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1264061_10151658881066231_542869946_oShutdown and Debt Ceiling Negotiations Have You Worried?

Complimentary Breakfast Seminar!  Join us with veteran real estate journalist Scott Van Voorhis who will discuss the impact that the crisis in Washington D.C. is having on the Massachusetts and national real estate market, plus he will give his predictions for the early spring market.

When:  November 5, 2013

Time:  10AM-11:30AM

Where:  Avita of Needham, 880 Greendale Ave., Needham, MA

RSPV:  rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com

Sponsors:  Titlehub Closing Services, Vetstein Law Group and the Law Offices of Marc Canner

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government shutdown I’ve been glued to CNN in recent days, watching incredulously as those buffoons in Washington grind our government to a halt. I though for sure that a midnight deal would have been struck, but I woke up this morning with the dreaded news that the government has indeed shutdown. I’ve been trying to get a handle all morning on how this is going to affect the Massachusetts and national real estate market, and here’s what I have so far. (Updated 10/1/13 at 4:30pm below).

Tax Transcripts/SSN Verification Delays

Virtually all federally back mortgage lenders request copies of borrower’s tax transcripts through the IRS and social security numbers through the SSA. According to my friend Rick Moore, loan officer at Lendmark Loans in Framingham, and media reports, the shutdown will apparently either stop or hinder the federal agencies’ ability to issue those verifications, resulting in mortgage approval delays across the board. I know that lenders were furiously ordering tax transcripts and SSN verifications last week, in preparation for the shutdown. If your loan is in the middle of underwriting, speak to your loan officer now. You may be facing a delay in getting a clear loan commitment and a resulting delay in your closing date.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA)
The shutdown’s impact on FHA loans appears to be not as bad as originally thought. HUD’s Contingency Plan states that FHA will endorse new loans in the Single Family Mortgage Loan Program, but it will not make new commitments in the Multi-family Program during the shutdown. FHA will maintain operational activities including paying claims and collecting premiums. Management & Marketing (M&M) Contractors managing the REO portfolio can continue to operate. You can expect some delays with FHA processing.

VA Loan Guaranty Program
Lenders will continue to process and guaranty mortgages through the Loan Guaranty program in the event of a government shutdown. However, borrowers should expect some delays during the shutdown.

Flood Insurance
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confirmed that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) will not be impacted by a government shutdown, since NFIP is funded by premiums and not tax dollars. Changes to the flood insurance program scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1 will be implemented as scheduled.

USDA Loans
For USDA loan programs, essential personnel working during a shutdown do not include field office staff who typically issue conditional commitments, loan note guarantees, and modification approvals. Thus, lenders will not receive approvals during the shutdown. If the lender has already received a conditional commitment from the Rural Development office, then the lender may proceed to close those loans during the shutdown. A conditional commitment, which is good for 90 days, is given to a lender once a USDA Underwriter approves the loan. If a commitment was already issued, the funds were already set aside and the lender may close the loan at its leisure. If Rural Development has not issued a conditional commitment, the lender must wait until funding legislation is enacted before closing a loan.

It is important to note that the traditional definition of “rural” for qualifying communities for assistance will be continued in effect during the shutdown.  We expect that language to continue the current definition will be included in whatever funding measure is eventually enacted.

Government Sponsored Enterprises
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will continue operating normally, as will their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, since they are not reliant on appropriated funds.

Treasury
The Making Home Affordable program, including HAMP and HAFA, will not be affected as the program is funded through the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act which is mandatory spending not discretionary.

Updated (Oct. 1 at 4:30pm). Memo from national mortgage lender:

“There has been no progress today toward a resolution to the government shutdown. Fortunately, the initial impact of the shutdown on mortgage originations has been small. The biggest concerns are obtaining transcripts from the IRS and social security verifications from the SSA. Certain Government produced economic reports will not be available. The Construction spending report due out this morning was not issued. The Non-Farm Payrolls report due on Friday may be affected. The impact on the mortgage market of this lack of data is difficult to anticipate.

At this time, Fannie, Freddie, and Ginnie say they will continue to operate as normal. VA says that they, too, will have no disruptions in services. FHA, however, expects delays due to reduced staffing. Origination companies, correspondent banks, and warehouse lenders may react differently as they access the risks associated with an extended shutdown.”

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flood-insurance-new-bedford-guideNew Flood Insurance Rates and Map Changes To Drown Homeowners With Premium Surge, Subsidies To End 

I was recently working on a sale transaction in Wareham which went under agreement with no issues. As is common in that coastal area, the property is in Flood Zone with a subsidized flood insurance annual premium of around $3,000 which the buyer was willing to live with. However, during the underwriting process, the lender advised that under new federal flood insurance map and rate changes, the property was not only in a higher flood risk elevation zone, but would also lose its subsidy upon a sale, with a new premium running a whopping $55,000 — a 1700% increase! Needless to say, the sale sank to the bottom of Buzzards Bay, and the current owner is left with a significantly devalued property.

The culprit for this storm surge is the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act, which was passed after Hurricane Katrina. Under the new law, many homeowners will grapple with a double-whammy of costs — first, because their homes are no longer above base flood elevation, and second, the Act will eliminate the grandfathering of properties that were allowed to use old flood-risk data, and will end subsidies for certain types of properties. According to most projections, flood insurance premiums have the potential to increase by 25% per year for many, and for some, exponentially — like my Wareham client. Furthermore, many additional homes have been placed in the high-risk flood zone for the first time, and if the owners have mortgages, they will be required to buy flood insurance.

According to the Boston Globe, the changes will have widespread impact along coastal communities. For example, in Marshfield, roughly 1,500 homes are located in the expanded flood zone, and in Scituate, about 500, according to local officials. Coastal towns have been scrambling over the last several months to assist affected homeowners and petition Congress and FEMA to help, mostly to no avail.

Property owners have the right to appeal their inclusion in the flood zone, but they have barely more than six weeks left to do so. The deadline is Oct. 17 throughout the county. For an appeal to be successful, the owner would have to prove, with professional documentation, that the elevation is different from what the maps indicate. That’s a high burden and very costly to boot.

This situation has real potential to drown listings and sales along the affected coastal areas. I’ll be monitoring this looming storm in the weeks ahead. Stay dry!

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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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Or What Happens When Condo Docs Suck…

A recent case handed down by the Appeals Court illustrates the fundamental importance of careful condominium document draftsmanship concerning what amenities are included within the definition of a “unit” — and the unintended results when deficient documents get in the hands of judges.

