Construction Law

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.

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The Ice Dam Cometh!

by Rich Vetstein on February 19, 2014 · 1 comment

in Construction Law, Insurance, Safety

Massachusetts Ice Dam Treatment & Prevention

A little break from law stuff to talk about some important safety information. With up to a foot of snow on most Massachusetts roofs and a spring thaw on the way, there will be widespread ice dam and roof damage afflicting homeowners in the next weeks. I have a feeling it’s going to be very bad.

There are ice dams all over my roof. My son’s bedroom just sprung a leak. And I can’t get a crew out here to get on my roof until Friday at the earliest. (Sorry, but I’m not risking life or limb climbing up my ice covered roof!). I did use a roof shovel to clear a few feet of snow off the roof, but I need some professional help.

Here are some tips from my friend, George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction in Framingham (Tel:  508-875-0052) – whose roof clearing crews have been out 7 days a week. For folks closer to Boston, GF Sprague Roofing out of Needham is also good.

  1. Try to remove snow from the roof but only if it can be done safely. A roof rake or push broom can be used but may cause damage to the shingles. If it’s not possible to remove the snow safely, call a professional.
  2. Chisel grooves into the dam to allow the water behind it to drain off. This is a good emergency measure, especially if rain or a sudden thaw is coming. Be careful not to damage those shingles!
  3. Fill an old pair of your wife’s pantyhose with calcium chloride snow melt and lay it across the dam. It will help to melt the dam and also keep that area of the roof clear. DO NOT USE ROCK SALT! It may stain the roof and siding. It is best for small dams or prevention. It’s also a good idea to scrape the snow off the roof first.

To prevent ice dams in the longer term, keeping warm air from escaping into the attic is the first course of action. In addition to helping resolve ice dam issues, it will result in a more comfortable and less expensive to heat home.

Ice Dam Insurance Coverage

Very few insurance policies cover ice dam or snow removal from your roof or anywhere else on your property for that matter. However, certain cases of interior damage caused by an ice dam or roof collapse may be covered. As with any insurance claim, call the claims department immediately and take photos of the damage.

Good luck and happy raking and chiseling!

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2691601505_c65b897bcc.jpgYou have been eagerly awaiting the closing of your new construction home, but alas, the builder has not been able to complete the landscaping, walkway and driveway by the closing and there is a two page punch-list of other incomplete work. You have already hired a moving company and packed all of your family’s stuff. Anxious thoughts race through your mind…Can we close on time? What will my lender do about the incomplete work? Should I be in panic mode?

Throw Me An Escrow Holdback Agreement!

In this situation, your closing attorney should recommend an escrow holdback agreement which, if approved by your lender, will enable the transaction to close as scheduled. The parties will sign a standard escrow holdback agreement at closing, with an agreed upon portion of the seller sale proceeds held in escrow (usually by the closing attorney) pending completion of the unfinished work. Escrow holdbacks are fairly common in Massachusetts real estate practice. They can be used to address all types of situations which would otherwise delay a closing: approval of a new septic system, unfinished construction/repair work, missing mortgage discharges and title issues, or any other obligation the seller should have completed for the closing.

Lender Approval Often Required

If you are using conventional mortgage financing, you will usually need to get your lender’s approval of the escrow holdback agreement, and it must be shown on the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Some lenders and some loan programs will not allow an escrow holdback, so your closing may have to be pushed back. For incomplete new construction work, some lenders will require an inspection before allowing for the release of the escrowed funds, and they will typically require that 1.5 times the cost of the work be placed in escrow.

Builders Playing Hardball

Recently, I’ve seen some new construction builders refuse to agree to any escrow holdbacks in their purchase and sale agreements. This is ridiculous in my opinion, and should not be agreed to. Rarely does a new construction building complete a project without some unfinished work or punch list items. I typically counter with a language allowing an escrow holdback if the buyer’s lender insists upon it.

For these situations, “money talks”, and withholding seller funds is often the only way to ensure that the seller does what he or she has agreed to do.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate closing attorney. If you have any questions about the Massachusetts closing process or escrow holdback agreements, please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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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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With the economy and housing market on the upswing, builders are finally building again. I’ve seen a definite uptick in new construction purchases. Buying a new construction home, however, is very different and much more involved compared to buying a previously owned property. In this post, I want to cover the various aspects of purchasing a new construction home, from selecting a builder, financing, legal, through construction and to the closing. As the Beatles song goes, I also have a little help from my Realtor friends in this post who have graciously offered some of their expert guidance. Follow our advice, and hopefully you will avoid becoming Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in the hilarious movie, The Money Pit!

Selecting and Working with a Builder

Choosing the right builder is obviously critical. You can search for builder licenses and state disciplinary history at the Mass.gov site here. (Search under Construction Supervisor). If the builder is not a licensed Construction Supervisor, they may be licensed as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) which can be searched at the Office of Consumer Affairs website here. If they hold neither license type, that’s a red flag. Also, look up the builder’s name in the Mass. Land Records site, and check whether they have any mechanic’s liens filed against them. That is another red flag indicating they may be undercapitalized and don’t pay their subcontractors.

Get a list of the last 5 homes the builder has constructed, and try to talk to those homeowners. Don’t rely on the builder’s list of references as no intelligent builder would give out a bad reference.

Hire A Buyer’s Agent

Besides conducting a town-wide survey, one of the smartest things you can do is hire an independent buyer’s real estate agent, preferably one with lots of experience in new construction. While buyers today can do a lot of their own due diligence and research on prospective builders, an experienced Realtor knows all the local builders in town and knows who builds castles and who builds shanty-shacks. A buyer’s agent will also provide a much-needed buffer between the builder’s sales agents and listing agent, many of whom unfortunately engage in high-pressure sales tactics and fast-talking. As buyer agent, Marilyn Messenger advises,

“Many buyers don’t realize that if they visit a new construction site without a buyer agent, they run the risk of having to work directly with the builder’s agent whose job is to work in the best interest of the builder. A buyer’s agent will watch out for the buyer’s interests.”

