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Superman's_classic_poseLike 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.

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917BdkbVovL._UX250_Elizabeth Gerhman, a writer for the Boston Globe Magazine and owner of two rental units, is fed up with how the Massachusetts legal system favors tenants over landlords.

In her article Think It’s Tough to Rent? Try Being a Landlord, she describes that

“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!

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Winter Storm Minnesota

Shovel Early and Often!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful Links

Arlington Snow Info

Belmont Snow Ordinance

City of Boston Snow Center

Brookline Snow Alerts

Cambridge Snow Guide

Lawrence Winter Parking Rules

Lynn DPW Winter

Marlborough DPW

Medford Police Dept. Snow 

Needham MA Snow & Ice

Newton Snow Page

Quincy Snow Removal

Salem Snow Emergency Rules

City of Springfield Snow Rules

Somerville Snow Guide

Waltham Snow Policy

Wayland Snow Policy

Worcester Snow DPW

Winter Storm Precautions

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

 

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

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

A Classic David vs. Goliath Tale

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

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

Staggering Jury Verdict

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

Jury Verdict Upheld on Appeal

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

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

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

Expansion of Condominium Trustee Liability?

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

Kettenbach v. Wodinsky

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

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

The Charlie Baker Effect

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

Will Realtors Be Treated As Employees or Remain Independent Contractors?

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

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

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

Housing Court Expansion

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

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

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80140012Legislation Set To Expand Housing Court Statewide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Cannabis-BankCourt Side-Steps Whether Sec. 8 Tenant Can Be Evicted For Possession of Under 1 Oz. of Marijuana

In the first of what should be many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing, the SJC ruled last week that a Section 8 tenant could be evicted for an undetermined amount of marijuana combined with allowing her live-in boyfriend to deal marijuana and possess a gun at the leased premises. The court overruled Boston Housing Court Justice Jeffrey Winik’s prior decision stopping the eviction of the tenant. Judge Winik was unconvinced that a public tenant could be evicted for marijuana possession unless it was over 1 oz. which makes it a crime in Massachusetts, whereas possession of under 1 oz. is merely a civil infraction.

The case is Figgs v. Boston Housing Authority (SJC 11532). A link to the opinion can be found here.

Based on oral arguments and briefings, court watchers were expecting the justices to address the interplay between the recent Mass. law decriminalizing the possession of under 1 oz. of marijuana and federal public housing eviction laws. The justices, however, side-stepped the weight issue, ruling instead that there was more than sufficient evidence of drug dealing at the apartment to warrant eviction based on a serious violation of the lease and criminal activity. Police found a small amount of marijuana, plastic baggies, cash and a firearm in the bedroom of the tenant’s boyfriend, charging him with possession with intent to distribute and unlawful possession of a loaded firearm.

Although the question of whether a tenant can be evicted for possession of a recreational sized amount of marijuana (and medicinal marijuana) will be left for another case, the Figgs decision can be used to hold tenants responsible for the drug and criminal activity of their household members, including boyfriends, husbands, children and guests. This should be a helpful tool to enable public housing authorities and private landlords to keep drugs and guns out of rental housing.

 

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mass ibanez titleSenate Bill 1987 Would Have Cleared Title For Innocent Homeowners

Acceding to the demands of fair housing community activists, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has rejected Senate Bill 1987, An Act Clearing Titles to Foreclosed Properties. The bill would have cleared title of homes affected by defective foreclosures with a one year waiting period from enactment of the bill while giving homeowners three years to challenge wrongful foreclosures. The Governor filed an amendment to the bill, raising the statute of limitations for homeowners to challenge foreclosures from 3 years in the current bill to 10 years. The Senate and House are unlikely to agree on such an absurdly long statute of limitations, so Patrick’s action should effectively kill the bill.

This is truly devastating news for the thousands of innocent homeowners who are stuck with bad title due to botched foreclosures.

The bill had cleared the Senate and House with near unanimous support. The bill also received favorable press in the Worcester Telegram and Boston GlobeThe bill preserves the right to challenge foreclosures and sue the banks, while helping innocent homeowners stuck with bad title. Despite this, organizations such as the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending and activist Grace Ross were successful in getting Governor Patrick on their side.

The Governor’s statement accompanying his action on the bill states as follows:

Massachusetts is emerging from a period of far too many foreclosures, on far too many families, and in far too many communities facing significant economic challenges. It is no secret that, too often, the foreclosure was not properly effectuated.  The entity purporting to foreclose did not have the legal authority to do so.  The effect of these impermissible foreclosures has been lasting.  Families were improperly removed from their homes.  Buyers who later purchased the property — or, at least, believed they had done so — are now faced with title questions.  Many of these buyers were investors, but many are now homeowners themselves. I commend the Legislature’s effort to address these problems.  But I believe the proposed three year period is insufficient.  A family improperly removed from its home deserves greater protection, and a meaningful opportunity to claim the right to the land that it still holds.  The right need not be indefinite, but it should extend for longer than three years.  Certainty of title is a good thing — it helps the real estate market function more smoothly, which ultimately can help us all.  But this certainty should not come at the expense of wrongly displaced homeowners or, at least, not until we have put this period further behind us.