The case is Sano v. Tedesco (Mass. App. Ct. Aug. 28, 2013) and concerned a Lynn condominium dealing with a large repair bill for its crumbling balconies. Half of the 8 unit building enjoyed their own private balconies. Faced with a substantial repair bill, the unit owners without balconies balked at paying the bill, arguing that the balconies were part of the units they served.

The problem was that due to poor draftsmanship, the master deed inconceivably made no mention of the balconies or the support beams. Left with little guidance, the court turned to the Mass. Condominium Act, which defines a unit as ”a part of the condominium including one or more rooms, with appurtenant areas such as balconies, terraces and storage lockers if any.”  The judges ultimately came down the middle, ruling that each unit owner was responsible for repairs to their own balcony, but that the condominium trust was responsible for the support beams for each balcony. And even the three justice court panel couldn’t agree on that bizarre result! A dissenting judge thought that each unit owner should have been responsible for both the balconies and support beams.

I doubt any of the unit owners expected this peculiar result, with a split of responsibility over balconies and support beams. If the master deed was drafted properly in the first place with the balconies being designated as either a limited common area (with sole repair responsibility lying with the unit owner) or common area with an exclusive easement for each unit owner (with the responsibility on the condo trust), this confusing result would have been avoided. The moral of the story is make sure you hire a competent Massachusetts condominium conversion attorney who is experienced in drafting condo docs!

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hqdefaultSpecial Considerations For Drafting Two and Three Family Massachusetts Condominium Conversions Documents

Avid readers of this Blog know that I’m a huge Seinfeld fan. One of my favorite episodes was the “Serenity Now” episode where Kramer went a little nutty after being tormented by neighborhood kids, muttering “serenity now, serenity now” outside his toilet papered apartment. (Seinfeld buffs also know this as the episode where George beats Lloyd Braun in a computer sales competition). For your viewing pleasure, I’ve embedded the video below.

Serenity is a good topic when it comes to condominiums because condominium living can often bring out the worst in people. There have been some good ones in Massachusetts. I’ve written about the infamous case where a disgruntled unit owner dropped bags of dog poop labeled with the name of the condo board president in hallways and gave the “bird” to condo trustees. There are others, too many to mention here, where dysfunctional trustees have brought condominiums to financial ruin and chaos.

Despite this discordance, condominium conversions of two and three multifamily homes in and around Boston, Cambridge and Somerville continue to be a popular way to cash in on the hot real estate market. A lot of these homes are owned and occupied by extended families, some of whom stay in the new condominium, and some who leave for greener pastures. Smaller condominiums, however, can be a recipe for disaster without careful planning and drafting of the legal documents which govern them. I’m going to outline some important considerations in drafting Massachusetts condominium conversion documents which will put into practice the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The Master Deed

The Master Deed is where it all starts. Condominiums are a “creature of statute.” That is, they are a special legal form of property ownership enabled only through a special law called the Massachusetts Condominium Act, General Laws Chapter 183A. The owner of the property must “submit” the property into the condominium regime through the recording with the registry of deeds of a master deed.

The Master Deed sets forth what is part of the units and what is part of the shared “common areas.” Units are typically defined as all of the interior space from the lower surface of finished ceilings, surface plaster of walls and the sub-floor in, while common area consists of the innards behind the walls and buildings, the roof, most common HVAC/plumbing/heating systems, yards, and exterior of the home, among other things.

The use of “limited common areas” are especially useful in two and three family condominiums. Limited common areas are technically common area space but reserved for the exclusive use of the unit owner which it serves. Examples include private decks, porches, roof decks, parking spaces, and storage areas. The drafter can be flexible and provide that limited common areas must be repaired by either the condo association or the unit owner.

The master deed will often impose restrictions upon the use of units or rights of first refusal for the trustees or other unit owners. Care must be taken here to ensure that the units remain marketable while also protecting the serenity of unit owners. Rights of first refusal are discouraged these days.

Declaration of Trust and By-Laws

The second component of creating a condominium is the Declaration of Trust, also referred to as the By-Laws. The declaration of trust creates the condominium trust association and a board of trustees which govern the condominium.

For smaller condominiums between 2 and 5 units, the key is crafting the provisions so as to prevent dead-locking on major decisions. I almost always provide for super-majority voting on all major issues. For 2 unit conversions, I recommend unanimous voting on all major issues. And for all condos I use a mandatory arbitration clause to mediate any deadlocks.

In the case of non-payment of condo fees, which can be financial disaster for two and three unit condos, I provide for the right of the paying unit owners to be granted authority and power to start condo lien proceedings against the non-payor and recover attorneys’ fees and costs.

The declaration of trust should also contain all of the unique rules and regulations of the condominium. Important note: If these are not attached and recorded with the declaration of trust, they are not binding on unit owners. Rules should be drafted in consultation with the owners and can cover anything from satellite dishes, pets, smoking, signs, preserving architectural integrity, noise, quiet hours, parties, trash, etc.

The declaration of trust should also have standard Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac provisions which will ensure that future buyers can obtain conventional financing on their units.

Annual Budget, Condo Fees and Real Estate Taxes

The condominium should have a written annual budget and monthly condo fees established. A separate condominium bank account should also be set up with checks, deposit slips, etc. For small projects, the budget can be rather simple, encompassing the master insurance premium, water/sewer, landscaping, maintenance, and a small capital reserve fund. The monthly condo fee is calculated as the annual budget divided by the number of units divided by 12.

With respect to real estate taxes on a condo conversion, the building will continue to be assesses as a single dwelling until the tax assessor catches up to the conversion. A tax letter agreement should be prepared so that real estate taxes are prorated and properly assessed and paid by each unit owner after the conversion until each unit becomes separately assessed.

Also don’t forget that in the City of Boston, a “Trager” excise tax of $500 per unit starting with the second unit will be assessed on all new conversions. The master deed must have a “Trager” stamp before being accepted for recording.

Unit Floor Plans and Site Plan

All new condominium conversions must have prepared unit floor plans, and in Boston, a surveyed site plan. Unit floor plans will detail each unit’s gross living area, and delineate common areas, limited common areas, exclusive use spaces, and units.

How Much Does All This Cost?

Even for two unit conversions, the cost is a fair amount. Legal fees range from $2,500 – $5,000 and upwards, depending on the complexity of the project and the attorney. Recording fees and Boston excise taxes run over $1,000 and upwards. Architect and survey fees range from $2,500 and upwards. And you always get what you pay for, so keep that in mind!

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RDV-profile-picture.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a seasoned Massachusetts condominium conversion attorney. Please contact him at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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With an abysmal 20% compliance rate, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department is giving Boston area landlords until August 31, 2013 to register their rental units under a new registration and inspection ordinance.  Under the recently-approved ordinance, every private rental unit in Boston was supposed to have been registered by Aug. 1.

