Massachusetts real estate

septic_systemMassachusetts Title V Septic Regulations Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

About 1/3rd of all homes in Massachusetts are dependent upon septic systems, rather than municipal sewer. These include some of the toniest Metrowest suburbs from Wayland, Sudbury, Weston, and Hopkinton all the way down the Cape.

While the month of April brings the start of the busy spring real estate market, it also brings thawing of the permafrost, snow and lots of rain — conditions which can wreak havoc with older septic systems and their leaching fields. Most buyers and their Realtors recoil at the words “Title V” and “fail” and for good reason. The cost to replace a failed septic system can be exorbitant, running upwards of $50,000 in some cases.

Massachusetts septic systems, also called subsurface sewage disposal systems, are governed by Title V or Title 5 of the Massachusetts Environmental Code administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). These complex regulations govern the inspection, design, construction and operation of septic systems. The rules affect as many as 650,000 Massachusetts homeowners with septic systems. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers on Title 5 septic regulations.

My home has a septic system. Do I need to have it inspected before I sell?

If you are selling your home, you cannot close without a passing Title V inspection of your septic system, completed by an inspector who is licensed by the state and your town. A Title V Inspection is good for 2 years. However, the inspection will be valid for 3 years if you have documented septic pumping service each year on or before the anniversary date of your septic system inspection. A list of licensed inspectors is available at your local Board of Health office. Here is a list of Board of Health Departments for Massachusetts.

The inspector will determine whether your system “passes,” “fails” or “conditionally passes” (i.e., requires repairs).

What is a conditional pass?

A conditional pass means that your system will pass if a certain condition is met. A repair or replacement of the distribution box is the most common condition that needs to be met. The inspector would write up his official Title V report with the conditional pass notes outlining the needed replacement of the distribution box. Once the repair is done, your Board of Health will issue a Certificate of Compliance which will be accepted as a passing Title V at closing.

My septic system failed. What do I do now?

If the inspection fails, your septic system must be repaired or replaced. If ownership of the house is not being changed, the homeowner may have up to two years to complete the repair. However, if the Health Agent deems the failure to be a health hazard, the homeowner can be required to begin the process of repairing it immediately.

Failed septic systems can be handled in a real estate sales transaction in two ways. First, the seller can undertake the work and complete it prior to closing, with a full sign off from the Board of Health. This is often the preferable course for all parties and the lender. Alternatively, the parties can agree to an escrow holdback to cover the cost of the septic repair plus a contingency reserve, and the work is undertaken after the closing. Some lenders don’t allow septic holdbacks, however.

What are the steps and permitting fees to install a new septic system?

The first step in beginning a septic repair is to hire an engineer to evaluate your land and to design a system that would be appropriate for your property. Once the engineer is hired, a percolation or “perc” test is scheduled. The perc test measures the rate at which water is absorbed into the ground and determines whether the soil is suitable for a septic system. Based on the results of the perc test, the size of your lot, and the number of bedrooms in your home, the engineer designs a septic system to serve the property. Once the plans have been drawn, four copies of the plans, two copies of the soil analysis, and a check for $175.00 must be submitted to the Board of Health office. The BOH has 45 days to review the plans and to either approve or reject them. If the plans are approved, the plans can be picked up and the installation of the system can begin. If the plans are rejected, the plans must be revised and an additional fee of $75.00 is charged to have them reviewed again. If the designed system requires state variances (done by the Department of Environmental Protection), an additional 90 days must be allotted for the review process.

When the job is completed is there any form of certification that it has been done and that it meets Title V standards?

At the completion of the job, (that is, when all work has been done according to the plans; when the engineer has submitted an “as-built” plan as to where the system was installed; and when the installer has submitted a certification statement), the Health Agent signs a Certificate of Compliance, (COC), which is issued to the installer. Upon payment for the work, the installer gives the COC to the homeowner.

How long does the process for repairing a septic system take, from beginning to end?

A homeowner should allow approximately 3 to 4 months for the installation of a septic system. The length of time can vary from system to system. There are a number of variables involved. The availability of the Health Agent to witness a “perc “ test is one. Because of the amount of work that has to be completed, engineers and installers are often busy for months in advance. In addition, if the designed system requires either local or state variances, time must be allotted for public / variance hearings. A system that is installed in less than 2 months (from start to finish) is the exception to the rule.

What is an average cost for the system?

New septic systems can range from $25,000 to $50,000. The type of system designed, the size of the lot, the number of bedrooms, the engineering fees, the requested variances, the type of soil, and the proximity of the system to water, all contribute to the cost of the system.

If I am required to replace my failed system and I do not have the money, what do I do?

