Purchase and Sale Agreements

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 [email protected]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacant Lots In Sudbury

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

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

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

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

Statute Of Frauds Intersects With E-Mail

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

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

Take-Away: Emails May Come Back To Bite You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

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Standard Mortgage Contingency Language At Issue

I recently came across a very interesting and scary case from the Appeals Court, Survillo v. McDonough No. 11–P–290. Dec. 2, 2011. (It’s technically an “unpublished” opinion but it’s available to the public). The case underscores how carefully attorneys must craft the mortgage contingency to protect the buyer’s deposit in case financing is approved with adverse conditions.

“Prevailing Rates, Terms and Conditions”

The buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Survillo, submitted the standard Offer To Purchase the sellers’ home in Walpole. The offer provided it was “Not subject to the Sale of any other home.” The sellers accepted the offer. The buyers received a conditional pre-approval from a local bank for a first mortgage in the amount of $492,000. The pre-approval also stated that anticipated loan was “[n]ot based on sale of any residence.”

The parties then entered into the standard form purchase and sale agreement (P & S), with the typical mortgage contingency provision for a $429,000 mortgage loan:

“In order to help finance the acquisition of said premises, the [buyers] shall apply for a conventional bank or other institutional mortgage loan of $492,000.00 at prevailing rates, terms and conditions. If despite the [buyers] diligent efforts a commitment for such loan cannot be obtained on or before October 5, 2009, the [buyers] may terminate this agreement by written notice to the [sellers] and/or the Broker(s), as agent(s) for the [sellers], prior to the expiration of such time, whereupon any payments made under this agreement shall be forthwith refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto “

Change In Circumstances: Lender Requires Piggyback Loan & Buyers List Their Residence

Due to the buyers’ debt to income ratios, the lender required that the loan be structured as a “piggyback” — a first mortgage of $417,000 and second mortgage of $73,400, and with the condition that the buyers listing their primary residence for sale prior to the loan closing. The buyers absolutely did not want to list and seller their residence, so they wanted out of the deal.

On the last day of the extended financing deadline, the buyers timely notified the sellers that they had “not received a loan commitment with acceptable conditions,” and attempted to back out of the agreement under the mortgage contingency provision. Ultimately, with the buyers refusing to sell their home, the bank denied the buyer’s the mortgage application based on the fact that the “borrower would be carrying three mortgage payments and the debt to income is too high.”

Focus On “Prevailing Terms” Language

The sellers refused to return the deposit, and litigation over the deposit ensued.

The Court framed the case as follows: “Before the extended mortgage contingency deadline of October 21, the buyers received a commitment from the bank for two mortgages totaling $492,000. The P & S’s mortgage contingency was accordingly satisfied unless the bank’s requirement that the buyers list their home for sale was not a “prevailing” term or condition.”

The court started with the assumption that “the typical loan condition for most borrowers is to require them to sell an existing home before the new loan closes. The condition here required only that the buyers list, not sell, their home and it was accordingly not a typical condition.” The buyers argued that because the condition was unusual, it was not a “prevailing” condition within the meaning of the contingency clause of the P & S, despite the fact that the condition was more favorable to them than the standard condition. The court flat out rejected that argument, citing prior rulings that terms of a mortgage contingency presuppose that the buyers will accept commercially reasonable loan terms. If less is required, the condition becomes an option. The court also noted that the buyers failed to notified the sellers that they were unwilling to list or sell their existing home, nor did they insert a proviso to that effect into the mortgage contingency clause. Subsequent events suggested that if the buyers had timely disclosed their intentions to the bank, the loan would have been disapproved, which may well have given the buyers the shelter they sought under the mortgage contingency clause.

The court ruled against the buyers who had to forfeit their $31,000 deposit.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure

I’m not sure who is to blame here, the buyer’s attorney or the buyers themselves. Probably both.

From a legal drafting approach and as the court pointed out, the buyer’s attorney could have insisted on language into the mortgage contingency provision that the buyers’ financing could not be conditioned on the listing or sale of the buyers’ present residence. After all, the language was in the Offer, so it could have easily been carried over into the P&S. There was no indication from the decision that this was raised or negotiated.

It also seems apparent that the buyers were not particularly up front with anyone on their insistence that they would not list and sell their current residence. If they had been more forthcoming about that, perhaps they could have avoided this situation.

A commenter on Boston.com also places some blame on the loan officer:  “Not all pre-approvals are created equal. For a few minutes of work and adherance to a common standard of practice by the mortgage professional, a true pre-approval is supported by a credit report, the main criteria for ability to qualify for a mortgage. This is generated in a few seconds, and the pre-approval letter usually states subject to verification of income, assets, and property appraisal. Had this been done, THE DEBT TO INCOME RATIO ISSUE WOULD HAVE SURFACED EARLY.”

Based on the loan amount, this mistake or gamble cost the buyers around $31,000 plus legal fees. Ouch!

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

 

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The Offer to Purchase Has Become Much More Important

With a glut of distressed property still on the market and lenders realizing foreclosures aren’t very cost-effective, analysts are predicting a healthy spike in short sales for 2012. Short sales are quite unique in terms of deal dynamics, and should be handled differently than the typical transaction.

Massachusetts real estate attorneys and Realtors, however, are set in their ways when it comes to real estate contracts. For decades, we’ve been using the standard form Offer to Purchase and Purchase and Sale Agreement from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board or some variation thereof. We have also developed a predictable process in which the parties sign the Offer, conduct property inspections, sign the Purchase and Sale Agreement, obtain financing, order title, and get to closing.

With the recent proliferation of short sales, we have had to … yes, that dreaded word, CHANGE, the way we do things. Some agents and attorneys still do things the “old way” for short sale transactions, but they are doing themselves and their clients a disservice by doing so.

In this post, I will outline —  and explain — the “newer and better” way of handling the legal contracts in a Massachusetts short sale transaction.