According to Boston.com, since the registration period began on May 1, only about 26,150 units have been registered with the city, said department spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake. That represents less than 20 percent of the estimated 140,000 total units that are required to register.

Under the new ordinance, rental units will be inspected by ISD every five years. Owner-occupied dwellings with 6 or less units are exempt from the inspection requirements (but still must register). Rented out condominium units must register as well.

For more information about the City of Boston Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, read our prior post here.

Landlords who fail to register will be subject to fines and other action from the city, officials said. But, the city will likely use discretion in deciding whether to discipline landlords, according to Brian Swett, Boston’s Chief of Environment and Energy. “We’ll have to make an assessment as we get closer to Aug. 31,” he said. “If there are folks who are willfully not registering their properties that’s different from someone who hasn’t been informed about this yet by our outreach.”

More Information:  Register your rental unit online at Cityofboston.gov or download an application from the same site. The City has also posted a Frequently Asked Questions Page here.

 

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2012_Blawg100_HorizBadgeFav-2Readers, I need your help again. Last year, I was honored to be selected on the prestigious American Bar Association Top 100 Legal Blawg List. This is kinda like the Oscars of legal blogs. Sort of a big deal…Anyways, I would love to receive the honor again this year! I would gratefully appreciate your vote.

VOTE BY CLICKING HERE

Our URL is www.massrealestatelawblog.com. My twitter handle is @richardvetstein.

A few of our other favorite legal blogs are:

Thank you very much!!!  –Rich

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HomeTheatreI had a interesting situation come up the other day during a pre-closing walk-through. Unbeknownst to me or the listing agent, the seller had removed wall-mounted speakers from the living room, leaving gaping holes with the built-in surround sound speaker wires hanging out. Needless to say, the buyers were not happy after the walk through. While we were able to amicably resolve the issue at the closing table, it underscored an important, but often overlooked, aspect of the sale process: how to best handle fixtures and built-in items.

What’s A Fixture vs. Removable Personal Property?

From a legal standpoint, when equipment, decorations, or appliances become affixed or fastened to the real estate, it becomes a fixture and is supposed to be transferred as part of the sale, unless there is an agreement providing otherwise. What are some of the factors determining whether something is a fixture?

Method of attachment. Is the item permanently affixed to the wall, ceiling or flooring by using nails, glue, cement, pipes, or screws? Even if you can easily remove it, the method used to attach it might make it a fixture. Examples include built-in surround sound wiring, lighting fixtures, built-in speakers into the wall, custom built-in cabinetry.

Adaptability. If the item becomes an integral part of the home, it cannot be removed. For example, a floating laminate floor is a fixture, even though it is snapped together. Built-in appliances are properly considered fixtures, especially custom items. That includes your Sub Zero refrigerator and Viking Range/Oven specially selected for the gourmet kitchen. Free standing appliances, however, are generally not considered fixtures.

There are, of course, plenty of gray areas with fixtures. Wall mounted flat screen TV’s, surround sound speaker systems, and decorative mirrors are a few coming to mind. These gray areas are the cause of most disputes surrounding fixtures. How do you handle them? Keep reading.

Disclose All Exclusions/Inclusions In Listing

The opportunity to address fixtures, inclusions and exclusions starts when the home is listed. As suggested by Sudbury, Mass. Realtor, Gabrielle Daniels, agents should identify all potential fixture issues ahead of time, and disclose them on MLS either as included or excluded in the sale. If the sellers want to take that new Bosch dishwasher with them to their new home, they had better disclose it ahead of time so the buyer knows ahead of time.

Carry Over To The Offer and Purchase & Sale Agreement

Referring to this as the “no-surprise” rule, Metrowest Realtor Jennifer Juliano correctly advises that the same exclusions and inclusions in MLS should be carried over and written into the Offer to Purchase with a reference to the MLS Listing Number, and the purchase and sale agreement. The standard form purchase and sale agreement addresses inclusions and exclusions with even greater detail, tracking the law of fixtures in Massachusetts. Below is the standard language in the Greater Boston Real Estate Board form:

Included in the sale as part of said premises are the buildings, structures, and improvements now thereon, and the fixtures belonging to the SELLER and used in connection therewith, including, if any, all wall-to-wall carpeting, drapery rods, automatic garage doors openers, venetian blinds, window shades, screens, screen doors, storm windows and doors, awnings, shutters, furnaces, heaters, heating equipment, stoves, ranges, oil and gas burners and fixtures appurtenant thereto, hot water heaters, plumbing and bathroom fixtures, garbage disposals, electric and other lighting fixtures, mantels, outside television antennas, fences, gates, trees, shrubs, plants, and ONLY IF BUILT IN, refridgerators, air conditioning equipment, ventilators, dishwashers, washing machines and dryer; and but excluding _______.

As you can see, the standard language provides by default that most commonly understood fixtures are part of the sale, such as furnaces, carpeting, and lighting fixtures. Exclusions must be written into the agreement, or by default they may be considered fixtures and included in the sale.

If items are left unaddressed in the agreements, you’ll have a situation similar to mine with the removal of surround sound speakers and a stressful walk-through. Feel free to post in the comments about your own thorny fixture situation!

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. He can be reached by phone at 508-620-5352 or email at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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7076759_ac0f_625x1000Do Your Due Diligence!

Condominiums remain hot in the Greater Boston area, often the new starter home for the young professional buyer. I am also seeing quite a lot of two and three family homes in the Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville area being converted into condominiums. While condos are usually a great investment, buying one requires some unique due diligence. You must be satisfied that the condominium project as a whole is financially healthy and that you are not buying into a major “money pit.”

The role of the buyer’s attorney in a condominium purchase is to review the condominium documents including the master deed, declaration of trust/by-laws, budget and meeting minutes, if any. The documents, however, only tell so much of the story. What’s really important is what may be lurking behind those documents. Here are some good questions to ask:

  1. How much money is in the capital reserve account and how much is funded annually? The capital reserve fund is like an insurance policy for the inevitable capital repairs every building requires. As a general rule, the fund should contain at least 10% of the annual revenue budget, and in the case of older projects, even more. If the capital reserve account is poorly funded, there is a higher risk of a special assessment.  Get a copy of the last 2 years budget, the current reserve account funding level and any capital reserve study.
  2. Are there any contemplated or pending special assessments? Special assessments are one time fees for capital improvements payable by every unit owner. Some special assessments can run in the thousands. Others, like theBoston Harbor Towers $75 Million renovation project, in the millions. You need to be aware if you are buying a special assessment along with your unit.  It’s a good idea to ask for the last 2 years of condominium meeting minutes to check what’s been going on with the condomininium.
  3. Is there a professional management company or is the association self-managed? Usually, a professional management company, while an added cost, can add great value to a condominium with well run governance and management of common areas. Self-managed condos tend to have a higher incidence of dysfunction.
  4. Is the condominium involved in any pending legal actions? Legal disputes between owners, with developers or with the association can signal trouble and a poorly run organization. Ask whether there are any pending lawsuits.

