massachusetts real estate attorney

how to handle criticismAttorney’s Obnoxious Conduct At Closing Factor in Large Award

Every now and then I have a contentious deal where I should be wearing a black and white referee’s shirt instead of a shirt and tie. I’m usually successful in getting everyone to calm down and close the transaction. The case of KGM Custom Home Builders v. Prosky (embedded below) recently decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is an example of how really bad behavior at a real estate closing can get a party into big legal trouble.

45 Acres in Mansfield for Sale

The Prosky family of Mansfield entered into an agreement to sell 45 acres of developable land to KGM Custom Builders. The sale price was linked to the number of buildable lots that KGM could permit. After spending over $300,000 in 5 years including weathering an appeal, KGM was able to obtain permits for 60 residential units. However, the Proskys received a better offer for the land and a dispute over calculation over the purchase price arose. Nevertheless, KGM was not willing to back down, and scheduled a closing. Repudiating the contract, the Prosky’s attorney informed KGM that it should calculate the liquidated damages provision in the contract because the sellers were not going to sell.

Closing Shenanigans

A closing was nevertheless scheduled at which the Prosky’s attorney showed up with a professional videographer as “defense strategy.” The parties’  attorneys started yelling at each other, and KGM’s attorney shut off all electricity to the building, but the videographer was able to tape with battery power. KGM’s attorney demanded that the Prosky’s attorney produce the closing documents he was supposed to have drafted. The Prosky’s attorney waived the documents in the air, and when the buyer’s attorney went to grab them, he pulled them back and asked if could read them from 2 feet away. KGM, with funds on hand, was ready, willing and able to close, and took the Prosky’s attorney’s antics at the closing as not engaging in good faith, and walked out. At the end of the closing, one of the sellers asked the videographer, “can you explain to me what just happened”? (I would love to see this videotape!).

Anticipatory Repudiation, Breach of Good Faith and Fair Deal, or Both?

Naturally, KGM sued the sellers. The trial judge ruled the sellers had engaged in anticipatory repudiation but he calculated the sales price in favor of the sellers at over $1M, giving the buyer the option of going forward with the deal or taking the liquidated damages because the buyers had also breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing with their attorney’s antics at the closing. The buyer elected damages, and the judge awarded nearly $500,000 in permitting costs and attorneys’ fees. The sellers weren’t happy with this, so they appealed.

On appeal at the SJC, the legal issue was whether the law allowed the trial judge to provide the buyer with this favorable election of remedies. With few exceptions, outside of the commercial law context, Massachusetts has not generally recognized the doctrine of anticipatory repudiation, which permits a party to a contract to bring an action for damages prior to the time performance is due if the other party repudiates. One such exception occurs where a seller of land informs the “holder of an enforceable option” to purchase that he plans to sell the land to a third party. The high court ruled that this case fit within this exception and upheld the award of damages to the buyer. Naturally, the court seemed particularly upset about the behavior of the seller’s attorney at the closing. In fairness, the SJC did slash the attorneys’ fee award by $120,000, but with statutory interest accruing for several years now, the end result will likely be the same — the sellers are out a lot of cash.

Fortunately, these types of antics are very much the exception rather than the rule at Massachusetts closings. There is really no excuse for this type of unprofessional behavior at a closing, no matter how contentious the dispute. If a party is going to elect to terminate a deal, go ahead and do it without the theatrics. After all, what you say and do at a real estate closing may come back to bite you and your client.

KGM Custom Home Builders v. Prosky (MA SJC 5/30/14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limiting Seller’s Financial Exposure

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

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

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

Protecting The Buyer

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Email Disclaimers: Toothless, Useful, Or A Little Of Both?

by Rich Vetstein on February 2, 2013

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A Simple Email Disclaimer Cannot Hurt & Can Only Help

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

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

Contract Negotiations

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

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

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

Practice Pointer:

“Emails sent or received shall neither constitute acceptance of conducting transactions via electronic means nor shall create a binding contract in the absence of a fully signed written agreement.”

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

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

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

Confidential Communications

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

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

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

Practice Pointer:

I use this simple email disclaimer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Medical Marijuana Law Has Landlords, Municipalities Smoking Mad

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

539wApartment Rental Occupancy Limits

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

Foreclosure Prevention Act Passed

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

SJC To Consider Realtor’s Liability for Erroneous MLS Info

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

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

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

mw_1011_FISCAL_CLIFF_620x350Fiscal Cliff Anxiety Syndrome

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

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

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

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Real Estate Crash Has Resulted In Many More Forms and Disclosures

These days buyers are leaving closing rooms with not only their keys but a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome! The reason for sore forearms and wrists is the voluminous stack of closing documents which are now required to be signed and notarized at every Massachusetts real estate purchase or refinance closing.

One of my opening “break the ice” lines at closings is to suggest that the buyers start massaging their writing hands. Then I show them the 2 inch stack of documents they must review and sign, and they usually say, “Are you serious? We have to sign all that?” Yep, I reply. You can thank Fannie Mae and the real estate collapse for that! All the new rules and regulations passed in the last 5 years have resulted in, you guessed it, more forms. Do you think the Feds and state ever eliminate old or out-dated forms? Nope.

Let me quickly go over some of the more important — and less important — documents signed at a typical Massachusetts real estate closing.

The Closing Documents

  • HUD-1 Settlement Statement. This is arguably the most important form signed at closing. It breaks down all the closing costs, lender fees, taxes, insurance, escrows and more. We did a full post on the HUD-1 and all the closing costs you can expect to pay here. Under the newer RESPA rules, most closing costs must be within 10% tolerance of the Good Faith Estimate provided by the lender (which you will also re-sign at closing).
  • Promissory Note & Mortgage. These two documents form what I like to call the “mortgage contract.” The promissory note is the lending contract between borrower and lender and sets the interest rate and payment terms of the loan. It is not recorded at the registry of deeds. The Mortgage or Security Instrument is a long (20+ page) document and provides the legal collateral (your house) securing the loan from the lender. The Mortgage gets recorded in the county registry of deeds and is available to public view. Read a full explanation of the Note and Mortgage in this post.
  • Truth in Lending Disclosure (TIL). The Truth in Lending should really be called “Confusion In Lending,” as the federal government has come up with a confusing way to “explain” how your interest rate works. This is a complex form and we’ve written about it extensively in this post. Your closing lawyer will fully explain the TIL form to you at closing.
  • Loan Underwriting Documents. With increased audit risk on loan files, lenders today are requiring that borrowers sign “fresh” copies of almost all the documents they signed when they originally applied for the loan. This includes the loan application, IRS forms W-9 and 4506’s.
  • Fraud Prevention Documents. Again, with the massive mortgage fraud of the last decade, lenders are requiring many more forms to prevent fraud, forgeries, and straw-buyers. The closing attorney will also make a copy of borrowers’ driver’s licenses and other photo i.d. and submit the borrower’s names through the Patriot Act database. They include Occupancy Affidavit (confirming that borrowers will not rent out the mortgaged property), and the Signature Affidavit (confirming buyers are who they say they are or previously used a maiden name or nickname).
  • Escrow Documents. Unless lenders waive the requirement, borrowers must fund an escrow account at closing representing several months of real estate taxes and homeowner’s insurance. This provides a cushion in case borrowers default and the taxes and insurance are not paid.
  • Title Documents. For purchase transactions, Massachusetts requires that the closing attorney certify that a 50 year title examination has been performed. Buyers will counter-sign this certification of title, as well as several title insurance affidavits and documents which the seller is required to sign, to ensure that all known title problems have been disclosed and discovered. Of course, we always recommend that buyers obtain their own owner’s title insurance which will provide coverage for unknown title defects such as forgeries, boundary line issues, missing mortgage discharges, etc.
  • Property Safety Disclosures. In Massachusetts, buyers and sellers will sign a smoke/carbon monoxide detector compliance agreement, lead paint disclosure, and UFFI (urea formaldehyde foam insulation) agreement. These ensure that the property has received proper certifications and will absolve the lender from liability for these safety issues.
  • Servicing, EOCA and Affiliated Business Disclosures. Chances are that your lender will assign the servicing rights to your mortgage to a larger servicer, like JP Morgan Chase or CitiMortgage. You will sign forms acknowledging this. You will be notified of the new mortgage holder usually within 30-60 days after closing. In the meantime, the closing attorney will give you a “first payment letter” instructing you where to send your first payment if you don’t hear from the new servicer. You will also sign forms under the federal and state discrimination in lenders laws and forms disclosing who the lender uses for closing services.

