Realtors

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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Beverly-Carter-jpgShould The Real Estate Industry Change The Way Agents Do Showings and Open Houses?

What other industry requires unaccompanied female (and male) agents to meet perfect strangers in empty houses? None. One would think this is a recipe for disaster. It is.

Last night, authorities found the body of Arkansas real estate agent Beverly Carter, days after she vanished while showing a house to a prospective customer. Aaron Lewis, 33, has been apprehended and admitted to the kidnapping after being questioned by police, ABC News said.

This is not the first time an agent has been murdered, raped or assaulted while on the job. According to the latest Bureau of Labor study, the real estate industry experiences about a 40% higher rate of on-the-job crime than the average profession. Indeed, one my close Mass. Realtor friends was accosted several months ago and was very shook up about it.

My mother was a long time Realtor. My father recalls how nervous he was that some stalker would do something terrible at an open house or showing. Thankfully that never happened.

There must be a better way. I think the time has come for a change. What can be done?

Should open houses be outlawed? Should open houses be allowed only if there are two agents present? Most Realtors say they are a waste of time anyways. Should Realtors have a special exemption under the law to carry mace, a taser or even a handgun? What about a new lockbox system so prospective home buyers can peek into a home themselves without an agent present? What about some type of panic button device or other technology? Here is a great article on Using Technology for Realtor Safety.

What is your office doing to protect your personal safety? What is the National Association of Realtors and local chapters doing about this issue?

Regrettably, the NAR issued a rather weak statement on the Beverly Carter tragedy:

“As both a REALTOR® and an Arkansan, I am saddened by this morning’s news of Beverly Carter’s untimely death. My heart goes out to her family, her friends, her co-workers, and everyone whose life Beverly touched in her 49 years with us.

Working in real estate involves risk and, unfortunately, that risk takes many forms. As an industry, we collectively work very hard to promote safety awareness among our members. We are fully committed to educating REALTORS® about potential threats and providing them with resources to protect themselves.

I urge all REALTORS® to honor Beverly Carter by keeping safe and looking out for each other.”

“Keeping safe and looking out for each other” frankly isn’t going to cut the mustard in my humble opinion. The NAR should be at the forefront of this issue, and doing a lot more than telling agents to “keep safe.” That doesn’t help anyone. 

How about paying for some of the personal safety devices for agents as part of the membership dues? How about lobbying Congress and state legislatures for exemptions for personal defense weapons like mace, tasers and firearms? How about lobby for increased criminal penalties for crimes against Realtors? Anything but telling agents to “keep safe”….

For its part, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors has issued its own Realtor Safety Tips.

There has to be a better way.

As always, I’m here to support real estate agents anyway I can.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who works with Realtors every day. He can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Where-are-you-from-512x273Innocent Small Talk Apparently Illegal, According to Boston Fair Housing Commission

The seemingly innocent question posed by a Boston rental agent to Gladys Linder when they were searching for an apartment was “Where are you from?”

“Venezuela,” she answered.

Gladys and her husband went on to find an apartment a month later without further incident. But she found the question about her national origin insulting and upsetting.

This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.

Stokel filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, claiming that rental agent’s question was discriminatory and caused her to suffer fear, anxiety and sleeplessness over a three-year period.

Seriously?

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations make it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”

Although this was the agent’s first discrimination complaint and there was no discriminatory impact on the tenants at all, the Commission found that the question itself was unlawful and issued one of the largest penalties I have seen in recent years — $10,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $44,000 in attorney’s fees and costs and a $7,500 civil penalty against the broker — a whopping $61,500 in total liability for this single question, not to mention the tens of thousands the agent had to pay for defense legal fees.

The ruling can be found here:  Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, Mass. Appeals Court (Dec. 17, 2013).

Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense

The case went up on appeal, and fortunately the Massachusetts Appeals Court exercised some common sense and slashed the award, likely by more than half pending further proceedings. But the court let stand the commission’s ruling that the one innocuous question did indeed violate the discrimination laws. So the broker will remain on the hook for a sizable liability.

Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble with this ruling. It appears that the broker was simply engaging in some harmless small talk by asking the applicant where she was from. There was no evidence that the broker refused to rent to her or took any other discriminatory action against them. What if the applicant had a Southern accent and said she was from Alabama? That’s not illegal discrimination, but since she is from another county, it makes the question unlawful discrimination? Unbelievable! This is one of those cases where the anti-discrimination laws result in a totally absurd result.

So thank you to the Boston Fair Housing Commission for making small talk illegal. Unfortunately, the lesson to be learned from this case for rental agents and Realtors: Don’t ask a client where they are from. I kid you not. Only in Massachusetts…

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often consults with Realtors and rental agents on their legal and ethical duties. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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We had a great turnout today for our Massachusetts Real Estate Market Report, again presented and moderated by veteran real estate reporter Scott Van Voorhis of Banker & Tradesman and Boston.com. Scott writes for the well-known Boston.com Real Estate Now Blog which is an invaluable resource.

For this installment, we added a little twist, holding a panel discussion and interactive Q&A with Ali Corton of Real Estate Executives Boston West, Chuck Silverston of Prudential Unlimited in Brookline and Dee Reddington of Bank of Canton. Ali was representing the ‘burbs. Chuck was representing the urban, Boston-Brookline market, and Dee was giving the lender perspective. We were live tweeting the event at Twitter #marealestate where you can check out the live stream.