Amenities, Allowances & Upgrades

The builder should provide you with a detailed specification sheet with a standard panel of features and options for flooring, appliances, paint, trims, HVAC, and lighting, etc. These will be built into the purchase price. Most builders also have allowances for things like additional recessed lighting, upgraded stainless steel appliances, decking, and fancy hardwood floors. As Cambridge area Realtor Lara Gordon notes, the buyers’ ability to select design elements is one of the major advantages of new construction.

It’s imperative that all allowances be spelled out in writing and attached to the purchase contract documents, which I will discuss later. Change orders are common during the construction process, and these too should be memorialized in writing. They will be added to the purchase price or paid in advance.

Contract Documents

New construction purchases in Massachusetts follow the same basic legal process as already-owned homes. The parties first execute an Offer to Purchase which spells out the very basics of the transaction: down payment and purchase price, closing date, and financing contingency. A lot of builders ask for more than the standard 5% deposit, but I would push back on that in this market.

After the offer is signed, the parties will sign the Purchase and Sale Agreement. As a buyer, the detailed specifications, amenities and agreed upon allowances must be incorporated into the contract, along with the floor and elevation plans, if any.

The proposed purchase and sale agreement will likely track the so-called “standard form,” but the builder will typically add a detailed rider, which is completely different than the usual seller rider seen in existing home contracts. The builder rider will have provisions dealing with how change orders are handled, that the builder is not responsible for cracking due to climatic changes, and may attempt to hold the buyer’s feet to the fire with respect to getting his financing in place. A lot of builders will try to limit the availability of holdbacks at closing. I would push back on this important item of leverage for buyers. Some of the large national builders such as Pulte will even claim that their contracts are “non-negotiable.” This is nonsense. Everything is negotiable these days.

Hiring an experienced real estate attorney will tip the balance back to the buyer, and the attorney should have a comprehensive buyer rider in place to protect you in case there are title issues or you suddenly lose your financing. Because there are often delays with new construction, one of the most important rider provisions for buyers is a clause which will give buyer’s protection in case they lose their rate lock due to a delay.

Mortgage Financing

Most new construction buyers in Massachusetts will take out a conventional mortgage loan, with the builder responsible for financing the actual construction through his own construction loan. Some builders, especially national ones, will have their own mortgage lending for their projects, but they often don’t offer the best rates and terms. Sometimes, buyers will finance the construction through a construction loan under which the borrower pays interest only through the construction process, and is then converted to a conventional mortgage once the home is completed. I would counsel buyers to avoid taking on the financial responsibility of a construction loan. As with all lending, shop around and compare apples to apples.

Inspections & Warranties

For new construction, home inspections must necessarily be delayed from the usual timeframe (7-10 days after accepted offer) where the home is not yet completed, and buyers should absolutely reserve their right to perform the usual comprehensive home inspection prior to closing. (If the home is already done, get in there with the home inspector). During the construction phase, builders don’t want buyers on the construction site, for obvious liability (and annoyance) reasons, so resist the urge to buy your own hard-hat and hang out with the construction guys. Metrowest area agent Heidi Zizza of mdm Realty retells a funny story about a Natick woman who literally broke a window trying to gain entry into her under-construction home.

Contrary to popular belief, Massachusetts law does not require a 1-year builder’s written warranty for new construction, however, most builders will provide one, albeit littered with exceptions to coverage. Fairly recent Massachusetts case law does impose a 3 year “implied warranty of habitability” for certain undiscovered construction defects. Again, selecting a reputable builder in the first place is “the ounce of prevention worth the pound of cure.”

Punch-Lists and Closing

There will inevitably be unfinished items right up to the closing. I’ve rarely seen a new construction transaction without a punch-list at closing. Some unfinished items will be serious enough to warrant an escrow holdback at closing (remember, I had said push back on this during P&S negotiations). Some lenders, however, will not allow a holdback, so the parties will have to negotiate and be creative at closing to ensure that all unfinished work is completed within a reasonable time after closing. If the home is part of a larger project/subdivision, this is usually not an issue. However, for “one-off” single site projects, getting the builder to come back and finish punch-list items after closing can be like pulling teeth. Again, having a real estate lawyer on your side and in control of the funds will give you leverage here.

Once papers are passed, the closing attorney will lastly ensure that there are no outstanding subcontractor liens on the property, which is one of most common hiccup at closings. For this reason and many others, it is imperative that buyers obtain their own owner’s title insurance policy, to ensure that title is clear, marketable and free of undiscovered defects and liens.

Buying new construction is often a long, drawn out, and stressful process for new buyers. Do your research. Be patient. And hire the best professionals on your side. Good luck!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often handles Massachusetts new construction home purchases. If you need assistance with a new construction purchase or sale, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Sheppard v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Boston: Appeals Court Overturns Variances, But Does Not Order Tear-Down Of South Boston Rehab Project

Disabled Southie homeowner Robert McGarrell wanted to improve his living situation. McGarrell, who suffered chronic emphysema, planned to rehab his dilapidated bungalow style house with a new townhouse style open floor plan enabling him to get around better with his oxygen tank. After discovering that the foundation was crumbling, he had no choice but to do a full gut rehab.

Abutter Alison Sheppard complained about the perceived impacts of the new house. The front of the new home was 4 feet closer to the front property line, and it extended approximately 4 feet deeper into the lot, bringing it closer to Sheppard’s three-decker house. The proposed house was also larger in mass, having a full second story (under a flat roof) over virtually its entire footprint (with a basement floor opening up to the back yard, as before).

In 1998, McGarrell went to the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals and they told him he needed 5 variances. After revising his design to address some of Sheppard’s concerns, the board granted the variances. Unhappy, Ms. Sheppard appealed to Superior Court.