The Offer to Purchase: Now The Operative Contract Document

We are seeing a shift to making the offer the operative contract in a Massachusetts short sale transaction. And for good reason. A short sale, by definition, is subject to a critical contingency: obtaining short sale approval from the seller’s lender(s). No short sale approval, no deal. Experienced short sale attorneys and real estate agents (and their clients) don’t want to spend the time and incur the expense of drafting a comprehensive (and contingent) purchase and sale contract when there is no guaranty of getting short sale approval. Furthermore, short sale lenders will accept a signed offer from the buyer during the approval process.

When we were first doing short sales, there were several instances where we drafted up purchase and sale agreements and then the short sale approval fell through. We had to charge the client for the drafting work or eat the cost. No one was happy.

The better way has proven to be the following:

  • Build all contingencies into the Offer to Purchase, namely, Short Sale Approval and Financing (we’ll talk about home inspections later)
  • Use a standard rider with short sale contingency language, with a deficiency waiver
  • Seller to use best efforts in obtaining short sale approval
  • Buyer agrees to be bound for set approval period  (60-90 days) in exchange for seller taking property off the market and not accepting back up offers. Negotiate deposit amount, usually 1% of purchase price. Buyer will obtain his financing and loan commitment during this approval period.
  • Negotiate extension rights, with corresponding protection for Buyer’s financing/rate lock
  • Upon short sale approval, purchase and sale agreement is signed within 5-7 days and full 5% deposit made
  • Closing within 30 days of short sale approval. (Most short sale approvals are only good for 30 days)
  • Waiver of home inspection or inspection prior to offer acceptance. Sellers should never agree to allow a home inspection contingency giving the Buyer a right to terminate. If the buyer doesn’t want to pay for an inspection up front, he is not a serious short sale buyer.

Change Is Hard…

I recognize that this is a departure from the “normal” way we document residential real estate contracts, but trust me, it’s a better way, and will actually decrease the time it will take to obtain short sale approval, because the parties are not waiting around for the P&S to be negotiated and signed and the buyer (and his attorney) don’t have to do unnecessary work.

Another important piece here is that the Buyer must get his financing in order, ready to go by the time short sale approval comes through. Lenders must recognize the unique short sale process and work with borrowers to get a firm loan commitment issued timely. Also, there’s no need for a lender to insist that the borrower have a signed purchase and sale agreement for underwriting approval. Under the process that I’ve outlined and under established Massachusetts case-law (McCarthy v. Tobin), the Offer is a legal and binding contract for the sale of the subject property and is sufficient for underwriting purposes. If it’s ok for the short sale lender, it should be ok for the buyer’s lender.

Help Is An Email Away

If you are a Realtor and need some guidance on the new Short Sale Offer, email me here and I will send you the form Rider. Also, if you need a referral for an excellent short sale negotiator, I highly recommend Andrew Coppo at Greater Boston Short Sales LLC.

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Richard Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts short sale attorney. For more information, please contact him at [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

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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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images-13Compliance Concerns Unwarranted

Electronic signature technology has been quickly gaining steam throughout the U.S. real estate community, and has now arrived in earnest in Massachusetts. Electronic signature software lets you send legally binding documents and get signatures anytime, anywhere from any Internet-connected device. It’s mostly used in Massachusetts on Offers and Purchase and Sale Agreements. I’ve been using DocuSign, and with a little learning curve, it’s been fantastic.

Realtors and attorneys who use electronic signature software can simply email encrypted contracts to their clients for signatures, rather than deal with travel, signing 4 original copies, and coordinating all the signatures. It’s especially helpful for out of state clients.

The Massachusetts real estate industry, traditionally conservative and slower to adopt new technology, has been lagging behind more progressive states such as California when it comes to adopting electronic signature technology. Plus, it hasn’t helped that technologically challenged attorneys are often involved in the drafting of the purchase and sale agreement.

In my informal survey of Realtors, the biggest questions were (1) are electronically signed contracts legal and valid, (2) how does it work: and (3) will lenders accept them?

Are Electronic Signatures Valid For Massachusetts Real Estate Contracts?

The answer is yes. Under the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), real estate contracts which are electronically signed in compliance with the law are legal and valid.

Electronic signature legislation was adopted over 10 years ago. In 2000, Congress enacted the E-SIGN law which validates certain contracts in electronic form and electronic signatures across the country. In 2004, Massachusetts adopted its UETA, codified in Mass. General Laws Chapter 100G, which is essentially adopts and updates the federal E-SIGN law. Lawmakers designed UETA and E-Sign to recognize that “a signature, contract, or other record relating to a transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form.” The Massachusetts UETA provides, simply, that “In a legal proceeding, evidence of a record or signature may not be excluded solely because it is in electronic form.”

For offers and purchase and sale agreements, I have formulated the following rider provision to ensure electronic signature validity and enforceability. Feel free to use it.

This Agreement may be executed by and through electronic signature technology which is in compliance with Massachusetts law governing electronic signatures, including but not limited to, DocuSign®.  Electronic signatures shall be considered as valid and binding as original, wet signatures.  Signatures, originally signed by hand, but transmitted via e-mail or fax shall also be deemed valid and binding original signatures.

How Does It Work?

There are several electronic signature systems out there, including EchoSign, eOriginal, and DocuSign, which I use. All three providers warrant full compliance with federal E-SIGN and state UETA law and their European counterparts.

Since I’ve been using DocuSign, here is a quick video overview how it works.

As the individual requesting that a document be DocuSigned, you control who signs by providing the signer’s email address and other contact information. The document is routed to the signer’s email with a request to sign. DocuSign records the signer’s IP address and a time stamp of the signing activity. In addition, a signer can opt to provide geo-location information at the time of signing. If you require deeper levels of identity management, DocuSign offers additional authentication options, including: access code, knowledge-based ID check and biometric phone identification, among others.