Some take-aways from the presentation and discussion were as follows:

  • As reported just about everywhere, the Massachusetts real estate market remains very strong
  • Year over year, 16% increase in both sales volume and sales prices
  • The government shutdown has had no demonstrative effect on the market, nor on the lending environment
  • Lack of buildable land, desirability of the Greater Boston market (as always) has resulted in high demand, low inventory environment.
  • Inventory is down 30% over 2012 (which was down over 2011), putting upward pressure on prices and demand. Bidding wars common for well-priced, good quality homes in desirable communities. This is creating a frenzied dis-equilibirum in certain markets which isn’t necessarily healthy.
  • The low inventory is the “new normal.” Get used to it.
  • Interest rates are forecast to dip down a bit heading into spring market 2014, with eventual rise through the remainder of 2014 and 2015.  Overall, the interest rate environment remains very favorable to buyers and the market as a whole.
  • First time home buyers must be open to fixer-uppers and not updated homes. Otherwise, they will be in very tough competition for move-in condition homes in the good towns.
  • Lenders are doing loans for low credit (FICO 620 range) borrowers. ARMs making comeback.
  • Chuck pointed out the “Patriot Effect” for open houses on Sundays. People are staying home to watch the game. Advises trying open houses on Saturdays.
  • Ali Corton says that Metrowest sellers are routinely getting asking price or very close to that right now, and will continue to do so while inventory remains low

We are interested in hearing your thoughts on today’s market. Feel free to post your comments below!

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Real-Estate-AgentsReviewing this blog, it occurred to me that I’ve never written about real estate agency and designations, which is one of the more confusing aspects of real estate law. I think all the new disclosures and regulations imposed by the Board of Real Estate, while well-intended, have made this area unnecessarily complicated. I’ll try to explain agency in plain English.

Massachusetts Mandatory Licensee Consumer Relationship Disclosure

The Massachusetts real estate brokerage industry is highly regulated by both state law and regulations, as well as local and national codes of ethics. Under state regulation, once you sit down with a Massachusetts real estate agent to discuss a specific property, the agent should give you a form called the Massachusetts Mandatory Licensee Consumer Relationship Disclosure. The disclosure form describes the five types of agency relationships between and among buyer, seller, and agent:

Seller’s Agent – This is typically known as a listing agent. The real estate agent represents only the seller, not the buyer. The listing agent owes the seller undivided loyalty, reasonable care, disclosure, obedience to lawful instruction, confidentiality and accountability. However, a listing agent must disclose all known material defects in the real estate to buyers.

Open Houses:  Open houses are often the cause of disputes as to agency and commissions. Under Mass. regulations, at any open house the listing agent must conspicuously post and/or provide written materials explaining to attendees the relationship they may have with the agent conducting the open house. If a buyer is working with an agent (but the agent is not present at the open house) it’s a good idea to write the name of the agent’s name and leave the agent’s card at the sign-in, otherwise the listing agent could be considered the procuring cause of the buyer which could cause a dispute down the road.

Buyer’s Agent – A buyer’s agent works for the buyer only. The agent owes the buyer undivided loyalty, reasonable care, disclosure, obedience to lawful instruction, confidentiality and accountability. Like a listing agent, a buyer’s agent must disclose any known material defects in the real estate. Some agents are exclusive buyer agent’s and do not take on listings. An advantage of using a buyer’s agent is that you can be assured the agent will work only for you, the buyer, and will have no relationship with the listing agent’s office, as is common with designated and dual agencies described below.

Designated Seller’s and Buyer’s Agent – This type of agency occurs when a listing agent refers an agent working in the same office to represent the buyer. So, two agents in the same office are representing both sides of the transaction. The happens a lot when an unrepresented buyer is introduced to the property at an open house, and the listing agent will refer the buyers to a fellow agent in her office. This is usually the smart and prudent choice to avoid the conflicts inherent in being a dual agent representing both buyer and seller, discussed below. Both buyer or seller must agree to a designated agent agency in writing. The designated agent owes her client the same duties and obligations discussed above.

Dual Agent – A dual agent represents both sides of the transaction — buyer and seller –but can be a risky proposition. The upside for the agent is that he or she keeps the entire commission, but the agency can be fraught with potential conflicts of interest. Dual agency is allowed only with the express and informed consent of both the seller and the buyer. Written consent to dual agency must be obtained by the real estate agent prior to the execution of an offer to purchase a specific property. A dual agent shall be neutral with regard to any conflicting interest of the seller and buyer.

Non-Agent Facilitator – This is the rarest of all agencies. When a real estate agent works as a facilitator that agent assists the seller and buyer in reaching an agreement but does not represent either the seller or buyer in the transaction.

What is a “broker” vs. a “salesperson”?  Under the Massachusetts regulations governing real estate agents, a real estate broker runs the real estate office and is the broker of record, overseeing the transactions of all salespersons (agents). A broker must complete 40 additional hours of education and must work for a broker for at least three (3) years before they can move on to licensure as brokers. A broker is responsible for accepting and escrowing all funds, such as a deposit placed on the purchase of a home, and for finalizing transactions. A real estate broker must supervise any transactions conducted by a salesperson. Every local real estate office, even the large ones like RE/MAX, Century 21 and Coldwell-Banker, will have a broker/office manager in charge of the office. The small, independent real estate offices are typically operated by a single broker, with perhaps a handful of salespeople.

real estate salesperson is what most folks consider real estate agents. When a person first passes their real estate exam, they become a “salesperson.” A salesperson must be affiliated with, and work under, a broker, either as an employee or as an independent contractor, under the supervision of the broker. A salesperson can not operate his own real estate business. A salesperson also has no authority or control over escrow funds.

What Is A Realtor®? A Realtor is a real estate broker or salesperson who is a member of the National Association of Realtors and has agreed to conduct herself under the comprehensive NAR Code of Ethics. Not all real estate agents are Realtors. Membership in the NAR gives a Realtor full access to the entire Multiple Listing Service providing a national database of all sold and listed properties. Realtors can also file complaints against each other and the organization accepts complaints from consumers. Complaints can affect membership status and fines can be levied against agents who are found guilty of wrongdoing by a multi-member panel of their peers. The NAR does not have the ability to suspend a real estate licenses–that action can only be accomplished by the Mass. Board of Real Estate.

