massachusetts real estate litigation

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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Part 2 of a two part series. For part 1 on filing the Complaint, Venue and Discovery click here.

Expert Testimony

We left off in our last post at the discovery state of litigation. We covered fact discovery of witnesses, but we didn’t address an important component of most real estate litigation cases: experts.

Expert testimony is required when you need to explain to a judge or jury a technical area of the case which is outside the general knowledge of a “regular” person. Experts in a Massachusetts real estate lawsuit can range from appraisers, construction experts, land surveyors, title attorneys, land use planners, civil and wetlands engineers, traffic planners, and handwriting experts. Needless to say, experts are expensive, charging several hundred dollars per hour on an engagement. But they are vitally important. In Massachusetts state court litigation, parties must disclose before trial an expert’s qualifications and a general summary of what the expert will testify to at trial, including his methodology. For litigators like myself, preparing and cross-examining experts is often quite an intellectual challenge and one of the “fun” parts of a trial.

Dispositive Motions

Often in real estate litigation, the case can be decided by way of a “dispositive motion” by the judge prior to trial. In this procedure, called a motion to dismiss or summary judgment, the important facts of the case are undisputed, and the judge can decide the case based on the law. The lawyers will prepare detailed motions, affidavits, and legal briefs, and there will usually be a lengthy hearing before the judge. This procedure will also avoid the need for a trial, saving litigants a much expense. Judges, however, can take a long time deciding a dispositive motion. Months to even a full year is not unheard of.

Pretrial Conference

If the facts of the case are hotly disputed, the case will be set down for a trial date at the pre-trial conference. At the pre-trial conference, the attorneys meet with the judge to discuss readiness for trial, witness lists, expert testimony, unusual legal or evidentiary issues, and the status of settlement talks, if any.

Obtaining a firm trial day these days is pretty much a moving target. It really depends on the county. Middlesex Superior is pretty good at giving firm trial dates, while Norfolk County is not, in my experience.  The Land Court gives out firm trial dates, but has no juries. Prepare to wait several months after the pre-trial conference to get a trial date, which will probably be rescheduled at least once. Massachusetts courts have been beset with budget cuts which has negatively impacted the speed of the courts’ docket. Justice moves slowly in the Commonwealth.

Settlement/Mediation

Given the huge costs and delays of litigation, this is a good place to talk about settlement and mediation. I always explore settlement possibilities of a case early on. If a case can be settled early, both litigants can avoid significant legal expenses and can usually craft a better resolution than a judge or jury can. But clients often come to me very upset and emotional about the situation, so talking settlement may be perceived as “caving in” to the other side. It is not, and clients usually see the light once they get a bill or two from my office.

Mediation is a non-binding settlement process where a neutral mediator (usually a retired judge or experienced attorney) will mediate the dispute between the parties in a structured manner. Both sides get to tell their sides of the story, then the mediator will usually separate the parties into different rooms, shuttling back and forth attempting to broker the peace. There is a cathartic and healing process that often occurs during mediation where parties have a chance to express their anger, resentment, and feelings which can greatly assist the settlement process. Also, the settlement itself often can be much more flexible and creative than what a judge or jury can render after a trial. If mediation does not work out, the case goes back on the trial list. There is no obligation to settle.

Trial

Less than 1% of all civil cases in Massachusetts get to the end of a trial. If your case is in this 1%, prepare yourself for an experience. Jury trials are not for the faint of heart. They are incredibly labor intensive, with the attorneys spending hours upon hours preparing for trial, and burning the midnight oil during the trial itself. The more lawyer time required, the higher the legal bill.

If you are selecting a Massachusetts litigation or trial attorney, ask him or her how many civil jury trials they have done. I’m not talking about former district attorneys who have done a bunch of criminal trials. Complex, civil trials are a totally different animal and call for a lawyer who has done a significant amount of civil trial work. Be wary of any lawyer who claims to have won every trial he has done. There is a saying that a trial lawyer who has never lost a case hasn’t tried many in the first place. Don’t be afraid of small law firm attorneys. In my experience, they are much better trying cases than big firm lawyers who spent the greater part of their careers doing document review and depositions.