As you can see, in many respects, an electronically signed contract is more secure and less susceptible to fraud and forgery than a traditional “wet” signature.

Are Lenders Accepting Electronically Signed Contracts?

Most are now. In fact, starting in 2012, FHA and the IRS will formally allow electronic signatures on loan and tax documents. However, I hear that some short sale lenders are still requiring wet signatures.

This is always the problem with adopting new technology. It’s disappointing because electronic signatures have been legal and valid for 10 years now. The law was passed by Congress and now all the states. As more and more agents and attorneys embrace the technology, we will see objections falling by the wayside, just as we did with faxed signatures.

QuickBooks Enterprise hosted on Citrix Virtual desktop is an perfect example of an accounting software used by real estate agents which lets you put a signature on a document without the hassles of scanning, printing, signing, and faxing. Instead, you can simply view documents online and add your signature electronically.

Agents, are you using electronic signatures, and if so, how has it helped your business and clients? Have you run into issues or objections from lenders or attorneys?

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate closing attorney who’s handled over 1,000 closings. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

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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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Benjamin Franklin once said famously that “the only certainties in life are death and taxes.” That’s certainly true in real estate practice. Today, I will go over how real estate passes when the owner dies  –  with a will or without a will – and how the probate process affects the real estate process.

Tenancy by the Entirety

Married couples in Massachusetts are recommended to hold real estate as “tenants by the entirety.” It’s a special form of joint tenancy for married couples. If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse succeeds to full ownership of the property, by-passing probate. By law, tenants by the entirety share equally in the control, management and rights to receive income from the property. Property cannot be “partitioned” or split in a tenancy by the entirety. A tenancy by the entirety also provides some creditor protection in case one spouse gets into financial distress as creditors cannot lien the non-debtor spouse’s interest in the property.

Death Without A Will—Intestacy Laws

Clients were often surprised to learn that when one spouse dies without a will, the law of intestacy in Massachusetts leaves a portion of the estate to the surviving spouse and a portion to the decedent’s children. This is changing as of January 2012 with Massachusetts’ adoption of the Uniform Probate Code. Under the “UPC,” if a spouse with children of the marriage dies, the surviving spouse gets the entire estate, including the marital home. If there’s no surviving “descendant,” or child, of the deceased, but a surviving parent of the deceased, the surviving spouse gets the first $200,000 of the estate, plus 75% of the balance of the estate. The laws of inheritance remain rather complicated to explain fully here. A good guide to the new Uniform Probate Code can be found here.

Death With A Will — Testate

The basic rule is that if the owner dies with a will, which includes a power to sell real estate, the executor or administrator of the estate is generally authorized to convey title without further authority from the probate court. If the will does not provide for a power of sale, the executor will have to obtain a license to sell from the probate court.  If a final account has been filed and allowed, the heirs (in the case of an intestacy) or devisees (in the case of a will) are able to convey title.

Missing Probates

If the title examination turns up an interest that is not accounted for by a probate, and the death of the interested party occurred less than 25 years ago, a probate may need to be opened to convey the property. Deaths over 25 years old where a special affidavit has been filed, may pass without probate.

Federal & Massachusetts Estate Tax Liens

A federal and state estate tax lien arises immediately upon death and attaches at the time of death to the gross estate of the decedent. The gross estate includes all property, wherever situated, that the decedent owned or in which the decedent had an interest at the time of death. The threshold for federal gross estates for 2011 and 2012 is $5 Million for an individual and $10 Million for a couple. The Massachusetts estate threshold remains at $1 Million. For estates below those amounts, the executor must merely file a simple Affidavit of No Estate Tax Due. Estates over the thresholds must file the more complicated release of lien from the Department of Revenue which requires the filing of a full estate tax return.

Bought A House? Get A Will!

Julie Ladimer, Esq. Danielle Van Ess

After every closing, I always have a chat with my new buyers about setting up a will and other estate planning vehicles. It’s very important on all fronts. For those in the MetroWest area, I recommend Julie McQuade Ladimer, Esq. of Framingham (email: [email protected]; Tel: (508) 788-0028. For those on the South Shore, I recommend Danielle Van Ess, Esq. in Hingham (email: [email protected]; Tel: 781.740.0848. Both are very good and well regarded estate planning attorneys.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate attorney who’s handled over 1,000 closings. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

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Court Upholds Oral Handshake Deal In Land Swap

by Rich Vetstein on August 22, 2011

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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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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What happens if the property you have under agreement is wiped out by a tornado, burns down or is otherwise subject to a casualty?

Yesterday’s horrific tornadoes — which leveled parts of Springfield and Central Massachusetts — demonstrate the power and fury of Mother Nature and how little control we have over natural disasters. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by the tornadoes….

The tornadoes were also a stark reminder to me that an extremely important part of my job as a real estate attorney is disaster planning. Although most buyers and Realtors don’t like to think pessimistically (and neither do I), we always have to plan ahead for the worst case scenario.

Which bring us to the topic of this post. What happens if the property you have under agreement is wiped out by a tornado, burns down or is otherwise subject to a casualty?

The Standard Form Casualty & Insurance Provisions

Let’s start with the basic concept that the buyer does not own the property until the closing occurs, money is exchanged and the deed/mortgage is recorded with the registry of deeds. The purchase and sale agreement is there to govern the parties’ relationship and the property from the time the offer is signed until the closing. The seller retains ownership and control over the property during this period of “under agreement.”

Seller Must Keep Property Insured

The standard form Massachusetts purchase and sale agreement contains two important provisions dealing with homeowner’s insurance and casualty. First, the standard form provides that the seller must keep the existing homeowner’s insurance coverage in place. A good buyer’s attorney will insert language that the “risk of loss” remains with the seller until the transaction closes, to ensure that if a tornado levels the home, that loss is the seller’s responsibility.