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RDV-profile-picture.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney with over 15 years of experience. If you have any questions regarding real estate agency, please contact him at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

Massachusetts Mandatory Licensee Consumer Relationship Disclosure

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MA real estate agent independent contractor law

Fate of Long-Standing Massachusetts Brokerage Model Hangs In Balance

As first reported by David Frank in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the critical question of whether real estate agents are governed by the state’s strict independent contractor law, which would entitle agents to minimum wage, overtime and benefits, is headed to the Appeals Court. According to Hillary Schwab, the attorney to a group of real estate agents who filed suit against Jacob Realty in Boston, “this is the first case in Massachusetts where the concept of employment misclassification and the real estate industry have ever been dealt with in the same opinion.” An unfavorable result at the Appeals Court would essentially turn the Massachusetts real estate brokerage model upside-down, as it has historically operated with agents considered independent contractors and paid on a commission-only basis. If brokerages were required 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 would likely cease to exist.

Jacob Realty Agents Required To Adhere to Dress Code, Mandatory Office Hours

The Appeals Court will consider the case of Monell, et al. v. Boston Pads, LLC, (embedded below) brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty. According to Curbed Boston, Jacob Realty is part of a larger network of Boston rental companies (Jacob Realty, NextGen Realty and Boardwalk Properties) with 150 rental agents, making them one of the largest rental offices in Boston.

As is customary in the industry, Jacob Realty classified the agents as independent contractors, paying them on a commission-only basis and making them responsible for payment of their own taxes and monthly desk fees. At the start of their employment, the agents signed non-disclosure, non-solicitation and non-compete agreements. They had to own day planners, obtain a cellphone with a “617” area code, adhere to a dress code, submit to mandatory office hours and to various disciplinary actions if they did not meet their productivity goals.

Lower Court Rules In Favor of Broker

Superior Court Judge Robert Cosgrove issued a ruling on July 15, 2013 that the agents should be considered independent contractors and not employees under the Massachusetts Real Estate Brokerage Act. But Cosgrove said it was difficult to read the brokerage law and independent contractor law consistently. The real estate statute explicitly provides that an agent may either be an employee or an independent contractor, he noted. In the same sentence, the law reiterates that agents must remain under the auspices of a broker. In contrast, the judge wrote, the independent contractor statute requires salespeople to be free from the control and direction of employers in order to be correctly classified as an independent contractor.

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.

What’s Next?

The case now heads up to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, and perhaps even the SJC — where the stakes will be much higher. This case is very hard to handicap because, as I said before, the courts as well as state and federal labor agencies have really been cracking down with the independent contractor law in favor of employees. Rest assured, I’ll be monitoring this case. I expect the MAR and GBREB will file friend of the court briefs and take a further appeal if there’s an unfavorable result. There will surely be lobbying efforts at the Legislature to preserve the historical independent contractor brokerage model.

Monell v. Boston Pads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limiting Seller’s Financial Exposure

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

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

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

Protecting The Buyer

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

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if SELLER extends this Agreement to perfect title or make the Premises conform as provided in Paragraph 10, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.  BUYER may elect, at its sole option, to obtain an extension of its mortgage commitment or rate lock or the Seller may elect to pay for same.

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

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

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

 

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Massachusetts real estate closing attorneyExpands Realtors’ Disclosure Liability and Invalidates Exculpatory Clause In Standard Form Purchase and Sale Agreement

It’s been a very tough week for Boston, to say the least. (Please consider donating to the One Boston Fund over here —>).

Unfortunately I have some more bad news for Massachusetts real estate agents, as the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled against a Realtor for failing to properly verify a representation made on MLS concerning a listing’s zoning classification. The closely watched case is DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. (SJC-11168) (embedded below).

Zoned For Business or Residential?

The lawsuit was brought by a buyer of a hair salon business who relied upon what turned out to be erroneous information supplied by the listing agent (through information provided by the seller). The broker represented on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and newspaper advertising that the property was zoning “Business B,” which allowed a hair salon. Further, the broker placed at the property copies of pages from the town’s zoning by-law that listed hair salons as “Permitted Business Uses” in the Business B District. The property was not, in fact, zoned for business use; it was zoned residential, thereby prohibiting the hair salon the buyer wanted to open at the property. The buyer sued for misrepresentation and violations of the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A.

Ruling: Realtors Have Duty to Exercise “Reasonable Care” In Making Zoning Representations

In an unanimous opinion by Justice Barbara Lenk, the SJC stated that while a real estate broker may ordinarily rely upon information provided by his client, where such reliance is unreasonable in the circumstances, an agent has a duty to independently investigate the information before conveying it to a prospective buyer.

The court ultimately held that all Massachusetts real estate agents have a duty to exercise reasonable care in making representations as to a property’s zoning designation.

Here, the owner testified that he told the real estate broker that the property was zoned “Residential Business B.”  The experienced broker apparently knew that there was no such zoning district in Norwell, and instead advertised the property as zoned “Business B.”  In addition, the broker was aware of no prior business use of the property, and had observed houses – not businesses – adjoining the property on either side.  Based on these facts, the SJC concluded that a jury could find that the broker was on notice that the information provided by the owner was unreliable, and acted unreasonably in representing the property as zoned “Business B” without conducting any further investigation.

Exculpatory Clause in Standard Form P&S Not Applicable

The SJC also rejected the broker’s argument that the exculpatory clause in the standard form purchase and sale agreement barred the buyer’s claims. The familiar contract language provides:

The BUYER acknowledges that the BUYER has not been influenced to enter into this transaction nor has he relied upon any warranties or representations not set forth or incorporated in this agreement or previously made in writing, except for the following additional warranties and representations, if any, made by either the SELLER or the Broker(s): NONE.