Appeals

In the American judicial system, litigants can pretty much appeal anything with impunity. Filing an appeal will usually stop a final judgment from issuing, but in some cases the winning party can ask the losing party to post a bond.

Appeals requires a special skill set, great research, and writing by an experienced Massachusetts appellate attorney. The appeals process can take at least a year or even more to complete. The trial record must be assembled by the trial court. If there was a trial, transcripts need to be ordered from the court reporters or digital tapes and then transcribed. This can take quite a bit of time. Then, the attorneys file lengthy appellate briefs, after which the case is scheduled for oral argument before a panel of appellate justices. After oral argument is held, the court will issue its written opinion, which will either uphold the lower court’s decision, reverse it, or remand it back for a new trial or other action. Appellate opinions are released to the general public and become what is known as the common law of Massachusetts, to be cited as precedent in other cases.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember, litigation should be a last resort, once all attempts at an amicable, reasonable resolution fail.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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For most folks, litigation and courtrooms are as foreign as Belgium. When a new clients comes to me with a potential litigation matter, I spend most of our first consultation discussing the process of litigation and how it works. Then inevitably we have to talk about the cost and expense, which for most lawsuits is a lot more than people expect. In this post, I wanted to provide you with a summary of what happens when you decide to file a Massachusetts real estate litigation and lawsuit, or if you have to defend yourself against one.

First Steps: Filing Or Answering The Complaint & Selecting A Venue

The first step in every Massachusetts lawsuit is the filing of the Complaint, along with a filing fee ($285 in Superior Court). The Complaint sets forth the factual allegations of the lawsuit, along with the formal legal claims such as breach of contract, zoning appeal, adverse possession or fraud.

Most real estate litigation cases where the damages exceed $25,000 are filed in either the Superior Court or the Land Court. (For smaller matters under $25,000 you can file in the local District Court; small claims cases are for $7,500 or less).

The Land Court is a specialized court with expertise in real estate disputes. I’ve written about the Land Court here. The Superior Court is the “jack of all trades” trial court, and hears just about every type of civil and criminal dispute at the trial level. Depending on the facts of the case, there are strategic advantages to filing in either Superior or Land Court.

After the complaint is filed, a Summons is issued which must be formally served by constable or sheriff on the “defendants” in the case. The attorney will arrange for service of the summons and complaint to be made and a sheriff will show up at the defendant’s home or business with the legal papers. Defendants have 20 days to “answer” the complaint. The Answer is a formal response to the Complaint, and the defendants can also assert any “counterclaims” he or she may have against the plaintiff.

Pre-Judgment Remedies

Many real estate litigation cases involve asking the court for some type of relief or action during the initial stages of the lawsuit. This is called “pre-judgment relief.” In many real estate cases, a litigant will ask the court for a lis pendens on property, which is a formal notice of the claim recorded on title. In other cases, a litigant will ask for an injunction or restraining order stopping a landowner from building or taking other adverse action which would injure their property.

Asking a court for such pre-judgment relief requires filing motion papers, legal memoranda and often multiple court hearings where the lawyers will argue the issues before the judge. This will add another level of expense on the case, often quite a bit. I usually give clients a ballpark figure of $5,000 for taking a case through the pre-judgment relief stage–could be less, could be more, depending on the response from the other side.

Often cases can be won or lost at these early stages as a lis pendens can stifle a potential sale or an injunction can shut down a construction site, thereby forcing a favorable settlement. Thus, it is very important to have an experienced and savvy Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney work up the case properly and argue the case forcefully during a pre-judgment remedy proceeding. There are certain ways to increase your chances of success at this stage and even obtain relief without the other side even knowing you are going to court, called ex parte relief, if the situation warrants. (Ex parte in Latin means “from (by or for) one party.”)

