trial. If mediation does not work out, the case goes back on the trial list. There is no obligation to settle.

Trial

Less than 1% of all civil cases in Massachusetts get to the end of a trial. If your case is in this 1%, prepare yourself for an experience. Jury trials are not for the faint of heart. They are incredibly labor intensive, with the attorneys spending hours upon hours preparing for trial, and burning the midnight oil during the trial itself. The more lawyer time required, the higher the legal bill.

If you are selecting a Massachusetts litigation or trial attorney, ask him or her how many civil jury trials they have done. I’m not talking about former district attorneys who have done a bunch of criminal trials. Complex, civil trials are a totally different animal and call for a lawyer who has done a significant amount of civil trial work. Be wary of any lawyer who claims to have won every trial he has done. There is a saying that a trial lawyer who has never lost a case hasn’t tried many in the first place. Don’t be afraid of small law firm attorneys. In my experience, they are much better trying cases than big firm lawyers who spent the greater part of their careers doing document review and depositions.

Appeals

In the American judicial system, litigants can pretty much appeal anything with impunity. Filing an appeal will usually stop a final judgment from issuing, but in some cases the winning party can ask the losing party to post a bond.

Appeals requires a special skill set, great research, and writing by an experienced Massachusetts appellate attorney. The appeals process can take at least a year or even more to complete. The trial record must be assembled by the trial court. If there was a trial, transcripts need to be ordered from the court reporters or digital tapes and then transcribed. This can take quite a bit of time. Then, the attorneys file lengthy appellate briefs, after which the case is scheduled for oral argument before a panel of appellate justices. After oral argument is held, the court will issue its written opinion, which will either uphold the lower court’s decision, reverse it, or remand it back for a new trial or other action. Appellate opinions are released to the general public and become what is known as the common law of Massachusetts, to be cited as precedent in other cases.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember, litigation should be a last resort, once all attempts at an amicable, reasonable resolution fail.

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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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For most folks, litigation and courtrooms are as foreign as Belgium. When a new clients comes to me with a potential litigation matter, I spend most of our first consultation discussing the process of litigation and how it works. Then inevitably we have to talk about the cost and expense, which for most lawsuits is a lot more than people expect. In this post, I wanted to provide you with a summary of what happens when you decide to file a Massachusetts real estate litigation and lawsuit, or if you have to defend yourself against one.

First Steps: Filing Or Answering The Complaint & Selecting A Venue

The first step in every Massachusetts lawsuit is the filing of the Complaint, along with a filing fee ($285 in Superior Court). The Complaint sets forth the factual allegations of the lawsuit, along with the formal legal claims such as breach of contract, zoning appeal, adverse possession or fraud.

Most real estate litigation cases where the damages exceed $25,000 are filed in either the Superior Court or the Land Court. (For smaller matters under $25,000 you can file in the local District Court; small claims cases are for $7,500 or less).

The Land Court is a specialized court with expertise in real estate disputes. I’ve written about the Land Court here. The Superior Court is the “jack of all trades” trial court, and hears just about every type of civil and criminal dispute at the trial level. Depending on the facts of the case, there are strategic advantages to filing in either Superior or Land Court.

After the complaint is filed, a Summons is issued which must be formally served by constable or sheriff on the “defendants” in the case. The attorney will arrange for service of the summons and complaint to be made and a sheriff will show up at the defendant’s home or business with the legal papers. Defendants have 20 days to “answer” the complaint. The Answer is a formal response to the Complaint, and the defendants can also assert any “counterclaims” he or she may have against the plaintiff.

Pre-Judgment Remedies

Many real estate litigation cases involve asking the court for some type of relief or action during the initial stages of the lawsuit. This is called “pre-judgment relief.” In many real estate cases, a litigant will ask the court for a lis pendens on property, which is a formal notice of the claim recorded on title. In other cases, a litigant will ask for an injunction or restraining order stopping a landowner from building or taking other adverse action which would injure their property.

Asking a court for such pre-judgment relief requires filing motion papers, legal memoranda and often multiple court hearings where the lawyers will argue the issues before the judge. This will add another level of expense on the case, often quite a bit. I usually give clients a ballpark figure of $5,000 for taking a case through the pre-judgment relief stage–could be less, could be more, depending on the response from the other side.

