Policy Changes Make It Harder To Insure Foreclosed/REO Properties
In the aftermath of the Supreme Judicial Court’s July 17th ruling in Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Company, which voided a foreclosure over a defective notice of default, two leading title insurance companies — First American Title and Fidelity/Chicago — have announced that they will be significantly changing the manner in which they underwrite foreclosed properties. These new policies will make it much harder to insure foreclosed properties, and may dramatically affect the sale and marketability of foreclosed/REO/bank owned properties.
The most drastic change comes from First American, which has the largest market share in Massachusetts. Under FATICO’s new policy (embedded below), lenders must obtain a judicial decree that the foreclosure was conducted in compliance with the Pinti ruling. (This applies only to foreclosures conducted after July 17, 2015). Because Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state (i.e, lenders do not need a judge’s approval to foreclose except for confirmation that the borrower is not in the active military), getting court approval for a foreclosure will require either a Superior Court or Housing Court action and will be expensive, lengthy and burdensome for lenders.
Fidelity/Chicago’s new policy requires closing attorneys to “verify that any preforeclosure default notices were sent by the foreclosing Mortgagee on or before July 17 [and] verify that the attorney for the foreclosing Mortgagee has included a statement to that effect in a recorded Affidavit that is part of the foreclosure documentation.” Closing attorneys must also “determine that the mortgagors, or any parties claiming under them, are no longer in possession of the premises or otherwise asserting any rights.”
The question is whether the other title insurance companies will follow suit. As of this writing, Stewart, CATIC, Old Republic and Westcor have not adopted a new foreclosure underwriting policy. I will monitor if that changes.
Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties
These underwriting changes only underscore the importance of the Legislature passing the Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties, Senate Bill 1981. The bill would protect arm’s length third party purchasers for value, and those claiming under them, who purchase at the foreclosure sale or in a subsequent REO transaction. It is the result of years of negotiation, and represents an honest effort to balance the interests of third party purchasers with mortgagors who legitimately believe they have been wrongfully foreclosed upon. Lenders who have conducted defective foreclosures would remain liable to the mortgagors. This is the same bill that was passed by both branches of the legislature at the end of the legislative session last fall, but was sent back with poison pill amendments by Governor Patrick and died. The bill should be voted on by the Senate soon after Labor Day. If passed, it will be considered by the House shortly afterward.
Ruling Enables Foreclosed Owner to Live in Premises For Over 6 Years, Leaving New Owner with Defective Title
In a decision which could affect how title examiners and title insurance companies underwrite title to foreclosed properties, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a lender’s defective notice of default is grounds to void and nullify a foreclosure sale — even after the property was purchased at auction by a third party without knowledge of the problem. The decision is Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co. Inc. (SJC-July 17, 2015).
The defective aspect of the default notice was relatively minor. The notice was required to say that the borrower had the right to bring “a court action” to challenge the default or foreclosure. The actual notice instead referenced a “lawsuit for foreclosure and sale.” The problem is that in Massachusetts there is really no such thing as a lawsuit for foreclosure, because we are a non-judicial foreclosure state. In order to challenge a foreclosure, a borrower must bring an injunction proceeding in Superior Court. Over this minor discrepancy, the Court throw out a 3 year old foreclosure, leaving the subsequent buyer with defective title.
“This ruling is yet another reason why it’s absolutely critical to obtain owner’s title insurance for any home purchase–especially a foreclosure property.”
This ruling had a disastrous impact on the foreclosing lender and the buyer of the property at foreclosure (and his title insurance company, presumably). The borrower, who was represented by Greater Boston Legal Services, stopped paying her mortgage six years ago in 2009, and the lender foreclosed in 2012. A third party purchased the property (with the borrower in occupancy) shortly thereafter, then commenced eviction proceedings. It appears that the borrower has been able to live in the premises for the entirety of the litigation, presumably mortgage payment free. After this ruling, the lender will need to re-start foreclosure proceedings from square one.
Change In Title Exam Practices?
In a typical title examination involving a previously foreclosed property, the examiner and attorney will only look at the foreclosure notices and “green cards” — the certified mail foreclosure notices. In light of this ruling, the examiner may be required to look back even further to the default notices sent by the lender (which are not recorded with the registry of deeds) and ensure compliance with the mortgage and loan documents. Attorneys should consult their title companies for guidance on this ruling. (The ruling’s effect is prospective only; a title insurance company that I work with has already stated that they will not be changing their underwriting standards after Pinti).
Effect On Foreclosures
The SJC’s reasoning for requiring strict compliance with the default notice provisions in the mortgage was based on the fact that Massachusetts uses a non-judicial foreclosure process. That is, lenders do not need a judge’s approval to start foreclosure (with the except that they need Land Court approval that the borrower is not in the armed services). Accordingly, even the most hyper-technical defect in a default notice by the lender could render a foreclosure void.
Following a long series of pro-borrower rulings starting with the historic U.S. v. Ibanez decision, the SJC’s decision in this case is yet another cautionary tale to lenders that they must dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s” before conducting a valid foreclosure sale.
Major Change To Current Practices | Expect Delays and Bumpy Road Starting Oct. 3
I just finished yet another closing where a national lender issued the closing documents the morning of the closing, and worse, issued a revised TIL (Truth in Lending) disclosure during the middle of the closing! Under the new TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure Rules (TRID) set to start on October 3, this too-common practice would have resulted in a closing delay of up to 7 days, to the dismay of everyone in the transaction.
The new TRID rules are game-changing regulations which threaten to disrupt and delay closings across the country. The new rules, already pushed back once due to industry outcry, go into effect in about 60 days on Oct. 3. I am very worried that lenders, Realtors and closing attorneys are not at all prepared for one of the most significant changes in how we do business. Experts are predicting that closings will be delayed, 60 day loan approvals will be the new normal, and new forms will bewilder buyers. “Expect a one- to two-week delay in closings,” said Ken Trepeta, director of real estate services of the government affairs branch for the National Association of Realtors, when describing the impact of TRID.
Currently, we are finishing one of the strongest spring markets in a decade, but I’m quite concerned that come Fall, the new TRID rules will put the fall market into an ice bath. The best thing that every real estate professional can do is get educated and get prepared now for these changes. August is typically a slow month, so use it to get ready. My team will be doing a roadshow Powerpoint seminar to any local real estate office to explain the new changes. Contact me at email@example.com for more info.
New Closing Disclosure Replacing the HUD-1 Settlement Statement: 3 Day Rule
Under TRID, there will be a new settlement statement called a Closing Disclosure, which must be issued to the borrower at least 3 days prior to closing. If that does not occur, the closing will be delayed for up to 7 days. We are hearing that lenders will require that the information contained in the Closing Disclosure (all fees, closing costs, taxes, insurance, escrows, credits, etc.) be finalized as early as 20 days prior to closing, to give them enough time to generate the new Closing Disclosure in a timely fashion and to account for delays.