Approval of Variances Always At Risk of Appeal

The result of this case will not surprise anyone who has experience with Boston zoning and permitting. The Boston Zoning Board of Appeals can be fairly liberal in doling out variances, however, the law says they should be rarely granted only in unique circumstances. I would say 80% of all variances issued by the board are susceptible to reversal on appeal, and the Appeals Court ruled McGarrell’s variances were no different.

The City of Boston has its own special zoning code which is both similar and different from the state-wide zoning code known as Chapter 40A. To obtain a variance, a Boston applicant must show 3 things:

  • Special and peculiar circumstances or conditions of the land or building such as exceptional narrowness, shallowness,  shape of the lot, or exceptional topographical conditions, and that failing to grant zoning relief would deprive the applicant of the reasonable use of such land or structure;
  • For reasons of practical difficulty and demonstrable and substantial hardship, the granting of the variance is necessary for the reasonable use of the land or structure and that the variance is the minimum variance that will accomplish this purpose;
  • Granting of the variance will be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the zoning code, and will not be injurious to the neighborhood or otherwise detrimental to the public welfare.

The Appeals Court ruled that neither McGarrell’s rectangular lot nor dilapidated home was peculiar in any way to those in the neighborhood. The Court also held that McGarrell could have constructed a smaller home on the existing footprint, and that he could not expand his home vertically “as of right.”

Remedy: Second Chance

For McGarrell, the court left the door open for his new home to stand. Usually, in the case of construction built at the risk of permits being overturned, the court will order the new structure torn down, as in the recently publicized Marblehead mansion. Since the board supported McGarrell’s improvement of a dilapidated structure, the court allowed McGarrell to proceed on an alternative path under another section of the zoning code. The case will go back to the board for further findings, and this 14 year legal odyssey will go on.

Lesson: Get Neighborhood Support Early

The lesson here, as with any Boston zoning matter, is to get the support of the abutters and neighbors as early in the process as possible. Sometimes it’s not always possible, so you have to litigate.

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Boston zoning, variance and permitting attorney who has substantial experience with variance and special permit applications before the City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeals and in Superior Court. Please contact him via email (info@vetsteinlawgroup.com) or tel: 508-620-5352.

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Post image for A Different Type Of Tear-Down: Court Orders Million Dollar Marblehead Manse Demolished For Zoning Violation

Expensive Lesson–Build At Your Own Peril

After a 16 year long saga, wealthy Marblehead mansion owner Wayne Johnson’s battle to save his house from a court-ordered wrecking ball has come to an end. The underlying legal saga is convoluted and complicated, but the end result was swift and destructive — the million dollar mansion is now rubble.

Johnson’s battle started in 1995 when he recorded a plan dividing his land into two lots. One lot contained an existing single-family dwelling. The second lot contained a garage. The house lot complied with all zoning dimensional requirements, but the garage lot didn’t comply with lot width requirements. The Building Inspector incorrectly determined that the garage lot complied with all applicable zoning requirements.

Johnson’s neighbors appealed the Building Inspector’s decision, arguing that the new house would greatly diminish their valuable ocean views. The local zoning board allowed the issuance of a building permit. After the building permit issued, the plaintiffs filed an appeal in Land Court and asked for an injunction to prevent construction on the garage lot. The Land Court judge warned Johnson that proceeding with construction was at his peril. In a decision by another judge in May, 2000, the court ordered the building permit to be revoked. However, the court ruled that the house could remain in place while Johnson attempted to obtain appropriate zoning relief.

Johnson, however, was unable to obtain zoning relief. After several unsuccessful appeals, the Land Court ordered Johnson to remove the house by October 4, 2010. Johnson failed to comply with that order, and the neighbors attempted to hold Johnson in contempt. With the threat of contempt and possible jail looming, Johnson finally threw in the towel.

The Land Court ruling can be read here: Schey v. Johnson and is embedded below.

More Press:
Schey v. Johnson

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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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This is the first post in a new series I’ve been wanting to try out for awhile: Rich’s Realty Ramblings (not sold on the name yet–feel free to suggest alternatives). This series will be kind of like a weekly news wire report for those topics I find interesting but not warranting an entire blog post. So let’s go….

MERS Case Reaches U.S. Supreme Court

According to Housing Wire, a controversial case challenging the ability of Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS) to foreclose on a California man was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, making it the first major MERS case to reach the nation’s highest court. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear Gomes v. Countrywide, Gomes’ attorney, Ehud Gersten, says the court will have to decide whether a lower court stripped his client, Jose Gomes, of due process by allowing MERS to foreclose without ensuring the registry had the noteholder’s authority to foreclose. “I believe this to be the first case in the country to take MERS to our Supreme Court,” Gersten told HousingWire.

The U.S. Supreme Court rarely takes such cases, and I’m not sure if the due process issues surrounding MERS warrant constitutional intervention, but the case caught my eye and I’ll keep a watch on it.

Old Landfill Found Under New Subdivision

Tampa homeowner Brian Dyer hired a contractor to install a pool in the backyard of his five year old home in the Oak Run Subdivision for his four children. Within hours of breaking ground, construction halted when the contractor discovered a sizable underground dump complete with tires, washing machine tubs, a lawn mower and old trash dating back to the 1970s. With a hole in his yard and a pile of garbage beside it, Dyer approached the county about the eyesore and was told they were unaware of the trash and told him he would be required to handle the problem. (Source: Agent Genius).

Yikes! Mr. Dyer has a potentially large claim against the developer and builder of his subdivision and home. What a stinking mess!

Fannie Mae Abusing Foreclosure Powers?

A Detroit Free Press investigation claims that Fannie Mae spent $27,000 on a foreclosure for a $3,000 debt, and violated its own internal rules to foreclose on struggling homeowners. Fannie Mae has been the target of Congressional ire for some time now. Homeowners across the U.S. are literally begging for loan modifications to stay in their homes in order to avoid foreclosure.