Well, those are most of the documents that buyers will sign at the closing. Sellers have a slew of their own documents to be signed at closing, and I’ll cover that in a future post. As I said, at your closing, massage your signature hand, grab a comfy pen, and sign your life away!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. He can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Case Underscores Importance of Safeguarding Loan Documents And Getting Subordinations

JPMorgan Chase & Co. v. Casarano, Mass. Appeals Court (Feb. 28, 2012) (click to read)

In a decision which could impact foreclosure cases involving missing or lost loan documents, the Appeals Court held that a mortgage is unenforceable and must be discharged where the underlying promissory note securing the mortgage could not be found.

Seller Second Mortgage Financing

This case involved an unconventional second mortgage for approximately $15,000 taken back from a private seller. The homeowner subsequently refinanced the first mortgage several times, but the refinancing lenders’ attorneys never obtained a subordination from the second lien-holder. That was a mistake. The first mortgage wound up in Wells Fargo’s hands which realized that due to the lack of recorded subordination, the second mortgage was senior to its first mortgage.

Alas, a title claim arose and the title insurance company had to step in and file an “equitable subrogation” action. In this type of legal action, a first mortgage holder asks the court to rearrange the priorities of mortgages due to mistake, inadvertence or to prevent injustice.

Where’s The Note?

The second mortgage holder had lost the promissory note which secured its mortgage, and notably, could not locate a copy of it. The mortgage itself referenced the amount of the loan and the interest rate but was silent on everything else, including the payment term, maturity date, and whether it was under seal. The second mortgage holder argued that enough of the terms of the missing note could be “imported” from the mortgage, but the Appeals Court disagreed, reasoning that there wasn’t enough specificity on key terms to enforce the mortgage.

Lesson One: Safeguard Original Loan Docs

This decision underscores the importance of safeguarding original promissory notes and other debt instruments, or at a minimum keeping photocopies so that if enforcement is required, the material terms of the original can be proved to the satisfaction of the court. With all the paperwork irregularities endemic with securitized mortgages these days, missing or lost promissory notes and loan documents have become more prevalent. This decision is potentially problematic for those foreclosures where the original promissory note is lost. The standard Fannie Mae form mortgage does not spell out the loan terms with specificity, instead, it references the promissory note. Indeed, the Fannie Mae mortgage does not even reference the interest rate. Based on this decision, a mortgage without sufficient evidence of a promissory note could be rendered unenforceable and un-forecloseable.

As an aside, a lender who lacks an original promissory note could rely upon Uniform Commercial Code Section 3-309, which provides:

(a) A person not in possession of an instrument is entitled to enforce the instrument if (i) the person was in possession of the instrument and entitled to enforce it when loss of possession occurred, (ii) the loss of possession was not the result of a transfer by the person or a lawful seizure, and (iii) the person cannot reasonably obtain possession of the instrument because the instrument was destroyed, its whereabouts cannot be determined, or it is in the wrongful possession of an unknown person or a person that cannot be found or is not amenable to service of process. (b) A person seeking enforcement of an instrument under subsection (a) must prove the terms of the instrument and the person’s right to enforce the instrument. If that proof is made, section 3-308 applies to the case as if the person seeking enforcement had produced the instrument. The court may not enter judgment in favor of the person seeking enforcement unless it finds that the person required to pay the instrument is adequately protected against loss that might occur by reason of a claim by another person to enforce the instrument. Adequate protection may be provided by any reasonable means.

Lesson Two: Get Subordinations For Junior Liens

This decision also underscores the importance of getting a subordination agreement for second mortgages and other junior lien-holders when closing refinances. A subordination agreement is a contract whereby a junior lien-holder agrees to remain in junior position to a first mortgage or other senior lien-holder during a refinancing transaction. Otherwise, the first in time rule of recording would elevate a junior lien-holder to first, priority position after a refinance. If a subordination was obtained and recorded here, this case would not have occurred.

Disclaimer:  I drafted the original complaint in this case while working at my previous law firm. I had long since left when the case was decided at the Appeals Court.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and title defect attorney. He can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Standard Mortgage Contingency Language At Issue

I recently came across a very interesting and scary case from the Appeals Court, Survillo v. McDonough No. 11–P–290. Dec. 2, 2011. (It’s technically an “unpublished” opinion but it’s available to the public). The case underscores how carefully attorneys must craft the mortgage contingency to protect the buyer’s deposit in case financing is approved with adverse conditions.

“Prevailing Rates, Terms and Conditions”

The buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Survillo, submitted the standard Offer To Purchase the sellers’ home in Walpole. The offer provided it was “Not subject to the Sale of any other home.” The sellers accepted the offer. The buyers received a conditional pre-approval from a local bank for a first mortgage in the amount of $492,000. The pre-approval also stated that anticipated loan was “[n]ot based on sale of any residence.”

The parties then entered into the standard form purchase and sale agreement (P & S), with the typical mortgage contingency provision for a $429,000 mortgage loan:

“In order to help finance the acquisition of said premises, the [buyers] shall apply for a conventional bank or other institutional mortgage loan of $492,000.00 at prevailing rates, terms and conditions. If despite the [buyers] diligent efforts a commitment for such loan cannot be obtained on or before October 5, 2009, the [buyers] may terminate this agreement by written notice to the [sellers] and/or the Broker(s), as agent(s) for the [sellers], prior to the expiration of such time, whereupon any payments made under this agreement shall be forthwith refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto “

Change In Circumstances: Lender Requires Piggyback Loan & Buyers List Their Residence

Due to the buyers’ debt to income ratios, the lender required that the loan be structured as a “piggyback” — a first mortgage of $417,000 and second mortgage of $73,400, and with the condition that the buyers listing their primary residence for sale prior to the loan closing. The buyers absolutely did not want to list and seller their residence, so they wanted out of the deal.

On the last day of the extended financing deadline, the buyers timely notified the sellers that they had “not received a loan commitment with acceptable conditions,” and attempted to back out of the agreement under the mortgage contingency provision. Ultimately, with the buyers refusing to sell their home, the bank denied the buyer’s the mortgage application based on the fact that the “borrower would be carrying three mortgage payments and the debt to income is too high.”

Focus On “Prevailing Terms” Language

The sellers refused to return the deposit, and litigation over the deposit ensued.

The Court framed the case as follows: “Before the extended mortgage contingency deadline of October 21, the buyers received a commitment from the bank for two mortgages totaling $492,000. The P & S’s mortgage contingency was accordingly satisfied unless the bank’s requirement that the buyers list their home for sale was not a “prevailing” term or condition.”