What does that mean for us professionals? It means that everything will need to be pushed up and done faster than before. That goes for titles, CPL’s, broker commission statements, invoices for repairs, insurance binders, condo fees, recording fees, title insurance, everything. And it means we can all expect delays as everyone adjusts to the new timetables and rules.
Lenders will require the new Closing Disclosure (embedded below) be signed by the borrower at closing. However, although the Closing Disclosure was intended to replace the current HUD-1 Settlement Statement, the geniuses at CPFB neglected to put a signature line for the sellers on the new Closing Disclosure. I’m not making this up. And we are no longer supposed to use the “old” HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Thus, our title insurance companies are telling us that there may be three settlement statements signed at closing: a Closing Disclosure for the buyer, a Closing Disclosure for the seller, and a combined Closing Disclosure. ALTA has created a new Combined Settlement Statement which can be found here.
Bank of America was asked whether it would require the use of the ALTA model forms, and it stated in a June 9 memo that it prefers the ALTA model if a closing attorney chooses to use a settlement statement to supplement the Closing Disclosure (CD), but specified that the settlement statement figures must reconcile to the CD and a copy of the settlement statement must be provided to the bank. The bank also stated that all revisions to fees and costs will require bank approval and an amended CD. In other words, closing attorneys will not be allowed to revise fees and costs by simply supplementing the CD with a settlement statement.
60 Day Approvals/Closings The New Normal?
With any historic change to how lenders disclose fees and approve loans, there’s going to be a steep learning curve — and delays. You can count on that. Industry insiders say the days of 30 and even 45 day loan approvals may be over, at least temporarily. Sixty (60) day approvals may be the new normal, and agents should build the longer timeframe into their offers and purchase and sale agreements and educate their buyers and sellers accordingly.
Repairs and Walk-Throughs
Since lenders will require all fees and credits finalized 7-10 days prior to closing, this will significantly impact how we handle repairs and credits. Agreed upon repairs also affect how the appraisal is conducted which will further impact the timelines. Experts are suggesting that Realtors consider doing walk-throughs at least 14-21 days prior to closing instead of the typical day before or day of walkthrough, because all repair issues and credits should be set in stone at least 7-10 days prior to closing and changes in fees and credits on the day of closing will not be permitted by the lender. Some experts are even saying that agents should do two walkthroughs, one within the TRID timelines and one immediately prior to closing. Also, under TRID paid outside closing (POC) items will be discouraged by lenders.
Take-away: Realtors should be warned that repairs contained in the purchase and sale agreement will have the potential to delay closings under the TRID rules. Ensure that any repairs are completed 14-21 days prior to closing. Better yet, don’t have the seller make repairs at all; use closing cost credits instead.
No More Back to Back Closings?
Due to the high potential for delays caused by TRID, back-to-back or piggyback closings may be a thing of the past, at least for now. A delay with a closing obviously has a domino effect on a back to back closing. The best practice, at least for the first few months of the new TRID era, is to schedule closings at least 3 days apart. Seller/buyers will have to prepare for this reality with bridge loans, use and occupancy agreements, or temporarily staying with your nearest relatives.
Partner with Trusted and Verified Providers
Now more than ever, Realtors are going to want to partner with lenders and closing attorneys who have been vetted and verified as fully compliant with the TRID rules, so there will be minimal disruption and delay on their transactions. Realtors and loan officers should ask their closing attorneys whether they are compliant with the ALTA (American Land Title Association) Best Practices, which is quickly becoming the standard for TRID compliance. Under the ALTA Best Practices, the attorney will have passed an intensive initial due-diligence screening, a third-party internal audit, background and credit check, extensive review of applicant’s experience, business model and policy loss history, and licensing verification. The closing attorney should also have secure document encryption capabilities and privacy/technology policies in place. My office has been vetted and verified by Stewart Title which has a comprehensive website on the TRID rules. If your buyer wants to use his personal attorney who does not specialize in real estate, explain to him or her why that is a mistake which could ultimately delay the closing.
Bumpy Road Ahead?
In my opinion, the TRID rules are the biggest change to the industry in 20 years, and will be much more difficult to implement than the new GFE and 3 page HUD of several years ago. As discussed above, my team will be doing a roadshow Powerpoint seminar to any local real estate office to explain the new changes. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your complementary seminar.
What is disparate impact theory you ask? Good question. In a disparate-impact claim, someone who alleges housing discrimination may establish liability, without proof of intentional discrimination, if an identified rental practice has a disproportionate effect on certain groups of individuals (i.e, minorities) and if the practice is not grounded in sound business considerations. Ok, now what does that mean in plain English?
Here’s an example. Let’s say you own several apartment buildings, and an upset tenant says that based on statistics for the last 5 years, you have evicted 75% more black tenants than white tenants, while the rate of nonpayment between racial classes have remain about the same. That’s a disparate impact claim. Surprising to most folks is that under a disparate impact theory, the claimant need not show some type of “smoking gun” evidence of direct racial discrimination, like something Donald Sterling would say, such as “we don’t like to rent to black folks.” If the claimant can back up his theory with statistical evidence, then he or she will have their day in court.
While accepting disparate impact as a viable Fair Housing claim, the Supreme Court imposed important limitations on the application of the theory “to protect potential defendants against abusive disparate-impact claims.” In particular, the Court held that a racial imbalance, without more, cannot sustain a claim, and directed lower courts to “examine with care” the claims at the pleadings stage. The Court emphasized the plaintiff’s burden to establish a “robust” causal connection between the challenged practice and the alleged disparities. Further, a defendant’s justification is “not contrary to the disparate-impact requirement, unless … artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary.” Finally, “remedial orders” must “concentrate on the elimination of the offending practice” through “race-neutral means.”
Despite the limitation, this is a big win for fair housing advocates. Sec. 8 tenants, the MCAD and EEOC will have another powerful legal theory to use to crack down on discrimiminatory rental practices. Moreover, in the wake of the ruling, HUD just announced its the long-awaited Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which will provide maps and data on historic segregation that cities will need to use to assess their progress in reducing segregation, increasing housing choice and promoting inclusivity.
The lesson to take back from this ruling is to ensure you have policies in place to treat every applicant and tenant the same way across the board. The existence of written procedures, policies and manuals are helpful in defense of these types of claims. Saying you follow “Equal Housing Opportunity” is one thing; you have do actually do it.
CFPB Responds To Industry and Consumer Concerns On New Compliance Rules
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced on Wednesday a proposal to delay the effective date of the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure rule until Oct. 1. The rules were originally set to go into effect on Aug 1.