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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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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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Score One For Property Rights Advocates

Massachusetts has the well-deserved reputation of being one of the most challenging states to permit a new housing development due to its myriad of rules, regulations and zoning by-laws. Real estate developers seeking to build a new subdivision typically go through an arduous permitting process before the local Planning Board, Board of Selectmen, Board of Health, Conservation Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and other town boards.

Open Space Set-Asides

In what has become very much en vogue and required in the last decade are towns requiring that the developer dedicate or deed some of its developable land for open space and recreational purposes. In the recent case of Collings v. Stow Planning Board(embedded below), the Appeals Court ruled that the planning board went too far in requiring that the developer set aside almost 6 acres of a 5 lot subdivision for open space and “environmentally significant areas with views.”

Now usually, the developers don’t like to sue town planning boards over these type of exactions or “give and takes” as they want to get their projects approved and “play ball” with the towns. Apparently, the Collings family stood their ground in this case and won a decent victory for other developers who are less inclined to sue town boards.

Ruling: Open Space Requirements Must Be Tied to Legitimate Subdivision Concerns

Generally, a planning board condition requiring the dedication of open space which in effect reasonably limits the number of buildable lots, imposed out of safety concerns arising from the length of the street, would not be illegal. The Appeals Court found that the Stow planning board did not limit itself to a reasonable open space requirement but went much farther and required dedication of open space for public use, including the actual transfer of that open space to the town or a land trust. The court ruled that the exactions also provided no additional benefit above and beyond the open space requirement that relate to the safety concerns that are the subject of the subdivision law and the street length requirements. “Although a planning board’s authority under the subdivision control law certainly encompasses, in appropriate circumstances, requiring open space, it does not extend to requiring the transfer of that open space to the public for reasons unrelated to adequate access and safety of the subdivision without providing just compensation,” the Court held.

This case is a wake up call to town planning boards who may be a bit power-hungry.

Collings v. Planning Board of Stow//

___________________________________

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

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A Guest Post by George Lonergan, Owner of Lonergan Construction, Inc. a licensed Massachusetts general contracting company servicing the Metrowest Massachusetts area including Framingham, Natick, Wayland, Sudbury and Hopkinton.

This winter caused a substantial amount of ice dam damage in the Massachusetts area. The water on your roof that pools above ice dams and then seeps down onto your ceilings and between your inner and outer walls typically causes two related problems: 1) ceiling stains and 2) mold, which is a serious health risk.

Treating Ceiling Stains and Mold

If the stain is yellow, it’s dry and can be treated, but only if there’s no mold behind it. Look at the entire floor of the storage area or attic above the stained ceiling. If there’s mold, you’ll probably see it. Don’t disturb it. Spray the affected area with bleach, but don’t soak it.

Next, apply paint blocker to the stained area, let it dry, and apply a coat of white ceiling paint. (If on first inspection the ceiling stain hasn’t yellowed, it’s not dry, and there is still a leak. Find out where the water is coming in, repair the “port of entry,” wait for the stain to dry, and then refinish.

Paint the repaired area with the original color that you had left over, if it still matches the rest of the ceiling, and if you’re not working in a bathroom—where there is too much moisture, which affects wall and ceiling colors—or in a kitchen, where ceilings, due to cooking vapors, lose color more quickly over time than elsewhere in the house. If you need to repaint the entire ceiling, used painter’s tape on the wall where it meets the ceiling. And it’s always a good idea to remove the furniture, or at least move it to the center of the room and cover it with plastic, especially if you have a sand-textured ceiling, which tends to splatter paint.

Treating Mold Between Walls

Mold Damage

Begin to determine if the ice dam leak has caused mold to form between your inner and outer walls by looking to see: 1) if there are stains on the interior wall; 2) if there is peeling paint on that wall; or 3) if there is a pool of water on the floor (formed as the ice dam melts). If you see any of these conditions, you had best look between the walls because, where there is moisture, mold usually forms.

The least invasive way to check for mold between the walls is to call in a company that uses special instruments to measure moisture. This is expensive, and won’t tell you what you want to know about mold if the moisture has dried up by the time of testing. A second way is to remove the baseboard molding where the leaking has occurred, exposing the sheetrock or blueboard (plaster) behind it, and check for mold. At the same time, check the backside of the baseboard molding.

If neither procedure provides signs of mold, a more invasive procedure is necessary. Remove the sheet rock that’s just behind the molding, usually 3-4 inches—the height of the molding—and about a foot laterally. Do you see mold?

If it’s determined you have mold between the walls, hire the contractor to perform mold remediation, which includes: 1) removal of the baseboard molding, sheetrock or plaster wall, and insulation; 2) treatment of the exposed studs (whether wood or metal); 3) reconstruction of the wall; and 4) application of a finish to match the color of the rest of the wall.

Never paint over mold in an attempt to mask it! If you do, it will continue to grow and spread. Mold must be removed in order to eliminate the health risk.

Health note: Mold above the ceiling is usually in full view, so you don’t have to disturb it to find it. But the invasive procedures needed to deal with mold between walls means that you have to “encapsulate” the work area, because any mold you encounter, once disturbed, will become airborne and pose a health risk. That’s why you also have to wear a filtering facemask. Mold can cause illness not only in the person doing the work, but also to the rest of the household, whether or not any of them suffer from pre-existing respiratory problems. So it’s best to bring in a qualified contractor to check for mold and take a sample for a controlled test. He’ll identify the strain of mold, too, which is important to know if any of the residents suffer from respiratory problems.

Lonergan Construction, a licensed Massachusetts corporation, builds new homes and remodels existing ones. We offer design and architectural services as well as work in concrete, general construction and demolition, plumbing and electrical systems, heating-ventilation-air conditioning (HVAC), septic systems, roofing, painting, cabinetry, and flooring (wood and ceramic), as well as residential (home) and commercial (office) repairs and remodeling.

