Massachusetts Real Estate Law

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Case is Good Reminder to Ensure That Contractors Register With State

With the record amount of snow, roof leaks and interior damage just beginning to hit Bay State homeowners, this spring should be a record season for Massachusetts home improvement contractors. But, according to a recent court ruling, contractors who don’t register as a licensed Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) could face serious liability under the state Consumer Protection Act (Chapter 93A) in any dispute with a homeowner. The case is Groleau v. Russo-Gabriele (Mass. Superior Court, Judge Douglas Wilkins).  Such penalties could include up to triple damages and an award of the homeowner’s attorneys’ fees.

This case serves as a timely warning to both homeowners and contractors that contractors should always be registered with the state and that homeowners select a reputable, licensed professional for their projects. Below are my well-worn 10 Tips to Hiring A Home Improvement Contractor (published earlier on this Blog).

1. Pre-Construction Planning

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

2.  Interview At Least 2 (But Preferably 3) Contractors and Obtain Written, Detailed Estimates From Each

I cannot tell you how many times homeowners select the first contractor to whom they were referred without vetting them through a proper bidding process. Interview 2, but preferably 3, contractors, be with them when they walk through hour home, and more importantly, get written, detailed estimates from each contractor. This is also your best opportunity to negotiate the best price as you can play each contractor against each other. Be aware that the cheapest bid does not necessarily equate with the best work.

3.  Obtain 3 References And Check The Better Business Bureau

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

4.  Check License/Registration Status Of Contractor 

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

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

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

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

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

6.  Hold A Pre-Construction Meeting

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

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

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

8.  Ensure The Contractor Pulls All Permits 

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

9.  Document All Changes In Writing

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

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

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

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resourceful realtor invite copyI will be speaking at the upcoming Metrowest Resourceful Realtor Meeting on March 2, 2015 at John Harvard’s Brewhouse at Shoppers World, Framingham. Networking starts at 5:45PM with dinner and speakers starting at 6:30PM. Any licensed estate agent welcome.

I’ll be talking about the latest court rulings and legislation affecting Massachusetts real estate law, intermixed with a few colorful war stories from the front lines. Topics will include the status of the independent contractor office model, the new CFPB closing disclosures and settlement statements, and a rental housing update.

Also speaking is Sandy Krenz, a 30-year interior designer and consultant with Debsan Paint in Natick. She will talk about color and decorating trends.

RSVP to aimee.siers@commonmoves.com with your choice of dinner (see invite).

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Winter Storm Minnesota

Shovel Early and Often!

This winter has been one of the snowiest on record, and there is another major snow event on the way. Judging from the astronomical number of recent clicks on this blog, it’s clear that people want to know all about Massachusetts snow removal law. The law underwent a monumental change back in 2010 with a Supreme Judicial Court decision overruling the 125 year old “Massachusetts Rule” which allowed property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and avoid liability. Now, owners are under a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice. Moreover, cities and towns have been passing all types of new snow removal ordinances and by-laws regulating whether owners must shovel public/private sidewalks, and how long they have to clear snow.

It’s clear that it’s time to give you the most up-to-date information. So here is a fresh set of Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) with links at the end to various city and town webpages on their snow removal policies. Good luck and stay safe!

I own a two family rental property with a driveway and one common walkway and entrance. Am I responsible for shoveling snow on the driveway and/or walkway?

The answer is yes. Under a 2010 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, all property owners (rental or owner occupied) can be held liable for failing to remove snow and ice from their property. The old rule was that owners didn’t have to remove “natural accumulations” of snow and ice, but the court overruled that in favor of a general obligation to keep property safe for all visitors and guests. There are also many local town and city ordinances which likewise obligate property owners to keep snow and ice off their property and sidewalks. I will discuss some of those below.

Can I use a lease which provides that the tenant is responsible for snow removal. Is that legal and will that protect me from liability?

It depends on your particular property. Landlords have the primary responsibility for snow removal at a rental property. Under the State Sanitary Code, property owners/landlords must keep all means of egress free from obstruction — that cannot be negotiated away. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the landlord shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. Again, those obligations cannot be negotiated away.

A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove in a lease provision only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. On its face, this exception only applies to entrance-ways and not driveways or parking areas. I am not aware of a court ruling on this particular Code provision, but if I were a landlord I would not risk being on the wrong side of a “test case” where someone is injured badly.

So, in the example above with an owner occupied two family with one common entrance and driveway, that lease provision would be illegal.

Even if the tenant is responsible for snow removal under a legal lease provision, the landlord could still face personal injury liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under the SJC ruling.  A guest or visitor who is injured due to untreated snow or ice will likely sue both the property owner and the tenant. The property owner must ultimately ensure that the property is safe for visitors.

How soon do I have to shovel the snow before I get in trouble?

The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 12 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

Am I required to shovel the public sidewalk in front of my house/business after a storm?

In most Massachusetts towns and cities, the answer is yes. Check your local town ordinances for guidance. The cities of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Newton, Lynn, and Worcester (among others) all require property owners and businesses to clear municipal sidewalks in front of their residences or businesses. Fines are assessed against non-compliance. In Somerville, for example, if snow ceases to fall after sunrise (during daylight hours), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 p.m, and if snow ceases to fall after sunset (overnight), property owners must shovel sidewalks by 10 a.m. You can also be fined for shoveling snow onto the street, blocking a curb cut or putting snow on municipal owned property.