Phase 2: Discovery

For cases on the normal track, once the answer is filed and all factual allegations and legal claims are raised in the case, it moves to the next stage: discovery. Discovery is the process where each side shares information about the case with each other. Litigation is not supposed to be a cat-and-mouse-hide-the-ball game.

This is a good time to discuss how long it takes to get to a trial in a Massachusetts lawsuit. With huge budget cuts in the courts, it is taking up to 2+ years for most civil cases to reach trial. Yes, you read that correctly. It can take even more time in some cases. I’ve had a case in Norfolk County (Dedham) ready for trial 3 different times, only to get bumped at the last minute, each time costing the client thousands of dollars in legal fees and months of delay. There is really nothing a litigant can do about these delays (save for settling the case out of court).

The discovery stage is the most labor intensive and expensive part of the case, with lawyers taking depositions of witnesses and filing and answering formal written questions, called interrogatories, and responding to requests for document production. There are often disputes and motions which have to be resolved in this stage. Depositions can easily cost $1,000 each, and discovery in a fairly involved case can run easily up to $10,000 + in legal fees.

For the next post, we will discuss Phase 3: Summary Judgment/Pre-Trial, Going To Trial, and Appeals (click here). Stay tuned!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

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26297-cooperation-handshakeSeller Couldn’t Sit Back & Watch Construction Project Unfold

Massachusetts appeals judges have been mighty busy this summer issuing real estate decisions. From the forced removal of condo buildings to toxic mold, to foreclosure eviction defense, it’s been no summer vacation in Massachusetts real estate law.

Handed down today is a case right from a first year law school property exam, Hurtubise v. McPherson, embedded below.

As most real estate professionals know, contracts for the sale of real estate must be in writing and signed by the party to be charged, i.e, the seller. This is a rule of law going back to English common law and is called the Statute of Frauds which can be found in the General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 259, Section 1. As with most black letter law, there are a few exceptions to the general rule, and this case is a textbook example of the “detrimental reliance” exception to the Statute of Frauds.

Hand-Shake Land Swap Agreement

Here are the facts of the case. Hurtubise and McPherson owned adjoining tracts of land in the town of Templeton. Hurtubise operated a storage business on his property. He wanted to build an additional storage shed along the border between his property and McPherson’s property. Hurtubise realized that he could not meet the setback requirements of the local zoning code unless he acquired land from McPherson. Hurtubise approached McPherson, explained his need, and proposed a land trade, offering to convey to McPherson a portion of the front of his (Hurtubise’s) property in exchange for the portion of McPherson’s land at which Hurtubise intended to erect the new storage shed. McPherson agreed to the proposal and the parties shook hands.

Hurtubise proceeded with his plans for construction of the new building. He obtained a building permit and began to excavate along the border of McPherson’s lot. During the seven to eight weeks of construction, Hurtubise saw McPherson at the site. McPherson never objected to the location of the new building. Hurtubise eventually constructed a 300 x 30-foot storage shed for $39,690.

After construction, McPherson objected and accused Hurtubise of taking more land than he initially had represented. McPherson informed Hurtubise that an exorbitant payment of $250,000 would resolve the dispute which Hurtubise refused to pay. McPherson then notified the town that Hurtubise’s new building encroached on his property. The town’s building commissioner revoked Hurtubise’s building permit and ordered him to cease occupancy of the storage shed. After McPherson threatened to demolish the building, Hurtubise brought suit to enforce the oral agreement.

Exception To Written Contract Rule

As mentioned above, to be enforceable, real estate contracts for the sale of property must be in writing and signed by the seller, at minimum. As Judge Mitchell Sikora wrote in the opinion, “however an equitable qualification puts some flexibility into the joints of the Statute.” An oral agreement for the sale of land can be valid if the party seeking enforcement, in reasonable reliance on the contract and on the continuing assent of the party against whom enforcement is sought, has so changed his position that injustice can be avoided only by specific enforcement. In non-legalese, this means that if you start a construction project and spend thousands of dollars upon the promise of a land deal, albeit not in writing, you may be able to enforce that promise.