These new forms consolidate the TILA-RESPA and HUD-1 forms and are meant to give consumers more time to review the total costs of their mortgage. Of particular concern to the mortgage industry is the new rule’s requirement that the Closing Disclosure (new HUD-1) is due to borrowers three days before closing. These rules have thrown the mortgage industry into a frenzy as they try to comply by the deadline, and threatened to delay closings during the busy fall real estate market.
CFPB Director Richard Cordray said that “we further believe that the additional time included in the proposed effective date would better accommodate the interests of the many consumers and providers whose families will be busy with the transition to the new school year at that time.”
By-Pass Housing Court For Expedited Superior Court Restraining Order Procedure
I recently handled an interesting case involving an unauthorized family member taking up residence in my client’s rental unit. My client, a doctor, owns a very nice condo unit in the Theatre District in Boston. He and his family live next door in the adjacent unit. The client signed a one year lease with a wealthy foreign national from Jordan, a middle aged lady. Per the lease, the tenant was the only authorized occupant for this 1BR unit. There was no discussion about family members being authorized occupants, and my client would not have agreed to it.
My client comes to find out that the tenant’s 20-something year old son, who attends a local college, has taken up residence in the unit. To make matters worse, the kid hosts several loud late night parties reeking of marijuana and cigarette smoke. My client is incensed, and to add insult to injury, he is fined several thousand dollars for noise and lease violations by the condo association. My client attempts to take action against tenant and son, but they hire a well known tenant’s rights attorney who stonewalls the two attorneys hired by the client. The client finally hires me.
Typically, this type of case would be filed as a standard eviction case in busy pro-tenant Boston Housing Court. The tenant’s attorney is also well known there. Accordingly, I needed to find a way to bypass Housing Court and take away this lawyer’s home court advantage.
So I came up with an creative approach. I filed a restraining order application in Superior Court to remove the son as an illegal trespasser. Although Superior Court typically handles major civil cases, it does share jurisdiction with the Housing Court over trespass cases requesting equitable relief. I served the interloper with a formal trespass notice, then filed the Superior Court application a few days later. The judge granted the move out order, after which my client and I had the pleasure of taking a victory walk down Tremont Street to serve the move out order. We were able to have the management company immediately change the locks and remove all the kid’s possessions. He is now permanently barred from entering the building. And the best part was that he left his wallet and passport in the unit! My client is now preparing the unit for rent to a better tenant.
SJC Issues Long Awaited Ruling That Agents Can Be Classified as Both Independent Contractors and Employees, But Leaves Questions
The Supreme Judicial Court has just released its long awaited opinion in Monell, et al. v. Boston Pads, LLC, (link here), ruling that Massachusetts real estate and rental agents can remain classified as independent contractors under the state’s real estate licensing and independent contractor law. The ruling keeps the traditional commission-only independent contractor brokerage office model in place, with brokers allowed to classify agents as 1099 independent contractors, without facing liability for not paying them salary, overtime or providing employee benefits. A collective deep breath should be heard throughout the entire Mass. real estate industry this morning.
Although the ruling determined that real estate agents are exempted from Massachusetts’s independent contractor law, the Court left open whether future plaintiff employees could build a case on other legal theories, and the Court deferred to the Legislature to enact a bill to address any murkiness which remains with the law.
Despite the question left behind by the justices, Gregory Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board told Banker and Tradesman said that, “We’re pleased with the outcome.” “It preserves the right of choice for our members. It doesn’t change the industry, it doesn’t change the status quo. It’s pretty clear you can have both independent contractors and employees.”
Corrine Fitzgerald, 2015 president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and broker-owner of Fitzgerald Real Estate in Greenfield, agreed, calling it a “good decision.”
Rental Agents Sue Jacob Realty For Overtime Wages
This lawsuit was brought by a group of disgruntled rental agents at Jacob Realty seeking to recoup lost overtime and minimum wages. 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, however, 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 — requirements typically reserved for employees, not independent contractors.
Court Holds That Agents Can Be Classified Either as Independent Contractors or Employees
The SJC was tasked with balancing the independent contractor laws and the real estate licensing law — which in many critical aspects the Legislature left directly in conflict with each other. Justice Hines, writing for the Court, noted the difficulty in construing the two laws, stating that “the real estate licensing statute makes it impossible for a real estate salesperson to satisfy the three factors required to achieve independent contractor status, all of which must be satisfied to defeat the presumption of employee status.”
The Court ultimately concluded that a real estate agent could be classified as either an independent contractor or an employee, but that the agents at Jacob Realty were unable to demonstrate they were employees in this particular case. The Court, however left open for another case the ultimate questions as to whether all real estate agents should be classified as independent contractors. The justices said that “in light of the potential impact of that issue on the real estate industry as a whole and its significant ramifications for real estate salespersons’ access to the rights and benefits of employment, we think it prudent to leave that issue’s resolution to another day, when it has been fully briefed and argued. Should the Legislature be so inclined, it may wish to clarify how a real estate salesperson may gain employee status under the real estate licensing statute.”
This ruling is somewhat frustrating. The SJC punted on the major question that everyone in the industry has been waiting on for a year now. I love when that happens (insert sarcasm here). Whether the Legislature takes up this issue remains to be seen. In the meantime, brokers and office managers can sleep a little better tonight knowing that the chances they will be sued over employee classification has gone down considerably, but they still may be awoken someday with a nightmare in the hands of a creative plaintiff’s wage and hour attorney.
Court Halts Eviction For Distressed Homeowner, Validity of Foreclosure In Question (Wells Fargo v. Cook, Mass. Appeals Court May 19, 2015)
In response to the foreclosure crisis, HUD enacted regulations requiring lenders to provide distressed borrowers with a meaningful opportunity to settle their FHA-insured mortgages and obtain a loan modification during a face-to-face interview. In an effort to accommodate the hundreds of Wells Fargo clients facing foreclosure in Massachusetts, the San Francisco based lender held a mass “homeowner’s workshop” at Gillette Stadium in August 2008.
Three months behind on their Mattapan mortgage, Nancy Cook and her daughter showed up to the stadium with a little over $10,000 in cash, in anticipation of signing a repayment plan. After waiting in a long line, Cook received a ticket and sat down with a bank representative. Despite HUD guidelines requiring that loan representative have actual authority to settle accounts and enter repayment plans, the Wells Fargo representative said that he was unable to accept any payments at the event. The counseling session lasted only 15 minutes, but the reprepresentative promised that Ms. Cook would receive a loan modification package in the mail.
Ms. Cook did receive a Special Forbearance Agreement in the mail, which she accepted, and made the first three payments under the agreement. When she went to make the fourth payment, Wells Fargo rejected it, claiming that Cook owed it $2000 more than the scheduled payment. Wells Fargo then issued a default notice, accelerated Cook’s debt, and foreclosed her home.