In some more residential towns, the local DPW will clear the sidewalks, but the default rule is that property owners are generally responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and driveways.

Will my homeowner’s or CGL insurance policy cover any injuries from slip and fall on snow/ice?

Yes, usually. The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy and commercial general liability insurance policy (CGL) will have liability coverage for slip and falls on property. Make sure you have ample liability coverage of at least $500,000 to 1 Million. (You can never have enough insurance!). As with any insurance question, it’s best to contact your personal insurance agent.

I’m just a regular homeowner. What if the mailman or delivery person slips on my walkway?

You may be liable if you left dangerous snow and ice on your walkway. The new law applies to every property owner in Massachusetts, not just landlords. Get some Ice-melt and sand and spread on your walkway. If it re-freezes overnight into black ice, you will remain liable.

Helpful Links

Arlington Snow Info

Belmont Snow Ordinance

City of Boston Snow Center

Brookline Snow Alerts

Cambridge Snow Guide

Lawrence Winter Parking Rules

Lynn DPW Winter

Marlborough DPW

Medford Police Dept. Snow 

Needham MA Snow & Ice

Newton Snow Page

Quincy Snow Removal

Salem Snow Emergency Rules

City of Springfield Snow Rules

Somerville Snow Guide

Waltham Snow Policy

Wayland Snow Policy

Worcester Snow DPW

Winter Storm Precautions

  • Keep roads clear to allow plowing operations to proceed smoothly.
  • Use care around downed power lines. Assume a down wire is a live wire.
  • Check in with your neighbors, especially those that may need assistance.
  • Help dig out fire hydrants and storm drains in your neighborhood.
  • If you live on a corner, clear a path from the sidewalk to the street. If not precisely on the corner, as close to the corner as you can get.
  • Avoid parking too close to corners, allowing Public Safety vehicles and plows to maneuver safely.
  • Be aware of children playing in the streets, particularly climbing on or running out from behind large snowdrifts
  • Parents should remind their children to be aware of plowing operations and traffic.
  • Clear exhaust vents from Direct Vent Gas Furnace Systems to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Never run an automobile until exhaust pipe has been cleared of snow.
  • Make sure backup generators are well ventilated.
  • Take your time shoveling. Avoid overexertion.
  • For homes heated by oil please be sure a safe route is available for delivery to your oil fill pipe.
  • Clear flat roofs and decks to prevent accumulation of snow/ice over the season.

 

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City Universities Providing ISD With Addresses of Student Apartments

In the coming weeks, some Boston college students living off-campus and their landlords may be greeted by city inspection officers at their doors. Shrugging off privacy concerns, pursuant to a new city ordinance, the city’s 31 local colleges and universities have sent the city’s Inspection Services Department the addresses of their students who live off-campus. Of the 25,000 addresses it received, ISD will pay visits to the 580 it deems to be suspect of violating zoning codes. Boston.com reporter Julie Xie in her article “City Will Inspect Off-Campus Student Apartments, And It’s Legal” reported this new development.

They’ll primarily be looking for issues related to overcrowding. There are over 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students living off-campus in Boston, according to The Boston Globe . A 2008 city ordinance prohibits more than four undergraduates living together in one apartment.

The city’s crackdown comes in the wake of BU senior Binland Lee’s tragic death in 2013 from a fire in her overcrowded Allston apartment. Flames blocked the staircase from the third floor — her only egress. Scofflaw landlords and poorly managed units unsafe for students were the subject of the Globe’s “Shadow Campus” investigation last year. Now, an ordinance requires colleges to provide a list of where students live off-campus every semester. Another requires private rental units to register their properties annually, and inspections are performed every five years.

There is no question that some Boston landlords catering to the huge undergraduate population have skirted the law, creating dangerous living spaces for far too long. Regardless of the issue of occupancy limits, landlords need to comply with the sanitary and building codes so they don’t create fire traps for housing.

However, I have always had issues with the legality of the 4 undergraduate rule. I’m quoted in the article as saying that the no-more-than-four rule has always been somewhat suspect, arbitrary, and tough to enforce. Though neighbors do complain about late-night parties and loud college students, not all undergrads are troublemakers.” “Undergrads are not a protected class under any discrimination laws, and they’re transient, so it’s not like they’re going to come up with a lobbyist or fight for their rights in that way,” I’m quoted. “Colleges don’t want to get in trouble and they know they won’t get much pushback from Boston’s student body.”

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1__1263399571_0444-300x199One of Largest Verdicts In A Condominium Dispute

In a David vs. Goliath case pitting a Demoulas family heir against an elderly Brandeis professor over a tony Back Bay townhouse, the Appeals Court has let stand a $1.85 Million jury verdict — one of the largest awards in a private condominium governance dispute. The case is also one of the first to successfully employ the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act in a private real estate dispute. With interest and an award attorneys fees of $1.9 Million, the judgment will swell close to $4 Million — providing a cautionary tale to condominium trustees who abuse their power for ulterior purposes. The case is Kettenbach v. Wodinsky, Mass. Appeals Court (Jan. 6, 2015), embedded below.

A Classic David vs. Goliath Tale

In 1996, Michael and Frances (Demoulas) Kettenbach bought a unit in the 5 unit townhouse located at 303 Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. (Frances is the sister of Arthur T. Demoulas who was recently reinstated as CEO of Market Basket after a publicized family fight). With the goal to acquire all of the units and convert the building to a grand single family Back Bay residence, Kettenbach purchased three more units, leaving only the top floor unit owned by Jerome and Bernadette Wodinsky. The Wodinskys, who had owned their the fourth floor unit for over 30 years, didn’t want to sell.