Homeowners who cannot afford to repair their failed septic systems made apply for financial aid with the Massachusetts Home Septic Loan Program. Here is the MassHousing Web site. Here is the PDF for the Homeowner Septic Loan Repair program. Applications for this program are available at most local banking institutions. The loans are low interest and repayable over an extended period of time.

The state also provides a tax credit of up to $6,000 over 4 years to defray the cost of septic repairs to a primary residence. Forms are available from the Department of Revenue (DOR) to allow homeowners to claim up to $6,000 in tax credits for septic upgrades. The credit cannot exceed $1,500 in any year and may be spread out over 4 years. The tax credit is limited to work done on a primary residence only. Tax Form Schedule SC is the correct form for the tax credits. MassDOR Web site

I have a cesspool. Will that pass Title V?

You may be wondering how this all applies to cesspools. Cesspools are much harder to pass in Massachusetts. Does every single one automatically fail? No.

Only those cesspools that exhibit signs of hydraulic failure, are located very close to private or public water supplies, or otherwise do not protect or pose a threat to the public health, safety or the environment will need to be upgraded. Also, cesspools must be upgraded prior to an increase in design flow (e.g., the addition of a bedroom to a home.

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Richard D. Vetstein is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who helps people buy, sell and finance residential real estate. He can be reached via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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No Easy Fix For Defective Foreclosure Titles After U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Ruling

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its opinion today in the much anticipated Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez case considering property owners’ rights when they are saddled with defective titles stemming from improper foreclosures in the aftermath of the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez ruling last January. (Text of case is embedded below). Where Ibanez consider the validity of foreclosures plagued by late-recorded or missing mortgage assignments, Bevilacqua is the next step, considering what happens when lenders sell defective foreclosure titles to third party purchasers. Previously, I discussed the oral argument in the case here and detailed background of the case here.

The final ruling is mix of bad and good news, with the bad outweighing the good as fixing defective Massachusetts foreclosure titles just got a lot harder and more expensive. But, contrary to some sensationalist headlines, the sky is not falling down as the majority of foreclosures performed in the last several years were legal and conveyed good title. Bevilacqua affects those minority percentage of foreclosures where mortgage assignments were not recorded in a timely fashion under the Ibanez case and were otherwise conducted unlawfully. Importantly, Bevilacqua does not address the robo-signing controversy, which may or may  not be considered by the high court in another case.

The Bad News

First the bad news. The Court held that owners cannot bring a court action to clear their titles under the “try title” procedure in the Massachusetts Land Court. This is the headline that the major news outlets have been running with, but it was not a surprise to anyone who has been following the case. Contrary to the Daily Kos, the court did not take the property away from Bevilacqua. He never held good title it in the first place–and you can blame the banksters for that. If you don’t own a piece of property (say the Brooklyn Bridge), you cannot come into court and ask a judge to proclaim you the owner of that property, even if the true owner doesn’t show up to defend himself. It’s Property Law 101.

The Good News

Next the good news. The court left open whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together (like Humpty-Dumpty) and conduct new foreclosure sales to clear their titles. Unfortunately, the SJC did not provide the real estate community with any further guidance as to how best to resolve these complicated title defects.

Background: Developer Buys Defective Foreclosure Title

Frank Bevilacqua purchased property in Haverhill out of foreclosure from U.S. Bank. Apparently, Bevilacqua invested several hundred thousand dollars into the property, converting it into condominiums. The prior foreclosure, however, was bungled by U.S. Bank and rendered void under the Ibanez case. Mr. Bevilacqua (or presumably his title insurance attorney) brought an action to “try title” in the Land Court to clear up his title, arguing that he is the rightful owner of the property, despite the faulty foreclosure, inasmuch as the prior owner, Rodriguez, was nowhere to be found.

Land Court Judge Keith Long (ironically the same judge who originally decided the Ibanez case) closed the door on Mr. Bevilacqua, dismissing his case, but with compassion for his plight.

“I have great sympathy for Mr. Bevilacqua’s situation — he was not the one who conducted the invalid foreclosure, and presumably purchased from the foreclosing entity in reliance on receiving good title — but if that was the case his proper grievance and proper remedy is against that wrongfully foreclosing entity on which he relied,” Long wrote.

Given the case’s importance, the SJC took the unusual step of hearing it on direct review.