Often cases can be won or lost at these early stages as a lis pendens can stifle a potential sale or an injunction can shut down a construction site, thereby forcing a favorable settlement. Thus, it is very important to have an experienced and savvy Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney work up the case properly and argue the case forcefully during a pre-judgment remedy proceeding. There are certain ways to increase your chances of success at this stage and even obtain relief without the other side even knowing you are going to court, called ex parte relief, if the situation warrants. (Ex parte in Latin means “from (by or for) one party.”)

Phase 2: Discovery

For cases on the normal track, once the answer is filed and all factual allegations and legal claims are raised in the case, it moves to the next stage: discovery. Discovery is the process where each side shares information about the case with each other. Litigation is not supposed to be a cat-and-mouse-hide-the-ball game.

This is a good time to discuss how long it takes to get to a trial in a Massachusetts lawsuit. With huge budget cuts in the courts, it is taking up to 2+ years for most civil cases to reach trial. Yes, you read that correctly. It can take even more time in some cases. I’ve had a case in Norfolk County (Dedham) ready for trial 3 different times, only to get bumped at the last minute, each time costing the client thousands of dollars in legal fees and months of delay. There is really nothing a litigant can do about these delays (save for settling the case out of court).

The discovery stage is the most labor intensive and expensive part of the case, with lawyers taking depositions of witnesses and filing and answering formal written questions, called interrogatories, and responding to requests for document production. There are often disputes and motions which have to be resolved in this stage. Depositions can easily cost $1,000 each, and discovery in a fairly involved case can run easily up to $10,000 + in legal fees.

For the next post, we will discuss Phase 3: Summary Judgment/Pre-Trial, Going To Trial, and Appeals (click here). Stay tuned!

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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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Old Colony Village Condominium v. Preu, Massachusetts Appeals Court No. 10-P-875 (Oct. 31, 2011). Click here for link to full text of case.

I love when constitutional law intersects with real estate law. It’s rare, and full of drama. A recent decision by the Appeals Court considered a condominium unit owner’s unalienable right to complain, moan and kvetch about condominium management. The First Amendment and the unit owner won this battle.

Doggy Doodie Bags, The Bird & Signs

The case is right out of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad, Morty, is embroiled in a condo trustee election battle at the “Del Boca Vista” condominium project in Florida. Mr. Preu and the condominium management had a history of, shall we say, bad blood between them. Mr. Preu ultimately went on a rampage, placing in the common area bags containing dog feces and labeled with the name of board president Gerard Ritzinger, apparently in response to Preu’s belief that Ritzinger had allowed his dog to defecate in an area in which it was forbidden. He gave the middle finger to condo trustees walking through the hall and to security cameras. He wrote nasty memos on his condo fee checks. He also obstructed common area fire doors. Lastly, he posted signs in the common area and a note on a unit owner’s door about the cleanliness of the condominium.

The trial judge found that the bag of doggy doo-doo and messing with fire doors violated the condo rules, but that the posting of signs, flipping the Bird, and the nasty memos were protected speech under the First Amendment. The Appeals Court only considered the free speech issue.

Check Your Free Speech Rights At The Door?

The Court held that condominium unit owners do not check their First Amendment rights at the condominium door. “A condominium association does not have as free a hand in restricting the speech of unit owners in the common areas in which those owners share an undivided property interest as another property owner might in dealing with a stranger on his or her property,” the court held. Accordingly, the court ruled that Preu’s posting of signs, flipping the middle finger and nasty memos — although not the most civil of behaviors — were protected First Amendment speech which could not be punished under condominium by-laws and rules.

Lessons to be Learned…

So what’s the take-away from this case?

For prospective condo buyers, know what you are getting yourself into before buying a condominium unit. Ask for the condo meeting minutes going 3 years back to see whether there are a history of internal dysfunction and disputes like the Old Colony Village Condo.

For condominium trustees and management, the lesson is a bit tougher. While you don’t want to put up with a lot of over-the-top cr*p from unit owners, think twice about starting World War III litigation like this case. The only person in this dispute who made out well is the condo board attorney, as this dispute easily ran over $25,000 in legal fees through a trial and an appeal. Was that a solid investment of condo funds by the board? Over dog poop? Probably not.

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

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Realtors, are you using the most current contingencies and language in your Offers? Do you know the most current Fannie Mae/FHA condo rules and how they will impact your condo sale? Want to know the latest on the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez ruling and the foreclosure title mess? How can you avoid last minute crises? All these questions and more will be answered in our upcoming free webinar.