As a long time supporter of this bill, I am truly disheartened at this result. I thought the bill did a great job in balancing the rights of innocent home buyers who are stuck with unsellable properties through no fault of their own with the rights of folks who are fighting foreclosures. A three year statute of limitation — which is the same length for malpractice and personal injury claims — is a reasonable amount of time to mount a challenge to a foreclosure, especially when debtors have many months prior notice before a foreclosure sale. The people who would have benefited from this bill are everyday people who bought properties out of foreclosure, put money into them and improved them. I have personally assisted several of these families. Everyone agrees that the banks are largely at fault for the mess left behind with the foreclosure crisis but why put the rights of those who don’t pay their mortgages above those who do? I will never understand this rationale. Perhaps that’s why I could never be in politics!

So where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know. Fortunately, the Land Court recently issued a ruling which may help clear some of these toxic titles. Maybe the legislation will get another chance at the next session or when Patrick leaves office at the end of the year.

 

 

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Decision Could Have Wide Impact Upon Marijuana Use By Tenants

The law on marijuana and rental housing remains clouded to say the least. And that’s no pun. This week on April 8th, the Supreme Judicial Court will consider the first of probably many cases dealing with marijuana use in rental housing. In this particular case, Boston Housing Authority v. Figgs (SJC 11532), the high court will assess whether a state housing authority may evict a subsidized tenant and terminate her federal housing benefits for the alleged possession of less than one ounce of marijuana — which is no longer a criminal offense in Massachusetts, but still a crime under federal law. With the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, the rollout of the medical marijuana dispensaries and the conflict with federal drug laws, this case may have wide-ranging impacts upon the relationships of landlords, tenants, housing authorities and even condominium owners and trustees over the use of marijuana, both recreationally and medicinally.

Oral arguments are available via live stream here. Legal briefs and filings in the case can be found here. A final opinion and ruling is expected this summer.

This case should also put the new Medical Marijuana Law into re-focus. Landlords have been increasingly anxious about how to manage and regulate tenants’ use of medical and recreational marijuana, if at all. The law not only grants qualified patients the right to obtain medical marijuana but it also allows patients the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a marijuana dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. There is a bill in the Legislature granting landlords the right to prohibit medical marijuana on rental property without fear of being sued for disability discrimination.

I’ll be monitoring this new and dynamic area of the law. It will surely be a hot topic in the next couple of years.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience Massachusetts landlord tenant and real estate attorney. If you are concerned or have questions about the new Medical Marijuana Law, please contact him atinfo@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

 

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eviction-notBill Would Curb Tenant Abuses of Eviction Process | State House Hearing Set For Feb. 25

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. This may finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Two bills, H.B. 1131 and H.B. 1110, have made their way to public hearing at the State House for a February 25th hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

The bills are designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law, including the infamous “free rent trick.” 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.

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.

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.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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mass ibanez titleShould Result In Much-Needed Inventory Boost To Housing Market

Good news to report for property owners saddled with toxic titles resulting from the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez foreclosure ruling. Massachusetts lawmakers are poised to pass into law a new bill aimed at legislatively clearing up all of these defective titles.

By way of background, properties afflicted with Ibanez title defects, in worst cases, cannot be sold or refinanced. And homeowners without title insurance have been compelled to spend thousands in legal fees to clear their titles, while some have not been able to clear their titles at all.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 1987, would render clear and marketable any title affected by a defective foreclosure after 3 years have passed from the foreclosure. Most of these toxic titles were created prior to 2009, so the vast majority of them will be cleared up.

The bill does preserve any existing litigation over the validity of foreclosures. The legislation does not apply if there is an existing legal challenge to the validity of the foreclosure sale in which case record notice must be provided at the registry of deeds. The bill also does not shield liability of foreclosure lenders and attorneys for bad faith and consumer protection violations over faulty foreclosures.

The bill has recently been passed by the Senate and now moves on to the House. Word is that it should pass through the House and on to the Governor’s Desk.

Shrewsbury State Senator Michael Moore and the Massachusetts Land Title Association have sponsored this effort for several years now. I have been supporting this effort as well.

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

(Hat tip to Colleen Sullivan over at Banker and Tradesman for passing along this important information).

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

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

“Venezuela,” she answered.

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

This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.

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

Seriously?