Several years after completing the foreclosure sale, Wells Fargo brought an eviction case against Cook and her daughter, who at this time were represented by lawyers from Harvard University Legal Aid. (The reason for the long delay is unclear). Boston Housing Court judge Marylou Muirhead ruled against Cook, clearing the way for her eviction.
On appeal, Appeals Court Justice Scott Kafker halted Cook’s eviction, ruling that the Housing Court judge should reconsider whether the Gillette Stadium mass counseling event complied with HUD guidelines. Justice Kafker noted that a reoccurring theme of the HUD rules is to provide personalized consideration for each homeowner. That apparently was not done, said the justice, or at least there is a dispute as to whether the mass Gillette Stadium event could satisfy that guideline.
Of particularly interest to the real estate conveyancing community, the Court held that if the lower court ultimately rules that the counseling session was insufficient, the lender could be found in noncompliance with the mortgage terms and foreclosure power of sale, and its foreclosure could be deemed defective and invalid. A court holding to this effect could potentially invalidate completed foreclosures of FHA insured mortgages over whether the lenders complied with the face-to-face meeting requirements of the HUD guidelines. Ensuring a lender’s compliance with HUD rules is not typically part of a title examiner’s scope of examination. Lenders would need to provide an affidavit certifying that all pre-foreclosure counseling requirements were complied with. Accordingly, this is yet another reason why obtaining an owner’s title insurance policy is a prudent choice for all buyers of foreclosed properties.
I am honored to be one of four fantastic speakers at the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association (MRHA) Annual Meeting and Conference on Saturday, May 30, 9AM-1PM at the Embassy Suites, 550 Winter Street, Waltham, MA.
My presentation will be “War Stories from the Eviction Court Trenches.” I will retell some colorful stories from my career handling over 5,000 evictions throughout the Commonwealth, as well as talk about my thoughts for fixing the system going forward.
We have all heard of the large penalties inflicted upon unsuspecting landlords who are not aware of fair housing laws, protected classes of people and discrimination red flags. Ms. Williamson is a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination(MCAD) and her presentation is not to be missed.
Marcus Papajohn, Financial Planner, www.MarcusPapajohn.com, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Estate Planning for Landlords
How do you plan your estate of income properties? Whether your properties total $200,000 or $2,000,000, whether you are 25 years old or 52 years old or 82 years old, whether you have children or not, you are wise to have an estate plan. Mr. Papajohn is a financial planner who has worked with MRHA for many years.
Mark Leger, MRHA Legislative Chair
Do you charge late fees? Have you had the “free rent” trick played on you? If “survivors of domestic abuse” become a protected class, will you be able to evict them? Mr. Leger explains landlord bills before the Massachusetts legislature that will effect the way you conduct your rental property business.
State House Hearing Set For May 12, 1pm, Joint Committee for Judiciary Hearing Room A-2
For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. The free rent trick works like this: Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.
Even the liberal Boston Globe recently published a compelling piece on how the Massachusetts legal system unfairly penalizes small landlords in these situations.
Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.
Bill Would Level Playing Field Between Small Landlords and Tenants
Hopefully, this will finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Three bills will be discussed, H.B. 1654, H.B. 1663 and H.B. 1664. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.
A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.
The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’ fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.
Like Superman, A Use and Occupancy Agreement Can Save the Day, But Be Aware of the Risks!
Tom and Mary Ryan, and their two little kids, Abigail and Jake, are relocating from California to the Boston area so Tom can take a job with a local tech company in Burlington. They have already sold their California home, and have been living in a cramped rented condominium in Santa Monica for two months already. Their loan has hit some snags because Tom was out of work for half of 2013, and had some IRS issues, although he is on solid footing now with his new job. The closing is scheduled for the end of this week and they have their cross country movers booked and scheduled and their life is now packed in boxes. Just when they finish packing their last box, their loan officer calls with somber news. “Tom, unfortunately, our underwriting department is dealing with delays getting your tax transcripts from the IRS. We are going to have to push back the closing for about a week. I’m so sorry.” Canceling the movers will cost several thousand dollars, and they will have to cancel furniture shipments as well. To make matters worse, new tenants are supposed to move into Tom’s rented condo unit right after they leave.
While all characters appearing in this work are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, Tom and Mary are in trouble. With the prevalence of back-to-back closings and unforeseen underwriting issues and title defects, these situations are not uncommon. And with new TRID closing disclosure rules coming online in August, which are bound to cause even more loan approval delays, we may be seeing more of these situations in the months to come.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this situation. The sellers are willing to let the Tom, Mary and family move into the home prior to the closing under a Use and Occupancy Agreement. This will enable the buyers to complete their move, move into the house, but before the actual closing. A use and occupancy agreement, however, is not without its risks and downside, which I will discuss below.
One of the most important aspects of a Use and Occupancy Agreement is what it is versus what it is not. The agreement should specify that it creates a mere license to occupy the premises, not a tenancy or a landlord-tenant relationship. This will make it easier to remove/evict the occupants if something goes wrong. In any event, if the sellers are forced to remove the occupants, they will still have to resort to judicial eviction proceedings, which in Massachusetts can potentially take several months. This alone is the biggest drawback of a Use and Occupancy Agreement. The seller should always put language in the agreement that the buyers will be responsible for all attorneys’ fees and costs in case of an eviction.
The parties have to agree on a rental rate, typically based on the fair market rent for the premises or the mortgage and carrying costs. Websites such as www.rentometer.com can give you an idea of what a fair rental rate should be. Your Realtor should give you guidance as well. The rent should be divided by 30 for a per diem basis. You can also charge penalty rent if the term is extended past the original deadline.
The sellers should also include general indemnification language providing that “during the period of occupancy, Buyers shall maintain the Premises in good, clean condition and shall not make nor suffer any strip or waste to the Premises, nor make nor suffer any unlawful or improper use of the Premises and Buyers agree to indemnify Sellers and save them harmless from all liability, loss or any damage arising from such additions, alterations, strip, waste or unlawful or improper use, any nuisance made or suffered on the Premises by Buyers, including their family, friends, relatives, invitees, visitors, agents, or servants, or from any carelessness, negligence or improper conduct of any person.”
Lastly, the buyers should do their pre-closing walk through before they move in under a Use and Occupancy, because once they move in, the home will be a mess for awhile. That way, everyone will be on the same page as far as the property condition goes on the date of move in.
Many attorneys advise clients never to agree to Use and Occupancy Agreements. I am not one of those attorneys. With any risk, it depends on the situation. The sellers need to be comfortable that any delays will be resolved favorably and quickly. Sellers also need to appreciate that despite any language in the agreement, it could take months to remove an occupant if things so south. As long as everyone understands the risks, a Use and Occupancy Agreement can be a life saver.