Our business comes almost exclusively through referrals, and our only advertising is word of mouth.

Lonergan Construction

508-875-0052

www.lonerganconstruction.com

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ynm6g3o8kphmz7dp-1024x785.jpgA new Harvard report predicts a big jump in home remodeling – and with markets like Greater Boston that have lots of older homes leading the way. With the real estate market in recovery mode, a lot of folks in the last few years have put their money towards additions, in-law suites, finished basements, expanded garages, tear-downs, and other major home remodeling projects. In some cases, however, these projects require a special permit from the local zoning code. Here are some frequently asked questions about special permits under the Massachusetts Zoning Law. (I will cover variances for the next post).

Why Do I Need A Special Permit?

The most common reason why a Special Permit is necessary is that the proposed dwelling or the new addition does not meet the setback requirements set forth in the local zoning bylaw. Setbacks are buffer zones surrounding your boundary lines which provide for a “no-build zone.” For example, in the Sudbury, Mass. zoning code for the basic residential district, the side yard setback is 20 feet, the rear yard setback is 30 feet, the front yard set back is 40 feet, and the maximum structure height is 2.5 stories, or 35 feet. So if your proposed in-law suite juts into the side yard setback of 20 feet, then you will need to obtain a special permit from the zoning board of appeals (ZBA).

The other reason you may need a special permit is if your property is “non-conforming” and you wish to make a major expansion or alteration to it. “Non-conforming” means that the zoning code has changed since your home was originally built. For example, in Sudbury, the basic residence zoning district is now a minimum of nearly 1 acre. Many Sudbury homes built in the 60’s are way under 1 acre, so they are “non-conforming.” Virtually any tear-down and major reconstruction or alteration of a non-conforming property will trigger review by the building inspector and the application for a special permit from the local zoning board.

What Do I Need To Do To Get A Special Permit?

Obtaining a special permit requires a formal application to the zoning board with your plan, notice to your abutters, and the presentation of your application in front of the board at the public hearing. It is a formal legal proceeding, and can be complex giving the nature of the zoning issues and the extent of any neighborhood opposition. The chances of success rise dramatically if you have an experienced Massachusetts zoning attorney handling the zoning application. I was an associate member on the Sudbury zoning board for 9 years, and have appeared before countless boards in other towns.

What Are The Legal Requirements For A Special Permit?

The specific requirements for a special permit differ from town to town. But they all have the same general theme. Here is the Sudbury Mass. standard:

  • That the use is in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the bylaw;
  • That the use is in an appropriate location and is not detrimental to the neighborhood and does not significantly alter the character of the zoning district;
  • Adequate and appropriate facilities will be provided for the proper operation of the proposed use;
  • That the proposed use would not be detrimental or offensive to the adjoining zoning districts and neighboring properties due to the effects of lighting, odors, smoke, noise, sewage, refuse materials or other visual nuisances;
  • That the proposed use would not cause undue traffic congestion in the immediate area.

What Happens At The Public Hearing?

The Board Chairman will open the hearing by reading the application or legal ad into the record. The applicant and/or their attorney is then called to make their presentation to the Board. Correspondence received from other town boards and or committees is read into the record as well as any correspondence from abutters. The Board members may ask questions of the applicant. The Chairman will ask if any audience members wish to speak.

For residential additions, tear downs and the like, the board is generally concerned with the general impact, if any, to the abutters, any safety or traffic issues, stormwater runoff, septic issues, and visual issues. Early communication with your neighbors is vital to ensuring the approval of your project. Neighborhood opposition to your application will decrease the likelihood of approval. While the board is technically not supposed to be a “second architect” on the project, many board members often provide comments and suggestions about the design of the project.

After all of the input the Board may close the public portion and discuss the request among themselves. The Board typically makes a decision at the end of their deliberations.

What Happens After The Board Reaches A Decision?

Once the Board makes a final decision, it is written up and and recorded with the Town Clerk. After a 20 day appeal period, the permit is mailed to the applicant, who then files the permit with the county Registry of Deeds. A copy is forwarded to the Board of Appeals Office and the Building Department. The Building Department may not issue a building permit or occupancy permit without receiving a copy of that recorded decision.

Can I Appeal The Board’s Decision?

Yes, you may appeal the decision in the Superior Court. You must act very quickly however, as appeals must be filed within 20 days of the filing of the decision with the Town Clerk. Zoning appeals are very complex and involve the submission of evidence at a trial before a Superior Court judge. It’s not something that should be undertaken without an attorney.

Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Zoning Attorney, who formerly sat on the Sudbury, Mass. Zoning Board of Appeals. Attorney Vetstein handles zoning matters across the state including the Metrowest towns of Framingham, Natick, Wayland, Weston, Ashland, Sudbury, Wellesley, Northborough, Southborough and Westborough. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Our insurance contributor, Nadine Heaps of Purple Ink Insurance, is back to talk about recent changes to the Mass. home oil heating law.

Massachusetts Homeowner Oil Heating System Upgrade and Insurance Law (click for Fact Sheet)

By September 30, 2011, you must upgrade your home heating system equipment to prevent leaks from tanks and pipes that connect to your furnace. By making a relatively small expenditure now, you can prevent a much greater expense in the future.

The new rules:

Residential property owners of 1-4 units who heat with oil must:

  • Enclose fuel lines that lead to and from the tank in a continuous non-metallic sleeve, or
  • Install a safety valve (or other Board approved release prevention method) at the tank-end of the supply line.
  • Get the work done by a licensed oil burner technician, whether an independent or one employed by your oil supplier.

The law applies to both above and underground tanks and to any fuel supply or return lines in direct contact with concrete, earth, or other floor surface.

Are you exempt from the new law?