The court started with the assumption that “the typical loan condition for most borrowers is to require them to sell an existing home before the new loan closes. The condition here required only that the buyers list, not sell, their home and it was accordingly not a typical condition.” The buyers argued that because the condition was unusual, it was not a “prevailing” condition within the meaning of the contingency clause of the P & S, despite the fact that the condition was more favorable to them than the standard condition. The court flat out rejected that argument, citing prior rulings that terms of a mortgage contingency presuppose that the buyers will accept commercially reasonable loan terms. If less is required, the condition becomes an option. The court also noted that the buyers failed to notified the sellers that they were unwilling to list or sell their existing home, nor did they insert a proviso to that effect into the mortgage contingency clause. Subsequent events suggested that if the buyers had timely disclosed their intentions to the bank, the loan would have been disapproved, which may well have given the buyers the shelter they sought under the mortgage contingency clause.

The court ruled against the buyers who had to forfeit their $31,000 deposit.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure

I’m not sure who is to blame here, the buyer’s attorney or the buyers themselves. Probably both.

From a legal drafting approach and as the court pointed out, the buyer’s attorney could have insisted on language into the mortgage contingency provision that the buyers’ financing could not be conditioned on the listing or sale of the buyers’ present residence. After all, the language was in the Offer, so it could have easily been carried over into the P&S. There was no indication from the decision that this was raised or negotiated.

It also seems apparent that the buyers were not particularly up front with anyone on their insistence that they would not list and sell their current residence. If they had been more forthcoming about that, perhaps they could have avoided this situation.

A commenter on Boston.com also places some blame on the loan officer:  “Not all pre-approvals are created equal. For a few minutes of work and adherance to a common standard of practice by the mortgage professional, a true pre-approval is supported by a credit report, the main criteria for ability to qualify for a mortgage. This is generated in a few seconds, and the pre-approval letter usually states subject to verification of income, assets, and property appraisal. Had this been done, THE DEBT TO INCOME RATIO ISSUE WOULD HAVE SURFACED EARLY.”

Based on the loan amount, this mistake or gamble cost the buyers around $31,000 plus legal fees. Ouch!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. Please contact him if you need assistance with a Massachusetts purchase or sale transaction.

 

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April 1st marks the Boston Red Sox’s Opening Day. No more wait ’til next year. This is the year!

Come to think of it, there is a lot that Youk, Pedroia, Big Papi and the rest of the Red Sox can teach us about real estate. Here are a few tips–

Listen to your Manager and your General Manager. Your Manager is your real estate agent. Your General Manager is your real estate attorney. Tito and Theo (yeah!). Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman (boo!!!). This is the foundation of your team. Listen to them. Trust them. They will lead you to the World Series–your closing.

Spring training is more than just practice. In real estate, spring is the busiest time of year. So apply your eye black and get your game face on. Make your best offer. Swing for the fences. Everything counts in the spring in real estate.

When you get up to the plate, make sure you have your batting helmet and battling gloves on, and you’ve studied the pitcher. In real estate, this means that if you are buying, you need to be well prepared. Get pre-qualified or even better, pre-approved for a mortgage so your offer will be seriously considered by the seller. Studying the pitcher means do your homework. Have your real estate agents pull comparable sales and obtain market research before settling on a offer price. Same for sellers. It’s not what you need or want for a price, but what the market will bear. Reality check.

Baseball is a rewarding long-term investment. Watching a baseball game can be a long term investment. (Sometimes too long!). So is real estate. Think long-term. This is going to be your home for the next several years. Don’t lose sight of that.

Don’t get caught stealing. Sellers, be honest and upfront about your home and its problems. The home inspector will most likely find all the issues you’ve tried to hide, so disclose up front. Otherwise, you’ll lose all credibility, and the deal will be that much harder to close.

Expect an occasional curveball. With tight credit requirements and longer underwriting, closing in 30 days is very difficult. Delays are becoming more prevalent as well. So, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Statistics & numbers are critical. ERA stands for Earned Run Average, not a well known local real estate office. CMA stands for Comparative Market Analysis. For real estate, you need to crunch a lot of different numbers: price per square foot, PITI, down payment, taxes, etc. You can’t properly analyze a baseball team or a real estate market without understanding the numbers. Sabermetrics for real estate anyone?

Waiting until next year is not always the best strategy. This is more true than ever. Most experts believe we have hit bottom in the Greater Boston area. Interest rates are still at historical lows. It’s time to pine tar the bat and get up to the plate. Get out of the on deck circle.

Spitting should never be permitted in a dugout or a living room. ‘Nuff said.

Play Ball and go Red Sox!!!

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Richard “Lefty” Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney and life-long, diehard Red Sox fan. Rich was once a fire-balling southpaw pitcher in Little League, striking out 14 batters in one game. His baseball career is now relegated to second-guessing managerial decisions and throwing things at the TV.

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Annual Percentage Rate (APR), Amount Financed, Finance Charge, and Total Payments…the Truth In Lending Disclosure Statement is one of the most challenging disclosure forms to explain to borrowers at a Massachusetts real estate closing. I like to call it the “Confusion In Lending” Statement because the form is what happens when the government attempts to recalculate your interest rate and closing costs in a way most human beings would not even consider.

To explain the Truth In Lending Disclosure, we’ll use a dummy form for a $500,000 purchase transaction with a $400,000 loan (20% down payment), a 30 year fixed rate loan at 5.00% at a cost of 1 point.

Annual Percentage Rate

The confusion begins. The Annual Percentage Rate, or APR, as you can see is not 5.00%, which is the contract interest rate for the loan. Why? Because the APR does not use the loan amount for its calculations but rather the “Amount Financed.”

Amount Financed

And the confusion continues. The Amount Financed is not the $400,000 loan amount, but is about $6,600 less than the loan amount. That is because the Amount Financed equals the loan amount ($400,000) less prepaid loan and closing fees and payments. Fees included in the amount financed are: points, lender fees such as underwriting, process, tax service, mortgage insurance, escrow company fees, prepaid interest to end of closing month, and Homeowners Association fees. All of these fees are added up and subtracted from the loan amount to reach the Amount Financed figure. Note that depending on when the loan closes in the month, and fees from third parties such as escrow companies the Amount Financed will vary and therefore so will APR.

How The APR Is Calculated

Now that we have the Amount Financed, we can calculate the APR. For a 30 year fixed loan such as this, the true loan amount is amortized for the loan period using the interest rate. In our example $400,000 amortized for 30 years at 5.00% has a payment of $2,147.29 per month paying principal and interest.

To calculate the APR, we use the same payment –$2147.29 every month for 30 years– to pay off an Amount Financed of $393,372.22 (loan amount less costs) to reach an APR of 5.141%. So the APR is higher than the interest rate because the Amount Financed is lower than the loan amount for the same monthly payment and term.

ARMs–Adjustable Rate Mortgages

If you are taking out an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), you may as well just throw the Truth in Lending Disclosure out the window. The TIL is allowed to be based on the introductory interest rate through the entire life of the loan. Your adjustable rate mortgage, however, will reset its interest rate after 3, 5, 7, or 10 years depending on the type of product. There’s no way to predict where interest rates will be in the future, so the Truth in Lending Disclosure is inherently inaccurate for ARMs.

Explaining the Truth in Lending Disclosure is one of the many functions of a Massachusetts real estate closing attorney. In other states which aren’t required to use closing attorneys, they will not explain these complicated forms to you.

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

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Massachusetts Purchase And Sale Agreement Basics

by Rich Vetstein on May 11, 2010

Signing or not signing?TRID Update: Please review our article on new changes with the PS Agreement 

As a real estate attorney, I always take the time to fully explain to our clients the intricacies of the Massachusetts Purchase and Sale Agreement.