One Hour Complementary Webinar: An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure: Strategies & Teamwork To Avoid Deal Disasters

November 1, 2011, starting at 11:00am EST.

Presented by: Richard Vetstein, Esq. and Marc Canner, Esq. of TitleHub Closing Services and Brian Cavanaugh of MetLife Loans.

Click Here To Register

Facebook Event Invite Here

Topics Include:

1. Must Have Language For Your Offers
a. Fannie/FHA condo compliance
b. Realistic deadlines
c. Beyond the standard contingencies

2. Early Lending Intervention
a. Coordinating with Mortgage Partners
b. Pre-quals and pre-approvals
c. Current underwriting concerns

3. The Attorney’s Role: Purchase and Sale Agreement
a. Common Pitfalls & Solutions
b. New buyer rider provisions
c. Ibanez Foreclosure Title Issues

4. Dealing with 11th Hour Problems
a. Extensions for financing
b. Title issues & title insurance
c. Use and occupancy agreements

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images-7Unpaid condo fees and special assessments can be a real thorn in any condominium’s side, especially smaller condos. Not only do unpaid condo fees threaten the financial health of a condominium, but a high delinquency rate can run afoul of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and FHA condominium lending guidelines, thereby hindering the sale of a unit.

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Condominium Act, General Laws Chapter 183A, provides condominium trustees and managers with a fair amount of ammunition to recover those unpaid condo fees and special assessments. The law provides that condominium common expense assessments (monthly condo fees) are a lien against condominium units from the date each assessment becomes due, and that unit owners are personally liable for their share of condominium common expenses, including late charges, fines, penalties, interest, and all costs of collection. Ultimately, the condominium trust can foreclose its lien and sell the unit at foreclosure auction.

Massachusetts Super-priority Condo Lien

The real teeth of the Condominium Act is the “super-lien” provision. A properly filed condo lien has “super-priority” over the first mortgage on a unit for up to 6 months worth of unpaid condo fees, plus all attorneys’ fees and collection costs. Required 60 and 30 day statutory notices must be sent to the mortgage lender and unit owner prior to filing the lien. Typically, the mortgage lender will not want to allow a condo lien to negatively affect the priority of its mortgage, so it will pay the unpaid condo fees and other charges, then charge them back to the borrower/unit owner. Even in the case of foreclosure of a unit, the super-lien will continue to roll-over (up to 6 months worth).

6d Certificate

For all sales of Massachusetts condominiums, Mass. General Laws Ch. 183A, sec. 6(d) requires that the condo trustees sign a certificate verifying the outstanding condo fees assessed against the unit, if any. The term “6d” certificate refers to that statutory section of the Condominium Act, section 6(d). Lenders and their closing attorneys will require a “clean” 6d which states there are no unpaid fees. The recording of a clean 6d certificate will prevent the association from ever filing a lien against that unit.

No Right to Withhold

Another favorable aspect of the lien law is that a unit owner is not allowed to withhold payment even if he disputes the charges. There is no right to set-off. If the unit owner is unhappy or disputes the validity of the assessment, that’s too bad. He must pay the fees under protest, and file a suit challenging the legality of the assessment.

Collection Against Tenants

Another helpful remedy in the case of absentee unit owners is that the condo trust has a right to collect rents from tenants of non-paying unit owners. The condominium association will notify the tenants in writing that they are required to forward all future rent payments to the condo trust until the unpaid balance is satisfied. This typically gets the prompt attention of the unit owner.

Here is a sample 6d certificate.

Massachusetts 6d certificate sample

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

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26297-cooperation-handshakeSeller Couldn’t Sit Back & Watch Construction Project Unfold

Massachusetts appeals judges have been mighty busy this summer issuing real estate decisions. From the forced removal of condo buildings to toxic mold, to foreclosure eviction defense, it’s been no summer vacation in Massachusetts real estate law.

Handed down today is a case right from a first year law school property exam, Hurtubise v. McPherson, embedded below.

As most real estate professionals know, contracts for the sale of real estate must be in writing and signed by the party to be charged, i.e, the seller. This is a rule of law going back to English common law and is called the Statute of Frauds which can be found in the General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 259, Section 1. As with most black letter law, there are a few exceptions to the general rule, and this case is a textbook example of the “detrimental reliance” exception to the Statute of Frauds.