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

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

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

Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense

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

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

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

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

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CFPB.pngCFPB Issues Long Awaited “Know Before You Owe” Mortgage Disclosures, Replacing Truth in Lending, Good Faith Estimate, and HUD-1 Settlement Statement

As part of a continuing overhaul of the home mortgage market, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today issued a final rule to bolster fairness and clarity in residential lending, including requiring a new good faith estimate of costs for homebuyers, Truth in Lending disclosure and a new HUD-1 Settlement Statement.

The new Loan Estimate will replace the current Good Faith Estimate (GFE) and the current Truth in Lending Disclosure (TIL). The new Closing Disclosure will replace the current HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The new forms are embedded below.

The real estate industry will have 20 months to implement the new disclosures, by August 1, 2015. The CFPB website has a summary of the new rules and disclosures here.

Initial Impressions, Did The CFPB Finally Get It Right?

Overall, I would say that the forms are a major improvement over the existing disclosures, especially the Truth in Lending disclosure. I always joke that the Truth in Lending disclosure should be called “Confusion in Lending” (which usually gives the borrower a chuckle) as it’s nearly impossible to explain even for a trained attorney and sophisticated borrower. That may be rectified now with the new forms — although I still may employ the joke!

The new HUD-1 Closing Disclosure is a longer and more involved form, but it basically just reorganizes all of the information now contained in the current 3 page HUD-1 Settlement Statement, and it appears to be easier to read and explain at the closing table.

The CFPB says that the new forms will replace the existing forms, resulting in a decrease in pages to review — which is a minor miracle in and of itself. A common complaint from borrowers is the sheer number of forms and disclosures signed at the closing, so this is welcome news.

3 Business Day Rule May Be Problematic

As Bernie Winne of the Massachusetts Firefighters Credit Union testified at the announcement hearing today in Boston, the new requirement that the Closing Disclosure (new HUD-1) be provided to the borrower within 3 business days of the closing may pose a problem in some transactions and will certainly result in a major adjustment in current practices. There are often last minute changes in closing figures, seller credits, holdbacks, payoffs, etc., which result in last minute changes. Hopefully, the CFPB will realize this in the upcoming implementation period and relax the rules in certain circumstances. There has already been significant chatter on Twitter and the blogosphere about this new requirement.

Another encouraging note was CFPB Director Cordray’s comments today about the agency pushing for more electronic closings. Fannie Mae has done squat to push e-closings, so hopefully CFPB will take the lead in this important area!

Loan Estimate Disclosure

  • The new Loan Estimate will combine the disclosures currently provided in the Good Faith Estimate and the initial Truth in Lending statement.
  • Lenders must provide the Loan Estimate 3 business days after an application is submitted by a consumer, excluding days that the lender is not open (e.g., Saturdays).  However, it is not clear based from materials available thus far when a consumer has submitted sufficient information to constitute an “application.”
  • The Loan Estimate will conveniently provide for the monthly principal and interest payment, projected payments over the term of the loan, estimated taxes and insurance (escrows), estimated closing costs, and cash to close.
  • It will provide for a Rate Lock deadline.
  • The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) appears on page 3, despite requests by consumer advocates that it appear in a prominent location on the first page.  In addition, it appears that the Bureau did not adopt the proposal to revise the APR calculation to include more items in the finance charge and thereby potentially increase the number of loans that would fail the Qualified Mortgage’s points-and-fees test or would be treated as “high cost” or “higher priced.”

Closing Disclosure

  • The Closing Disclosure will combine the disclosures currently provided in the HUD-1 settlement statement and any revised Truth in Lending statement. It is now a 5 page document compared to the current 3 page document.
  • Critically, the Closing Disclosure must be provided at least 3 business days before the closing. Lenders and closing attorneys will have to adapt to this new requirement as currently we usually get the final HUD approved by the lender 24-48 hours before the closing.
  • Page 1 of the Closing Disclosure carries over much of the Truth in Lending information previously found in the TIL form.
  • Page 2 and 3 replicate the existing HUD-1 Settlement Statement (pages 1 and 2) outlining the fees and closing costs, adjustments, and commissions charged to the buyer and seller. It also contained a more extensive section on Cash to Close which will be helpful to explain.
  • Page 4 contains a nice easy-to-read section on the escrow account which is often challenging to explain to borrowers.
  • The last page is similar to the current page 3 of the HUD-1, providing a quick summary of the loan terms, interest rate, total payments and APR.

CFPB Loan Estimate

CFPB Closing Disclosure

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MA real estate agent independent contractor law

Fate of Long-Standing Massachusetts Brokerage Model Hangs In Balance

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

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

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

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

Lower Court Rules In Favor of Broker

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

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

What’s Next?

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

Monell v. Boston Pads

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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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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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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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