The purchase and sale agreement is the governing contract between the Buyer and the Seller regarding the proposed property to purchase. Most Buyers submit an initial Offer to Purchase to a Seller, which spells out the terms of the contract.  The purchase and sale agreement supersedes the offer, and can be thought of as the “long form” contract. At first blush, the purchase and sale agreement, like most legal documents, can be difficult to read and comprehend.

Deal Terms

First, like all contracts, the purchase and sale agreement sets out the terms of the deal. These terms primarily are taken from the offer. This includes the names of the parties, the legal description of the property (taken from the current deed), the purchase price, the mortgage commitment date, the closing date, any Seller credits, and any agreed upon fixtures that will remain with the property or be taken by the Seller.

Title and Deed

Second, the purchase and sale agreement deals with the title to the property and the deed. It lays out the framework for a conveyance (a real estate transfer) in Massachusetts. The agreement spells out that the Seller conveys the deed to the Buyer in return for consideration, then the deed is recorded and the Buyer becomes the owner of the property. However, in Massachusetts, once the deed is recorded at the proper Registry of Deeds, then any title issues “run with the land.”  Thus, the new owner becomes responsible for any outstanding encumbrances or liens that were not properly discharged. In order to protect the Buyer, the purchase and sale agreement provides that the Seller must convey “good, clear and marketable” title. Acting as the buyer’s or lender’s counsel, or both, attorneys will review the title exam and work with the Seller’s attorney to clear any title issues, so that the buyer will receive a certification of title and an owner’s title insurance policy.

Seller Responsibilities

Third, the purchase and sale agreement lays out the responsibilities of the Seller. This includes maintaining insurance and upkeep on the property until closing, obtaining a smoke and carbon monoxide certificate at closing, paying the broker’s commission, obtaining a 6(d) certificate for a condominium, and requiring that the taxes be paid by Seller up until the closing date (through an adjustment to the HUD Settlement Statement). The agreement also provides that the Seller’s agent (either the realtor or the attorney) holds the buyer’s deposit in an escrow account.

Anything But “Standard”

There is a note of caution about the standard form Massachusetts purchase and sale agreement. The standard form provides several hidden advantages to a Seller, I’ve written about on this Blog. Thus, buyers must have an experienced attorney revise the agreement and flag those built in deficiencies. For example, if a Buyer were to default prior to closing, the standard form document provides no cap on the damages; a skilled attorney will know to cap the damages at the deposit. The same is true if a buyer loses his rate lock if there is a delay of the closing; a skilled attorney would use language to protect the buyer in this situation.

An experienced attorney will produce a Rider to the purchase and sale agreement that will have language that protects a Buyer’s deposit and provides an aggressive layer of due diligence. For example, if the Buyer is purchasing a condominium, the Rider should have the Seller make representations that the association is not contemplating any special assessments, there are no pending lawsuits against the association, and the budget is in good order. Other issues include seller repairs, septic system/Title V compliance, radon gas, UFFI insulation, lead paint, and buyers’ access to the property while it is under agreement.

Since the P&S is “anything but standard,” an experienced real estate attorney who review and negotiates the document will certainly add value to the closing process.

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After months in the making, I am very pleased to announce the roll-out of TitleHub Closing Services, LLC, a cutting-edge closing settlement service that uniquely provides a full platform of legal and technology-based services. TitleHub’s mission is to transform the convoluted real estate closing process into an easy, customer-focused and technologically enhanced experience. In collaboration with my colleague Marc Canner, Esq., we have created a company that we believe will serve as the model for the next generation of residential real estate title and closing services.

Buyers, sellers, realtor and lenders will “stay informed” and “stay connected” to their transactions through:

  • Our innovative, content-packed website (www.titlehub.com) which serves as a great informational resource.
  • Our “E-Closings” system. This is a secure on-line document management system that allows borrowers and real estate professionals unlimited real-time access to obtain status updates of their deals and the ability to upload and download key transactional documents (recorded condominium documents, executed Purchase and Sale Agreement, Good Faith Estimate, HUD-1 Settlement Statement, etc). Click here for more information.
  • Exclusive partnership with the Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog.
  • Social media interaction. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and Active Rain.
  • Seminar Series; We offer topical seminars to realtors and lenders to help them stay current with the complicated real estate legal landscape as well as seminars to learn new marketing, blogging, and social media techniques.
  • Paperless Solutions. We do have the ability to electronically record deeds and mortgages at registry of deeds which offer the service. In the future, we hope to be at the forefront of true e-closing paperless transactions, once there is broader lender and regulatory acceptance.

If you are a realtor or mortgage professional interested in TitleHub’s platform, please contact us at info@titlehub.com, and we’ll give you a demonstration.

The TitleHub Leadership Team
Marc E. Canner, Esq., President/CEO
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq., Vice President and Director of Marketing
Patrick T. Maddigan, Esq., Director of Operations & Business Development

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Signing or not signing?A lot more than you might think. Plus, Massachusetts law now requires attorneys to preside over residential real estate closings.

Many buyers and sellers often wonder what a real estate closing attorney does other than conduct the closing. Well, quite a bit of work actually.

The closing attorney acts as the “quarterback” of the closing process, performing many time consuming tasks preparing a transaction from intake to closing. Important note: many borrowers don’t realize that they may request to select their own closing attorney instead of the bank attorney. The new RESPA rules which went into effect on January 1 encourage lenders to allow borrowers to select from a list of attorneys or their own personal attorney. This will most often save you several hundred dollars because you won’t have to hire a separate attorney to review/negotiate the purchase and sale agreement.

Intake/Title Examination

When the title order arrives from the lender, the closing attorney first orders a municipal lien certificate, which verifies the real estate taxes and other municipal charges on the property. Insurance binders and payoffs of mortgages are also ordered.

The closing attorney is responsible for examining the title to the property. For purchases, the title is researched going back 50 years. The closing attorney carefully reviews the title examination to ensure there are no title defects; if there are any issues, the attorney will work with all parties to resolve them. Some title defects are extremely difficult to resolve. (By law, the closing attorney must provide new home buyers with a certification of title).

Title Insurance

The closing attorney also coordinates the issuance of title insurance to the lender and the new home buyer. I always recommend that buyers obtain their own title insurance policies because even with the most accurate title examination, there can be hidden title defects that could derail a later sale or refinance. Look no further than the Land Court Ibanez foreclosure mess for what can happen when you don’t get an owner’s title policy.

The Closing

As the closing day approaches, the closing attorney will coordinate with the lender for the preparation and delivery of numerous documents to be signed at closing, including the mortgage, promissory note, truth in lender disclosures, and most importantly, the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The closing attorney will also coordinate with the seller to receive the deed to the property, final utility bills, smoke detector/CO2 certificates and condominium 6(d) certificates. As outlined in the Settlement Statement, the closing attorney is responsible for handling a number of issues at closing:

  • Payoff and discharge of mortgages
  • Payment and allocation of real estate taxes and utilities (water, oil, etc.)
  • Payment of realtor commissions
  • Disclosure and payment of lender fees and closing costs
  • Funding of mortgage escrow account
  • Payment of transfer taxes and recording fees
  • Payment of pre-paid interest
  • Distribution of sale proceeds
  • Title V septic certification and condominium 6(d) certification

The closing attorney then conducts the closing. He will explain the numerous loan and closing documents signed by buyer and seller, collect and distribute all funds, and otherwise ensure that the closing is properly conducted.

Post Closing

After the closing, the attorney processes the loan funding, performs a title rundown to ensure there are no changes in the title, then records the deed, mortgage and other recordable instruments. The attorney will also ensure that all paid off mortgages and liens are discharged. Title insurance policies are issues several weeks after the closing.