Purchase and Sale Agreement Tips

Regardless of the answers you receive, my practice is to insert a comprehensive condominium verification provision in the purchase and sale agreement. This will make the seller go on the record as to some important aspects of the condominium financial’s health and should go a long way to ensure that the buyer is not stepping into a huge special assessment or other major financial catastrophe. If issues arise prior to the closing, this provision will give the buyer an “out” to terminate the deal and return the deposits.

Condominium Verification Information.  The Seller represents that, to the best of his/her knowledge, the following information is true and accurate as of the date of this Agreement  and shall remain true as of the date of closing:

    1. The condominium documents provided to the Buyer and/or available for downloading on the ____ County Registry of Deeds are true, accurate and complete copies of all documents recorded with the Registry of Deeds as of the date hereof and that no other documents and/or amendments which adversely impact the Unit being purchased will be recorded which have not been presented to the Buyer.
    2. The current condominium monthly fees are $_____ per month.
    3. Seller has not received any notice of nor is Seller aware of any special assessments for the Unit, whether or not assessments are due now or in the future, and Seller is aware of no immediate pending improvements, repairs or replacements or plans therefore which would likely result in a supplemental assessment or significant increase in the monthly common expenses for the Unit.
    4. In the event there are any supplemental assessments owed with respect to the Unit on the closing date, Seller shall be obligated to pay such assessments in full prior to closing notwithstanding any agreement by the organization of unit owners to allow such payments to be made in installments but only to the extend Seller’s lender agrees to allow said payment on the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Otherwise, Buyer may either agree to accept the obligation to pay said assessment or terminate the agreement by written notice to Seller within 5 days of receipt of notice of said assessment.
    5. The master insurance policy for the unit conforms with the requirements of the Condominium Documents.
    6. There is presently no litigation threatened or pending by or against the Seller, or the Condominium Association, which would cause the Condominium to not be in compliance with current secondary mortgage market guidelines.

The Seller shall promptly notify the Buyer of any change in facts which arise prior to the closing which would make any such representation untrue if such state of facts had existed on the date of execution of this Agreement.  The provisions of this paragraph shall survive delivery of the deed.

If you have any questions about purchasing a Massachusetts condominium unit, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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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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Signing or not signing?Bar Counsel Tightening Ethical Standards and Expectations

On the second anniversary of the SJC’s important ruling in Real Estate Bar Assoc. (REBA)  v. National Real Estate Information Services (NREIS), which banned “witness-only” notary closings in Massachusetts, the Office of Bar Counsel has issued an important advisory opinion to Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys. The advisory opinion can be found here.

In the advisory, Bar Counsel first reaffirms the SJC’s pronouncement of the critical and mandatory role that Massachusetts attorneys play in a real estate purchase, sale or refinance transaction. The core functions at a real estate closing — certifying good, clear and marketable title, ensuring that title is properly conveyed, and holding and disbursing funds under the good funds law — are all acts constituting the practice of law and must be handled by a licensed Massachusetts attorney. Accordingly, as the SJC held, Massachusetts attorneys must “substantially participate” in all facets of the real estate conveyance transaction.

Following the SJC’s requirement of “substantial participation,” Bar Counsel advises attorneys that they must closely manage and oversee each conveyance transaction:

“It is not the appropriate course for the lawyer’s only function to be present at the closing to hand legal documents that the attorney may have never seen to the parties for signature, and to witness the signatures…A witness only appearance by an attorney would necessarily be inadequate, professionally and ethically, except in the perhaps unlikely event that the attorney is first assured that steps constituting the practice of law are being or have been properly handled by other Massachusetts attorneys.”

There are some closing attorneys and conveyancing mills who hire inexperienced contract attorneys to run around the state to do closings. These attorneys are nothing more than glorified paralegals. Bar Counsel’s advisory opinion calls this unfortunate practice into serious question, unless the managing attorney can ensure that the contract attorney is familiar with the title and file (which is unlikely as Bar Counsel notes).

Bar Counsel is clearly tightening the ethical standards on real estate attorneys. And this is good thing for the profession and consumers alike.

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ar123517806003655.jpgIs One Better Than The Other?

The first step in the purchase and sale of real estate in Massachusetts is the execution of an Offer to Purchase. Historically, agents and attorneys have used the Offer to Purchase Real Estate form generated by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board which has been around since the 1960′s. Recently, however, I’ve been seeing an increase in the use of the newer and more modern Massachusetts Association of Realtors Contract to Purchase Real Estate Form #501. I don’t think most Realtors, attorneys and consumers realize that these two forms have some critical differences, depending whether you are representing the buyer or seller. I’m going to outline the differences and similarities in this post.

  MAR GBREB
General Buyer Friendly Seller Friendly
Inspections Built-in, No $ Cap Addendum. Only Serious Issues, $ Cap
Mortgage Contingency Yes Yes
Representations Yes with waiver language No.

 

Buyer or Seller Friendly?

Both the MAR and GBREB offer forms are legally binding contracts to purchase and sale residential property in Massachusetts as I’ve written about here. They both have the basic and critical components for a deal:  identification of the property, price, deposits, good-through date, closing date, “good and clear record and marketable title” language, and P&S deadline, among other provisions.

The GBREB is clearly a more seller-friendly form, while the MAR form is definitely more friendly to buyers with some caveats that I’ll discuss below. Does this mean that if you are a buyer agent, you absolutely have to use the MAR form? No, but it may be a good practice to get into. Some agents are more comfortable with the older GBREB form, and that’s fine. They just should be cognizant of the differences in the two forms and how it may help or hurt their clients.

Inspection Contingencies

The first critical difference in the two forms is the inspection contingency. The MAR form has all inspection related contingencies (home inspection, pest, radon, lead paint, septic, water quality and drainage) built into the form, while the GBREB form uses a separate addendum for each type of inspection. The major difference, however, is what will trigger the buyer’s right to terminate the deal based on an inspection issue. The MAR form is extremely buyer-friendly, providing that the buyer may opt out of the deal merely if any of the inspection results are “not satisfactory.” You can drive a Mack truck through that open-ended language. The MAR form also has some often overlooked waiver language — (1) protecting Realtors from getting sued if the buyer does not conduct inspections, and (2) making it more difficult for a buyer to get out of the deal if she doesn’t provide timely notice of termination based on an inspection issue.