You’re exempt if:

  • Your oil burner is above the storage tank and the entire supply line is connected to, and is above, the top of the tank, or
  • A safety valve or supply line with protective sleeve was installed on or after January 1, 1990, as long as those changes comply with oil burning regulations (proved by an oil burner permit from the local fire department, or a certificate from a licensed technician).
  • The law does not allow for grandfathering.

Why take required preventive measures?

It makes financial and environmental sense because:

  • You’ll avoid the disruption and expense that can be caused by leaks.
  • You and your family will not be exposed to petroleum vapors in your home.
  • The soil or groundwater beneath your house will not be contaminated.
  • You won’t face a costly cleanup to restore your property—and possibly nearby property and drinking water supplies—to state environmental standards.

Cleanup costs for a “simple” leak can be as much as $15,000, but if the leak affects the groundwater, or is more extensive, costs can reach $250,000 or more.

You can be covered!

Your insurance company must now offer you oil spill coverage if you’re already in compliance with the new law or you make the modifications needed to achieve compliance. Many companies already provide coverage; others will add it for an additional premium.

Please contact Nadine Heaps at 508-881-6680 for assistance.

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As reported in Banker & Tradesman:

A new law requiring construction payments to be paid “promptly” has been passed, which advocates say is one of the most significant pieces of legislation affecting private construction since the reform of the state’s mechanic’s lien law in 1996. The bill was sponsored by the Associated Subcontractors of Massachusetts Inc. (ASM) and otherwise known simply as the “Prompt Pay Law.” It takes effect Nov. 8, 2010, 90 days after it was passed.

The law only covers construction projects over $3 Million, so the vast majority of residential home improvement projects won’t be affected.

The new law sets reasonable time periods for processing payments on a project, both routine progress payments and payments for change orders, which are often held up for indefinite periods. It also all-but-eliminates the use of controversial “pay if paid” terms to avoid having to pay altogether; and it provides the right to stop work for nonpayment without risking breach of contract.

By requiring prompt decisions on approval (or rejection) of payment requests, and timely payment of amounts due, the law will keep funds flowing on projects, according to a statement.

The new law is the result of a nearly five year effort by ASM to address chronic payment delays in construction.

Companies typically wait three months, often longer, to receive payment for their work, while continuing to buy materials and pay workers weekly.

Thirty-two other states currently have similar laws in place.

“Jobs and businesses were on the line here,” said Monica Lawton of Associated Subcontractors of Massachusetts. “This legislation provides a fair, common sense approach to ensure companies and workers get paid-and get paid on time.”

“This legislation will help prevent company closures and layoffs in the months ahead, and over the long term, will help restore fair dealing to an industry that has long been out of balance” said Richard Fisher of Beverly’s Red Wing Construction. “This is an important step to improve our industry, and help small businesses and their employees in this tough economy.”

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A mechanic’s lien is somewhat of a misnomer. It has nothing to do with auto mechanics. Rather, it’s a type of lien that general contractors, subcontractors and construction materials suppliers are allowed to record against a homeowner’s property to secure the payment of services, labor or materials. A mechanic’s lien creates a cloud on the title of real estate where their work, material, or services were provided.

Unlike most other liens, a mechanic’s lien does not require court approval. That’s why it is a very powerful tool for construction professionals to ensure that they are paid for their work, labor and supplies.

Mechanic’s Lien Requirements

The critical requirement to obtain a mechanic’s lien is that the contractor must have a written contract with the homeowner. Without a written contract in place, there is no entitlement to a mechanic’s lien.

The process of filing and recording a mechanic’s lien is very strict, and should be done under the guidance of an attorney. There are several notices and documents that must be recorded under strict time deadlines. Any misstep will result in a dissolution of the lien.

Who can obtain a Mechanic’s Lien In Massachusetts?

The mechanic’s lien law has been in existence in Massachusetts since the 1800’s, but lawmakers substantially overhauled it in 1997. The following types of construction professionals can file a mechanic’s lien:

  • general contractors
  • subcontractors and sub-subcontractors
  • machine rental companies
  • materials suppliers
  • lumber companies
  • demolition contractors
  • landscapers
  • utility contractors
  • site excavators
  • painters
  • civil engineers and architects
  • construction project managers.

How Does A Homeowner Remove A Mechanic’s Lien?

If the homeowner believes that the mechanic’s lien is improper, the mechanic’s lien law provides a summary procedure in the Superior Court or District Court to discharge a lien. Consult an experienced attorney in this type of situation.

If the parties can come to an agreement on what’s owed, the contractor can voluntarily dissolve the mechanic’s lien.

Owners can also “bond off” mechanic’s lien by procuring a lien bond from a surety company.

I Paid My Contractor, But His Subcontractor Just Filed A Mechanic’s Lien, What Do I Do?

Although subcontractors do not have a direct contract with an owner, they are nonetheless entitled to a mechanic’s lien for unpaid services/supplies. It doesn’t matter if the general contractor failed to pay his subcontractor. A subcontractor who attempts to file a mechanic’s lien, however, is subject to even stricter requirements under the new Massachusetts mechanic’s lien law, so consult an attorney to verify whether they have followed all the rules. Also, a subcontractor/supplier’s right to recovery is limited to the amount due under the prime contract at the time of the lien. Thus, the longer a subcontractor waits to assert a mechanic’s lien, the less money may be available to satisfy its lien. This can be overcome by serving a written notice of identification, which is a form set forth in the statute letting the owner and general contractor know the sub is on the job.

I always put indemnification/liability shifting provisions in construction contracts which make the general contractor responsible for any claims or liens asserted by any subcontractor. But that doesn’t necessarily prevent a subcontractor from filing a mechanic’s lien. If the lien is valid, you may have to bite the bullet and pay (twice) the subcontractor to release the lien. There is also a lien waiver mechanism where general contractors and subcontractors release lien rights upon progress payments, but they are infrequently used in residential projects.