According to the court’s ruling, Kettenbach enlisted Gary Crossen, a former prominent Boston attorney who was the Demoulas family’s trial lawyer in their epic family litigation in the 1990’s. When the Wodinsky’s made it clear they were not selling, Kettenbach and Crossen began to put the proverbial “squeeze” on them. Armed with the controlling interest in the condominium association, they summoned state inspectors to condemn the building elevator, leaving the 82 year old Wodinsky, who suffers emphysema, to make the daily climb up 86 stairs to his fourth floor unit. Instead of repairing the elevator, Kettenbach voted to replace it at a $275,000 price tag. When the roof leaked, rather than repair it, Kettenbach insisted on installing a new one – even though it was only 10 years old. He also completely replaced the building’s heating system and did a massive overhaul of the electrical system. The result was a $1 million special assessment, 20% of which Kettenbach attempted to impose on Wodinskys. Kettenbach also hired a private investigator who showed up at Mrs. Wodinsky’s workplace and threatened her with bankruptcy.

Staggering Jury Verdict

Not backing down, the Wodinskys sued, asserting claims under the little used Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. They won an early victory when a trial judge issued an injunction forcing Kettenbach to fix the elevator. The case went to trial in 2011 over 19 days, and the jury returned a whopping $1.85 Million verdict in the Wodinsky’s favor. Although the trial judge vacated the judgment on the Chapter 93A count, which would have given the Wodinsky’s triple damages, he left the judgment intact on all other claims. Both parties appealed.

Jury Verdict Upheld on Appeal

On appeal, Appeals Court Justice William Meade upheld the entire jury verdict and judgment, and awarded the Wodinsky’s their appellate attorneys’ fees and costs, which will balloon the judgment against Kettenbach to well over $4 Million and change. The justice held that there was ample evidence that:

Kettenbach and Crossen coerced, intimidated, and threatened the Wodinskys in an effort to force them out of their home. This evidence includes: the Kettenbachs’ active attempts to condemn and decommission the building’s only elevator; the excessive period of time during which the elevator was unusable, which forced the elderly Wodinskys to walk up and down four flights of stairs; Crossen and the Kettenbachs’ manipulation of the board’s voting process to the Wodinskys’ detriment; the Kettenbachs’ demand that the Wodinskys pay twenty percent of expensive, unneeded projects that were not lawfully voted upon by the board; the Kettenbachs’ instituting litigation against the Wodinskys to collect such payments while simultaneously forgiving the assessments of another owner who agreed to sell her unit; and the Kettenbachs’ hiring of a private investigator to visit Bernadette at her work place for the specific purpose of threatening the Wodinskys with bankruptcy.

Since a member of the Demoulas family is involved, you can bet that this case isn’t over yet, and that he will try to get the Supreme Judicial Court to hear this case. And he might be successful as this is a huge jury verdict and, as mentioned earlier, one of the largest involving the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

Expansion of Condominium Trustee Liability?

Although this was a particularly unique and egregious case, this ruling could be used to expand liability against condominium trustees to for state civil rights violations arising out of contentious governance and assessment disputes. I’m not so sure that the Mass. Civil Rights Act is the appropriate vehicle to address this sort of private claim, because I don’t see how it invokes traditional constitutional rights which the Act was intended to protect. The SJC will have to sort this out but if they don’t take this case, this ruling will be the law of the land. Either way, I will bet that we haven’t heard the end of this dispute.

Kettenbach v. Wodinsky

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massachusetts condominium super lienWe had another interesting year in Massachusetts real estate law. From that controversial $60,000 discrimination penalty for asking a prospective renter “where are you from?”, to the influx of Airbnb rentals, to the tragic murder of Realtor Beverly Carter during a showing, and finally Gov. Patrick’s disappointing scuttling of the title clearance bill.

With pro-business Charlie Baker in the Governor’s Office, the fate of the independent brokerage model with the Supreme Judicial Court, and significant regulatory changes to title and closing services, we should expect another eventful year in 2015. Without further ado, I give you my outlook for 2015:

The Charlie Baker Effect

Gov. Deval Patrick was no friend to the real estate industry, often kowtowing to ultra-liberal activists. Case in point was when he killed the title clearance bill which had broad support within the Legislature and would have helped hundreds of homeowners get out of toxic titles. A new era is here with Republican and former CEO, Charlie Baker. Hopefully the Governor Elect will be more supportive of homeowners, developers, real estate agents, lenders and others in the industry. On the legislative table this year will be comprehensive “smart” zoning reform (including 40B affordable housing development reform), another effort at the title clearance bill and maybe even landlord-tenant legal reform.

Will Realtors Be Treated As Employees or Remain Independent Contractors?

The SJC should decide the closely watched case of Monell v. Boston Padsa class action brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty claiming they should be treated as employees instead of independent contractors. Hanging in the balance is the fate of the historically independent, commission based real estate brokerage office model. An unfavorable result at the SJC would essentially turn this model upside-down, requiring brokerages to pay their agents minimum and overtime wages and provide all the statutory benefits afforded to employees. The real estate office as we know it today would likely cease to exist.