Opt Out/Election

Second, the standard form spells out what happens if there is a casualty. If the house is deemed a causualty loss, the buyer has the option of terminating the agreement and receiving his deposit monies back. However, the buyer has the option of proceeding with the transaction and can require the Seller to assign over to the buyer all of the insurance monies available. Depending on the amount of coverage available and the cost to re-built, this may not be a bad situation, but it’s the buyer’s call.

As a “belt and suspenders” measure, I also add the following provision to my purchase and sale rider to ensure that the buyer is protected in case of a disaster:

Notwithstanding any provisions of this Agreement to the contrary, in the event that the dwelling and/or other improvements to the Premises are destroyed or substantially damaged by fire or other casualty prior to the delivery of the deed, the cost to repair which exceeds $10,000.00, BUYER may, at BUYER’S option, terminate this Agreement by written notice to SELLER, whereupon all deposits made hereunder shall be forthwith refunded, all obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this Agreement shall become null and void without further recourse to the parties hereto.

Although natural disasters are rare, a certain amount of disaster planning must be done for every Massachusetts real estate transaction. Think of a real estate attorney as part of your insurance policy to protect you in a worst case scenario.

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images-8Buyer’s Closing Checklist

The day has finally come and it’s time to close on the purchase of your property. You will need to bring the following to the closing:

  • Funds For Closing. If you need to bring cash to the closing, you must bring to closing a bank or certified check PAYABLE TO YOURSELF for the balance of the figure shown on line 303 on your HUD-1 Settlement Statement: Cash From Buyers. This is for fraud prevention, and you’ll endorse the check over to the closing attorney at the closing. The closing attorney should provide you with this number at least 24-48 hours prior to closing. Accordingly, if you need to move funds around from investments accounts, etc., do so well in advance of the closing, and be prepared to make a bank run to obtain that bank/certified check!
  • Homeowner’s Insurance Binder. At closing, you need a homeowner’s insurance binder showing the first year premium paid. If you are purchasing a condominium unit, you will need to provide us with the Master Insurance Binder, and depending on the type of loan you use, you may need an HO-6 policy covering the interior of your unit. The closing attorney will typically get an insurance binder ordered ahead of time, but this should be on your “to-do” list.
  • Your state issued driver’s license with picture or other picture identification. Some lenders now require a second form of i.d. Your closing attorney will advise you of this.
  • If a sale of your present home is required by your new lender, you must bring the HUD-1 Settlement Statement and a copy of the Deed from that transaction.
  • Good Faith Estimate. You should bring the Good Faith Estimate of closings costs that your lender originally provided to you during the loan application process. That way, you can ensure that the final closing costs match up to those originally quoted to you.
  • Draft HUD-1 Settlement Statement. You should have received a preliminary HUD-1 Settlement Statement from the closing attorney’s office. Due to lender delays, it is not uncommon to receive this the night before or the morning of closing, although this is obviously not ideal. Compare the prelim HUD to the HUD you are signing at the closing table.
  • Your Smile. Yes, bring your smile. It’s a happy day, and despite all the tumult and stress you are finally purchasing your home!

Seller’s Closing Checklist

Sellers will need to bring the following to the closing:

  • Massachusetts or state issued driver’s license
  • Keys to home and alarm codes/information
  • Smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector certifications from local fire department. Your Realtor should assist you with this.
  • Signed Deed from you to the buyers. Your attorney should have drafted the Deed.
  • Title V Inspection Report for septic system
  • Evidence of repairs (if applicable)
  • Final water/sewer bill and reading (paid) and final oil bill and statement from oil company as to amount remaining in tank. You will need to make the request at least 2 weeks prior to closing.
  • Copy of last paid real estate tax bill.
  • 6D certificate for condominium unit showing that condo fees are paid up.
  • It’s also a nice gesture to give the new buyers the name of your landscaper, septic company, private trash hauler, handyman, etc. I’m sure your workmen will appreciate it also.

Before you close, don’t forget to:

  • Fill out change of address forms
  • Notify utility companies of move out
  • Discontinue phone service and cable
  • Leave all appliance warranties and instructions in the house (these are usually left in a kitchen drawer so they will be easily found by the new owners)
  • Notify insurance agent of closing date in order to cancel present policy
  • If you are purchasing a new home at the same time, make sure you get a copy of the fully signed HUD-1 Settlement Statement

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at [email protected].

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IMG_1621Ruling Mandates That Attorneys Take “Substantive Participation” In All Massachusetts Residential Transactions

The long awaited ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in case of Real Estate Bar Association (REBA) v. National Estate Information Services (NREIS) has just come down. The ruling can be read below. The net effect of the Court’s ruling is to reaffirm Massachusetts attorneys’ long-standing role to oversee the closing process and conduct closings. For more background, please read my prior post, Battle Between Massachusetts Closing Attorneys vs. Settlement Service Providers Argued Before SJC.

This case pits Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys vs. out of state non-attorney settlement service providers which are attempting to perform “witness or notary” closings here in Massachusetts. At stake is the billion dollar Massachusetts real estate closing industry.

Quick Analysis

  • Massachusetts attorneys must be present for closings and take active role in transaction both before and after the closing. The substantive ruling from the court was a huge victory for Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys and their continued, long standing involvement in the residential real estate industry. The court requires “not only the presence but the substantive participation of an attorney on behalf of the mortgage lender.” This is what Massachusetts real estate attorneys have been fighting about for consumers in the face of out of state settlement companies who have tried to conduct closings with “robo-attorneys” and notaries who cannot explain complex legal documents to parties at the closing table. The court stated:

The closing is where all parties in a real property conveyancing transaction come together to transfer their interests, and where the legal documents prepared for the conveyance are executed, often including but not limited to the deed, the mortgage and the promissory note. The closing is thus a critical step in the transfer of title and the creation of significant legal and real property rights. Because this is so, we believe that a lawyer is a necessary participant at the closing to direct the proper transfer of title and consideration and to document the transaction, thereby protecting the private legal interests at stake as well as the public interest in the continued integrity and reliability of the real property recording and registration systems.