Real estate professionals, you are cordially invited to a fabulous night of pampering at Metrowest’s hottest style salon, Beauty Parlr! Attendees will enjoy complimentary blow-outs by professional hair stylists, including Moroccan oil treatment, head massage and your choice of style.
Date: April 30, 2015 Time: 4pm-7pm Venue: Beauty Parlr, 1 Watson Place, Building 3 Floor 3, Framingham, MA 01701
Wine, cosmos, cheese and nibbles will be provided, along with the latest in jewelry fashions for spring and summer. This event has limited space, so please RSVP to email@example.com.
Due to limited space, you must reserve a blow-out appointment in advance: Please call Beauty PaRLR at 508-202-9538 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Limited space available, first come first serve basis.
A professional photographer will also be available for head shots (additional fee).
“In just five years as a rental, the other [unit] — which has hardwood floors, granite countertops, and a $1,200 dishwasher — has been a nightmare, with tenants who bounced checks, didn’t pay their rent, and threatened to call the building inspector over, among other things, a loose toilet seat, a missing outlet cover, and, I’m not kidding, a bedroom that is allegedly 0.389 of an inch too small. The tenant who detailed these horrific, slum-like conditions also threatened to take me to court over some food that had spoiled when the refrigerator broke — which is what prompted the intimidation tactics in the first place.”
As landlord groups have been arguing for years, one of the major problems with the current system is that Massachusetts has no rent escrow law. Under the present system, a tenant can withhold months of rent for any cosmetic or minor problem with the unit until the eviction case is resolved, leaving the landlord unable to pay their mortgage. We call that the “free rent trick.” As Ms. Gerhman correctly points out, “with an average judgment of about three months’ rent, this can be a real hardship for house-poor landlords. And once a landlord does evict a tenant who owes back rent, he or she must pay to move the tenant’s belongings out of the apartment in addition to three months’ storage costs.” As I was quoted in the article, many landlords opt for “cash for keys” deals to avoid huge losses during an eviction.
A rent escrow law would require any tenant who withholds rent to simply pay it into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired and the eviction case is resolved. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. The “free rent trick” would be gone and landlords less likely to get left holding the money bag.
Sounds fair? Tell that to your state legislators who have been sitting on rent escrow bills for over a decade.
New rent escrow bills return to the Legislature this session as House Bill 1654 sponsored by Rep. Chris Walsh and House Bill 1112 sponsored by Rep. Brad Jones. Both bills are expected to get hearings at the State House this spring. I will keep you posted.
Personally, I think a fair legislative compromise would be for landlord groups to support the Housing Court Expansion bill under the condition that a Rent Escrow Bill is passed along with it. That would be a win-win for both sides.
In the meantime, please email and call your local state rep and senator and tell him or her you are in favor of these bills. If you have any tenant horror stories, make sure you include those as well. Also, consider joining your local chapter of the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association or Masslandlords.net. Both organizations will be coordinating legislative efforts on the rent escrow bill and other landlord legislation. Lastly, please share this article and the Globe Magazine article on your Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and email blasts!
Abate v. Fremont Investment & Loan: High Court Rules That “Try Title” Procedure Only Available After Foreclosure Auction Completed
After Deutsche Bank foreclosed his Newton home, Thomas Abate brought a lawsuit in the Land Court challenging the foreclosure under the “try title” procedure under General Laws chapter 240, sections 1-5. Seeking to invalidate the foreclosure, Mr. Abate utilized the popular defense of attacking the assignment of his mortgage from MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) to Deutsche Bank. After several months of legal wrangling in the Land Court, Judge Robert Foster dismissed Abate’s challenges to the MERS assignment, and dismissed his try title claim. Abate then appealed to the SJC.
Prior to the SJC’s ruling, there was confusion in the foreclosure setting regarding the proper method to determine whether the property owner had legal standing to bring a try title case and whether the owner must bring the case before or after the foreclosure. Putting the proverbial nail in this particular foreclosure defense coffin, the SJC held that a borrower can only use the try title procedure after a foreclosure has been concluded, not before. The Court also ruled that lenders can seek to test borrowers’ legal theories and dismiss these claims very early in the proceeding on a motion to dismiss. The net result is a blow to foreclosure challengers — borrowers must wait until after a foreclosure is completed to bring a lawsuit; and it will be easier for lenders to dismiss claims challenging mortgage assignments and the foreclosures based on such assignments.
I asked preeminant foreclosure defense Attorney Glenn Russell for his thoughts on the ruling, and he said this:
Well from a homeowner’s perspective I have to say that I was hoping for a different outcome, however it’s not all bad. Bottom line, borrowers cannot use try title unless the auction happened, or they can make argument that there never was a legally valid mortgage, or one is trying to enforce a void mortgage, or one that has been discharged. The key thing is that a homeowner cannot bring a try title claim (standing under the “first step” of the try title action), unless the mortgage is foreclosed.
So after several key rulings in favor of foreclosure victims in the earlier part of the decade such as the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, the SJC has issued several pro-lender decisions of recent vintage. Is this a sign of foreclosure fatigue or are the justices merely following the law? Maybe a bit of both…
With the economy improving as well, the net effect is likely to be less foreclosures and less legal challenges to them — which will only continue to boost an improving housing market.
Attorney General’s Office Accused of Smearing Local Landlords In Press
A Craigslist rental ad posted online for merely 8 days turned into a complete nightmare for a Melrose father and son who claim that Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office ran roughshod over their rights and tried to smear their reputations in the local newspapers. After a five year legal saga, the landlords, Nicholas Keramaris (pictured right) and George Keramaris, fought back and won, convincing the Appeals Court to overturn a $38,000 civil penalty and attorneys’ fees assessed against them.
“Apartment Is Not De-Leaded”
The Keramaris family trust owns a 20 unit apartment building in Melrose. All of the units originally contained lead paint, and five of the apartments have been deleaded. One of the leaded units became available for rent, and Nicholas Keramaris, who is also an attorney, researched the lead paint laws prior to posting an advertisement on Craigslist stating “Note that this apartment is not de-leaded, and therefore it cannot be rented to families with children under six years old.”
A Melrose mother, who did not have a child under six and who did not attempt to rent the advertised apartment, filed a complaint with the MCAD about the ad. (This could have been a dummy renter employed to find fair housing violations). Once the landlords were notified of the complaint, they took the ad off Craigslist. It ran for a grand total of 8 days.
AG’s Office Steps In
Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office then stepped in and filed a civil action for discriminatory rental practices, seeking penalties and damages under the state Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. According to the Keramaris family, “from the day that the Assistant Attorney General assumed responsibility over the case, he insisted on collection of steep penalties as a condition for settlement. Also, the Attorney General’s office publicly smeared us through repeated press releases while the case was pending. Our request for the Attorney General’s office to stop issuing negative press releases was described as a “non-starter” for settlement negotiations. Therefore, this very simple case, which involved a relatively benign violation, dragged on for almost five years.”