CFPB Compliance: New HUD-1 Statement, GFE, TIL, Back Office Procedures

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules, which go into effect this summer, have the potential to drastically change how loans are disclosed and transactions closed, affecting loan officers, Realtors and closing attorneys alike. Gone are the Good Faith Estimate, Truth in Lending Statement (TIL) and HUD-1 Settlement Statement, replaced with a longer Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure. The disclosure timetables will be much, much stricter — the final Closing Statement must be given to the borrower no later than three business days before closing. Lenders and closing attorneys will have to work more efficiently and quicker to meet these new deadlines. Closing attorneys who are ALTA Best Practices Certified will have a competitive advantage over those who aren’t. Smaller firms could fall by the wayside.

Housing Court Expansion

This year will likely see the expansion of Housing Court jursidiction state-wide including in Middlesex, Norfolk and Barnstable counties. The Housing Court will be available in high density rental towns including Cambridge, Framingham, Brookline, Waltham, Dedham, Malden and Somerville.

I hope you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

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South_Boston_Ma.jpgSorry for the late notice, but I will be giving a presentation on Massachusetts landlord-tenant law to the Waltham Rental Housing Association, December 2, 2014, starting at 7PM at the Waltham Public Library, 735 Main Street, Waltham, MA, Trustee’s Room on the third floor. All are welcome. No charge.

Topics I will cover include:

  • Legislative Updates
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Housing Court Expansion Proposal
  • Rental discrimination
  • Best practices for tenant screening
  • Evictions
  • Up Front Fees

My talk will be about 45 minutes long, after which I will have a question and answer session. Light refreshments will be served. Look forward to seeing you!

Update:  I’ve embedded my slideshow handout below. Please contact me if your organization would like to host a Free Landlord Tenant Law or Other Real Estate Legal Presentation!

Waltham Landlords 12.2.14 Handout Version No Images by Richard Vetstein

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Distressed Homeowners Take Another Hit

In another court ruling against embattled homeowners facing foreclosure, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that a defective 150 day cure notice is not a valid defense to a foreclosure sale. The case is Haskins v. Deutsche Bank (click for link to case). The ruling will make it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge foreclosure and could accelerate the pace of pending foreclosures.

150 Day Cure Notice

The 2010 Foreclosure Prevention Act requires that foreclosing lenders provide a borrower with a 150 day right to cure prior to starting a foreclosure proceeding. The notice must identify the current “holder” of the mortgage. Before this ruling, some trial courts had ruled that a bank’s failure to strictly comply with those requirements was sufficient grounds to halt a foreclosure sale.

In the Haskins case, the borrower challenged his foreclosure on technical grounds because the cure notice incorrectly identified the holder of the mortgage as IndyMac Mortgage Services. IndyMac was the mortgage servicer and mortgage was legally held in a securitized trust operated by Deutsche Bank.

Justice Mark Green, a former Land Court judge and former banking general counsel, recognized that today the vast majority of residential mortgages are serviced by large mortgage servicers while owned and held in securitized trusts. Rejecting the borrower’s form-over-substance argument, Justice Green ruled that as long as the borrower receives an accurate cure notice with the correct loan balance information and payment address so the borrower can pay up and cure, an erroneous identification of the actual mortgage holder should not affect the validity of the pending foreclosure.

Massachusetts foreclosure defense attorney Adam Sherwin, who represented the borrower, put up a valiant fight in this case. However, with this ruling and several recent decisions before it, foreclosure defense attorneys have suffered several setbacks in the courts, making it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge and stop foreclosures.

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80140012Legislation Set To Expand Housing Court Statewide

About 30% of people in Massachusetts do not have access to the state’s Housing Court — one of Massachusetts’ specialized courts handling landlord-tenant disputes, evictions and sanitary code enforcement. The unserved areas include the largest county in the state, Middlesex County and most of Norfolk County, with high density rental towns including Cambridge, Framingham, Brookline, Waltham, Dedham, Malden and Somerville. Also unserved by a Housing Court is all of Cape Cod and the Islands and Chelsea.

Under a plan touted by Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants, the Housing Court would be expanded to cover the entire state by July 1, 2015. “We believe that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of where they live, should have the opportunity to have their housing case heard by a Housing Court, and benefit from its specialized expertise in residential housing matters,” Gants said in a statement.

As an eviction and landlord-tenant attorney who practices quite a bit in both Middlesex County and in the Housing Court, I can say positively that this is a great idea. In Framingham District Court, for example, the Thursday eviction session can be standing room only with landlords and tenants often spilling outside into the hallway. The busy court is already swamped with criminal matters, and getting a trial date in an eviction case can take upwards of several months — certainly not “just, speedy and inexpensive” as mandated by the Uniform Summary Process Rules.

The Housing Court would be able to take the burden off the local, overworked district courts. With a few more full time judges and already with one of the lowest cost-per-case ratios of any court, they should be able to handle the increase in cases. The “X-factor” will be the overall cost, of course.

The Legislature is set to take up the proposal in early 2015. I’ll keep tabs on any developments.

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Electronic-signature1.jpgThis is a summary of the Boston Bar Association’s recent seminar, E-Recording: Practices and Pitfalls, a Roundtable Discussion, which I moderated last week. The speakers were:

Current Statistics

Electronic recording (e-recording) of deeds, mortgages and other title instruments has been available in Massachusetts registries since 2007. E-recording capabilities are now fully operational in every Massachusetts registry of deeds except for Bristol South (Fall River/New Bedford). E-recording is proving to be less expensive and faster than the traditional method of recording by sending a title examiner down to the registry of deeds to wait in line. In most cases, a transaction can be “on record” within 30 minutes of an in-office closing. It also eliminates the need to hire a courier or fight traffic and hold closings at Cambridge or other hard-to-get-to registries. E-recording is legal and binding, and accepted by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and virtually every major lender.