  • Applies to Both Purchases and Refinances. The court made no distinction between purchase and refinance transactions. The same essential functions of the attorney — examining and ensuring marketable title, handling the mortgage proceeds under the “good funds” law, and ensuring that the mortgage is properly recorded and the prior mortgage is discharged — are the same in both a purchase and refinance. Accordingly, in my opinion, the ruling applies to both purchase and refinance transactions.
  • No “Robo-Attorneys” Allowed. NREIS’ business model is to hire part-time, contract attorneys on an as-needed basis to conduct closings. Basically, these are kids right out of law school who get a call to drive to a closing they know nothing about for $100 or less a pop. Although they are licensed attorneys, these lawyers are really no different than the “robo-signers” in the foreclosure industry because they did not participate in the transaction from the start, they did not examine the title, or do anything to manage the transaction. Here’s what the court said about this practice:

Implicit in what we have just stated is our belief that the closing attorney must play a meaningful role in connection with the conveyancing transaction that the closing is intended to finalize. If the attorney’s only function is to be present at the closing, to hand legal documents that the attorney may never have seen before to the parties for signature, and to witness the signatures, there would be little need for the attorney to be at the closing at all. We do not consider this to be an appropriate course to follow. Rather, precisely because important, substantive legal rights and interests are at issue in a closing, we consider a closing attorney’s professional and ethical responsibilities to require actions not only at the closing but before and after it as well.

  • Analyzing title and rendering an opinion of clear and marketable title must be conducted by attorneys. Certifying good, clear and marketable title is the fundamental function of the real estate attorney in Massachusetts, and required by law for purchase transactions under Chapter 90, section 70. NREIS was attempting to out-source this function to out of state companies and non-lawyers, in avoidance of Mass. law.
  • Attorneys are required to draft deeds. The court held “because deeds pertaining to real property directly affect significant legal rights and obligations, the drafting for others of deeds to real property constitutes the practice of law in Massachusetts.”
  • Attorneys must effectuate the transaction. The court also ruled that only licensed attorneys have  duty to effectuate a valid transfer of the interests being conveyed at the closing. This includes ensuring that the deed and mortgage are properly recorded; that the exchange of funds is properly made and that prior mortgages and liens are properly paid off and discharged.
  • Title abstracts, title insurance and other administrative functions are properly delegated to non-attorneys. The court also correctly recognized, consistent with modern practice, that many functions in the real estate transaction don’t have to be performed by an attorney. Included in this exempted list of functions are the preparation of title abstracts by title examiners at the registries of deeds, the issuance of title insurance policies, and the preparation of closing documents & the HUD Settlement Statement. Real estate attorneys typically use title examiners and paralegals at lower costs to perform these functions.

The case will move back to federal court where it started for more fact-finding unless it can be settled. There were several unanswered questions because the record was not adequately established. It remains to be seen whether NREIS and its ink can adopt their business model to the SJC’s holding. It’s possible it can be done, but they will have to hire a group of attorneys to manage the system.

More CoverageCourt Weighs In On Lawyers and Closings, Boston Business Journal (argues that this is a blow to attorneys–completely disagree).

State Court Rules Attorneys Must Participate In Home Closings, Boston Globe (yours truly quoted)

REBA v. NREIS Decision

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The “Standard Form”

In Massachusetts, buyers and sellers typically use the standard form purchase and sale agreement created by the Greater Boston Board of Real Estate. This form has been around since the late 1970’s and last updated in 1999–which might as well be 100 years ago in real estate life. Along with the standard form, attorneys for sellers and buyers customarily add specialized Riders to the agreement which modify the standard form and add contingencies particular to the deal.

A Vastly Changed Landscape

The legal and mortgage financing landscape has changed so much in the last few years, with Fannie Mae and regulatory agencies issuing a new policy what seems like every other week, and short sale and REO transactions becoming much more prevalent. With the recovering market and new appraisal guidelines, some homes are not appraising out. Moreover, lenders have tightened underwriting requirements considerably. As a result, borrowers have more difficulty qualifying for mortgage loans, it takes longer to get a loan commitment, and there are often delays in getting the loan “cleared to close.” All these changes in the real estate landscape require re-thinking of the standard form purchase and sale agreement and the associated riders.

As experienced Massachusetts real estate attorneys, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that we are on top of the latest changes in the Massachusetts and national real estate landscape, and have adapted our legal forms accordingly. I’ll go through 3 recent changes that I’ve adopted in my practice.

Low Appraisal Contingency

These days, appraisals are administered is a completely different fashion. New rules – the Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC) – hold appraisers to higher standards and sharply limit communication between appraisers and lenders. Mortgage professionals can no longer select their “hand-picked” appraiser now; there is basically a random lottery system to select the appraiser. The downside of this lottery is that the appraiser may not be very familiar with the town or neighborhood being appraised. So the appraisal may fall short of the agreed-upon selling price.

I always insist on this provision to protect a buyer against the risk of the property not appraising out.

Appraisal– The buyer’s obligations, hereunder, are contingent upon the BUYER’s lender obtaining an appraisal of the property in an amount at least equal to the purchase price of the premises.

What happens if the property doesn’t appraise for asking price? Sometimes you can ask for a second appraisal or bring different comparable sales to the appraiser’s attention and he can revise the appraisal. Sometimes, the parties must re-negotiate the purchase price. Talk to your lender and Realtor about the options. This provision, however, gives the buyer an “out” if a low appraisal cannot be overcome.