Hand-Shake Land Swap Agreement

Here are the facts of the case. Hurtubise and McPherson owned adjoining tracts of land in the town of Templeton. Hurtubise operated a storage business on his property. He wanted to build an additional storage shed along the border between his property and McPherson’s property. Hurtubise realized that he could not meet the setback requirements of the local zoning code unless he acquired land from McPherson. Hurtubise approached McPherson, explained his need, and proposed a land trade, offering to convey to McPherson a portion of the front of his (Hurtubise’s) property in exchange for the portion of McPherson’s land at which Hurtubise intended to erect the new storage shed. McPherson agreed to the proposal and the parties shook hands.

Hurtubise proceeded with his plans for construction of the new building. He obtained a building permit and began to excavate along the border of McPherson’s lot. During the seven to eight weeks of construction, Hurtubise saw McPherson at the site. McPherson never objected to the location of the new building. Hurtubise eventually constructed a 300 x 30-foot storage shed for $39,690.

After construction, McPherson objected and accused Hurtubise of taking more land than he initially had represented. McPherson informed Hurtubise that an exorbitant payment of $250,000 would resolve the dispute which Hurtubise refused to pay. McPherson then notified the town that Hurtubise’s new building encroached on his property. The town’s building commissioner revoked Hurtubise’s building permit and ordered him to cease occupancy of the storage shed. After McPherson threatened to demolish the building, Hurtubise brought suit to enforce the oral agreement.

Exception To Written Contract Rule

As mentioned above, to be enforceable, real estate contracts for the sale of property must be in writing and signed by the seller, at minimum. As Judge Mitchell Sikora wrote in the opinion, “however an equitable qualification puts some flexibility into the joints of the Statute.” An oral agreement for the sale of land can be valid if the party seeking enforcement, in reasonable reliance on the contract and on the continuing assent of the party against whom enforcement is sought, has so changed his position that injustice can be avoided only by specific enforcement. In non-legalese, this means that if you start a construction project and spend thousands of dollars upon the promise of a land deal, albeit not in writing, you may be able to enforce that promise.

Because Hurtubise just sat by idly and watched McPherson construct his shed at considerable cost without objection, the court ruled that he couldn’t then complain there wasn’t a written agreement, in an attempt to wriggle out of the land swap deal. The court then ordered Hurtubise to convey McPherson the land necessary to build the shed.

This case is one of the very few instances where a court has upheld an oral hand-shake real estate agreement. The take-away: make sure your real estate contracts are always in writing and signed!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous real estate contract breach cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me if you are dealing with a Massachusetts real estate contract legal dispute.

Hurtubise v McPherson Case

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mold_houseApplication of “Discovery Rule” Enables Toxic Mold Claim To Survive Dismissal

Toxic mold is a dangerous condition that can arise in buildings with untreated water leaks and penetration. The most common form of “toxic mold” is Stachybotrys chartarum, a greenish-black mold. It can grow on material with a high cellulose and low nitrogen content, such as fiberboard, gypsum board, paper, dust, and lint. Growth occurs when there is moisture from water damage, excessive humidity, water leaks, condensation, water infiltration, or flooding. Constant moisture is required for its growth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, toxic mold causes upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The CDC also found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.

Roof Leaks Lead To Toxic Mold

According to the August 15, 2011 case of Doherty v. Admiral’s Flagship Condominium Trust (see below), Denise Doherty owned a condominium unit at the Admiral’s Flagship Condominium in Chelsea. (If you are driving into Boston northbound on the Mystic Bridge, these are the condominium units on Admiral’s Hill under the bridge.) In 2004, a roof leak led to ceiling cracks and loosening plaster in Doherty’s unit, and she requested that repairs be made. Any repairs made were either untimely or inappropriate. In February, 2006, Doherty noticed mushrooms and water infiltration on the same threshold and notified the condominium management company. It replied that the threshold was rotted, and required replacement. The management company did a shoddy job repairing the damage.

A month later a mold remediation company found hazardous mold in unsafe levels in Doherty’s unit caused by water infiltration and chronic dampness. Following this discovery, the condominium management promised to repair the leaks, and that the mold would be removed. A mold remediation was attempted, but failed, and mold remains in the unit. In 2008, Doherty’s doctor ordered her to vacate her unit due to the presence of the mold. Although Doherty has continued to request repairs of the leaks and chronic dampness, and a full remediation of the mold, no further action has been taken. She filed suit against the condominium and its manager on February 13, 2009, claiming that due to the defendants’ failure to repair, she has suffered severe, permanent health problems, lost income, loss of her personal property, and loss of the value of her condominium unit.