Middlesex South District Registry in Cambridge (which happens to be the 6th largest registry of deeds in the U.S.) leads the state in total number of documents electronically recorded and also has the lowest average recording time in the United States. Very impressive!

Electronic recording adoption rates have steadily increased with Middlesex (Cambridge and Lowell) leading the way at 40% of all recorded documents. That means, however, that 60% plus of registry business is still done through the traditional in person recording method.

E-Recording Process

As outlined by Brian Kilfoyle of Simplifile, one of the approved vendors for Massachusetts e-recording, the process of e-recording a document is relatively straight-forward:

  • Sign up with one of the registry’s authorized electronic recording vendors (SimplifileErxchange,Ingeo/CSC, or New England Title/Escrow). There is a $350 annual fee.
  • Scan original document to create an electronic image (pdf)
  • Log on to the secure website and enter data about the document and upload the document image
  • Perform a quick online title run-down to ensure no title issues have arisen since the first title exam
  • Press “send to the registry” button
  • The registry verifies the quality of the image and the accuracy of your data
  • Once accepted by the registry, the document is officially “on record” with recording data and document image immediately available on the registry website
  • The filer immediately gets an electronic receipt with all recording information along with an electronic copy of the recorded document.
  • Fees are paid by electronic funds transfer from the closing attorney’s bank account. There is a $5.00 surcharge for every e-recorded document which is typically passed along to the responsible buyer or seller.

Title Insurance and Gap Coverage

One of the earlier concerns about e-recording is the so-called “gap coverage” — dealing with the risk of an attachment or other lien recorded on your title while you are in the process of e-recording. As confirmed by Sarah Supple of Chicago Title, all Massachusetts owner’s title insurance policies will automatically protect the title agent (attorney) and the owner from any intervening liens recorded during the electronic recording process. Ms. Supple noted that the risk of an intervening lien was just as high when the title examiner is physically waiting in line as opposed to online.

Practice Pointer: Ms. Supple recommends that closing attorneys perform one run-down right before submitting the document into the e-recording “queue” and also a “mini-run down” right before disbursement of funds.

Fortunately, a survey of participants at the seminar revealed zero instances of an intervening lien/attachment filed in an e-recording situation.

What’s Next?

Hugh Fitzpatrick updated the audience on recent and future developments. As a member of the Registry Technology Commission and advocate, he is working with the Registries, Legislature and Governor’s Council on electronic notarization so documents can be signed and witnessed virtually in a secure system like DotLoop or Docusign. Another goal is to have all of the registries unified in their document search portals like masslandrecords.com. Right now, several registries have their own systems. Hugh also noted that the new CFPB rules are strongly encouraging electronic signing and recording.

Electronic recording is a very exciting development in the real estate title industry, proving to be cost-efficient, accurate and convenient for all parties to the transaction. My Needham office is fully e-recording capable, and we often have the documents recorded within 30 minutes of the closing.

Please note that the BBA Real Estate Section’s Next CLE is Real Estate Attorneys, Are You Ready for CFPB Compliance? Nov. 18, 2014, 3pm at Boston Bar Association. Click here for more info and to register.

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Tax-Information-about-Employees-and-ContractorsSJC To Hear Important Employment Classification Case

The critical question of whether real estate agents are governed by the state’s strict independent contractor law is now headed to the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest appellate court in Massachusetts. The SJC will hear arguments in December, and a decision is expected in the Spring of 2015.

Hanging in the balance is the fate of the historically independent, commission based real estate brokerage office model. An unfavorable result at the SJC would essentially turn this model upside-down, requiring brokerages to pay their agents minimum and overtime wages and provide all the statutory benefits afforded to employees. The real estate office as we know it today would likely cease to exist.

The case is Monell v. Boston Pads, LLC, a class action brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty, one of the largest real estate offices in Boston. As I wrote about in this post, Judge Robert Cosgrove ruled last year that the agents should be considered independent contractors and not employees. Given the importance of the case, the SJC granted direct appellate review.

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors has filed a friend of the court brief, in support of classifying agents as independent contractors. I agree with the MAR that real estate agents should be classified as independent contractors given its unique and historically independent business model.

However, this is a very difficult case to handicap. The problem arises when brokerages, such as Jacob Realty, ask its agents to do many of the things traditional employees must adhere to, such as required office hours, dress code, and performance benchmarks. This is especially so where courts have, in the last few years, strictly interpreted the independent contractor and wage laws in other industries. The more requirements imposed on agent, the more likely they should be treated as employees and not independent contractors, the argument goes.

Also likely to play a large role is that in 2008 the Legislature tried — and failed — to amend the law to make real estate agents exempt from the independent contractor law. Governor Patrick vetoed the legislation. This legislative history hurts the brokers.

There is a decent chance this case could go against the industry. In that event, I hope the MAR has legislation ready to preserve the existing office model so there will be no adverse effect on Realtors. And by then, Gov. Patrick — who’s been no friend of the real estate and title business — will be long gone from office.

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Parking Lot Owner Allowed To Introduce Evidence of Future Development Potential

8397753417_6c894cfcef_zI have not written about eminent domain on this blog. This isn’t intentional because the topic is one of the most interesting aspects of real estate law, although it does not come up very much in the residential context.