The GBREB form is far less buyer favorable, providing for an opt-out only for “serious structural, mechanical or other defects” the cost to repair of which is a dollar amount to be filled in (usually ranging from $500-$2500).

Mortgage Contingency

Both the MAR and GBREB forms give buyers a standard financing contingency, enabling buyers to obtain a firm loan commitment at “prevailing rates, terms and conditions” by an agreed upon date. The contingency language is almost identical in both forms, so there’s no issue here.

Representations/Acknowledgements

The MAR form has a modern provision confirming that the buyer has received all the various disclosures required by law, including the agency disclosure, laid paint, and Home Inspectors Facts for Consumers brochure. The GBREB does not have this provision. The MAR form also has some very agent-friendly waiver of representation/warranty language in this clause, providing that the buyer is not relying upon any of the Realtor’s representations, MLS or advertisting concerning the legal use, zoning, number of units/rooms, building/sanitary code status of the premises. However, I’m not sure this provision would pass legal muster in light of the recent SJC ruling in DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre holding an agent liable for misrepresentations concerning the zoning classification of property. Nevertheless, Realtors can use all the legal protection they can get in this litigious environment!

 Which Form Is Better?

There is no easy answer to this question. All things being equal, if I’m a buyer agent, I would go with the MAR form. (And buyer agents are typically the ones who are writing up the offers). The MAR form is more buyer-friendly while at the same time gives Realtors way more legal protection than the GBREB form. If I’m representing the seller and have the opportunity to select the offer form, I’ll go with the old-standby GBREB form for the simple reason that it will give the seller some more leverage in case of a home inspection battle. But I would still seriously consider trading up to the MAR form. I’ve embedded both forms below.

Agents, attorneys, readers what are your thoughts? Post in the comments below.

Also, if you are interested in joining the Massachusetts Association of Realtors or the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, click on the respective links. Both are great organizations and extremely helpful to new and established agents alike!

501 – Contract to Purchase Real Estate (c) 2012 – ID-WATERMARK

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nail in the coffinWhy A Massachusetts Real Estate Nominee Trust Is Worthless and Useless

Since the concept of currency and debt was created, debtors have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with creditors in order to avoid satisfaction of their debts. A ruling last week by the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Citizens Bank v. Coleman (May 15, 2013) is notable because it put the kibosh on a formerly popular estate planning practice in Massachusetts where a husband conveys property into a real estate nominee trust held by his wife. The problem, of course, was that the husband was being chased by a creditor holding a $600,000+ judgment, so any action he took with his assets would ultimately come under the judicial microscope. And that’s exactly what happened in this case, as the Court unwound the transfer and ruled in the bank’s favor.

Old Debts Come Back to Haunt Developer

In the 1980′s, Martin Coleman, a real estate developer, purchased two multifamily rental properties in Waltham. Coleman furnished all the cash to acquire these properties. In 1986, Coleman married his wife, Pamela, who began managing the properties. She dealt with all issues relating to the tenants (including rent collection and filling vacancies) and superintended the maintenance, repairs, and payment of bills. In 1988, Coleman defaulted on a $6.2 million construction loan, which he had personally guaranteed.

In 1989, Coleman transferred, for $1.00, title to both rental properties into two real estate nominee trusts, with Pamela named as the sole beneficiary of each trust. Pamela continued to assist with the management of the properties, but Martin paid for all the property expenses.

In 1994, Federal Savings Bank obtained a $600,000 plus judgment against Mr. Coleman which was subsequently acquired by Citizens Bank. Citizens sued the Colemans, attempting to “reach and apply” Pamela’s interest in the two Waltham properties to satisfy the large judgment.

Interfamily Conveyance = Resulting Trust = Creditor Wins


The Appeals Court ultimately ruled that Mr. Coleman’s conveyance into the nominee trusts was a “resulting trust” — essentially a fraudulent transfer to avoid satisfaction of the large judgment. With respect to transfers between husband and wife, the law presumes they are not designed to avoid creditors. This presumption, however, can be overcome through evidence that the conveyance did not result in any change in behavior or financial responsibilities between husband and wife, as compared to before the transfer. In this case, the evidence showed that Mr. Coleman still held himself out as the owner of the rental properties, nothing changed as to the wife’s property management duties, and the conveyance was not truly part of a legitimate estate plan, as the Colemans contended. The Court ruled that Citizens Bank will be able to sell the two Waltham properties at auction to satisfy the judgment which is likely now seven figures.

Moral Of The Story: Trash the Nominee Trust

Real estate nominee trusts were all the rage in the 1980′s and into the 1990′s. A series of court rulings, however, exposed serious flaws with the asset protection security these trusts were supposed to provide. They are now out of favor, yet, they are still being used. Perhaps this case will put the proverbial nail in the nominee trust coffin. Memo to estate planners: They don’t work, so stop using them. Go with a limited liability company instead.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who is frequently consulted by property owners looking to shelter their assets. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

 

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P_154_092811110348Guest Post By:  Philip B. Posner, Esq., 

Part independent living, part assisted living and part skilled nursing home, a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) offers a tiered approach to the aging process, accommodating residents’ changing needs. Upon entering, healthy adults can reside independently in single-family homes, apartments or condominiums. When assistance with everyday activities becomes necessary, they can move into assisted living or nursing care facilities within the same community. CCRCs give older adults the option to live in one location for the duration of their life, with much if not all of their future care already figured out.

With the Baby Boomer generation hitting retirement age, CCRC’s are now a multibillion-dollar industry, particularly among the upper-middle class and affluent. At least 745,000 older adults now live in such communities, according to the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. And those numbers are expected to rise as baby boomers hit their 70s.

This Isn’t Your Grandparents’ Nursing Home

Building styles of CCRCs run the gamut from urban high-rises to mid-rise suburban campuses to garden apartments, cottages cluster homes, or single-family homes. Some are as luxurious as five star hotels. Some CCRCs provide units that are designed for people with special medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Because of the substantial up front Entry Fee, CCRCs are targeted toward a middle and upper middle class demographic. All CCRCs have large staffs, necessary to provide the diverse and elaborate services and amenities which are provided as part of the CCRC model and are demanded by those seniors interested in this type of housing and lifestyle.