Condominium Fannie Mae Compliance

Tougher Fannie Mae and FHA condominium rules have made condo financing much more challenging. I add this clause to deal with this situation:

The Condominium, the Unit, and the Condominium Documents (including but not limited to the Master Deed and By-Laws/Trust) shall conform to the requirements of Federal National Mortgage Association (“FNMA” or “Freddie Mac”), Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) or Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“FHLMC”) or other secondary mortgage market investor, and shall otherwise be acceptable to BUYER’s mortgage lender.

Rate Lock Expirations

Delays happen. There may be a title problem which the seller needs a few days or weeks to correct. But what if your rate lock will expire and you are facing a higher interest rate loan? This provision protects the buyer in this situation:

MODIFICATION TO PARAGRAPH 10: Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if SELLER extends this Agreement to perfect title or make the Premises conform as provided in Paragraph 10, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.

There are many other contingencies and new provisions that I use, but I cannot give them all away!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at [email protected].

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Litigation Over Condominium Construction Can Derail Financing

It’s always humbling to be quoted in a major real estate publication such as Inman News. Last summer, I wrote about the nasty effect of the newer pending litigation Fannie Mae condo rules. Steve Bergsman, from Inman, was gracious enough to retell a story about how these rules left my client with a denial of his financing just days before his condo closing, leaving him living in a motel for weeks. (Another attorney represented him in the transaction, who I believe bordered on committing malpractice by not following my guidelines, below).

My legal advice for Realtors and condo buyers is to:

  1. Have the condominium association disclose whether it is involved in any type of pending litigation which could trigger the Fannie Mae guidelines.
  2. Get this information as early as possible, because it’s a deal killer.
  3. I always put a provision in my purchase and sale agreement rider in which the seller represents there is no pending litigation involving the condo.

Here is the Inman story, entitled New Rules Make Condos Harder To Sell (March 18, 2011):

Attorney Richard Vetstein told me this story: A client was going to buy a unit in a condominium development and thought he had it all wrapped up; he had an agreement in hand, deposit down and was two days away from closing.

Then he got a call from his lender, who said there were issues. “Issues?” the client asked. Essentially, his lender said there was active litigation involving the condominium building, and the loan would not be approved by underwriters.

Vetstein, of the eponymous Vetstein Law Group in Framingham, Mass., has done a considerable amount of legal work in the always colorful condominium world. Of the client in the story, he said, “Luckily, I was able to negotiate his deposit back, but he lost the deal, and since he had sold his prior residence, for awhile he was living in a motel. It just ruined his life for a couple of months.”

The episode didn’t make the seller of the condo unit any happier, either. Buyers these days are extremely hard to come by.

So what happened?

Recent changes to the Fannie Mae Selling Guide, including some alterations that went into effect March 1, make that afternoon leisure time on your personal veranda with the ice tea in your tumbler and a Robert Patterson paperback in your hand more chilling than comforting.

Condo watchdogs generally are focusing on two changes that could affect your pocketbook, either as a homeowner or home seller. The first has to do with newly converted, non-gut rehabilitation condo projects, while the second, which affected Vetstein’s client, has to do with the collateral damage of an ongoing litigation.

Fannie Mae now declares mortgage loans in progress on a condo involved in any type of litigation, other than minor litigation (i.e., disputes over rights of quiet enjoyment), ineligible for delivery, said Orest Tomaselli, CEO of White Plains, N.Y.-based National Condo Advisors LLC.

“There are different types of litigation, from slip-and-fall cases to structural issues, so Fannie split it all up and any project where the HOA is named as a party defending litigation that relates to safety, structure (or) soundness of functional use (is) ineligible,” Tomaselli said. “These projects will not be able to enjoy Fannie Mae project approval nor the financing that results from it.”

The Fannie Mae guidelines read: “Any project (condo, co-op, or planned unit development) for which the homeowners association or co-op corporation is named as a party to pending litigation, or for which the project sponsor or developer is named as a party to pending litigation that relates to safety, structural soundness, habitability or functional use of the project, remains ineligible.”

What this means is, if your neighbor has some personal beef with the homeowners association or developer because his plumbing doesn’t work or the front door of the building has a bad lock and sues, well, that can affect you because a potential buyer can not get a Fannie Mae loan. Sure, the buyer can go to a bank and get a different loan, but that would just be more expensive.

What happened with Vetstein’s client was that a crazy, litigious unit owner was suing the condo association and prior builder for minor leaks.

“It was something that really should have been resolved by the trustees, builder or even insurer,” Vetstein explained. “It didn’t involve a lot of money, but the lawsuit was out there, pending and not resolved. There was no waiver because the litigation fell within these parameters of structural soundness and safety. Fannie Mae said, ‘Sorry, there’s no gray area here.’ ”

The changes present a conundrum for HOAs. It’s not uncommon in cold-weather states to experience poorly worked roofs resulting in water penetration of condominium units. Condo owners get upset, the HOA gets upset, and everyone wants to sue the builder or roofer. Unfortunately, this triggers a Fannie Mae issue.

“There is nothing the condo association can do about someone suing over defective conditions, but it certainly does have control over who they sue,” Vetstein said. “The HOA needs to know a lawsuit will have a ripple effect.”

The other problem for condo owners is specifically for those who live in developments that essentially have been converted from rentals into ownership units, or as Fannie Mae officially labels them, newly converted, non-gut-rehabilitation condo projects.

Those developments have to go through a Project Eligibility Review Service, or PERS.

The Fannie Mae Selling Guide updates read: “Many buildings are converted to condominiums without the replacement of major components resulting in eventual increased costs to unit owners for maintenance and major repairs. In order to mitigate the additional risk that newly converted, non-gut-rehabilitation projects pose, all newly converted, non-gut-rehabilitation condo projects must be submitted to PERS for review and approval.”

The problem is the cost to the HOA. Fannie Mae charges $1,200 for the review, plus $30 for every unit in the buildings, said Tomaselli. So, if you’re looking at 200-unit building, that’s $7,200 that has to paid out.