Eminent domain, or a “taking,” as it’s also called, is a power vested in the state (or federal government) to appropriate private property for public or other permissible use. The government, however, must pay the landowner “just compensation” for the land.

Massachusetts city planners have historically made judicious use of eminent domain power to construct some of the largest projects in Boston and beyond, including the Big Dig, the new Boston Convention Center, and the new Greenbush commuter rail line. Eminent domain trials are often high stakes, big money cases. In 2009, a jury awarded a Medford family $4 Million in connection with the Mystic River’s Edge Project. In 2011, a Cape Cod jury awarded Sagamore property owners $2.1 Million for takings in connection with the Sagamore “Flyover” Highway Project.

The battleground in eminent domain cases almost always centers on how much the land is worth, i.e, how much money the state should pay the landowner. The recent Appeals Court case of Rodman v. Commonwealth, Mass. Appeals Court (Oct. 7, 2014) gives an interesting glimpse into the complicated and difficult task of an eminent domain attorney. Often, the land taken by the state is either vacant or underutilized, and the attorney’s objective is to show the development potential of the land. There is a limit on how far the attorney can go, and the Rodman case illustrates that tension.

In the Rodman case, the Mass. Highway Dept. took by eminent domain 5 acres of a parking lot property in connection with highway improvements around Patriot Place/Gillette Stadium. As is common in these cases, the landowner’s engineering expert planned to testify that the takings made the property less valuable by some $2 million dollars based on a potential hotel/office/retail development on the land. However, the judge refused to allow the expert to proceed on that theory which was based on a hypothetical development and subdivision plan, as the property was merely used as a temporary parking lot at the time of the taking and no formal plans had been filed. This ruling essentially torpedoed the landowner’s case, and not surprisingly, the jury awarded him only $600,800.

On appeal, the Appeals Court sided with the landowner and granted him a new trial to put forth his $2M development plan theory. The Court reaffirmed that property owners in eminent domain cases are entitled to submit the “highest and best use” of the property which is “physically possible, legally permissible, and financially practicable” even if the land was vacant and undeveloped at the time of the taking. With a prime piece of real estate directly abutting Gillette Stadium and the new Patriot Place in a new economic development zone, the court agreed that the owner may have the opportunity to show a jury that the land could have been used for a hotel/office/retail development. This is true even though special permits and other zoning relief would be necessary. This is a huge victory for the landowner and his attorney.

If you are faced with an eminent domain situation, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com. I can put you in touch with some of the best Massachusetts eminent domain attorneys in the state.

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I have a great FREE SEMINAR to announce for new and returning home buyers! A Home Buyer Boot Camp Seminar BBQ on October 14, 2014 at Firefly’s BBQ Restaurant in Marlboro, 350 E. Main St (Rt. 20). Sponsored by the Vetstein Law Group, David Gaffin of Mortgage Master and Amy Uliss and Heidi Zizza of mdm Realty in Framingham. Ribs, pulled pork and BBQ + great local real estate experts = AWESOME EVENT! Please RSVP to dgaffin@mortgagemaster.com.

boot camp flyer copy

 

 

 

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vote_today

I endorse Charlie Shapiro and Robert Jubinville

Today is the Massachusetts Primary Election. In Democrat-dominated Massachusetts, today’s election is often more important than the general election in November. Please take the time to exercise your civic duty and vote today.

As far as this real estate law is concerned, the Governor’s Council race is important as it will shape the future of the Massachusetts judiciary. The Governor’s Council has the final say on all judicial nominations. There are two races which I will comment on.

District 3 (Sudbury, Concord, Marlboro, Watertown, Newton, Brookline Weston, Waltham, much of Wellesley): Marilyn Petitto Devaney (Incumbent) faces a challenge from Charlie Shapiro of Newton. As you may recall from reading this Blog, Ms. Devaney was one of the leaders of the shameful opposition to Jewish nominee Joseph Berman stemming from his affiliation with the Anti-Defamation League and its position on Armenian Genocide recognition.

Devaney is certainly a colorful character, but in my opinion, Charlie Shapiro has a much better background and temperament to be trusted to select the next generation of Massachusetts judges. A former teacher and broadcaster, he is a former Newton City Alderman, and created the Alzheimer’s Silver Alert Program which tracks down missing elderly folks. Mr. Shapiro has garnered an impressive list of endorsements including Rep. John Lawn, Rep. Alice Peisch, Rep. Jay Kaufman and current Councillor Mike Albano. Going forward, we need less drama and more competency on the Council. Vote Shapiro. 

My Endorsement: Charlie Shapiro

District 2 (Milton, Sharon, and southern metro) Robert L. Jubinville (Incumbent) faces a challenge from Bart Timilty. Although Bob Jubinville ultimately voted against Joe Berman, I still think he’s a great Governor’s Councillor and actually one of the best on the panel. He’s a long time practicing litigator with decades of real life experience before judges. His advocacy for addiction and heroin treatment is also extremely impressive. He is also a former State Police Detective. Bob is really an ideal fit for the position. 

My Endorsement: Robert Jubinville

Don’t complain, vote!

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20b0e63Perry v. Equity Residential: Application Fee, Amenity-Community Fee, Move-In Fee and Upfront Pet Fee Held Illegal

In a stinging class action ruling on August 26, 2014, Boston federal district court judge Rya Zobel ruled that Equity Residential’s up front apartment fees are illegal under Massachusetts law. Even worse for the national apartment owner, the judge found the fees also violate the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act which imposes up to triple damages and attorneys’ fees. With potentially thousands of affected tenants, Equity Residential could be faced with a sizable legal tab for this policy.