Because Hurtubise just sat by idly and watched McPherson construct his shed at considerable cost without objection, the court ruled that he couldn’t then complain there wasn’t a written agreement, in an attempt to wriggle out of the land swap deal. The court then ordered Hurtubise to convey McPherson the land necessary to build the shed.

This case is one of the very few instances where a court has upheld an oral hand-shake real estate agreement. The take-away: make sure your real estate contracts are always in writing and signed!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous real estate contract breach cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me if you are dealing with a Massachusetts real estate contract legal dispute.

Hurtubise v McPherson Case

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Apparently for the first time, a Massachusetts trial judge has used a newly decided corporate successor liability theory to hold a newly formed company responsible for the debts of its predecessor, yielding a $2 million judgment for back rent and interest. The plaintiff in the case, Renaissance Worldwide, had leased space to Sitara Networks, a voice-over-Internet (VOIP) company, in a Waltham building. Sitara arranged for a creditor to foreclose on its assets and then bought them back, reopening as a new entity, Converged Access. Converged claimed that it should not be responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent and interest owed by Sitara.

Superior Court Judge Bruce R. Henry said “not so fast,” and ruled that Sitara’s plan to reemerge as Converged Access was improperly designed to shed the company’s unsecured debt, scrubbing the books clean with the transaction. He ordered Converged Access to pay a whopping $1.2 million in back rent plus $800,000 in interest and attorneys’ fees. Judge Henry’s ruling is reportedly the first major decision relying on a year old Milliken decision from the Massachusetts highest court on corporate successor liability. The judge wrote:

“That plan causes me the same concerns as did the similar plan of the defendant in the Milliken case,” Henry wrote. “As the Supreme Judicial Court found in Milliken, ‘Notwithstanding our respect for the integrity of corporate structures, we are troubled by the notion that by merely changing its form, without significantly changing its substance, a single corporation can wholly shed its debts to unsecured creditors, continue its business operations with an eye toward returning to profitability, and have no further obligation to pay such creditors.'”

A Young Company Pursues VOIP Technology But Runs Into Trouble

Sitara, the young company was pursuing voice-over-Internet protocol technology – or VoIP – which essentially allows phone service to work over the Internet. In April 2002, Sitara stopped paying its rent and began talking to Renaissance, the landlord, about renegotiating the lease, but the two never reached a revised agreement. Sitara failed to pay the rent over the next 15 months, accumulating a $1.2 million debt. (Why the landlord let the rent accrue this much is beyond me).

Meanwhile, it owed Lighthouse Capital Partners, a secured creditor, $1.1 million. In 2004, Sitara began working with Argus Management Corp., a consulting firm that specializes in helping distressed companies. Argus tried to negotiate a reduced rent, but the two sides never agreed to terms. In April 2004, one of Sitara’s founders, Malik Khan, sent an e-mail to some colleagues discussing the rent negotiations with Renaissance and outlining several options, including selling the company to Lighthouse and buying the assets back. “We hand the keys to Lighthouse and then purchase the assets back from them,” he wrote. “We have spent time working this last option out with Argus, who have much more experience at this than we do. … Financially, this is a better deal for all of us but more complicated.” In a later e-mail to an investor, Khan spelled out the plan in greater detail: Lighthouse would take over the assets and a new company would buy them, getting “Sitara’s current business, assets, IP, brand names, trade marks and copyrights, with no debt on its balance sheet.” And he noted that, if done “expeditiously,” there would be “a seamless transition from employees, customers and the market, with minimal disruption to business.”

Not So Fast Says The Judge

After several years of litigation, the Judge ruled in a jury waived trial that the plan “engineered by Khan with assistance from Argus and the cooperation of Lighthouse was designed to permit Sitara to continue its business, albeit with a new name, and to shed its unsecured debt.” He ordered the defendants to pay $1.2 million in rent plus roughly $800,000 in interest, as well as attorneys’ fees, which have not yet been calculated.