In addition, the newly converted non-guts have to undergo a reserve study to determine over a 30-year period of time what the repair costs are going to be in regard to such items as elevators, roofs, mechanical and structural systems, and the exterior.

“The current guidelines require that only 10 percent of the budget be set aside for reserve. Once the reserve study is done, an accurate number is given on what the reserve should be — and those numbers can be tremendous,” Tomaselli said.

The main goal of a reserve study is accuracy. “This guideline requiring reserve studies for new non-gut-rehab condominiums will ensure accurate reserve funding enforcement that will eliminate special assessments in most cases,” said Tomaselli.

It’s not a bad thing for Fannie Mae because it is making sure homeowners are protected — but for developments, increased maintenance can loom large.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, “After the Fall: Opportunities and Strategies for Real Estate Investing in the Coming Decade,” has been ranked as a top-selling real estate investment book for the Amazon Kindle e-reader.

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This is a summary of a recent presentation given by Jon Ufland and Chuck Silverston of Prudential Unlimited Realty, Attorneys Richard Vetstein & Marc Canner of TitleHub Closing Services, and Mark Maiocca of Mortgage Network.

Selling & Buying Simultaneously

Many home buyers today still need to sell their current homes and use the sale proceeds for their next purchase. Often, there is a closing in the morning on the “sell,” and a closing in the afternoon on the “buy.” This is called a “piggyback” or “back to back” sale.

Back in the boom days, we were doing piggyback transactions all the time, and lenders were able to offer special programs, like bridge loans, to facilitate these back to back transactions. The days of bridge loans, no-docs, and 100% financing may be over, according to Mortgage Network’s Mark Maoicca, but piggyback transactions are still going on, but in a changed market.

There are numerous factors and variables to consider when doing a piggyback transaction, from a legal, financial/lending and marketing perspective.  There can be at least 11 different people involved – buyer, seller, 2 agents, up to 3 attorneys, loan officer, appraiser, home inspector and contractor.

Sales/Marketing

There are a number of considerations on the sale/marketing side according to Jon Ufland and Chuck Silverton of Prudential Unlimited Realty. When to put your home on the market so as to ensure a quick sale? Statistics show that the most sales activity in the Greater Boston area occurs in March, April and May, with families trying to get settled before the summer and back to school season ends. December through February is the dead zone. Getting a pre-sale home inspection and comparable market analysis before putting your home on the market are two good tips suggested by Jon and Chuck.

Lending

According to Mark, lenders are no longer offering bridge loans or 100% financing, which helped cash strapped sellers to close on their new purchases. Also, home equity lines are tougher to qualify for. No income verification and stated income loans are just about long gone for the recently self-employed. Mark also says that the days of “washing the rent” on income properties is over. You need a 2 year history of rental income for qualification purposes. You also need to factor in the required real estate tax and insurance escrow reserve in your mortgage payment affordability analysis.

Bottom line, confer with your loan officer and financial planner as early as possible in the process before putting your house on the market! Get those financial ducks lined up before….

Coordination & Control

The piggyback transaction works best when one person takes on the role of “project manager.” It’s usually your real estate agent or attorney. Communication and coordination is the recipe for a successful piggyback transaction.

On the legal side, the overriding goal is to keep your buyer’s feet to the proverbial coals on the sale while protecting your deposit on the buy. It may seem like common sense, but it’s best to hire the same attorney to handle both transactions. An experienced attorney will line up the two mortgage contingency deadlines so that your buyer will obtain a firm loan commitment as soon as possible (with no contingencies, especially the sale of other property), and you have sufficient time on your purchase to get your own firm commitment while protecting yourself from any worst case scenarios like job loss, defective title, etc. The attorney should always be on top of these important deadlines so he or she can ask for extensions and otherwise exercise any opt out rights. Failure to do that can result in the loss of your deposit. Delays are common today in the tighter lending environment.

The Big Day

As the closing day approaches, everyone gets into high gear, with the agents coordinating smoke certs and pre-closing walk-throughs, the attorneys drafting preliminary HUDs, deeds, and coordinating wires, and loan officers sending closing packages. Speaking of wires, your attorney should be able to coordinate a wire of your sale proceeds into the IOLTA account of the purchase closing attorney, so you have good funds to close.

The closing day is about as hectic as you can get. I suggesting giving your attorney a power of attorney so he or an associate can attend the closing on the sale, get on record, coordinate the funds, and you can deal with moving and attending the purchase closing in the afternoon.

______________________________________________________

Jon, Chuck, Marc, Rich and Mark have all worked together as a team on piggyback transactions. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you need expert assistance.

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How Will Real Estate Closings Look In 2021?

by Rich Vetstein on March 2, 2011

Are Electronic Contracts And E-Signatures On The Way?

Catching my eye this week was a recent New York Times article discussing a New York state court opinion regarding the legal effect of e-mail in real estate contracts.  The ruling reaffirmed that e-mail may carry the same weight as traditional ink on paper contracts.

It made me think about the future of real estate contracts and how they will look. Will the common practice of executing four original purchase and sale agreements be replaced by some type of electronic PDF document with electronic signatures? (I hope so. They are in the West Coast now). Same for the standard Offer to Purchase? What about the stack of disclosures and loan documents signed at closings? (There must be a better way). And mortgages are already being electronically recorded in several Massachusetts counties.

I wonder how closings will be conducted in 2021?

Congress and state legislatures have already laid the groundwork for electronic real estate contracts and e-signatures. In 2000, Congress enacted the E-SIGN law which validated certain contracts in electronic form and electronic signatures. In 2004, Massachusetts adopted the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), which is essentially updates the E-SIGN law. Lawmakers designed UETA and E-Sign to recognize that “a signature, contract, or other record relating to a transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form.” The Massachusetts UETA exempts several types of contracts and disclosures (e.g., wills), but not real estate contracts.