The justices held that, under the confusing, double-negative language quoted above, a buyer can rely on prior written representations that are not set forth or incorporated in the agreement. Therefore, the agreement did not protect the broker from liability arising from the written misrepresentations in the newspaper ad, the MLS listing, and the inapplicable zoning by-law placed at the property.

The SJC has sent the case back to the trial court for a possible jury trial or, most likely, towards settlement. And hopefully the Greater Boston Real Estate Board is re-drafting its poorly worded exculpatory clause.

Advice For Realtors Going Forward

  • Do NOT say or write anything on MLS or anywhere else concerning a property’s zoning status. Make the buyer conduct his/her own independent research.
  • If your MLS requires input of zoning status, put the zoning with the following disclaimer:  *subject to buyer verification
  • Never trust your client when it comes to information concerning the property. I hate to say this, but when it comes to disclosures, it’s true.
  • Always independently verify information about the property from available public sources. Here, the agent could have simply gone down to the town planning office to verify whether the property was zoned commercial or residential.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts attorney with substantial experience in real estate disclosure litigation brought by buyers against Realtors. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

Dewolfe v. Hingham Center

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redfin-logo-tag-webControversial New Internet Practice Raises Confidentiality Concerns & Realtor® Scorn

The internet based real estate brokerage company, Redfin, is now arming buyers and sellers with insight into the negotiations that take place when the firm’s clients submit winning — and losing — offers to buy a home. On its heavily trafficked website, the Seattle-based brokerage is now displaying “Offer Insights” detailing intimate details of negotiations surrounding offers that Redfin agents submit on listings. Redfin claims that buyers can opt out of the program, and no addresses are revealed before closing. (But, addresses are shown for sold properties).

Here is an example for two properties in Quincy, one where an offer was accepted and one where it was rejected:

redfin offer insights copy

Confidentiality & Ethical Concerns?

From a strategic and marketing perspective, this new idea is certainly creative, as it gives Redfin agents and their potential clients a competitive advantage over other agents and aids in providing transparency in the marketplace. However, posting details about private contractual negotiations raises some thorny legal and ethical concerns, and many non-Redfin listing agents are crying foul.

Some Realtors assert that the details of offer negotiations are private and confidential, and therefore, cannot be disclosed without the consent of all parties to the transaction, especially the seller. I don’t necessarily buy into that. I’m not aware of any legal confidentiality protection given to private contract negotiations — indeed they are 100% discoverable in litigation, at least in Massachusetts. A buyer and seller are in an adversarial position, so there is no special legal relationship between them warranting a duty to keep negotiations private.

I can see why a seller would be very upset to find out that the juicy details of negotiations are posted on the internet for the world to see. A seller may certainly want to know this before entertaining a Redfin offer. Moreover, a seller (and a creative attorney) could manufacture a tortious interference claim if a Redfin Offer Insight proves to interfere with a potential deal with another party. That’s a lawsuit for another day…

MLS Rules and NAR Code of Ethics

Some Realtors say that the Redfin practice violates Multiple Listing Service rules and the NAR Code of Ethics. Multiple listing services have rules for commenting on sites which contain MLS information. A seller may instruct her listing agent to disallow public comments on listings. A Redfin buyer’s agent could be in violation of MLS rules if he leaves remarks about the house or negotiation, according to some non-Redfin agents. It will be up to the particular MLS to enforce its own rules against agents; they have no legal effect per se.

The National Association of Realtors Code of Ethics prohibits Realtors from using confidential information of clients for the Realtor’s advantage or the advantage of third parties unless the clients consent after full disclosure. The catch is that “confidential information” is defined as whatever state law says is confidential.  As I said earlier, private contract negotiations are not legally confidential in Mass., so I’m doubtful this would apply.

In sum, the Redfin Offer Insight feature may well be legal, but tight-walks through the ethical rules governing MLS’s and Realtors. As long as they don’t disclose names or property addresses until the deal closes, I think it’s ok legally (in Massachusetts), and I do appreciate giving buyers as much market information as possible. On the flip side, it may put non-Redfin listing agents at a competitive disadvantage. Maybe that’s why they are crying foul?

Agents, what are your thoughts? Post your comments below.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a nationally recognized real estate attorney who writes frequently about legal issues facing the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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email-1-354x385

A Simple Email Disclaimer Cannot Hurt & Can Only Help

Boilerplate email disclaimers at the bottom of messages are so ubiquitous that most of us hardly notice them anymore. They certainly take up a lot of text space and can be annoying to some, but are they legally effective or just plain toothless?

In the real estate context, where Realtors and attorneys write in the language of contract everyday, I believe that a short and simple email disclaimer may help, and certainly cannot hurt, the sender (aside from annoying a snarky recipient or two). In this post, I will discuss a few common real estate situations where an email disclaimer could come into play, then give you the disclaimer that I use in my emails. Now I have my own disclaimer here: A court will determine each case individually, and there is no guarantee that any particular disclaimer will be effective in any given case.

Contract Negotiations

The most common situation where an email disclaimer could come into play is during real estate contract negotiations. For many agents and attorneys, e-mail has become the default mode of communication, replacing the telephone and the outdated fax. E-mail, however, can provide the “smoking gun” in litigation because it’s nearly impossible to delete permanently, and people tend to be more casual and less introspective before hitting “send.” And don’t get me started with texting, which is even worse.

Realtors must remember that under Massachusetts agency law they are agents with actual or apparent legal authority to bind their clients to the statements they make in emails and other forms of communication. Like the Miranda warnings given by the police, a real estate agents’ statements “can and will be used against them in a court of law.” The same is true for attorneys.