Consult An Attorney

The Massachusetts mechanic’s lien process is extremely complicated, especially for the average homeowner and even for the experienced construction professional. While it provides a powerful tool for persons seeking payment for their securities in improving real estate, one seeking to enforce the mechanic’s lien must strictly comply with the statute requirements. The wise choice is to consult an experienced real estate attorney with respect to mechanic’s lien issues.

Helpful Links:

Massachusetts Mechanic’s Lien Law

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Under the new federal Lead Paint Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP), most home improvement projects on homes build before 1978 will require certified lead paint removal contractors to follow strict lead paint removal precautions. To comply with the new regulation, those working on older sites will need to invest in lead-testing kits, plastic sheeting, respirators, protective clothing and other lead-safety materials.

These rules will really impact Massachusetts because its housing stock is much older than other states’. According to a recent Boston Globe article, home improvement costs will no doubt rise due to the new rules.

The threshold for the new rules is whether the home improvement project will disturb more than 6 interior square feet of paint or 20 exterior square feet of paint. This extremely low threshold will cover virtually any home improvement project involving cutting into any wall or ceiling.

The only way to avoid taking the extra precautions is to have a certified inspector (which may be the contractor) perform an EPA endorsed lead paint test which results in a negative result.

The rules went in effect on April 22, 2010, and cover paid renovators who work in pre-1978 housing and child-occupied facilities, including:

  • Renovation contractors
  • Maintenance workers in multi-family housing
  • Painters and other specialty trades.

The new rules require that the contractor performing the work be certified with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The certification process involves taking a day long training session on lead paint removal safety best practices.

Nothing in the new regulations requires owners to evaluate existing properties for lead or to have existing lead removed.

The Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety will be taking over the enforcement of the rules in Massachusetts.

If you are seeking a certified contractor in the Greater Boston area, George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction, Inc., based in Framingham has been certified and has already performed several jobs using the new precautions.

Helpful LinksEPA Renovate Right Brochure

“Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Regulations in Massachusetts: Information for Contractors”

Thanks to Patrick Maddigan, Esq. and Suffolk Law student Kate Garavaglia for assistance with this article.

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lobby furniture and interior decoratingI’m pleased to welcome Noel Sior-Woodard, IIDA, the President of Woodard Interiors, Inc. – a commercial interior design firm located in Grafton, MA. Noel is writing about pending legislation in Massachusetts which will officially recognize the profession and enable interior designers to bid on lucrative state contracts. Noel recently testified before the State Legislature in favor of this important bill.

Interior Designers Do More Than You May Think

Interior designers make decisions everyday that affect the health, safety, and welfare of the general public. They lay out floor plans that comply with all of the relevant building, life safety, and accessibility codes so that all occupants can quickly and safely exit from the building in case of an emergency. Designers select and specify interior finish materials for public spaces that are the approved fire rating according to code. They select and specify interior finish materials in health care facilities that are appropriate for protecting both the patient and staff against unnecessary infections. Interior designers bring colors and patterns together that do not confuse or irritate those affected by mental disabilities. They specify the correct lighting levels so that the elderly are able to walk down a corridor of an assisted living facility safely. They design ergonomic office environments for employees to work in. The work of an interior designer may not always be recognized for all of the research that goes into creating the design – but that is the whole point of hiring a professional interior designer. To create a space that meets all codes while designing an environment that the general public only sees as being beautiful – that is the job of a successful interior designer.

Pending Massachusetts Legislation Enabling Interior Designer To Bid On State Contracts

Currently, House Bill 2999 – an Act recognizing the profession of interior designers to bid on State contracts – is in front of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. Passage of HB 2999 would allow professional interior designers in Massachusetts to bid on State contracts that are relevant to interior design services as the prime consultant. Currently all State interior design projects are awarded to architects and engineers. Unfortunately, Massachusetts does not recognize the profession of interior design. Interior designers within our state are currently not able to bid as the prime consultant on State work. Enactment of the bill would put Massachusetts in line with many other states and the Federal government where professional interior designers are allowed to bid as the prime consultant and which recognize the profession of interior design.

There is also currently another bill that has been filed during this legislative session in support of interior design legislation. House Bill 262 – an Act relative to the certification of interior designers – would allow professional interior designers to be registered with the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure. In order to become a “certified interior designer” in Massachusetts interior designers will have to meet all of the education, experience, and examination requirements that the Commonwealth establishes.

Twenty four states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have either interior design practice acts or title acts. House Bill 262 would establish standards of minimum competency for the use of the title “certified interior designer” within the Commonwealth.

Please join me in supporting Noel and our local interior designers to support this legislation. Allowing interiorNoel Sior-Woodard designers to be certified and bid on state contracts ensures that they are not blocked from the marketplace, and will ultimately protect consumers by requiring uniform standards and competency levels for all such professionals.

To learn more about House Bill 2999 and House Bill 262 and to support this legislative effort go to The Massachusetts Interior Design Coalition.

Noel can be reached for comment at noel@woodardinteriors.com.

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Sadly, completing a home improvement project on time, on budget and with good, quality work is the exception rather than the norm these days. I have seen homeowners pour their home equity lines and savings into home improvement projects only to see the project left incomplete and riddled with defective and poor quality work, or worse, with the contractor abandoning the project and going bankrupt.

Homeowners can avoid ending up in this predicament by following my 10 Things You Need To Know About Hiring A Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Pre-Construction Planning:  Budget, Budget, Budget

Recognizing that even the most thought-out home improvement projects tend to run up to 10% over budget, careful planning and budgeting before the work starts is paramount. There are almost always going to be contingencies and unknowns (like the mold in your walls that you never knew about) cropping up during construction so you need to allocate a sufficient reserve (10-15% should do) to cover these unknown risks. Once the budget is set, stick to it, even if it means foregoing that gorgeous Italian tumbled marble in the master bath. Also, come up with a written construction schedule.