Seller Attorney Responsibilities

Customarily, a seller’s attorney in Massachusetts has the following responsibilities:

  • Generate the first draft of the purchase and sale agreement
  • Order mortgage payoff statements
  • Assistance with any title clearing efforts such as obtaining old mortgage discharges, death certificates
  • Draft the quitclaim deed and power of attorney
  • Prepare trustee’s certificate
  • Obtain condominium 6d certificate, smoke detector certification, final water/sewer readings (Realtor typically will obtain these as well)
  • Representation of seller at closing

We are experienced Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys. Please contact us if you need legal assistance with your purchase, sale or refinance transaction.

 

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images-13An excited young couple about to close on their first home walk into into the closing attorney’s office. The day before they received via secure email all of the loan documents to review and approve with their personal attorney. The closing attorney arrives without any paper, armed only with a laptop attached to a digital signature pad. The sellers are not present as they have already signed the deed and other documents electronically the day before over the secure electronic closing system. The couple quickly review the closing documents on the attorneys’ laptop, clicking an “I Agree” button acknowledging receipt and review of each document. The couple sign the digital signature pad, and the captured signatures are automatically applied to all of the signature blocks of the documents. The closing attorney electronically notarizes all documents requiring witnessing or notarization. The closing is over in 15 minutes, and the couple walks out with a CD-ROM containing all the signed closing documents and the keys to their new home. The closing attorney then electronically records the deed and mortgage with the registry of deeds, funds the loan, and makes all of the disbursements. The executed loan documents are then electronically transmitted to the lender and digitally archived.

This is not an imaginary scenario. Electronic closings (e-closings) are happening now, and they are the future of real estate conveyancing. I believe that electronic closings will change the way lenders, title companies and closing attorneys do business.

The advantages of an e-closing system are numerous and include:

  • More convenient and efficient closing process for home buyers and sellers.
  • Automated delivery of electronically signed loan documents directly to post closing – eliminating costs and time. Fund the loans faster, in as little as 48 hours.
  • Drastically improve the efficiency of real estate transactions with reduced contract-to-closing times.
  • The Green Factor: Eliminates thousands of paper documents. Buyers receive the entire signed closing package on CD.
  • Reduce shipping and closing costs.

Electronic closings are very slowly moving into Massachusetts. (Attorneys, who must conduct most real estate closings in Massachusetts, are notorious late adopters of new technology). Since July, without much fanfare, the Middlesex Registry of Deeds in Cambridge, Hampden County Registry in Springfield, and Plymouth Registry of Deeds have adopted electronic recording capabilities. Hopefully, the other registries follow suit.

TitleHub Closing Services LLC, in Massachusetts, is on the cutting edge of e-closing technology.

Electronic closings are a great selling point to customers mortgage lenders, banks and credit unions. Here is a recent article about a credit union in Michigan successfully offering electronic closings.

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Now that time is running out on the First Time Home Buyer Credit–what I call the Realtor Cash For Clunkers program — I came across this comically shameless video produced by one of America’s largest real estate brokerage companies.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2leBqxcwhvI]

But seriously folks, the credit seems like a good idea, but filled with exceptions.  From what I can decipher, the basics of how you qualify for the credit are:

  • First-time buyer refers to anyone who has not owned a principle residence in the past three years.
  • Non-married buyers qualify as long as one person meets the first-time buyer definition. Married tax payers must both be first-timers to qualify.
  • The tax credit is equal to 10% of the purchase price, up to a maximum of 8,000 dollars.
  • The home must be purchased between January 01, 2009 and December 01, 2009 and remain your primary residence for three years.
  • You don’t have to pay it back. (Filing options available from the IRS website).

The confusing part comes into play for those looking to use the tax credit towards their downpayment or closing costs. The basic story is that FHA-approved lenders are able to create an additional loan that would allow you to access this money upfront for the following:

  • Assist in covering your closings costs.
  • Buy down your interest rate.
  • As additional money towards your downpayment.

From what realtors say, the catch is that buyers must still fund a minimum down payment of 3.5% from their own wallets. The tax credit can be used in addition to the 3.5% downpayment but cannot be used to make up any part of the 3.5%. The other catch is apparently these loans are not easily carried out and assistance is not widely available to say the least. Massachusetts just came out with its own program.

My friend Metrowest Massachusetts real estate broker extraordinaire Bill Gassett has all the details in his real estate blog and here.

Good lord, my head is still spinning from that video. I’ll leave it to the realtors to explain the credit in some fashion of clarity.

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Breaking News (1.7.11): Mass. Supreme Court Upholds Ibanez Ruling, Thousands of Foreclosures Affected

Update (2/25/10)Mass. High Court May Take Ibanez Case

Breaking News (10/14/09)–Land Court Reaffirms Ruling Invalidating Thousands of Foreclosures. Click here for the updated post.

In late March of this year in the case of U.S. Bank v. Ibanez, Massachusetts Land Court Judge Keith C. Long issued one of the most controversial rulings in recent years which has called into question hundreds if not thousands of foreclosure titles across Massachusetts. The Ibanez decision is what happens when you mix equal parts of a deteriorating real estate market with Wall Street’s insatiable demand for mortgage back securities with sloppy lending practices and outdated state foreclosure statutes.

The Facts

In the Ibanez case, the Land Court invalidated two foreclosure sales because the lenders failed to show proof they held titles to the properties through valid assignments. In modern securitized mortgage lending practices, the ownership of a mortgage loan may be divided and freely transferred numerous times on the lenders’ books, but the documentation (i.e., the assignments) actually on file at the Registry of Deeds often lags far behind. The Land Court ruled that foreclosures were invalid when the lender failed to bring  the ownership documentation (the assignments) up-to-date until after the foreclosure sale had already taken place. This was true even if the lender possessed an assignment with an effective date (i.e., backdated) before the first foreclosure notice.

The net effect of the Ibanez decision is to call into serious question the validity of any foreclosure where the lender did not physically hold the proper paperwork at the time it conducted its auction. This has already caused significant uncertainty in the ownership of many properties that have already been foreclosed and are awaiting foreclosure.

In deciding the case, Judge Long took a very pro-consumer approach to the foreclosure law, persuaded that the apparent title defect would chill a foreclosure sale and harm debtors:

None of this is the fault of the [debtor], yet the [debtor] suffers due to fewer (or no) bids in competition with the foreclosing institution. Only the foreclosing party is advantaged by the clouded title at the time of auction. It can bid a lower price, hold the property in inventory, and put together the proper documents any time it chooses. And who can say that problems won’t be encountered during this process?

Also of significance was that Judge Long rejected a customary Massachusetts conveyancing standard which provides that recording out of order assignment documents does not create a title defect. I think Judge Long got it wrong as he elevated form over substance and didn’t give enough credence to the legal principle that the note follows the mortgage, but hey, I’m just a lowly attorney.

What now?

The Ibanez ruling is not final as the lenders have filed a motion to reconsider with the Land Court. And now the heavy hitters have gotten involved. The Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts has taken the unusual step of filing a friend of the court brief, urging the Land Court to reconsider its decision.

On the consumer side, the National Consumer Law Center and well known consumer class action attorney Gary Klein have joined the fray and filed a brief. Attorney Klein has also filed a class action in federal court to challenge completed foreclosures and future foreclosures on the same facts as the two foreclosures voided in Ibanez.

As of now, Judge Long of the Land Court has not made a final decision which should come in a matter of weeks. I will update you when the ruling comes down. Either way, in my opinion, given the widespread impact of this case, it is destined for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. It’s hard to say how the SJC will come down on this.

What can you if you are affected by the Ibanez ruling?

Well, if you are a homeowner facing foreclosure, consider Ibanez an early Christmas present. You now have a powerful tool to argue for the invalidation of the foreclosure sale. (I won’t comment on the fact that you still owe the lender money).