A case in point: In the recent well-publicized case of Feldberg v. Coxall, a Massachusetts judge ruled that a series of e-mail exchanges between the buyer and seller’s attorney, the last one attaching a revised, but unsigned, offer to purchase, could create a binding contract even though no formal written agreement was ever signed. This is also one of the first cases applying the new Massachusetts E-Sign law to preliminary negotiations in real estate deals. There have been cases in other jurisdictions holding that e-mails can result in a binding contract even though the parties may have assumed otherwise.

Practice Pointer:

“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 agreement.”

This is the new email disclaimer that I’ve formulated after the Feldberg ruling. It does two things. First, it provides that only a fully signed contract can bind the parties. Second, it attempts to counter the presumption in the E-sign Act of conducting the transaction electronically via email. It has not been tested in court yet, but again, aside from taking up some pixel space, it can’t hurt. Now remember, this type of disclaimer would favor a selling/listing agent, but not necessarily a buyer’s agent, because the buyer’s agent would typically want to enforce preliminary negotiations. So, caveat emptor (buyer beware).

Practice Pointer: “Subject to final client review/approval”

Another best practice that Realtors and attorneys should get in the habit of doing is to write “subject to final client review and approval” or words to that effect in the midst of email contract negotiations and draft agreements being circulated. This could sway a court from determining that a binding deal was formed, and plus, it gives you an “out” in case a client has last minute changes.

Confidential Communications

Attorneys love to use long confidentiality disclaimers in their email. Do they work? Occasionally. Do they matter in real estate? I still think so.

First, the concept of legal confidentiality is limited to those situations governed by legal privilege. There is an attorney-client privilege between lawyers and their clients, obviously. While there is no legal privilege between a Realtor and his/her client as for communications solely between the agent and the client, the attorney client privilege will likely attach to emails and communications between and among the real estate agent, the attorney, and the client provided that legal advice is being given. But a particular email does not automatically get confidentiality protection simply because the attorney is copied on it. Some courts have pointed to email disclaimers as a factor in upholding the confidentiality. But there have been many court rulings where judges have discarded the disclaimers.

While attorneys should absolutely have a confidentiality email disclaimer, do Realtors need one? I say yes, because sometimes emails between attorney and client wind up in Realtors’ inboxes and sometimes they get forwarded on purpose or by mistake when they shouldn’t, and that could waive any privilege which is attached and become the “smoking gun.”

Practice Pointer:

I use this simple email disclaimer:

CONFIDENTIALITY: This e-mail message and any attachments are confidential and may be privileged.

The best practice, of course, is to cleanse and delete portions of any email with attorney-client or confidential information before forwarding. And of course, THINK BEFORE YOU HIT SEND!

**Thank you to Cambridge MA Realtor Charles Cherney for suggesting this topic!

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a nationally recognized real estate attorney who writes frequently about legal issues facing the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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

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IMG_1490Yesterday my firm sponsored a very informative breakfast seminar with veteran real estate journalist Scott Van Voorhis of Banker & Tradesman and Boston.com who offered his predictions on the 2013 Massachusetts real estate market. The presentation included a lively question and answer session with the 40+ Realtors attending from all over the Greater Boston area. Here are some take-aways from the seminar (in no particular order):

  • “Bright and sunny early, but with a chance of severe job cuts later.” According to Mr. Van Voorhis, the Fiscal Cliff and upcoming Debt Reduction negotiations may be the biggest obstacle remaining in the path of a sustained real estate recovery. At stake are anywhere from 50,000 – 70,000 jobs in Massachusetts if the current slate of proposed budget cuts pass — to defense (i.e., Raytheon), health care, hospitals, and medical research, and tech sectors. If Massachusetts sees severe spending cuts by the federal government, the Route 128 corridor will be most impacted. The current impact is of “wait and see” with defense contractors and tech companies waiting to see how the federal budget battle with be resolved. They are putting new hires on hold and bracing for possible cuts. The fact that Congress will likely wait until the last minute to resolve these important issues doesn’t help the market any!
  • We’re back…. Median sale prices in many suburbs are now back to 2005 levels. Natick’s median price is $418,500, just off from its ’05 high. Needham has surpassed its ’05 record with a median price of $670,000. Burlington has broken its ’05 record at $407,000 median price. A major driver of the real estate recovery is the tech-sector, with Route 128 lab space expanding by 50%, or 3.5 million square feet of space, since 2007, enough to fill three Prudential Towers of space. Shire in Lexington and Genzyme in Framingham have led with way.
  • Tear-Downs On The Rise. Builders are doing tear-downs instead of large scale subdivisions, where financial risk is minimal. Early data indicates increasing market activity in tear-downs in Lexington, Newton and Needham, for example.
  • Low Inventory of Move-In-Ready Homes. The attending Realtors lamented about the dearth of move-in-ready homes in the sought after towns. As we know, there is hardly any buildable land in Massachusetts, and builders have not been doing subdivisions for several years. The agents say bidding wars are back in a big way for these properties, which creates problems with potentially low bank appraisals as the “comps” must catch up with new sales data. The low inventory also affects potential home sellers, especially the empty nesters who are “paralyzed” as one agent described, waiting on the best time to sell.
  • Buyers’ Lack of Vision. We discussed that the current generation of buyers would rather pay a premium for a move-in-ready home with the requisite gourmet kitchen with granite and stainless steel appliances, rather than pay less for a fixer-upper. Some Realtors have enlisted trusted contractors to scope out fixer-uppers along with buyers, so they can envision the potential of a lower priced home.
  • Condos Remain Strong Sector. Condominiums remain the new starter home for many buyers, especially singles. Inventory is strong and pricing remains affordable in many communities. With interest rates still at historic lows and the mortgage interest tax deduction still in place, purchasing a condo is much cheaper than renting. The consensus is that condos will remain a strong sector through 2013.
  • Short Sales Strong & Less Time Consuming. As noted by veteran short sale negotiator Andrew Coppo of Greater Boston Short Sales LLC, short sales are now becoming far less time consuming with the new Fannie Mae short sale guidelines in place since the summer. Mr. Coppo reports that short sales are taking merely 60 days to get approval, and Bank of America finally “getting it” by implementing its computerized Equator streamlined short sale system. Also, the Mortgage Debt Relief Act was extended through 2013, giving short sale sellers tax forgiveness for discharged debt. There are still lots of underwater and struggling homeowners, so 2013 will remain another strong year for short sales.