Award Struck Down
Despite the fact that the ad ran for only 8 days and no one was actually harmed, the Attorney General was able to persuade a Superior Court judge to assess an aware of nearly $38,000 in penalties and attorneys’ fees. Unwilling to accept this unjust result, the Keramaris family appealed and got the justice they deserved.
Employing some well needed common sense, the three judge appellate panel concluded that although the ad technically violated the lead paint discrimination statute, any harm done was minimal and did not rise to the egregious level of a Consumer Protection Act violation. In a rare ruling, the judges ruled that the lower court abused its discretion, finding that this was nothing but a good faith mistake by landlords who were not intentionally setting out to violate the law. The Appeals Court ultimately stuck down the entire award, leaving the Keramaris family with justice, albeit after 5 long years and I’m sure thousands in legal fees.
Where’s the Discretion?
I have handled numerous rental discrimination cases involving the Attorney General’s Office. The one thing I can say is that they often have a very one sided view of cases and suffer from tunnel vision. They also hardly ever exercise their discretion to back down. It’s usually all or nothing. I would like to see them try to see both sides of the coin in future cases and be more open to negotiated settlements. Maybe this ruling will encourage that. I won’t hold my breath though.
And lastly, I’m curious if the Attorney General will issue a press release announcing that the Appeals Court overturned this award? I doubt it.
I was delighted to talk about recent legal issues surrounding home improvement contractors, including my best tips on selecting a contractor, on the Real Estate Radio Boston show hosted by Mortgage Banker Rick Scherer and Attorney Ali Alavi. Just click the Play button below to listen!
Tune into the show every Saturday night from 8pm-9pm on WBZ 1030 AM. They also have podcasts on the link above. It’s a fantastic show with very knowledgeable guests, and of course, great hosts in Rick and Ali.
This Saturday night it’s “Can’t Miss Radio” with Stan Humphries, the Chief Economist for Zillow. Tune in Saturday night 8pm on WBZ AM 1030.
We are less than a week away from March, which usually signals the beginning of the frenzied spring real estate market in Massachusetts. However, unless you’ve been hibernating with the bears up in Maine, there’s a slight problem. We have snow. Lots. Of. Darn. Snow. The winter has wrecked havoc with everything, and that includes the real estate market.
Boston Magazine is bullish on the spring market, but what do the real experts think? I put the questions to my network of experienced local Realtors and mortgage professionals. I asked them if the snow will push back the traditional start of the spring market? What are inventory levels in your area? Do you have sellers waiting for better weather before they list? Are buyers waiting or are they trudging thru the snow to view listings? Do your see the spring as a buyer or seller market? Loan officers, where do you see rates and products this spring?
Here’s what they said, and don’t forget to clink their websites for more info.
“I’m seeing a very sluggish start to 2015. Snow, cold temps, ice dams and the general malaise that’s set in on our region are all factors. I hear buyers are getting preapprovals and a few select properties have received multiple offers. But, overall it’s been slow and until sellers get houses prepped for market the buyers will wait on the sidelines.” — Ali Corton, Realty Executives Boston West, Framingham
“Inventory is definitely down here in Cambridge & Somerville — today we have just 31 active singles/condos/multis in Cambridge, compared with 46 last year on 2/26. In Somerville, we have 27 active listings today, compared with 40 last year. Granted, even those 2014 figures are really pathetic, as we’ve been dealing with extremely low inventory for the past several years, but this year is an extreme case. Funny thing is, those agents who are putting their sellers’ homes on the market are seeing plenty of traffic at open houses and showings, receiving multiple offers, and getting record-high prices, so I don’t know why anyone is hesitating to list.” — Lara Gordon, Coldwell Banker, Cambridge/Somerville
“The market in Sudbury is certainly slower than a typical winter market, but there are plenty of buyers hoping to take advantage of low rates and opportunities with motivated sellers. Like with any market, homes in popular price points that are prepared and priced right, are selling quickly and in some cases, resulting in multiple offers. Buyers aren’t as hesitant to go through the process now as Sellers are. Sellers are hesitant for many reasons, lack of curb appeal – which in many cases, great curb appeal adds value to the house, the thought of buyers trudging through their houses with snow on shoes (even though it’s always requested to remove shoes), ice dam damage, the thought of moving when the desire to hibernate is much more appealing and last but certainly not least, the liability involved in having a house on the market when snow/ice/icicles can potentially cause harm can be scary for homeowners. The Spring market should be strong, with plenty of pent up demand and after the winter of ’15, more city buyers looking for a beautiful garage with a nice house attached!” — Gabrielle and Carole Daniels, Coldwell Banker Sudbury
“Definitely slower right now than usual. The market reports are quiet. I think everyone is tired of the snow and I have properties with ice dams affecting closing dates etc… I think Spring is going to POP everyone is going to be excited about warm wetaher but expect some wet basements….The market is just stagnant. Sellers want to sell but feel as if their home is not ready to be shown. Buyers jump on MLS everyday looking for new listings but slim pickings. If we could only get them all on the same page.” Heidi Zizza and Amy Uliss, mdm Realty, Framingham
“Inventory in the Somerville-Cambridge metro area has been low for two years. This February, it was very low. I am anticipating another seller’s market, but less drastically uneven in 2015, compared to 2014 and 2013. This winter is likely to push people to move. I anticipate that people who planned a move in the next 2-4 years may jump sooner. City dwellers who struggled to park and find places to pile snow are anxious for off-street parking and some land. Over-housed suburban residents will sell to right-size into managed condos (where someone else hounds the plow guy to get there.) Retirees may head for warmer climes sooner. We all complain; home owners can do something about it. I suspect that inventory levels will become more even by late spring. Sellers will delay putting their houses on the market until after the snow is melted and their roof and ceiling damage is repaired. I have heard of two transactions that fell through because of ceiling leaks. There could be more stories about this, since so many houses have sprung leaks.” — Rona Fischman, 4 Buyers Real Estate Cambridge
“Will there ever be a better time to buy a home? Mortgage rates are very close to 2 year lows today, and I expect them to stay down in this range thru 2015. I think we see the 30 year fixed traded in the 3.75% to 4.25% for most of 2015. This is still at a historical low at 4.25%. Continued economic weakness overseas, Banks/Lenders closing loans quicker and lowering their fees contribute to low mortgage rates all year folks!” — Brian Cavanaugh, RMS Mortgage Boston
“I have a few buyers and we have been walking thru knee deep and higher snow just to see some of these homes, agent’s don’t shovel thier listings nor do their sellers. I had one agent tell me the door would be open only to get there and walk through waste deep snow to find the door was locked and we could’nt see the house. I have buyers looking but the lack of good homes currently on the market is frustrating.” Sherry Stone-Graham, Touchstone Partners, Chelmsford