CCRC residents typically pay a hefty entry fee and a monthly fee in return for the “promise” of care for the rest of the residents’ lives. Of course, this “promise” sets CCRCs apart from over-55 and assisted living facilities and nursing homes. And CCRCs are very distinct from the ‘aging in place’ model which may require extensive adaptation of a residence for the physical needs of an aging senior and the delivery of services through various community and other means. CCRCs are designed from the ground up to provide increasingly intensive services under the ‘continuum of care’ model to accommodate the needs of their residents.

The continuum of facilities and services available to CCRC residents typically includes:

  • An independent residential unit with one or more meals, housekeeping, social and recreational activities, and some transportation.
  • A separate assisted living area on the same campus, where additional support services are provided. Some of these are secure for people with memory loss.
  • A separate health care and skilled nursing facility on the premises, with nursing and/or physical rehabilitation, either short-term or long-term.

The on-site community, services, healthcare and activities are factors that attract many people to CCRCs. In addition entry into a CCRC requires only one major transition to a new “home” for those resident for whom stability is appealing or necessary. The facilities and options will vary widely so residents and their families considering this housing option are cautioned to thoroughly review each project on an individual and intensive basis.

It is also important to recognize that entry into the skilled nursing facility that is a part of the CCRC cannot in all cases by guaranteed. In the event that the nursing units are filled or otherwise unavailable, typical CCRC agreements permit placement of an ailing resident in an alternate nursing facility.  This reality should be carefully reviewed with the CCRC and with a potential resident and information gathered with regard to the likelihood of such an event.

CCRCs generally maintain a diverse suite of on-site medical and social services and facilities. Residents may enter a CCRC while still relatively healthy and then move on to more intensive care as it becomes necessary. CCRCs offer various options for lively communal living not available in many age-limited (over-55) properties and available only with more effort for seniors who may choose to remain in their own homes.

MI-BF100_Family_NS_20100806204302CCRC Fee Structures:  Costly, Confusing And Not Without Risk

The downside of a CCRC is the substantial cost of the Entry Fee and the confusing structure of the contracts and agreements between the CCRC and the resident. Prices depend on the amount of care provided, the type of contract, and the unit’s size and geographic location. Entry fees may range from $100,000 to more than $500,000 depending on the CCRC project, real estate market and factors such as whether or not the Entry Fee will be refunded in full or in part at such time as the resident leaves the CCRC or passes away. Monthly Service Charges and Fees range widely based, not only on the real estate market and prevailing regional costs but also the type of contract between the CCRC and the resident. Unlike other types of senior housing, the costs of CCRCs is highly variable and has been difficult to quantify in national surveys. For more info, here are links to a recent cost surveys by Metlife Mature Market Institute and Genworth Financial.

Seniors often use the proceeds from the sale of their home to pay the Entry Fee of the CCRC. However, the resident should be cautioned than in most CCRCs, the payment of the Entry Fee is not the same as the purchase of an apartment or real estate of any kind. The agreements in many cases are akin to a lease. Moreover, to the extent that the current federal and state tax law (also highly changeable) results in a taxable gain upon the sale of the residence – no “roll over” to defer a gain of potentially highly appreciated real estate will be available upon entry into a CCRC.

Nationally, CCRCs typically provide for three basic fee schedules:

  1. Extensive contracts, which include unlimited long-term nursing care at little or no increase in the monthly fee. This arrangement requires residents to pay a higher fee initially.
  2. Modified contracts, which include a specified duration of long-term nursing care, beyond which fees rise as care increases.
  3. Fee-for-service contracts, in which residents pay a reduced monthly fee but pay full daily rates for long-term nursing care.

CCRC contracts have evolved over time with new and confused variations within each fee schedule. For example, a CCRC might offer two different extensive contracts and one modified contract, with different levels of refundability for each. CCrcdata.org provides a national directory of CCRCs and general information regarding the amenities provided by a CCRC and the contract terms.  Many facilities now provide samples of the their contract and related documents on-line in PDF format. Care should be taken, however, to review not only the CCRC contracts but also the financial information and individual project data to determine whether or not the particular CCRC being reviewed is financially stable and likely to remain so over time.image2

CCRC Entry Requirements

Most CCRCs require that a resident be in good health, be able to live independently when entering the facility, and be within minimum and maximum age limits. As a prerequisite to admission, facilities may also require both Medicare Part A and Part B, and perhaps Medigap coverage as well. A few are now even requiring long-term care coverage as a way of keeping fees down. Some CCRCs are affiliated with a specific religious, ethnic or fraternal order and membership in these groups may be a requirement. Of course, applicants will have to demonstrate that they have the means to meet the required fees. The applicant may be placed on a waiting list, since CCRCs have, until relatively recently been highly sought after.

CCRC residents usually self-fund their residency and care out of their own pockets. As noted above, CCRCs are generally targeted toward seniors with middle to upper class means.  However, Medicare, and at times Medicaid, can be used to pay for certain services, and most CCRCs accept either Medicare or Medicaid. Although Medicare does not generally cover long-term nursing care, it often covers specific services that a CCRC resident might receive, such as physician services and hospitalization. Because the financial requirements for residence are fairly strict and the costs are relatively high, very few CCRC residents are eligible for Medicaid.

Recent Financial Challenges

According to a recent survey prepared by underwriter of financing for non-profit senior living providers, there were approximately 1850 CCRCs in the United States as of the end of 2009. Approximately 30% of CCRCs currently under development are for-profit status according to the survey. This represents a shift from the current norm of non-profit ownership of CCRCs. Profit and non profit projects alike, are developed utilizing complex financial instruments including municipal bonds, tiered financings, and oftimes complex management contracts between ongoing non-profit management companies controlled by the project developer. Moreover the CCRC “model” relies on the up front provision of large sums of money from each resident raising issues of financial management, disclosure and security of such deposits.

Due, in part, to the recent financial crises, the Erickson Retirement Communities, Inc. (the developer of the various ‘Erickson’ communities) was forced to reorganize in Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and its real estate and financial assets under management were acquired by in an auction. New capital was injected into the operations of all of the individual CCRCs by the successful bidder. Notwithstanding the financial concerns, occupancy rates and confidence in the individual Erickson communities (as well as other CCRCs nationally) has remained high.

The risk in the CCRC industry has led the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging to seek a Government Accountability Office investigation into CCRC operations and finances. Although the prospects for the industry remain positive, given importance to seniors of maintaining stability in their housing accommodations, a thorough review of a particular CCRCs financial position is an important component of counsel’s overall review of a CCRC project.

Despite their risks, CCRCs still hold widespread appeal. They promise to alleviate one of the biggest worries facing families with aging loved ones: how to secure, and in many cases pay for, future long-term care.