What are your predictions and thoughts for the 2013 Massachusetts real estate market? We would love to hear from you!

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who writes frequently about new legislation concerning the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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2011-20121I always look forward to recapping the year that was, and bringing out the crystal ball to predict the year ahead. This year, like years prior, was an active year for Massachusetts real estate law, with several important court rulings, legislative developments, and emerging legal trends. The year 2013 is expected to be just as busy.

Eaton v. Fannie Mae and Fannie Mae v. Hendricks Foreclosure Rulings

Another year, another pair of huge foreclosure rulings by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On June 22, 2012, in Eaton v. Federal Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n, the SJC held that lenders must establish they hold both the promissory note and the mortgage in order to lawfully foreclose. This posed major problem for the vast majority of conventional mortgages which lenders securitized and sold off on the secondary mortgage market, thereby splitting the note and mortgage among various securitized trusts and mortgage servicers. Responding to pleas from the real estate bar, the SJC declined to apply its ruling retroactively, thereby averting the Apocalyptic scenario where thousands of foreclosure titles would have been called into question. My prior post on the Eaton ruling can be read here.

The FNMA v. Hendricks case had the potential to change Massachusetts foreclosure practice, but the SJC rejected the challenge. The court upheld the validity of the long-standing Massachusetts statutory form foreclosure affidavit which provided that the foreclosing lender has complied with the foreclosure laws,rejecting the borrower’s claim that the affidavit was essentially robo-signed.

New Medical Marijuana Law Has Landlords, Municipalities Smoking Mad

Burned up Massachusetts landlords and anti-pot local pols are still fuming with concern over the state’s newly passed but hazy medicinal marijuana law. The law — rolling out Jan. 1 — mandates the opening of at least 35 medicinal marijuana dispensaries, and grants users the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. The new law also potentially opens landlords up to federal prosecution for violating the federal controlled substances laws. Many towns and cities are contemplating banning dispensaries or passing zoning by-laws regulating their locations. My prior post on the new marijuana law can be read here.

539wApartment Rental Occupancy Limits

In 2013, the SJC will consider the Worcester College Hill case which will significantly impact landlords renting apartments to students and in other multi-family situations. The question is whether renting to 4 or more unrelated persons in one apartment unit requires a special “lodging house” license which would, in most cases, make it cost-prohibitive to rent to more than 3 unrelated persons. (Lodging houses require a built-in fire sprinkler system, for example). The SJC will hear oral arguments in the case on January 7, 2013.

Foreclosure Prevention Act Passed

On August 3, 2012, Governor Deval Patrick signed the Foreclosure Prevention Act. The new law requires that lenders offer loan modifications on certain mortgage loans before foreclosing. Unfortunately, the law did not fix the problem with existing title defects resulting from the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case in 2010. (Sen. Moore’s office plans to re-introduce Senate Bill 830 in 2013). My prior post on the new law can be read here.

SJC To Consider Realtor’s Liability for Erroneous MLS Info

Sometime in 2013, the SJC will issue a very important opinion in the controversial DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. disclosure case where a Realtor was held liable for failing to verify the zoning of a listing on the Multiple Listing Service. The Court will also consider whether the exculpatory clause found in the Greater Boston Real Estate Board’s standard form purchase and sale agreement legally prohibits a buyer’s misrepresentation claim against the real estate agent. The Massachusetts Association of Realtors and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board have filed friend of the court briefs urging the SJC to limit Realtors’ disclosure obligations in the case. My prior post on the case can be read here.

Good Faith Estimate, TIL, and HUD-1 Settlement Statement To Change Dramatically

In the second major overhaul of closing disclosures in three years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will be rolling out in 2013 a new “Lending Estimate” and “Closing Estimate” which will replace the current Good Faith Estimate, Truth in Lending Disclosure, and HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The changes are part of the Dodd-Frank Act, and has the lending and title insurance industries scrambling to figure out who should be ultimately responsible for the accuracy of closing fees and other logistics in delivering these new disclosures. My prior posts on the topic can be read here.

mw_1011_FISCAL_CLIFF_620x350Fiscal Cliff Anxiety Syndrome

The Year In Review would not be complete without mention of the dreaded Fiscal Cliff. As of this writing, President Obama and the House (which even rejected its own Speaker Boehner’s last proposal) have been unable to work out a deal to resolve the more than $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect after Jan. 1, 2013. If there is no deal, and the country goes over the fiscal cliff, the consensus is that it will have quite a negative effect on the economy and the real estate market in particular.

Upcoming Event! On January 8, 2013, we are sponsoring a breakfast seminar with veteran real estate journalist Scott Van Voorhis, who will offer his predictions on 2013. Please email me to sign up. The Facebook Event invitation is here. The venue is Avita in Needham, 880 Greendale Ave., Needham, MA.

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who hopes the White House and Congress can get their acts together and pass a compromise bill to avoid the Fiscal Cliff.

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High Anxiety Heading Into 2013

The term Fiscal Cliff should be as ubiquitous as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” through the year-end, especially if President Obama and Congress cannot work out a deal to resolve the more than $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect after Jan. 1, 2013. If there is no deal, and the country goes over the fiscal cliff, the consensus is that it will have quite a negative effect on the economy and the real estate market in particular. (I debated using the word “disastrous” because there is a segment of commentators who say the housing market may survive a fall off the cliff).