Old Traditions & The Statute of Frauds

But old traditions are hard to change, especially when it involves real estate.  As every first year law student learns, Massachusetts real estate contracts are governed by the Statute of Frauds.  This doctrine, originated in old English common law, says that any contract for the sale of real estate must be in writing and “signed by the party to be charged therewith.”  One can make a compelling argument that secured electronic contracts and signatures serve the purpose of the Statute of Frauds by providing some objective evidence, other than word of mouth, that there really has been a binding deal.

I haven’t found any cases dealing with the interplay between the UETA and the Statute of Frauds.  And there’s something about that “wet” ink signature on real paper that gives people security and comfort.  The same is true for our beloved Greater Boston Real Estate Board standard form Offer and P&S.  We’ll have to see how the issue plays out in the courts.

But if you can purchase a Ferrari online through E-Bay, why can’t you buy a home using a secure electronic contract?  How do you think technology will affect real estate in the future? What would you like to see change in the industry?

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It’s that time again for our annual review of hot topics and top posts for the last year, 2010.

#5. The Great Flood of 2010. Ah, who can forget the flooding in the spring of 2010. I sure remember bailing out my flooded basement every 30 minutes through the night, into exhaustion. Good times… FEMA declared a “major disaster” and the IRS granted taxpayers in 7 counties an extension to file their taxes.

Read More: Federal Aid And Tax Extension To May 11 Available To Massachusetts Homeowners Affected By Flooding

#4. The Obama HAFA Short Sale Program. The Obama short sale program, announced at the end of 2009, was aimed to speed up short sales of homes and other loan modification alternatives to stem the rising tide of foreclosures. The Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives Program (HAFA) provides financial incentives and simplifies the procedures for completing short sales, a growing practice in which a lender agrees to accept the sale price of a home to pay off a mortgage even if the price falls short of the amount owed. By all accounts, however, the HAFA program has been a dismal failure.

#3. On Jan. 1, new RESPA rules went into effect, significantly changing the way lenders disclose settlement services, in particular closing attorneys’ fees, and title insurance. Read more: New RESPA Rules 2010: Disclosure of Settlement Services, Closing Attorneys’ Fees, And Title Insurance .

#2. Our popular primers on the Massachusetts Offer to Purchase and the standard form Purchase and Sale Agreement, checked in with over 16,000 reads. Great to see posts about buying a new home ranking so highly. An indicator of the recovery of the Massachusetts real estate market perhaps?

Read More:

#1–Fannie Mae & FHA Condominium Regulations:  Our series on the Fannie Mae and FHA strict new condominium lending rules were incredibly popular, combining for over 25,000 reads during 2010.  The new guidelines had condominium developers and associations, buyers and sellers in a tizzy, as Fannie and FHA imposed much tougher pre-sale requirements, condominium financial guidelines and the imposition of unit owner HO-6 insurance policies, among other requirements.

Read More:

Honorable Mention: With Old Man Winter upon us, our post on the changes in Massachusetts snow removal law is very popular:  Massachusetts Property Owners Now Have Legal Responsibility To Shovel Snow & Ice.

What To Expect In 2011

Final Ruling In the Ibanez Foreclosure Case

Early 2011 should bring the final word from the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court on the very controversial foreclosure case of U.S. Bank v. Ibanez which invalidated foreclosures across the state for sloppy paperwork. Thousands of property owners and their ownership rights to their homes hang in the balance. Click Here For Our Entire Series Of Post On the Ibanez Case.

Fate Of Real Estate Attorneys

Year 2011 should also bring the final word in the The Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts, Inc. (REBA) v. National Real Estate Information Services, Inc. (NREIS) case. This case pits Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys versus out of state non-attorney settlement service providers which are attempting to perform “witness or notary” closings here in Massachusetts. At stake is merely the billion dollar Massachusetts real estate closing industry.

What are your predictions for 2011?

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This post is a continuation of my discussion about the recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case of NRT New England, Inc. v. Moncure (click for link). Last week I talked about why the decision was very important in upholding the standard liquidated damages clause in the the typical purchase and sale agreement.

This week I’ll talk about the court’s ruling that the listing broker violated its fiduciary duties when it messed around with the escrow deposit.

Quick Take-Away

The important take away from this case for all real estate agents is that if you are holding a deposit as an escrow agent, don’t even think about messing with it even if there’s a legitimate dispute about your commission or other monies owed to you. It’s not your money! The best advice is to let the dispute run its course and continue holding the funds in escrow.

Dispute Between Listing Broker and Buyer

The facts of this case are a bit unusual. Listing Broker represented the seller in a purchase of residential property in Wayland, MA. Under the standard purchase and sale agreement, the buyer posted a $92,500 escrow deposit which Listing Broker held as an escrow agent. The same buyer apparently used Listing Broker on another transaction and owed it nearly $35,000 in fees.

The buyer lost its financing and defaulted on the contract, thereby forfeiting the $92,500 deposit. (I covered that in my prior post). Listing Broker took an assignment of the buyer’s right to the escrow funds, but didn’t tell its client that right away. Then Listing Broker tried to strong-arm its client by threatening litigation if he didn’t accept $2,500 and release the escrow deposit to Listing Broker.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty and Chapter 93A Violation

The court was none too happy with Listing Broker’s course of action here. The court reaffirmed that Listing Broker had a fiduciary duty — one of the highest duties under law — to hold the funds for the benefit of the seller and not to engage in any self-dealing. The court found that Listing Broker’s collection of a debt against the escrow deposit while it was acting as escrow agent was a clear breach of fiduciary duty.

The kicker was that the court imposed triple damages and an award of attorneys’ fees under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. So Listing Broker is now on the hook for $277,500 plus thousands in legal fees. Ouch!

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