If you are contemplating purchasing a property out of foreclosure or are selling a previously foreclosed property, pray that there’s an existing title insurance policy on the property, and ask the title company to insure over the issue. Some are willing to do this. Others are not. The other option (albeit expensive) is to hire an attorney to file a Land Court “quiet title” action to validate the proper assignment of the mortgage loan, assuming you can track the documents down and they were not backdated. In Ibanez, the lender couldn’t produce the assignment until 14 months after the auction. The last option, and unfortunately probably the safest bet, is to sit, wait and see how the Land Court and appellate courts will rule ultimately. Not the answer you probably want to hear, but it’s reality.

Please contact Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. for more information.

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Signing or not signing?The Massachusetts Purchase and Sale Agreement Is Anything But “Standard”

Home buyers sign a never ending pile of legal documents to purchase a home. But arguably the most important document in the entire transaction is the Massachusetts purchase and sale agreement. The purchase and sale agreement is signed after the Offer to Purchase is executed, and spells out the parties’ responsibilities during the interim period when the property is taken off the market and the closing.

Important Update: Please read our article on the new TRID Rules

In Massachusetts, the form most often used is the so-called standard form agreement supplied by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board or one modeled very closely to this form. (Due to copyright laws, we cannot embed the standard form agreement — contact my office if you need assistance with drafting a purchase and sale agreement). The “standard” form purchase and sale agreement is, however, far from standard, especially for buyers. In fact, the standard form is very much slanted in favor of the seller, and the playing field must be “leveled” to protect the buyer’s interests.

Click here to read our series of posts on the Massachusetts Purchase and Sale Agreement

This is why it’s imperative that home buyers and sellers alike retain a Massachusetts real estate attorney to modify the “standard” form purchase and sale agreement in order to best protect all parties’ rights and remedies, and customize the agreement to the particular aspects of the transaction. This is typically done through a “rider” to the purchase and sales agreement. Often, the buyers’ attorney and the sellers’ attorney will attached two different riders to the agreement.

I’ll outline a few common issues not addressed adequately in the “standard” purchase and sale agreement. (Most of these are from the buyer’s perspective).

Mortgage Contingency

The “standard” purchase and sale agreement does provide a basic mortgage contingency which gives the buyer the option of terminating the agreement if mortgage financing falls through. However, for a buyer, the more specific you are in terms of interest rate, points, name of lending institution and definition of “diligent efforts,” the better. Buyers’ counsel should specify that the buyer will not be required to apply to more than one institutional lender currently making mortgage loans of the type sought by the buyer and that the buyer may terminate the purchase and sale agreement unless the buyer obtains a firm, written commitment for a mortgage loan. Here is a sample rider provision:

MODIFICATION TO PARAGRAPH 26: Application to one such bank or mortgage lender by such date shall constitute “diligent efforts.”  If the written  loan commitment contains terms and conditions that are beyond BUYER’S reasonable ability to control or achieve, or if the commitment requires BUYER to encumber property other than the subject property, BUYER may terminate this agreement, whereupon any payments made under this agreement shall be forthwith refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto.

Home Inspection/Repairs

Typically, buyers complete the home inspection process prior to the signing of the purchase and sale agreement, and any inspection contingency provision is deleted from the purchase and sale agreement. What happens if the inspection results are not ready before the P&S signing deadline or if the seller has agreed to perform repairs prior to the closing or give a credit at closing? In this case, a home inspection contingency clause should be added back to the agreement, and any seller repairs or closing credits should be meticulously detailed in the rider.

Septic Systems/Title VMassachusetts Septic Title V requirements for selling property

If the home is serviced by an on-site sewage disposal system otherwise known as a septic system, the Massachusetts Septic System Regulations known as Title V requires the inspection of the system within 2 years of the sale of the home. Failed septic systems can cost many thousands of dollars to repair or replace.  Thus, buyers would look to be released from the agreement if the septic system fails inspection.  Alternatively, buyers could be given the option to close if the seller can repair the septic system during an agreed upon time period, provided that the buyers do not lose their mortgage rate lock.

Radon Gas

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. The ground produces the gas through the normal decay of uranium and radium. As it decays, radon produces new radioactive elements called radon daughters or decay products which scientists have proven to cause lung cancer. Radon testing should be performed by buyers during the home inspection process. Elevated levels of radon (above 4.0 picoCuries per liter (pCi/l) can be treated through radon remediation systems. The purchase and sale agreement should provide for a radon testing contingency and the buyers’ ability to terminate the agreement if elevated radon levels are found, or the option of having the sellers pay for a radon remediation system.

Lead Paintmassachusetts lead paint law

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, buyers of property are entitled to have the property inspected for the presence of lead paint.  (Sellers are not required to remove lead paint in a sale situation). Because the abatement of lead paint can be costly, buyers typically look for a right to terminate the purchase and sale agreement if lead paint exists and the abatement/removal of it exceeds a certain dollar threshold. Here is an example of a provision added to the standard form:

LEAD PAINT.  Seller acknowledges that the Buyers have a child under six (6) years of age who will live in the premises.  In accordance with Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 111, section 197A, as the premises was constructed prior to 1978, Buyer may have the premises inspected for the presence of lead paint which inspection shall be completed within ten (10) days after the execution of this Agreement, unless extended in writing by the parties.  If the inspection reveals the presence of lead paint, the abatement and/or removal of which will cost $2,000 or more, then Buyer may terminate this agreement, whereupon any payments made under this agreement shall be forthwith refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto.  Any lead paint removal or abatement shall be Buyers’ responsibility.

Access

When my wife and I signed the Offer to Purchase on our house, she couldn’t wait to get in there with her tape measure, paint chips and fabric swatches. Oftentimes overlooked, but a cause of friction is buyers’ ability to access the house prior to the closing. To avoid such friction, an access clause should be added to the purchase and sale agreement giving the buyer reasonable access at reasonable time with advance notice to the sellers–it’s still their house after all.

These are just a few of the issues not adequately addressed by the “standard” form purchase and sale agreement. There are many more.

_________________________________________
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a nationally recognized real estate attorney, and has handled thousands of Massachusetts real estate transactions. He can be reached via email at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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images-9My last post on this blog and on Boston.com on Massachusetts landlord-tenant law spawned many questions on the Massachusetts security deposit law.  So, I decided to go into more detail about the topic.

Massachusetts Security Deposits–An Overview

Last month’s rent and security deposits are one of the most heavily regulated aspects of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law and are fraught with pitfalls and penalties for the unwary, careless landlord. Any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts last month’s rent and security deposit law can subject a landlord to far greater liability than the deposit, including penalties up to triple the amount of the deposit and payment of the tenant’s attorneys’ fees. This is why I advise landlords not to require security deposits. If a deposit is necessary, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which are less strict than security deposits. If landlords insist on taking a security deposit, they must follow the law to the letter.

Requirements For Holding A Security Deposit

The following steps must be followed when a landlord holds a security deposit:

  1. When the deposit is tendered, the landlord must give the tenant a written receipt which provides:
    • the amount of the deposit
    • the name of the landlord/agent
    • the date of receipt
    • the property address.
  2. Within 30 days of the money being deposited, the landlord must provide the tenant with a receipt identifying the bank where the deposit is held, the amount and account number.
  3. Within 10 days after the tenancy begins, the landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the premises detailing its condition and any damage with a required disclosure statement;
  4. The tenant has an opportunity to note any other damage to the premises, and the landlord must agree or disagree with the final statement of condition and provide it to the tenant.
  5. The security deposit must be held in a separate interest bearing account in a Massachusetts  financial institution protected from the landlord’s creditors.
  6. The landlord must pay the tenant interest on the security deposit annually if held for more than one year.
  7. The security deposit may only be used to reimburse the landlord for unpaid rent, reasonable damage to the unit or unpaid tax increases if part of the lease. Security deposits cannot be used for general eviction costs or attorneys’ fees. Within 30 days of the tenant’s leaving, the landlord must return the deposit plus any unpaid interest or provide a sworn, itemized list of deductions for damage with estimates for the work. Only then can the landlord retain the security deposit.