“Even though we’ve had a “delayed winter” by having bulk snowstorms pretty much all at once instead of spread out throughout the last few months, it has slowed the market down in Southborough and Westborough although it hasn’t halted it entirely. There are 25 houses in varying price bands in my hometown of Southborough to choose from, with about 20% of them being in the over $900,000 range and just about 16% being in the $350-400,000 band. Despite the snow and the varying inconveniences that come along with it, over the last 45 days there were still 11 houses that are pending sale, which in my opinion still a positive sign. Interestingly enough, in neighboring Westborough, although the population exceeds that of Southborough and the snowfall hasn’t been much different, there are currently only 13 houses actively for sale, although the same 45 day period there were 15 pending sales. The majority of the active Westborough listings are in the $1M+ range, with the second highest in the $700-800k range. Ten of those pending sales ranged from the $200,000-400,000 price point, which may show that there is a definite need for inventory in those price bands to balance out the market.” — Jennifer Juliano, Keller Williams, Southborough-Westborough
“With Janet Yellin’s recent speech, we may see rates start to step up by June, 2015. Just recently the international and domestic markets played theme park as they see-sawed back and forth causing rates to jump between about 3/8 over the last 3 months. However, in comparison to 1 year ago today, rates are still about 1% lower. So, bring on the inventory consumers.” — Jeff Chalmers, Guaranteed Rate, Norfolk
“My sellers in Winchester, Arlington, Woburn, Stoneham, and Melrose are waiting until the snow is more manageable. Homeowners are extremely preoccupied (and rightly so) with protecting their current homes. The more immediate demand is for ice dam removal!” — Katherine Waters-Clark, Arlington
“There were a few days where it was impossible to show in Boston. Otherwise things haven’t really slowed too much! In addition The Spring market seems to be beginning early as I am seeing more and more listings hitting the market. All in all the Boston real estate market remains extremely strong!” — Craig Anne Lake, Luxury Residential Group LLC, Boston
“Bristol, Plymouth and Norfolk counties, lots of buyer calls and showing through the snow. Open houses averaging 3-4 families, inventory extremely low, prices going up, new construction permitted but held back from snow, sellers asking me to call back in March/April to list. My prediction is a sellers market first half of year then based on inventory to demand we will see if it equals out. Right now we are doing print materials, polishing off the listing and buyer presentations and balancing with rest and entertainment because April 1 st the flood gates are going to open and you better be rested and in shape to work extremely hard building your inventory and business to bring you through next winter with no worries. REST, AIM. FIRE!” — Dan Gouveia, Keller-Williams, SouthCoast
“I am in the Franklin area and the snow has definitely pushed back potential sellers, but the buyers are out there! They are looking, going to Open Houses and acting now while rates are low and PMI just went down as well. My advice would be to clean off that snow and get your house on the market now while inventory is low.” — Amber Cadorette, Keller-Williams Franklin
“I agree, buyers are definately out going to open houses even with the record breaking temps and snowfall! I think the prediction that interest rates will be increasing next year has a lot to do with it. Personally, I don’t feel sellers are waiting for spring to list their homes. I listed two properties today (Northbridge) and will be listing another (Needham) next week.” — Anita Bertone, Keller-Williams Wrentham
“Buyers are swarming anything new to the market priced well – I have had multiple offers on my recent listings. The snow is NOT stopping the buyers so sellers should not wait till Spring when inventory will be better which usually lessens the value of their home. Supply and Demand…Little Supply + High Demand = More $$$ in Seller’s pockets!” — Anne Silverman, Realty Executives Boston West
Thank you to all the contributors to this post, especially Gabrielle Daniels who came up with the creative title! I’m sure this will be a much-read and much-shared article in the coming months. Let’s hope that this Ice Age ends soon and we can start buying and selling homes!
Case is Good Reminder to Ensure That Contractors Register With State
With the record amount of snow, roof leaks and interior damage just beginning to hit Bay State homeowners, this spring should be a record season for Massachusetts home improvement contractors. But, according to a recent court ruling, contractors who don’t register as a licensed Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) could face serious liability under the state Consumer Protection Act (Chapter 93A) in any dispute with a homeowner. The case is Groleau v. Russo-Gabriele (Mass. Superior Court, Judge Douglas Wilkins). Such penalties could include up to triple damages and an award of the homeowner’s attorneys’ fees.
This case serves as a timely warning to both homeowners and contractors that contractors should always be registered with the state and that homeowners select a reputable, licensed professional for their projects. Below are my well-worn 10 Tips to Hiring A Home Improvement Contractor (published earlier on this Blog).
1. Pre-Construction Planning
Recognizing that even the most thought-out home improvement project tends to run up to 10% over budget, careful planning and budgeting before the work starts is paramount. There are almost always going to be contingencies and unknowns (like the mold in your walls that you never knew about) cropping up during construction so you need to allocate a sufficient reserve (10-15% should do) to cover these unknown risks. Once the budget is set, stick to it, even if it means foregoing that gorgeous Italian tumbled marble in the master bath. Also, come up with a written construction schedule.
2. Interview At Least 2 (But Preferably 3) Contractors and Obtain Written, Detailed Estimates From Each
I cannot tell you how many times homeowners select the first contractor to whom they were referred without vetting them through a proper bidding process. Interview 2, but preferably 3, contractors, be with them when they walk through hour home, and more importantly, get written, detailed estimates from each contractor. This is also your best opportunity to negotiate the best price as you can play each contractor against each other. Be aware that the cheapest bid does not necessarily equate with the best work.
3. Obtain 3 References And Check The Better Business Bureau
This is a critical, yet often overlooked piece of preventative maintenance. Most folks are referred to a home improvement contractor through a friend or family member, however, you should ask the contractor for at least 3 references. Call each of them, then ask each of them if they know anyone else who has worked with the contractor and call them too. (The contractor will always list their most “friendly” references). Ask them if the contractor performed quality work on time and within budget. Were there issues with scheduling, delivery of the correct materials, and the labor? This is your opportunity to get the real scoop. Search the Better Business Bureau for any complaints about the contractor. The BBB has a good resource for spotting contractor rip-off artists.
4. Check License/Registration Status Of Contractor
You should always select a licensed and registered home improvement contractor. They are regulated by the state and using them entitles you to the protection of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Law and Contractor Guaranty Fund if there is a problem. There are 2 types of home improvement contractor licenses in Massachusetts. A Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) license covers most types of typical home improvement work, except for structural work. Structural work must be performed by a contractor holding a Construction Supervisor License (CSL). You can search for Massachusetts HIC or CLS licensed contractors here. The license search also discloses any complaints against the contractor.