There are four particular aspects of the Fiscal Cliff which could impact the real estate market.

1.  Expiration of Unemployment Benefits. Emergency jobless benefits for about 2.1 million people out of work will cease Dec. 29, and 1 million more will lose them over the next three months if Congress doesn’t extend the assistance again. Unemployed, even those receiving assistance, cannot and do not purchases homes. Democrats and President Obama want the unemployment benefits extended, but the Republicans are attempting to use this as leverage for their own fiscal cliff agenda. The real estate market will surely suffer if benefits aren’t extended.

2. Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act. The Mortgage Forgiveness Act is set to expire December 31. This tax break is critical for short sales, relieving homeowners from being taxed on any mortgage debt that was forgiven through a short sale, foreclosure or loan modification. If distressed homeowners are subject to tax on millions in debt forgiveness, short sales will likely decrease dramatically.

3. Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction. Once the sacred cow tax break for millions of middle and upper class homeowners, the mortgage interest deduction is reportedly on the chopping block. The National Association of Realtors and real estate groups have been apoplectic in urging no change to this important benefit to homeowners. Eliminating the mortgage deduction would raise taxes on all homeowners, and could dissuade renters from becoming homeowners.

4.  FHA/Fannie Mae Bailout. The Federal Housing Administration, the lender of choice for first-time homebuyers, is nearly insolvent and it could require a taxpayer bailout next year, according Edward J. Pinto, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Pinto claims the 78-year-old agency is $34.5 billion short of its legal capital requirement. “If it were a private company, it would be shut down,” argues Pinto. These aren’t the only issues threatening the real estate market. Since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the government in 2008, taxpayers have plowed  $180 billion into them to keep them operational. This mess needs to be fixed next year.

Well, if your stomach isn’t in knots, mine is. Luckily, we have some medicine for you!

On January 8, 2013, we are sponsoring a breakfast seminar with veteran real estate journalist Scott Van Voorhis, who will offer his predictions on what 2013 will bring. Please email me to sign up. The Facebook Event invitation is here. The venue is Avita in Needham, 880 Greendale Ave., Needham, MA.

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who hopes the White House and Congress can get their acts together and pass a compromise bill to avoid the Fiscal Cliff.

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

Selecting and Working with a Builder

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

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

Hire A Buyer’s Agent

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

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

Amenities, Allowances & Upgrades

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

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

Contract Documents

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

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

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

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

Mortgage Financing

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

Inspections & Warranties

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

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

Punch-Lists and Closing

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

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

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

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

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My kids (ages 9 and 6) are really into Halloween this year, convincing me into spending over $100 on laughing tombstones, zombies and other decorations at iParty over the weekend. I love Halloween, and enjoy when people go all out on decorating their homes.

But what if your house is truly haunted? Or you are a broker trying to sell a home which may have a paranormal past, like the scene of a murder of suicide? How can you protect yourself from buying a haunted house?

In Massachusetts there’s a law for that! Seriously….

Under Massachusetts law, real estate brokers and sellers are under no legal obligation to disclose that a property was the site of a felony, suicide or homicide, or has been the site of an alleged “parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon,” i.e., a haunted house.

Here is the law, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93, section 114:

The fact or suspicion that real property may be or is psychologically impacted shall not be deemed to be a material fact required to be disclosed in a real estate transaction. “Psychologically impacted” shall mean an impact being the result of facts or suspicions including, but not limited to, the following:

(b) that the real property was the site of a felony, suicide or homicide; and

(c) that the real property has been the site of an alleged parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon.

No cause of action shall arise or be maintained against a seller or lessor of real property or a real estate broker or salesman, by statute or at common law, for failure to disclose to a buyer or tenant that the real property is or was psychologically impacted.


Thus, real estate agents have no legal duty to inform buyers that a house has a paranormal past. (I’m sure some agents would so inform their buyers, but legally buyers are on their own to discover these types of stigmas).

Of course in this digital era, an easy way to determine whether a house is truly “haunted” is to Google the property address and the last few prior owners and see what comes up. If there was a murder or suicide–or even ghosts– it should reveal itself. Of course you can always hire Ghostbusters.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney. He is debating between dressing up as Darth Vader or the Pirate Jack Sparrow this Halloween.

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All Politics Aside, It’s Time To Bring Housing & Real Estate Back To the Forefront

In the most tweeted, Facebook-ed and instant polled Presidential Campaign ever, there is one topic which has been met with surprisingly deafening silence: the U.S. Housing and Real Estate Market. During last week’s debate, we heard a lot about tax plans and cuts, energy, health care and jobs, but nothing on the real estate market. Nothing…This year’s presidential candidates have mostly avoided discussing an industry that’s largely responsible for the last five years of economic pain. But why?

For sure, the subject of housing remains an extremely sensitive one. President Obama might prefer that the real estate market, whose imbalances sparked the financial crisis, to remain a ghost issue because of a lackluster record at combating the foreclosure epidemic. He is also blamed for not doing enough on the loan modification front with the dismal HAMP and HARP programs. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, might like to steer clear of the topic because a hard stance on housing could alienate voters whom he needs to win. I’m not here to debate one particular side or candidate, but rather to simply pose the question of why no talk on real estate?

Obama Falls Short of Expectations?

“Obama’s major housing initiatives have fallen short of expectations, and so Obama doesn’t have big victories to point to,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist for listing service Trulia. “The housing market is still struggling in many parts of the country, so this is not a problem that’s been solved.” The administration’s flagship relief program, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), has helped 1 million homeowners obtain lower interest rates, principal reductions, more time to pay their mortgages or any combination of the three. But that pales in comparison to the 3 to 4 million homeowners whom the program was supposed to help. Meanwhile, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), designed to help 5 million homeowners refinance their mortgages into lower interest rates, has benefited only about 1.5 million homeowners.