What Do I Do If The Landlord Mishandles My Security Deposit?

First, talk with the landlord about the situation and respectfully remind him or her of the law’s requirements. Many landlords will balk at the potential penalties for a security deposit violation, and most issues can be resolved amicably, usually with the return of the deposit with interest. If that doesn’t work, send the landlord a certified demand letter under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. If that fails, take the landlord to Small Claims Court (the limit for these type of claims involving triple damages is $6,000) or contact an attorney.

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I’m pleased to have Donald J. Griffin, MAI, SRA, an experienced appraiser with Don Griffin Appraisals, Inc., who is here to guest blog about a topic very much on the mind of Massachusetts homeowners, buyers and sellers:  Massachusetts property values.

Don Giffin, MAI Appraiser

What Happened?  The Last Three Years

The Massachusetts real estate market was artificially stimulated by forces outside the normal supply demand model. This led to artificially increased values, mostly at the lower end of the value range in communities at the lower end of the income range. Once the stimulation was terminated, around 2006, and market forces returned to normal, the correction process began. The Massachusetts market has to absorb all of the artificially induced value, before it can start to act in a normal supply demand model.  Any particular property will be affected by the market that it is in, therefore to answer the question, “How much has my property value declined?”, look at the community it is in, and the location of its value in the community’s range of value, i.e. low medium and high. In general a high end valued home in a community with high incomes will see little to no loss, while a low end valued home in a community with low income will see high declining value. Most communities will continue an upward trend in average value. The upper end in both markets will continue to feel the pressure of the recession and tight credit for 12-18 months until the recession’s negative effects are mostly dissipated and we have moved into a strong growth mode. Properties at the low end of the value range in all communities will wait a long time to attain the values seen in 2006.

The Broad Strokes

In general, decline in real estate value is a result of an imbalance in supply and demand.  More sellers than buyers, cause reduced prices. If possible sellers wait, hoping the market will improve.

The Impact of the Sub-Prime And Credit Crisis On Massachusetts Property Values

There have been many articles written describing the sub prime mortgage market in relation to the collateralized mortgaged backed security market. For our purposes I will simply state that the effect was to increase demand for real estate, mostly at the low end of the value range. I say the low end because the goal was to bring marginal buyers into the market by lowering the bar for qualification for a mortgage.

This did not affect the middle and upper income value ranges in Massachusetts as much, since high income earners were already in the market.

However, there was an “upsurge effect.” When a low value owner sold for a profit, they moved up to the middle market, creating a secondary effect on the middle and upper markets.

From 2003 to about 2006 we can document an upsurge in Massachusetts property values, which we attribute to the excess demand entering the market during this period.

Case Study, Arlington, MA:  The Middle Market

I’ll use Arlington, Massachusetts as a sample middle market community. I’ve tracked the average sales prices of single family homes from 2003 through 2009 Year to Date, shown here:

arlington graph

Case Study, Wellesley, MA:  The High End Market

I’ll use Wellesley, Massachusetts as a sample upper market community where I’ve tracked the average sales prices of single family homes from 2003 through 2009 Year to Date, shown here:wellesley graph

What Markets Have Been Affected?

In general, middle market Massachusetts communities, such as Arlington, have seen declines at the low end, with recent increases at the middle value ranges, mostly correcting the effects of the oversupply caused by the subprime mortgages. The upper value range in a middle market community has mostly seen steady growth in value, but is now starting to feel the impact of the recession.

High income communities, such as Wellesley have seen similar changes. The YTD value declines at the upper level are more pronounced and reflect not only the recession but also the lack of ready loans for jumbo mortgages.

Property Value Predictions:  What Does The Trend Tell Us?

Following the trend lines we would predict that the lower and middle value ranges in most Massachusetts communities will continue an upward trend in average value. The upper end in both markets will continue to feel the pressure of the recession and tight credit for 12-18 months until the recession’s negative effects are mostly dissipated and we have moved into a strong growth mode.

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Thanks so much for the informative post, Don.  We look forward to your future contributions to the Massachusetts Real Estate Blog. As you can see, Donald J. Griffin, MAI, SRA really knows his stuff. So please contact him for your appraisal needs.

Richard D. Vetstein

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Sadly, completing a home improvement project on time, on budget and with good, quality work is the exception rather than the norm these days. I have seen homeowners pour their home equity lines and savings into home improvement projects only to see the project left incomplete and riddled with defective and poor quality work, or worse, with the contractor abandoning the project and going bankrupt.

Homeowners can avoid ending up in this predicament by following my 10 Things You Need To Know About Hiring A Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Pre-Construction Planning:  Budget, Budget, Budget

Recognizing that even the most thought-out home improvement projects tend to run up to 10% over budget, careful planning and budgeting before the work starts is paramount. There are almost always going to be contingencies and unknowns (like the mold in your walls that you never knew about) cropping up during construction so you need to allocate a sufficient reserve (10-15% should do) to cover these unknown risks. Once the budget is set, stick to it, even if it means foregoing that gorgeous Italian tumbled marble in the master bath. Also, come up with a written construction schedule.

2.  Interview At Least 3 Contractors and Obtain Written, Detailed Estimates From Each

I cannot tell you how many times homeowners select the first contractor to whom they were referred without vetting them through a proper bidding process. Interview 3 contractors, be with them when they walk through hour home, and more importantly, get written, detailed estimates from each contractor. None of this, “Yeah, this project should run about 10k.” This is also your best opportunity to negotiate the best price as you can play each contractor against each other. Be aware that the cheapest bid does not necessarily equate with the best work.

3.  Obtain 3 References And Check The Better Business Bureau

This is a critical, yet often overlooked piece of preventative maintenance. Most folks are referred to a home improvement contractor through a friend or family member, however, you should ask the contractor for at least 3 references. Call each of them, then ask each of them if they know anyone else who has worked with the contractor and call them too. (The contractor will always list their most “friendly” references). Ask them if the contractor performed quality work on time and within budget. Were there issues with scheduling, delivery of the correct materials, and the labor?  This is your opportunity to get the real scoop. Search the Better Business Bureau for any complaints about the contractor. The BBB has a good resource for spotting contractor rip-off artists.

4.  Check License/Registration Status Of Contractor

You should always select a licensed home improvement contractor. They are regulated by the state and using them entitles you to the protection of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Law and Contractor Guaranty Fund if there is a problem. There are 2 types of home improvement contractor licenses in Massachusetts. A Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) license covers most types of typical home improvement work, except for structural work. Structural work must be performed by a contractor holding a Construction Supervisor License (CSL). You can search for Massachusetts HIC or CLS licensed contractors here. The license search also discloses any complaints against the contractor.