5. Sign A Written Construction Contract In Compliance With Massachusetts Home Improvement Law (General Laws Chapter 142A)
The Massachusetts Home Improvement Law provides the bare minimum of what is required to be in home improvement contracts over $1,000, but most contracts supplied by the contractor are non-compliant and terribly one-sided. Here’s what you need in your home improvement contract:
The home improvement contract must be written, dated, and signed by both parties. Make sure the contractor executes the agreement under the entity which is pulling the permits. Some contractors attempt to work under another contractor’s company or worker’s compensation policy–this is a red flag. If the contractor is not incorporated but is a “dba” (unincorporated doing business as), he must sign individually. The contractor needs to list his license number as well.
The home improvement contract must provide the start date of the work and the date of “substantial completion.”
The home improvement contract must provide a detailed description of the work and materials involved. I suggest incorporating that detailed estimate provided by the contractor discussed previously. (You can attach it as an exhibit or addendum to the end of the contract).
The contract must detail the scope of work, being as specific as possible. I cannot emphasize this enough. Itemize the exact type of materials involved (Andersen windows, California paint, Italian ceramic tile, etc.), and work to be performed (full kitchen remodel with installation of new flooring, appliances, etc.). If you are not specific in the contract, and there’s a problem later, your claim will be severely weakened, if not dead on arrival.
The contract must provide the total contract amount and the timing of progress payments. Massachusetts law prohibits a contractor requiring an initial deposit of over 33% of the total contract price unless special materials are ordered. Any contractor demanding over a 33% deposit should raise a huge red flag . (I recommend setting up payments into thirds, with the first payment due at the start of work, the second payment due halfway through the work, and the final payment due at the satisfactory completion of the work.) The homeowner should always “holdback” up to 33% of the total cost until the work is done and done right.
To be safe, I recommend having an attorney review the contract. Proposed contracts which do not comply with the Home Improvement Act are a red flag.
6. Hold A Pre-Construction Meeting
Seems pretty obvious, but again frequently contractors jump into a job right after signing the contract without taking the take to meet again with the homeowner. Walk through the project again after the initial estimate. Discuss any changes and scheduling issues. Pin down the contractor as to exactly when the crew will be on the job. Talk about expectations for day end and clean up.
7. Verify Sufficient Liability Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Insurance
Obtain the contractor’s Worker’s Compensation Insurance Coverage sheet showing that it has worker’s compensation insurance in place as well as the coverage page for its Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. Request that the contractor add you (and your spouse if you own the home jointly) as “additional insureds” on the policy with at least $1M in liability coverage in place. This should protect you if a worker injures himself on the project site.
8. Ensure The Contractor Pulls All Permits
Always have the contractor pull the building, plumbing and electrical permits. Owners who secure their own permits are ineligible for protection under the Home Improvement Law. If a contractor is reluctant to pull permits himself, it’s a red flag.
9. Document All Changes In Writing
I cannot tell you how many times that after signing a comprehensive written agreement, homeowners and contractors alike change the work and increase the contract price orally without any written documentation. This is a huge No-No and will get the homeowner into trouble every time. Ask the contractor for a “change order” to fill out and sign, or create one yourself. It should, at minimum, provide the original contract price, a detailed scope of the new work, its cost, and the updated total, signed and dated by both parties.
10. Carefully Monitor The Project And Keep Lines Of Communication Open
Seems like common sense, but don’t go on vacation during a home improvement project, lest you arrive home to a mini-disaster. Keep a log of daily activity that you can match up with the project schedule. Another common complaint is when the construction crew inexplicably fails to show up when you expect and is instead at another project. This happens a lot at the end of the project when the contractor is focusing on the next job. Email or write the contractor and get his firm commitment to finish your job or else you will withhold final payment. If there are any issues or problems, the best way to cover yourself is to document them. Email works great here as it is not too formal yet more than adequate to memorialize the event. Create a final punch list for all incomplete items and withhold final payment until it is completed.
I will be speaking at the upcoming Metrowest Resourceful Realtor Meeting on March 2, 2015 at John Harvard’s Brewhouse at Shoppers World, Framingham. Networking starts at 5:45PM with dinner and speakers starting at 6:30PM. Any licensed estate agent welcome.
I’ll be talking about the latest court rulings and legislation affecting Massachusetts real estate law, intermixed with a few colorful war stories from the front lines. Topics will include the status of the independent contractor office model, the new CFPB closing disclosures and settlement statements, and a rental housing update.
Also speaking is Sandy Krenz, a 30-year interior designer and consultant with Debsan Paint in Natick. She will talk about color and decorating trends.
As we shovel out from the snowiest winter in history, the Greater Boston area will soon be facing a new and potentially more destructive situation — ice dams and roof collapses. This could be the worst winter ever for ice dams and roof issues due to the ridiculous amount of snow still stuck on our roofs. I’ll take a minute to go over the insurance issues and preventative measures you should be taking now.
Ice Dam Insurance Coverage – Massachusetts
Interior or exterior damage caused by an ice dam on your roof is typically covered by standard homeowner’s insurance policies. However, most policies will not cover ice dam or snow removal from your roof or anywhere else on your property. As with any insurance claim, call the claims department immediately and take photos of the damage.
Ice Dam Treatment & Prevention
The best way to deal with ice dams is to physically remove them from your roof. I’m not a fan of homeowners putting their spinal cords at risk by hopping on snow covered roofs, so my advice is to leave this to the professionals. Crews are out in full force clearing snow and chipping away at ice dams. Feel free to call my friend George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction in Framingham (Tel: 508-875-0052). Tell them Rich Vetstein sent you. Also, be aware of price gouging and scams.
In the short term, there are a couple things you can try.
Try to remove snow from the roof but only if it can be done safely. A roof rake or push broom can be used but may cause damage to the shingles. There is an amazing new type of roof rake on the market called a Roof Razor which can be purchased here. If it’s not possible to remove the snow safely, call a professional like I did.
Chisel grooves into the dam to allow the water behind it to drain off. This is a good emergency measure, especially if rain or a sudden thaw is coming. Be careful not to damage those shingles!
Don’t laugh, but fill an old pair of your wife’s pantyhose with calcium chloride snow melt and lay it across the dam. I’m not kidding! It will help to melt the dam and also keep that area of the roof clear. DO NOT USE ROCK SALT! It will stain the roof and siding. It is best for small dams or prevention. It’s also a good idea to scrape the snow off the roof first.
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who helps people buy, sell, finance and litigate disputes involving Massachusetts real estate. Rich is the Chair of the Boston Bar Association's Title & Conveyancing Committee. For more information about him, click here. You can contact Attorney Vetstein at email@example.com or 508-620-5352.