The class action was brought by Brian and Kim Perry, former tenants at Longview Place in Waltham, and Cheryl Miller, who lived at Emerson Place in Boston. The Perrys paid Equity an upfront $100 application fee and a $99 amenity or move-in fee, while Miller paid $50 application and $500 amenity fees, according to the lawsuit. Equity also allegedly charged a $250 pet fee and $500 “community” fee.

Judge Zobel held that the application fee, amenity/move in fee, the community fee and the upfront pet fee was unlawful under the Massachusetts Security Deposit Law which prohibits landlords from charging any upfront fees except for first, last months rent, security deposit and a lost key fee. The judge also found that Equity attempted to do an unlawful end-around the law by charging some of the fees in the second month of the tenancy.

The judge also ruled that the case can be consolidated with another federal lawsuit pending against Equity and granted it class-action status. The potential number of Massachusetts tenants impacted is unclear. Chicago’s Equity leases some 31 apartment complexes in the Bay State with about 6,680 units.

This ruling comes in the wake of a similar federal court ruling against Archstone Properties in 2012.

This case is yet another big wake up call for Massachusetts landlords, both large and small, to be extremely careful about up-front move in charges imposed upon tenants. This is also one of the first publicized cases calling into question the practice of charging an upfront application fee. Application fees are very much widespread, and I would counsel landlords and property managers to think twice about charging them under any circumstance. This ruling may also call into question the legality of charging prospective and actual tenants credit report and background check fees.

_____________________________________

RDV-profile-picture.jpgIf you have any questions about this ruling or your policy for upfront fees, please contact Attorney Richard Vetstein at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Beacon Hill MAIt’s a classic Boston neighborhood turf battle. Mayor Martin Walsh, the Irishman from Savin Hill vs. the Brahmins of Beacon Hill. The nature of the dispute:  sidewalk ramps in Beacon Hill for the disabled.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is fed up with some of Beacon Hill residents’ long time opposition to the installation of disability sidewalk ramps and other accommodations for the disabled under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Always up for a fight to preserve the historical character of “the Hill,” the Beacon Hill Civic Association and its members are upset because they feel that Mayor Walsh is not willing to consider what they feel is more historically appropriate materials and designs for Beacon Hill sidewalks and streets. They also accuse Mayor Walsh of exacting political revenge for not getting any votes in the recent mayoral election — he was decimated in Beacon Hill voting by a 70% margin over challenger, Harvard trained John Connolly. Hogwash, says the Mayor. Caught in the middle of this unfortunate fight are disabled folks who have a hard time navigating Beacon Hill’s narrow, winding, cobblestoned thoroughfares.

20140717_142510-1200x675The brouhaha has now moved to Suffolk Superior Court where the BHCA has filed an interesting lawsuit against the City, claiming that the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission has the final legal say in what type of materials and design are used for the accessibility project. Some interesting legal issues will be decided in this case, the most important of which would be whether the federal ADA trumps local and state regulations on historical design where a district or building is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places.

The streets of Beacon Hill are lined with red brick sidewalks, giving it a warm, welcoming feel. The proposed disabled ramps are grey concrete, topped with bright red panel inserts. Yes, these ramps didn’t exist during the times of John Hancock, but Charles Street was also lined with horse dung for all to step on. Let’s hope Mayor Walsh and Beacon Hill residents can put the emotion and rhetoric aside to do what’s right for the disabled. After all, they have every right to enjoy Charles Street, with or without horse dung. 

 

 

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Senate Bill 1987 Passes Legislature at Midnight Hourstop20foreclosure1.jpg

Senate Bill 1987, sponsored by Shrewsbury State Senator Michael Moore and the Massachusetts Land Title Association, would render clear and marketable to any title affected by a defective foreclosure arising out of the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez ruling. Estimates are that hundreds of innocent homeowners are affected by paperwork errors by foreclosure lenders, rending them unable to sell or refinance their homes.

After some favorable press in the Worcester Telegram and Boston Globe (to which I was happy to contribute), the Legislature passed the somewhat controversial bill at the midnight hour on July 31, the last night of the legislative session. The bill moves on to the Governor’s desk where housing advocates are still lobbying for rejection of the bill. The housing advocates’ arguments really show a complete lack of understanding of the title defect problem and its disasterous effect on the housing market. The bill preserves the right to challenge foreclosures and sue the banks, while helping innocent homeowners who are stuck with bad title. The upside of the bill is that more affordable homes can hit the real estate market. Isn’t that the goal of housing advocates rather than allow foreclosed homes to sit, blighted and decadent?

If you have been affected by an “Ibanez” title defect and otherwise support the bill, please contact the Governor’s Office through his email system:

http://www.mass.gov/governor/contact-us.html#email

Hopefully, I will have good news to report in the coming days…

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mass ibanez titleIt appears we may be nearing the end of the misery resulting from the infamous U.S. Bank v. Ibanez foreclosure decision, which has caused hundreds if not thousands of title defects across the Commonwealth. A recent Land Court ruling combined with significant movement on curative legislation may clear the vast majority of these defective titles.

By way of background, titles of properties afflicted with Ibanez title defects came out of faulty foreclosures, and in worst cases, cannot be sold or refinanced. Many homeowners have been waiting for 5 years or longer for some kind of resolution so they can sell or refinance their homes. 