5.  Sign A Written Construction Contract In Compliance With Massachusetts Home Improvement Law (General Laws Chapter 142A)

The Massachusetts Home Improvement Law provides the bare minimum of what is required to be in home improvement contracts over $1,000, but most contracts supplied by the contractor are non-compliant and terribly one-sided. Here’s what you need in your home improvement contract:

  • The home improvement contract must be written, dated, and signed by both parties. Make sure the contractor executes the agreement under the entity which is pulling the permits. Some contractors attempt to work  under another contractor’s company or worker’s compensation policy–this is a red flag. If the contractor is not incorporated but is a “dba” (unincorporated doing business as), he must sign individually. The contractor needs to list his license number as well.
  • The home improvement contract must provide the start date of the work and the date of “substantial completion.”
  • The home improvement contract must provide a detailed description of the work and materials involved.  I suggest incorporating that detailed estimate provided by the contractor discussed previously. (You can attach it as an exhibit or addendum to the end of the contract).
  • The contract must detail the scope of work, being as specific as possible. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Itemize the exact type of materials involved (Andersen windows, California paint, Italian ceramic tile, etc.), and work to be performed (full kitchen remodel with installation of new flooring, appliances, etc.). If you are not specific in the contract, and there’s a problem later, your claim will be severely weakened, if not dead on arrival.
  • The contract must provide the total contract amount and the timing of progress payments. Massachusetts law prohibits a contractor requiring an initial deposit of over 33% of the total contract price unless special materials are ordered.  Any contractor demanding over a 33% deposit should raise a huge red flag . (I recommend setting up payments into thirds, with the first payment due at the start of work, the second payment due halfway through the work, and the final payment due at the satisfactory completion of the work.)  The homeowner should always “holdback” up to 33% of the total cost until the work is done and done right.
  • There are other requirements mandated by the Home Improvement Law.

To be safe, I recommend having an attorney review the contract. Proposed contracts which do not comply with the Home Improvement Law are a red flag.

6.  Hold A Pre-Construction Meeting

Seems pretty obvious, but again frequently contractors jump into a job right after signing the contract without taking the take to meet again with the homeowner. Walk through the project again after the initial estimate. Discuss any changes and scheduling issues. Pin down the contractor as to exactly when the crew will be on the job. Talk about expectations for day end and clean up.

7.  Verify Sufficient Liability Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Insurance

Obtain the contractor’s Worker’s Compensation Insurance Coverage sheet showing that it has worker’s compensation insurance in place as well as the coverage page for its Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. Request that the contractor add you (and your spouse if you own the home jointly) as “additional insureds” on the policy with at least $1M in liability coverage in place. This should protect you if a worker injures himself on the project site.couplewithhouse

8.  Ensure The Contractor Pulls All Permits

Always have the contractor pull the building, plumbing and electrical permits. Owners who secure their own permits are ineligible for protection under the Home Improvement Law. If a contractor is reluctant to pull permits himself, it’s a red flag.

9.  Document All Changes In Writing

I cannot tell you how many times that after signing a comprehensive written agreement, homeowners and contractors alike change the work and increase the contract price orally without any written documentation. This is a huge No-No and will get the homeowner into trouble every time. Ask the contractor for a “change order” to fill out and sign, or create one yourself.  It should, at minimum, provide the original contract price, a detailed scope of the new work, its cost, and the updated total, signed and dated by both parties.

10.  Carefully Monitor The Project And Keep Lines Of Communication Open

Seems like common sense, but don’t go on vacation during a home improvement project, lest you arrive home to a mini-disaster. Keep a log of daily activity that you can match up with the project schedule. Another common complaint is when the construction crew inexplicably fails to show up when you expect and is instead at another project. This happens a lot at the end of the project when the contractor is focusing on the next job. Email or write the contractor and get his firm commitment to finish your job or else you will withhold final payment. If there are any issues or problems, the best way to cover yourself is to document them. Email works great here as it is not too formal yet more than adequate to memorialize the event. Create a final punch list for all incomplete items and withhold final payment until it is completed.

If you are seeking a licensed general contractor in the Greater Boston area who follows these guidelines, call George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction, Inc., (Tel: 508-875-0052) based in Framingham. He also certified under the new Lead Paint Removal Regulations.

Best of luck with your Massachusetts home improvement project!

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Recent Fannie Mae (FNMA) condominium lending regulations are beginning to live up to the hype as having an onerous impact on condominium sales and project development. The changes, made in January 2009, were part of an effort by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to limit risky lending in a segment of the housing market particularly hard hit by foreclosures in recent years.

Here is a brief overview of the Fannie Mae condo guideline changes:

  • For new construction and newly converted condominium developments, 70% of the units must be pre-sold (closed or under contract). This guideline is being increased from 51%.  This is the real Catch-22.  Fannie Mae won’t approve condominium mortgages unless 70% of the units are sold, but a developer cannot sell 70% of the units without buyers being able to obtain conventional Fannie Mae compliant mortgages. Buyers who run into problems here are being forced to get loans from small local banks who hold their own mortgages and are not bound by the FNMA guidelines.
  • No more than 15% of condominium units within a single project can be more than 30 days delinquent on condo fees. This is an existing guideline that is now being applied to new condominium projects. The requirement was also changed from being 15% of the total fee payments to 15% of total units.
  • Fidelity insurance will be required for condominiums with 20 or more units, ensuring that homeowner association funds are protected. Presently, this requirement applies to new projects and is now being extended to include established condominiums.
  • Borrowers must now obtain an HO-6 condominium unit owners insurance policy unless the condominium master policy provides interior unit coverage; coverage may not be less than 20% of the assessed value. A condominium owners policy, known as an HO-6 policy, typically covers personal property, personal liability, and the physical unit from the studs and in. Many policies also include special assessment coverage or the option to include a special assessment coverage rider. Click here for a more extensive post on HO-6 policies.
  • No more than 10% of a project can be owned by a single entity. Apparently, this was to keep the so-called “vulture buyers” from taking over project.
  • No more than 20% of a project can consist of non-residential space. The new guidelines therefore severely impact most mixed commercial-residential use projects, a highly popular development scheme.
  • The condominium/homeowners association must have at least 10% of its budgeted income designated in a capital reserve fund for replacement reserves and adequate funds budgeted for the insurance deductible. Many older condominium associations keep woefully inadequate reserves and operating budgets, so they are non-compliant.
  • No pending litigation involving the structural soundness, safety or habitability of the condominium project. Fannie Mae underwriters will reject financing if the condominium association is involved in litigation over the construction of the project. I’ve written about this more extensively here. Borrowers may ask for a waiver if they can establish adequate insurance coverage for the litigation or otherwise little or no risk of loss to the association.
  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also boosted fees on mortgages for condominium units. Buyers without a minimum 25% down payment have to pay closing-cost fees equal to 0.75% of their loan, regardless of their credit score, under new rules that took effect in April. Fannie Mae has said it will drop that fee in August for cooperative apartments and detached condos.

According to a Fannie Mae, the guidelines can be modified for condominium projects on a case-by-case basis.  Therefore, these guidelines may not apply to all condo projects.

Click here for the guidelines.

What’s the impact of the changes?FNMA condominium guidelines

Certainly, the revised guidelines are negatively affecting condominium buyers’ ability to obtain conventional loans for either a new or established condominium if the project does not conform. Most notably, the changes are dramatically affecting new developments, especially in hard hit areas such as Florida and California.

Fannie Mae has already approved a number of projects. Click here for the full list of FNMA approved projects.

Through discussions with some fellow Massachusetts real estate professionals, the impact here in the Bay State is not as bad as some of the harder hit states, but it’s proving to be a major thorn in many transactions. Real estate attorneys on both sides of the table are working hard to get existing condominium developments in compliance with the new regulations.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who ironically spent the last year lambasting Fannie Mae for its questionable lending practices, is now calling for Fannie Mae to relax these guidelines. We’ll see what happens in D.C., and keep you posted on any changes coming down the pipeline.

Update:  Since I posted this article, I’ve been retained several times to issue attorney opinion letters certifying to a lender that a particular condominium project is in compliance with the new FNMA regulations. If you are in need of such an opinion letter, please contact Richard Vetstein at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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