Take Away

The take-away from this case is think twice before you engage in an end-game corporate foreclosure strategy under which a new related corporate entity is formed to “cleanse” the debts of the predecessor insolvent company. This applies not only in the real estate leasing context but for all types of corporate debt situations. With the economy still recovering, I would expect to see more of these “loan-to-own” successor liability cases as companies squeezed by the credit crunch look to get rid of debt while avoiding the longer, more expensive bankruptcy process. There is still much distressed corporate debt out there and otherwise sound companies that are victims of the credit crisis.

I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to write about commercial leasing and this new case which just came down provided a great opportunity. The case, Renaissance Worldwide Inc. v. Converged Access Inc., can be read here.

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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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istock_000008947813xsmall-300x223.jpgWith the impending influx of renters and students invading the Greater Boston area soon, let’s review some often asked questions concerning Massachusetts landlord tenant law to assist landlords in navigating the rental process.

Screening Prospective Tenants: What You Can and Cannot Ask?

Landlords can legally ask about a tenant’s income, current employment, prior landlord references, credit history, and criminal history. Your rental application should include a full release of all credit history and CORI (Criminal Offender Registry Information).  Use CORI information with a great deal of caution, however, and offer the tenant an opportunity to explain any issues. Landlords should also check the Sex Offender Registry as they can be held liable for renting to a known offender. Use the rental application and other forms from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Under Massachusetts discrimination laws, a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a tenant on the basis of the tenant’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, religion, military/veteran status, disability, receipt of public assistance, and children. It’s best to stay away from asking about these topics.

Students, especially undergraduates, often create problems for landlords. Meet with students personally before signing the lease and firmly explain a “no tolerance” policy against excessive noise, parties and misbehavior.

Careful screening of tenants is far less expensive than the cost of evicting a problem tenant.

Security And Last Month’s Rent Deposits:  Should I Take One?

I advise landlords not to take security deposits because any misstep, however innocent, under the complex Massachusetts security deposit law can subject the landlord to far greater liability than the deposit. Among other requirements, the security deposit law provides:

  • a landlord must give the tenant a written receipt with information as to where the deposit is being held;
  • a landlord must hold a security deposit in a separate interest bearing account, and pay interest to the tenant yearly;
  • at the beginning of the tenancy, a landlord must provide the tenant with a written “statement of condition” of the rental unit detailing its condition and any damage;
  • the tenant may note any damage on the statement of condition
  • At the end of the tenancy, if the landlord desires to deduct repair costs from the security deposit, it must provide the tenant with written notification and copies of all estimates within 30 days of the tenant’s move-out.

Under the law, any slip-up on these requirements can subject the landlord to liability for 3 times the deposit plus the tenant’s attorneys’ fees. That’s why I advise my landlord clients that security deposits aren’t worth the money. If you need a deposit, take a last month’s deposit, the requirements of which can be found here in the Massachusetts last month’s deposit law.

Due to the high interest in security deposits, I wrote a full post on the topic.  Click on Massachusetts Security Deposits to view the article.

My Property Has Lead Paint, What Do I Do?

Under the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law, landlords (and real estate agents) must disclose to tenants the presence of known lead paint for property built before 1978. The property must be de-leaded if a child under 6 will live there. That means if a young couple moves into a unit, then has a baby, the landlord must de-lead the property. There is no way around de-leading other than risking a discrimination claim for not renting to families with small children which is illegal. (Of course, many landlords unlawfully reject families with children). Exposing children to lead paint puts a landlord at huge legal risk.  Financial aid and tax credits for de-leading are available to qualified property owners. For all Massachusetts rental property built before 1978, landlords must provide all tenants regardless of family composition with a Massachusetts Tenant Notification and Certification form, and all lead inspection reports and testing information, if available.

Can I Take A Finder’s Fee?

Only a licensed real estate broker can lawfully collect a finder’s fee for bringing together a landlord and a tenant.  Landlords who don’t work with brokers cannot charge a finder’s fee.

For more information, I recommend reading the Landlord’s Guide To the Law by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. Please contact him with any questions.

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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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