Daukas v. Dadoun Land Court Ruling

This past week on July 23, 2014, Land Court Justice Keith Long (ironically the same judge who wrote the original Ibanez ruling) held that an Ibanez title can be cleared through the foreclosure by entry procedure as long as three years have passed since the faulty foreclosure. Typically in Massachusetts lenders use both the power of sale/auction method and entry method of foreclosure. Unlike the power of sale/auction method, however, a foreclosure by entry takes three years to ripen into good title. Judge Long ruled that even where the power of sale/auction method was defective due to non-compliance with the Ibanez decision, the foreclosure by entry method would not be affected by this non-compliance provided that the lender was the “holder” of the mortgage at the time of the entry and three years have passed since the entry.

So what does that mean in plain English? It means that titles with Ibanez defects may be insurable and marketable provided that (1) the foreclosing lender conducted and recorded a proper foreclosure by entry, (2) the entry was conducted by a lender who was the proper holder of the foreclosed mortgage, and (3) three (3) years have passed since the foreclosure entry. If you have been dealing with an Ibanez defective title, it’s best to contact an experienced title attorney and/or your title insurance company (if you have one) to see if you qualify. Feel free to contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Thank you to Attorney Jeffrey Loeb of Rich May PC for alerting me to the Land Court case.

Senate Bill 1987

Senate Bill 1987, sponsored by Shrewsbury State Senator Michael Moore and the Massachusetts Land Title Association, would render clear and marketable to any title affected by a defective foreclosure after 3 years have passed from the foreclosure. The bill, which has been passed by the Senate and is now before the House, is very close to being passed by both branches of the legislature, hopefully during this summer legislative session.

This is great news for the real estate market. I don’t have firm numbers, but there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of these unsellable properties just sitting on the sidelines, and now they can get back onto the market. This is exactly what the inventory starved market needs.

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airbnbLaw Catching Up With Popular Airbnb Room Rental Website

With the promise of relatively easy money, Airbnb (Air Bed & Breakfast) is making innkeepers of many Greater Boston homeowners and even renters who are taking advantage of the popular website’s rental listing service. For those who don’t know already, Airbnb is a website where you can rent out one or more rooms in your home, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee. But with some homeowners earning upwards of $20,000/year on rental income, Airbnb raises a multitude of thorny legal issues in Massachusetts, including whether an innkeeper or rooming house license is required, whether it violations condominium rules and regulations, and whether guests qualify as tenants.

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

But with success has come negative attention from cities and towns that want to tax the lodging arrangements as they do hotels, from landlords with leases that prohibiting sublets, and from neighbors who don’t want strangers traipsing through buildings. There are also some horror stories popping up with Airbnb guests turning into squatters and refusing to leave. In New York City, the Attorney General is waging a publicized legal fight to get Airbnb host names and recover unpaid hotel taxes. Last year, a group of Brookline residents dropped a dime on a local homeowner who rented out rooms to foreign exchange students via Airbnb. According to Brookline Building Commissioner Dan Bennett, an owner may rent up to two rooms to two lodgers as of right, as long as there are no separate cooking facilities. If an owner wants to have another lodger, they would require relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Licensing and Registration Requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guests Considered Legal Tenants?

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

Apartments

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

Condominiums

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

Presently, I am representing several condominium associations fining unit owners for renting our their units though Airbnb, which violate the condominium rules and regulations. These cases should be popping up more and more.

Mortgage and Homeowner Insurance Policy Ramifications

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

What’s Next?

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

 

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Hull-Wind-Turbine-from-seantyler-via-FlickrControversial Wind Turbine Project Approved, Over Neighbors’ Opposition, Appeals Court Rules

Plans for a controversial wind turbine on top of Turkey Hill in swanky coastal Cohasset could soon move forward after the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld a land court ruling that the town’s planning board acted appropriately when it approved the project. The court dismissed opposition arguments by neighbors and a nearby skilled-nursing home who challenged the project’s legality.

The wind turbine is proposed to be sited at the apex of 410-foot-tall Turkey Hill in the northwest corner of Cohasset, in the 314-acre Whitney Thayer Woods, and would be within 1,000 feet of the Golden Living skilled-nursing home and homes on the Hingham side of the border. The nursing home and neighbors complained that the turbine would emit excessive “shadow flicker,” noise and also risk various public safety issues. 

In 2011, the Cohasset Planning Board held hearings on the wind turbine plans, and issued a special permit with numerous conditions for which the operator must comply. The abutters focused on the “flickering shadows” that the 150-foot blades would cast on nearby properties. Land Court judge Gordon Piper in 2012 upheld the board’s approval, determining that the permit’s special conditions adequately address safety concerns and follow zoning bylaws. For example, the permit requires that the organization monitor flickering and make sure that it doesn’t exceed 30 minutes per day or 300 hours per year.

The Appeals Court quickly shot down all of the neighbor’s concerns, holding that it would not second-guess the judgment of local officials who granted the permit.

According to the Patriot Ledger, Jim Younger, the director of structural resources and technology at the Trustees of Reservations said that the group is “very pleased” with the court’s ruling and grateful for the widespread support for the project. “At this time, we are still very interested in moving forward with the project and will be reassessing our options following the lengthy delays to the project. We will keep the community informed as we complete this review.”

Wind turbine projects are becoming increasingly more accepted by towns to boost both power and revenue so they are less reliant upon the “grid.” This ruling shows how difficult it is for abutters and neighbors to challenge a wind project once the town planning board has issued a permit.

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