2.  Interview At Least 3 Contractors and Obtain Written, Detailed Estimates From Each

I cannot tell you how many times homeowners select the first contractor to whom they were referred without vetting them through a proper bidding process. Interview 3 contractors, be with them when they walk through hour home, and more importantly, get written, detailed estimates from each contractor. None of this, “Yeah, this project should run about 10k.” This is also your best opportunity to negotiate the best price as you can play each contractor against each other. Be aware that the cheapest bid does not necessarily equate with the best work.

3.  Obtain 3 References And Check The Better Business Bureau

This is a critical, yet often overlooked piece of preventative maintenance. Most folks are referred to a home improvement contractor through a friend or family member, however, you should ask the contractor for at least 3 references. Call each of them, then ask each of them if they know anyone else who has worked with the contractor and call them too. (The contractor will always list their most “friendly” references). Ask them if the contractor performed quality work on time and within budget. Were there issues with scheduling, delivery of the correct materials, and the labor?  This is your opportunity to get the real scoop. Search the Better Business Bureau for any complaints about the contractor. The BBB has a good resource for spotting contractor rip-off artists.

4.  Check License/Registration Status Of Contractor

You should always select a licensed home improvement contractor. They are regulated by the state and using them entitles you to the protection of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Law and Contractor Guaranty Fund if there is a problem. There are 2 types of home improvement contractor licenses in Massachusetts. A Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) license covers most types of typical home improvement work, except for structural work. Structural work must be performed by a contractor holding a Construction Supervisor License (CSL). You can search for Massachusetts HIC or CLS licensed contractors here. The license search also discloses any complaints against the contractor.

5.  Sign A Written Construction Contract In Compliance With Massachusetts Home Improvement Law (General Laws Chapter 142A)

The Massachusetts Home Improvement Law provides the bare minimum of what is required to be in home improvement contracts over $1,000, but most contracts supplied by the contractor are non-compliant and terribly one-sided. Here’s what you need in your home improvement contract:

  • The home improvement contract must be written, dated, and signed by both parties. Make sure the contractor executes the agreement under the entity which is pulling the permits. Some contractors attempt to work  under another contractor’s company or worker’s compensation policy–this is a red flag. If the contractor is not incorporated but is a “dba” (unincorporated doing business as), he must sign individually. The contractor needs to list his license number as well.
  • The home improvement contract must provide the start date of the work and the date of “substantial completion.”
  • The home improvement contract must provide a detailed description of the work and materials involved.  I suggest incorporating that detailed estimate provided by the contractor discussed previously. (You can attach it as an exhibit or addendum to the end of the contract).
  • The contract must detail the scope of work, being as specific as possible. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Itemize the exact type of materials involved (Andersen windows, California paint, Italian ceramic tile, etc.), and work to be performed (full kitchen remodel with installation of new flooring, appliances, etc.). If you are not specific in the contract, and there’s a problem later, your claim will be severely weakened, if not dead on arrival.
  • The contract must provide the total contract amount and the timing of progress payments. Massachusetts law prohibits a contractor requiring an initial deposit of over 33% of the total contract price unless special materials are ordered.  Any contractor demanding over a 33% deposit should raise a huge red flag . (I recommend setting up payments into thirds, with the first payment due at the start of work, the second payment due halfway through the work, and the final payment due at the satisfactory completion of the work.)  The homeowner should always “holdback” up to 33% of the total cost until the work is done and done right.
  • There are other requirements mandated by the Home Improvement Law.

To be safe, I recommend having an attorney review the contract. Proposed contracts which do not comply with the Home Improvement Law are a red flag.

6.  Hold A Pre-Construction Meeting

Seems pretty obvious, but again frequently contractors jump into a job right after signing the contract without taking the take to meet again with the homeowner. Walk through the project again after the initial estimate. Discuss any changes and scheduling issues. Pin down the contractor as to exactly when the crew will be on the job. Talk about expectations for day end and clean up.

7.  Verify Sufficient Liability Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Insurance

Obtain the contractor’s Worker’s Compensation Insurance Coverage sheet showing that it has worker’s compensation insurance in place as well as the coverage page for its Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. Request that the contractor add you (and your spouse if you own the home jointly) as “additional insureds” on the policy with at least $1M in liability coverage in place. This should protect you if a worker injures himself on the project site.couplewithhouse

8.  Ensure The Contractor Pulls All Permits

Always have the contractor pull the building, plumbing and electrical permits. Owners who secure their own permits are ineligible for protection under the Home Improvement Law. If a contractor is reluctant to pull permits himself, it’s a red flag.

9.  Document All Changes In Writing

I cannot tell you how many times that after signing a comprehensive written agreement, homeowners and contractors alike change the work and increase the contract price orally without any written documentation. This is a huge No-No and will get the homeowner into trouble every time. Ask the contractor for a “change order” to fill out and sign, or create one yourself.  It should, at minimum, provide the original contract price, a detailed scope of the new work, its cost, and the updated total, signed and dated by both parties.

10.  Carefully Monitor The Project And Keep Lines Of Communication Open

Seems like common sense, but don’t go on vacation during a home improvement project, lest you arrive home to a mini-disaster. Keep a log of daily activity that you can match up with the project schedule. Another common complaint is when the construction crew inexplicably fails to show up when you expect and is instead at another project. This happens a lot at the end of the project when the contractor is focusing on the next job. Email or write the contractor and get his firm commitment to finish your job or else you will withhold final payment. If there are any issues or problems, the best way to cover yourself is to document them. Email works great here as it is not too formal yet more than adequate to memorialize the event. Create a final punch list for all incomplete items and withhold final payment until it is completed.

If you are seeking a licensed general contractor in the Greater Boston area who follows these guidelines, call George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction, Inc., (Tel: 508-875-0052) based in Framingham. He also certified under the new Lead Paint Removal Regulations.

Best of luck with your Massachusetts home improvement project!

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