Limitations Period Begins When Toxic Mold Symptoms First Arise

Doherty’s personal injury claims are governed by a 3 year statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is the time period set by law by which a person is allowed to file a lawsuit. If you sleep on your rights, you lose them.

The condominium claimed that the stopwatch for Doherty’s claims started in 2004 when the water leak occurred, and that she filed her lawsuit 2 years late. The lower court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Appeals Court overturned that ruling, holding that under the “discovery rule” the statute of limitations for a toxic mold claim starts when the injured person becomes aware of the existence of toxic mold through investigation or some physical manifestation of being exposed to toxic mold, such as respiratory symptoms, asthma and the like. In Doherty’s case, she first became aware of the toxic mold when the lab results came back in March 2006 which was within the 3 year limitations period. The court reasoned:

We agree with the foregoing cases that without some indication of a hazardous contamination, the plaintiff could not have been aware that she was being exposed to toxic mold, regardless of when the leak began. Contrary to the defendants argument, it is not a certainty that all water infiltration will eventually evolve into toxic mold. To conclude otherwise would encourage, and possibly even require, a plaintiff to preemptively file suit the moment water starts to infiltrate a dwelling or other building, before any mold or mold-related injury has even occurred.

According to the judges themselves, this decision is the first Massachusetts appellate case dealing with the statute of limitations for toxic mold, so it’s quite important. The case will make it easier for toxic mold victims to sue wrongdoers in state court. The case also highlights the importance of addressing water leaks in condominiums quickly and professionally. If the condominium management had properly dealt with the roof leaks in the first place, perhaps Ms. Doherty would not have been exposed to toxic mold in the first place!

Doherty v. Admiral’s Condo Case

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Good News For First Time Condo Buyers

FHA loan programs offer low down payment mortgages which are often ideal for first time home buyers who lack cash for a 20% down payment but are otherwise strong borrowers. On June 30, 2011, FHA confirmed its commitment to financing condominiums with the issuance of revised lending guidelines (HUD Mortgagee Letter 11-22). The new FHA Condominium Project Approval and Processing Guide can be downloaded here.

“Today, we institute revised guidelines that preserve FHA’s role in the condo marketplace during these difficult times while making certain we manage risk in a responsible way,” said FHA’s Acting Commissioner Robert Ryan. “This guidance formalizes and expands the policies we put in place in 2009 and lays the groundwork for a more formal rulemaking process going forward.”

Highlights Of New Guidelines

1.  Reserve Study Requirements:
New guidelines require reserve studies on all conversion (i.e., new) developments. Reserve Studies are valid for a period of 2 years.

2.  Reserve Funding
In addition to a reserve study determination, a minimum of 10% of the operating budget must be set aside as a baseline in a reserve account. Funds to cover the total cost of any item in the Reserve Study or that will require replacement within 5 years must be deposited in HOA’s reserve account. The insurance deductible must also be included in the reserve fund.

3.  Delinquent Condo Fees

On existing projects, the condominium cannot have more than a 15% delinquency rate on unpaid condo fees. This could be a problem for struggling condominiums. A waiver may be granted, however, with supporting documentation.

4. Pending Litigation

Litigation impacting the financing soundness of the condominium must be disclosed and explained to FHA. Again, this could be problematic if the condominium is involved in, for example, a lawsuit with the original developer over construction defects.

5. HO-6 Policies

Individual HO-6 insurance policies are required if the master condo insurance policy does not provide interior unit coverage (which most don’t).

6. Fidelity Bonds For Large Projects

Fidelity insurance to protect against employee dishonesty is required for projects over 20 units.

7. New Construction Pre-Sale
New Construction pre-sale requirements remain at 30%, although only for one year after the first closing. After the first year, it increases to 50% for the development.

8.  Maximum Commercial Concentration
Remains at 25%, however, new guidance allows for possible waiver request up to 35% of the development.

9. 10% Investor Concentration
No longer includes sponsor unsold units or units required to be rented by State or Municipality, ie; rent stabilized/rent controlled.

 

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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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