Romney Gun-Shy On Housing?

Romney’s housing platform includes the potential elimination of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and that prospect may be just too scary and radical to everyday voters and homeowners who have relied on the government giants to stabilized the formerly free-falling real estate market. “To stake out what you think Fannie and Freddie’s future is is to alienate somebody,” commented Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. “Realtors and home builders tend to be politically active — and Republicans,” noted Mr. Calabria. Indeed, Romney’s free-market stance on housing, if articulated bluntly, could unsettle many distressed homeowners as well. He has said that he believes that the housing market should naturally “hit bottom,” and has harshly criticized Obama’s relief programs.

Let’s Get The Housing Dialogue Going!

Over the past several months, I’ve enjoyed healthy (and even civil) political discussion on the issues on my Facebook feed. (Please join in!). The real estate market and housing always comes up, whether it’s in the context of folks not able to refinance their underwater mortgages, the loss of their equity, or the impact of unemployment on the general real estate sector. Granted, the real estate market has made significant gains since the bottom fell out in 2008, but folks are still hurting out there and it’s really been the Fed and its low interest rates which have largely kept the market from imploding. So, we should be talking about all the issues. And that means federally assisted refinancing for underwater mortgages, Fed policy on interest rates, and the future of the GSE’s. Oh and by the way, where did all that foreclosure crisis settlement money go? I have yet to hear about anyone who has received any assistance from that fund.

Well, if Obama and Romney aren’t going to talk housing and real estate, we can do it here on this blog. Feel free to post your comments, diatribes or soapbox speeches in the comment section below. You can use the Facebook comments too. Keep the debate civil please!

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School is back and summer is over. September 1 and the start of the new rental cycle is right around the corner. It’s time to review my best practices to get trouble-free, paying tenants in your Massachusetts rental property.

Screening Prospective Massachusetts Renters: What You Can and Cannot Ask

Landlords can legally ask prospective renters about the following:

  • income and current employment
  • prior landlord references
  • credit history
  • criminal history

Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information). Use CORI information with caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry as they can be held liable for renting to a known offender. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Landlords cannot ask about the following:

  • race, color, national origin, ancestry, or gender
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • marital status
  • religion
  • military/veteran status
  • disability, receipt of public assistance
  • children.

If you deny a renter’s application, it should be based on financial reasons, such as questionable credit, income or rental history. Stay away from reasons related to children, public assistance and the like. Be aware that this time of year the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and Attorney General’s Office send out dummy rental applicants in an attempt to catch unwary landlords who deny housing for discriminatory reasons.

Students, especially undergraduates, often create problems for landlords. It’s important to meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior. Remember, under a two year old Boston zoning ordinance, no more than four (4) full time undergraduate students may live together in a single apartment.

Careful screening of tenants is far less expensive than the cost of evicting a problem tenant.

My Property Has Lead Paint. Can I Refuse To Rent to Tenants With Small Kids?

The answer is no, but many landlords do so (unlawfully) under the guise of financial reasons. The Attorney General has been cracking down on these practice:  Two Local Real Estate Firms Fined By Mass. Attorney General For Lead Paint Housing Discrimination.

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, whenever a child under six years of age comes to live in a rental property, the property owner has a responsibility to discover whether there is any lead paint on the property and to de-lead to protect the young children living there. A property owner or real estate agent cannot get around the legal requirements to disclose information about known lead hazards simply by refusing to rent to families with young children. They also cannot refuse to renew the lease of a pregnant woman or a family with young children just because a property may contain lead hazards. Landlords cannot refuse to rent simply because they do not want to spend the money to de-lead the property. Any of these acts is a violation of the Lead Law, the Consumer Protection Act, and various Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes that can have serious penalties for a property owner or real estate agent.

For more information about Massachusetts rental screening, landlord-tenant law and evictions, please read these articles or contact me below. I would be happy to help you get good tenants.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate and eviction attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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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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Realtor Held Liable For Erroneous MLS Information

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear the case of DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. which will consider two very important issues for the real estate community, especially agents. The first issue is the scope of a real estate agent’s duty to disclose and independently verify property information posted on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). The second issue is whether the exculpatory clause found in the Greater Boston Real Estate Board’s standard form purchase and sale agreement legally prohibits a buyer’s misrepresentation claim against the real estate agent.

The case was originally decided by the Appeals Court, and I wrote a full post about it here. The original opinion can be read here.

In summary, the real estate agent, relying on what turned out to be erroneous information supplied by his client, listed a Norwell property on Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and newspaper advertising as “zoned Business B.” The property was not, in fact, zoned for business use; it was zoned residential, thereby prohibiting the hair salon the buyer wanted to open at the property. Despite the general disclaimer on the MLS system and in the purchase and sale agreement, the Appeals Court held that the Realtor could be held liable for misrepresentation and Chapter 93A violations due to providing this erroneous information.

This will be a very important case for the real estate brokerage industry, and we will be monitoring it. Oral arguments are expected to be held in late summer or early fall, with a final ruling coming a few months thereafter.

In the meantime, my advice remains the same:

  • Do not make any representations concerning zoning. Advise the buyer to go to the town/city planner or hire an attorney for a zoning opinion.
  • Never trust your client. I hate to say this, but when it comes to disclosures, it’s true.
  • Always independently verify information about the property from available public sources. Here, the agent could have simply gone down to the town planning office to verify whether the property was zoned commercial or residential. (The buyer or his attorney could have done so as well—this was a complete failure on all sides).
  • When it comes to zoning, which can be complex and variable, think twice before making blanket statements. Better to be 100% sure before going on record about whether certain uses are permissible. You can always get a zoning opinion from a local attorney.

*Hat tip to a new real estate blog on the scene, Disgruntled Neighbors by Attorney Andrew Goldstein, for bringing this to my attention.

~Rich

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