Boston condominium attorney

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 is 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.

Serenity is a good topic when it comes to condominiums. Condominium living can often bring out the worst in people. 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” or “exclusive use 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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images-7Unpaid condo fees and special assessments can be a real thorn in any condominium’s side, especially smaller condos. Not only do unpaid condo fees threaten the financial health of a condominium, but a high delinquency rate can run afoul of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and FHA condominium lending guidelines, thereby hindering the sale of a unit.

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Condominium Act, General Laws Chapter 183A, provides condominium trustees and managers with a fair amount of ammunition to recover those unpaid condo fees and special assessments. The law provides that condominium common expense assessments (monthly condo fees) are a lien against condominium units from the date each assessment becomes due, and that unit owners are personally liable for their share of condominium common expenses, including late charges, fines, penalties, interest, and all costs of collection. Ultimately, the condominium trust can foreclose its lien and sell the unit at foreclosure auction.

Massachusetts Super-priority Condo Lien

The real teeth of the Condominium Act is the “super-lien” provision. A properly filed condo lien has “super-priority” over the first mortgage on a unit for up to 6 months worth of unpaid condo fees, plus all attorneys’ fees and collection costs. Required 60 and 30 day statutory notices must be sent to the mortgage lender and unit owner prior to filing the lien. Typically, the mortgage lender will not want to allow a condo lien to negatively affect the priority of its mortgage, so it will pay the unpaid condo fees and other charges, then charge them back to the borrower/unit owner. Even in the case of foreclosure of a unit, the super-lien will continue to roll-over (up to 6 months worth).

6d Certificate

For all sales of Massachusetts condominiums, Mass. General Laws Ch. 183A, sec. 6(d) requires that the condo trustees sign a certificate verifying the outstanding condo fees assessed against the unit, if any. The term “6d” certificate refers to that statutory section of the Condominium Act, section 6(d). Lenders and their closing attorneys will require a “clean” 6d which states there are no unpaid fees. The recording of a clean 6d certificate will prevent the association from ever filing a lien against that unit.

No Right to Withhold

Another favorable aspect of the lien law is that a unit owner is not allowed to withhold payment even if he disputes the charges. There is no right to set-off. If the unit owner is unhappy or disputes the validity of the assessment, that’s too bad. He must pay the fees under protest, and file a suit challenging the legality of the assessment.

Collection Against Tenants

Another helpful remedy in the case of absentee unit owners is that the condo trust has a right to collect rents from tenants of non-paying unit owners. The condominium association will notify the tenants in writing that they are required to forward all future rent payments to the condo trust until the unpaid balance is satisfied. This typically gets the prompt attention of the unit owner.

Here is a sample 6d certificate.

Massachusetts 6d certificate sample

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Condominium Real Estate Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Litigation Over Condominium Construction Can Derail Financing

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

My legal advice for Realtors and condo buyers is to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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