How To Evaluate A Facility And CCRC Contract

Deciding on a CCRC may be an once-in-a-lifetime choice, and it is a decision that should be made carefully and with the benefit of expert counsel. CCRC contracts are extremely complex and variable. An experienced elder law attorney’s assistance is, in my opinion, invaluable in selecting a community and reviewing its contract. Assistance from a certified financial planner may also be beneficial.

For your information, please download my own FREE CCRC Checklist For Clients.

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pposner_photoPhilip Posner, Esq. is a Massachusetts attorney with offices in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Phil practices primarily in land-use law. Phil can be reached at land.law@verizon.net or 781-224-1900.

 

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pic_INDEX58 Legislators Pushing Comprehensive Zoning Reform Bill

“Inclusionary Zoning” Provision May Expand Controversial 40B Law

With “Smart Growth” advocates strongly behind them, a cadre of Beacon Hill lawmakers are pushing a controversial bill that for the first time in 37 years would comprehensively overhaul state law governing municipal zoning, subdivision control, and planning. Proponents of the bill argue that stalled smart growth projects such as the new Assembly Square in Somerville (shown at right) would be beneficiaries of the new bill.

The bill, H.B. 1859 — unprecedented in its scope and reach — would change Massachusetts zoning and land use law as we know it. Approval not required (ANR) plans and current variance review standards would be gone, while “inclusionary zoning” (another potential iteration of the state’s conversional affordable housing 40B law) would be expanded along with the legality of “impact fees” — mandatory payments from developers to towns to mitigate development impacts.

The principal sponsor, Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Worthington Democrat unveiled the bill during an event this week at the Statehouse. Versions of this bill have been introduced before, but I have not seen so many legislators in support of the bill as before. Rep. Kulik said the goal is to pass the bill by the end of this year’s formal legislative session on July 31, 2013.

A summary of the bill is as follows:

  • Abolishes ANR plans, a law that allows subdivisions to be built with no planning board review or approval if the proposed homes front an existing road.
  • Allows a community to require only a simple majority vote to change a zoning law. Now, a two thirds vote at a town meeting is needed to change a zoning law.
  • Authorizes “inclusionary zoning,” which allows a community to require that a percentage of homes in a new development be affordable. In exchange, a developer could build more homes on a lot than permitted under zoning.
  • Allows a majority vote on a zoning or planning board in order to issue a special permit. Currently, it takes a two thirds vote to approve a special permit. The bill establishes a method for extending a special permit, which now can be issued for up to two years before it needs to be reprocessed.
  • Approves impact fees for a community to recoup some of the capital costs for private developments.
  • Creates an alternative process to resolve disputes among applicants, municipal officials and the public. Allows for a “neutral facilitator” to work through difficulties in a proposed development.
  • Overhauls the current law on issuing variances from zoning ordinances or bylaws. According to supporters of the bill, the current law is too restrictive for property owners and towns, tying the hands of members of zoning boards and preventing them from solving many simple problems for owners. The bill establishes reasonable procedures for variances while still maintaining a community’s ability to set conditions or reject a variance.
  • Creates the option of consolidated permitting for projects. Developers currently often need multiple permits from boards with different jurisdictions and requirements and reviews that sometimes take years to complete.
  • Rewrites a law that allows for master plans. The bill updates the elements of a master plan to include five requirements: goals and objectives, housing, natural resources and energy, land use and zoning and putting the plan into effect.
  • Allows local regulations to require dedicating up to 5 percent of subdivision land for park or playground use by residents.

In my opinion, some of the provisions are great ideas such as providing a consolidated “one-stop shopping” forum for all permitting in a town, reforming the variance standards, and providing a dispute resolution forum for local disputes. Other provisions will be much more controversial such as the inclusionary zoning and impact fees. This is a sweeping change in Massachusetts zoning and land use law, and I will be monitoring it closely. Thank you to Attorney Donald Pinto at the Massachusetts Land Use Monitor for alerting me to the bill.

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dive-warningLandlords Could Be Held Responsible for Tenant Paralyzed Jumping from Trampoline into Kiddie Pool

I don’t write a lot about premises liability in this blog, but this tragic case out of my hometown of Framingham may be a classic example of the saying that “hard cases make bad law.“ The Supreme Judicial Court has granted a new trial to a man paralyzed by jumping off a trampoline into a kiddie pool while playing with his small son. The case is Dos Santos v. Coleta (SJC – 11188). This is a case which will get all the tort-reformers screaming in protest, but it is evident that premises liability law in Massachusetts keeps on evolving and not in a good way for property owners.

The moral of this case for landlords and all homeowners is to not leave potentially dangerous contraptions in yards for tenants and kids to get injured on. Also, make sure you have liability insurance coverage for at least $1 Million, and look into getting an excess umbrella policy for up to $5 Million.

Summer Fun Goes Terribly Wrong

In the summer of 2005, Cleber Dos Santos lived with his wife and son in one unit of a two-family home in Framingham that he rented from the Coleta family. The landlords, who lived in the other unit, set up a trampoline immediately adjacent to an inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. The landlord disregarded warnings printed on the side of the pool cautioning against jumping or diving into the pool. He knew that setting up the trampoline next to the pool might be dangerous but thought it would be “fun.”

The landlords moved to South Carolina on July 31, but they maintained ownership of the home and continued to rent the other unit to Dos Santos and his family. The landlords left the pool and trampoline in the backyard and understood that both items would continue to be used by their friends and family.

On the evening of August 2, 2005, Dos Santos, who had never before used the trampoline, came home from work and decided to play with his son on the trampoline while his wife recorded a video of them to send to their extended family in Brazil. He decided to entertain his son by flipping into the pool. He severely underrotated the flip, entered the water headfirst, and struck his head on the bottom of the pool. As a result of the impact, Dos Santos sustained a burst fracture of his C-5 vertebrae, and is permanently paralyzed from the upper chest down. He has been hospitalized ever since with medical bills exceeding $700,000.

SJC Clarifies Open and Obvious Danger Rule

Perhaps not surprisingly, the jury rendered a defense verdict on the basis that Dos Santos’ backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool was an “open and obvious” danger. But the SJC found the trial judge’s jury instructions lacking, holding that even if the jury believed that the danger present was open and obvious, the jury should have considered whether the absentee landlord should have removed or remedied the dangerous trampoline/pool setup from the backyard.

Having established that the existence of an open and obvious danger will not necessarily relieve a landowner of all duties to lawful entrants with regard to that danger, we set out to answer the following principal question: where the duty to warn has been negated, in what circumstances will the duty to remedy nevertheless exist–or, in other words, in what circumstances “can and should a landowner anticipate that the dangerous condition will cause physical harm to the lawful entrant notwithstanding its known or obvious danger”?

In plain English, Judge Cordy is basically saying that performing a backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool may be stupid and dangerous, but it’s also just as stupid and dangerous for a landlord to leave the deadly contraption out in the backyard for anyone to get injured on.

The justices ordered a new trial in the case, so this tragic 8 year legal saga will continue on. (Also remember that it appears that the landlords are covered by a liability insurance policy, the amount of which is unknown).

In sum, the SJC has now shown that Massachusetts premises liability law continues to shift towards even greater responsibility and liability for rental property owners.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150Richard Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant attorney. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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539w-1.jpgRuling Calls Into Question Boston Ordinance Prohibiting 5 or More Students In One Unit

Those screams you are hearing now on Comm. Ave. aren’t the students. They are the landlords who are undoubtedly rejoicing upon news that the Supreme Judicial Court just issued a major ruling in how student rentals occupancy limits  – indeed all rentals — will be treated by housing inspectors and licensing authorities. This is an important decision which may have far-ranging implications across the state and not just to student housing.

The closely watched case is City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties (download link to case herewhere the SJC has held that renting to 4 or more students in one apartment unit of a two and three family home is not a “lodging house” requiring a special license under the Massachusetts lodging housing law, provided that the apartment meets all other sanitary and building code square footage occupancy thresholds. The state code requires 150 s.f. of living space for the first occupancy and 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space), and 70 s.f. of bedroom space for the 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom). This decision applies state-wide and to every type of rental housing, including multi-families, buildings and townhouses.

The timing of the ruling is interesting in light of the recent fatal fire involving an overcrowded student apartment house in Allston and Mayor Menino’s recent rental property registration and inspection rules.

Court’s Reasoning: Apartments ≠ Lodging Houses

For history buffs, the opinion is fun to read as it traces the Lodging House Law back to the days of brothels, houses of ill-repute and tenements. Using a common-sense analysis, Justice Lenk reasoned that lodging houses, which are essentially temporary rentals of rooms without such amenities as a separate kitchens and bathrooms, are quite different from the modern day apartment units with its more expensive amenities. The court ruled that if an apartment satisfies the state sanitary and building code provisions for the amount of living/sleeping space, utilities, egress, etc., then it would be not be deemed a lodging house despite the number of unrelated occupants.

City of Boston Undergrad Student Rule On the Chopping Block?

In the City of Boston, a new zoning ordinance went into effect in 2008 prohibiting 5 or more undergraduate students from living in one apartment unit. I think it’s a fair statement to say that the College Hill ruling effectively overrules this ordinance.

The other impact of this ruling is we should see an push for even more increased density in apartment rental housing which is exactly what Mayor Menino and the City of Boston doesn’t want.

More Press Coverage:  Banker & Tradesman, Boston Globe, Worcester Telegram

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Greater Boston landlord tenant attorney who represents rental property owners throughout Boston and Massachusetts. You can contact him at 508-620-5352 or at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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

Throw Me An Escrow Holdback Agreement!

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

Lender Approval Often Required

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

Builders Playing Hardball

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

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

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

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Case Highlights Importance of Rent Acceleration Clause In Commercial Leases

In a decision underscoring the importance of careful commercial lease drafting, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a commercial landlord must wait out a 12 year lease term to recover unpaid rent from a tenant who abandoned the premises in year 2 of the lease. We lawyers call this a Pyrrhic victory: “a victory offset by staggering losses.” The case is 275 Washington Street Corp. vs. Hudson River Int’l, LLC (SJC-11217). 

Practice Pointer: This case is an important reminder for all residential and commercial landlords to have their leases reviewed to ensure that they can recover all available lost rental damages. Contact me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com for a lease review.

Facts: Dental Practice Goes South Quickly

The landlord and tenant, a dental practice, entered into a 12-year lease beginning in 2006 for medical office space located at 221-227 Washington Street in downtown Boston. Barely a year later, the dental practice went under and closed. In May 2008, the dentist told the landlord that he would not be making any further lease payments.

Fortunately, the landlord found a new tenant. A new 10 year lease was signed, covering the remainder of the dentist’s term, but at a lower rent. The landlord sued the dentist for the rent differential — some $1 Million Dollars.

Standard Indemnification Clause

The lease contained a standard default indemnification clause found in many older standard lease forms:

The LESSEE shall indemnify the LESSOR against all loss of rent and other payments which the LESSOR may incur by reason of such termination during the residue of the term.  If the LESSEE shall default, after reasonable notice thereof, in the observance or performance of any conditions or covenant on LESSEE’s part to be observed or performed under or by virtue of any of the provisions in any article of this lease, the LESSOR, without being under any obligation to do so and without thereby waiving such default, may remedy such default for the account and at the expense of the LESSEE.

Common Law Rule: Put It In The Lease

The SJC pointed out long standing Massachusetts common law “where the contract is a commercial lease, our common law does not provide ‘benefit of the bargain’ damages in the event of termination of the lease following a breach. Once a landlord terminates a lease, the tenant is no longer obligated to pay the rent, and, unless the lease otherwise so provides, the landlord is not entitled to posttermination damages.” This may be contrary to common understanding, but it’s the reason why lawyers have developed rent acceleration and liquidated damages provisions for commercial leases.

Despite the urging of the Real Estate Bar Association, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief, the SJC saw no need to alter the harsh common law simply because this particular landlord’s lease failed to provide a proper rent acceleration clause. Justice Gants didn’t mince his words in cautioning commercial landlords to use proper lease provisions:

 A landlord left without an adequate remedy following breach of the lease by a tenant has only itself to blame for entering into a lease that fails to provide such a remedy. We shall not disrupt the settled expectations of leasing parties in order to protect a landlord from the consequences of failing to insist on an adequate remedy in the negotiation of a commercial lease. Nor shall we invite uncertainty as to the availability and scope of a landlord’s remedy for “benefit of the bargain” damages where the contours of such a remedy are not delineated in the lease but left to be determined under the common law.

Solution: Rent Acceleration/Liquidated Damages Clause

The lease in this case appears to be of an older variety and did not contain a rent acceleration/liquidated damage clause. Such a clause provides that upon a rent default, all unpaid rent is due through the end of the lease term as liquidated damages. All commercial leases should contain this type of rent acceleration clause, and I would also recommend a provision enabling the landlord to recoup the cost of expensive tenant build outs where a tenant has defaulted early in the lease term. Contact me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com for a lease review.

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

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