No Standing To “Try Title” Action In Land Court

The SJC agreed with Judge Long that Bevilacqua did not own the property, and therefore, lacked any standing to pursue a “try title” action in the Land Court. The faulty foreclosure was void, thereby voiding the foreclosure deed to Bevilacqua. The Court endorsed Judge Long’s “Brooklyn Bridge” analogy, which posits that if someone records a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, then brings a lawsuit to uphold such ownership and the “owner” of the bridge doesn’t appear, title to the bridge is not conveyed magically. The claimant in a try title or quiet title case, the court ruled, must have some plausible ownership interest in the property, and Bevilacqua lacked any at this point in time.

The court also held, for many of the same reasons, that Bevilacqua lacked standing as a “bona fide good faith purchaser for value.” The record title left no question that U.S. Bank had conducted an invalid foreclosure sale, the court reasoned.

Door Left Open? Re-Foreclosure In Owner’s Name?

A remedy left open, however, was whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together and conduct new foreclosure sales in their name to clear their titles. The legal reasoning behind this remedy is rather complex, but essentially it says that Bevilacqua would be granted the right to foreclosure by virtue of holding an “equitable assignment” of the mortgage foreclosed upon by U.S. Bank. There are some logistical issues with the current owner conducting a new foreclosure sale and it’s expensive, but it could work.

That is if the SJC rules in the upcoming Eaton v. FNMA case that foreclosing parties do not need to hold both the promissory note and the mortgage when they foreclose. An adverse ruling in the Eaton case could throw a monkey wrench into the re-foreclosure remedy–it would also be an even bigger bombshell ruling than Ibanez, as it would throw into question the foreclosure of every securitized mortgage in Massachusetts.

In Bevilacqua’s case, he did not conduct the new foreclosure sale, so it was premature for the court to rule on that issue. Look for Bevilacqua to conduct the new foreclosure and come back to court again. The SJC left that option open.

Other Remedies & What’s Next?

The other remedy to fix an Ibanez defect, which is always available, is to track down the old owner and obtain a quitclaim deed from him. This eliminates the need for a second foreclosure sale and is often the “cleanest” way to resolve Ibanez titles.

Another option is waiting out the 3 year entry period. Foreclosure can be completed by sale or by entry which is the act of the foreclosure attorney or lender representative physically entering onto the property. Foreclosures by entry are deemed valid after 3 years have expired from the certificate of entry which should be filed with the foreclosure. It’s best to check with a real estate attorney to see if this option is available.

The last resort is to demand that the foreclosing lender re-do its foreclosure sale. The problem is that a new foreclosure could open the door for a competing bid to the property and other logistical issues, not to mention recalcitrant foreclosing lenders and their foreclosure mill attorneys.

Title insurance companies who have insured Ibanez afflicted titles have been steadily resolving these titles since the original Ibanez decision in 2009. I’m not sure how many defective foreclosure titles remain out there right now. There certainly could be a fair amount lurking in titles unknown to those purchasers who bought REO properties from lenders such as U.S. Bank, Deutsche Bank, etc. If you bought such a property, I recommend you have an attorney check the back title and find your owner’s title insurance policy. Those without title insurance, of course, have and will continue to bear the brunt of this mess.

More Coverage:

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous foreclosure title defect matters & cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact him if you are dealing with a Massachusetts foreclosure title dispute.

Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez; Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court October 18, 2011

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Ocean and waterfront views are some of the most valuable and fought-over property amenities in Massachusetts. The difference in price between a property with unobstructed ocean view versus one without — even on the same street–  can be significant. Massachusetts zoning law books are filled with petty and expensive fights about even the most minimal obstructions of ocean views.

Kenner v. Chatham Zoning Board of Appeals (click to download), recently decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, falls into that category, and provides current guidance on one of the most important aspects of zoning challenges, a legal requirement called “standing.”

Blocked Ocean Views

For anyone practicing in the zoning trenches, it comes as no surprise that Brian and Carol Kenner were none to pleased when the Chatham Zoning Board of Appeals issued a special permit to their neighbors Louis and Ellen Hieb to demolish their existing small cottage and rebuild their house on Chatharbor Lane–with an increase in height of 7 feet and corresponding obstruction of their Atlantic Ocean view. The Kenners, who live directly across the street, claimed that the Heib’s new home would block the light and ocean breezes to their deck and would lead to an increase in traffic in the neighborhood.

Minimal Impact

But after visiting the property, Land Court Judge Charles W. Trombly found that the Kenners failed to provide credible evidence that they would be harmed by the project. Their contention that the increased height would block light and ocean breezes or add to traffic were speculative or generalized opinions, the judge said.

The case went up to the Supreme Judicial Court where Justice Francis Spina ruled that unless a town’s zoning bylaw specifically provides that a zoning board should take into account the proposed structure’s visual impact on abutters, aesthetic view concerns “are not a basis for standing.” Chatham’s zoning bylaw indicates standing can be demonstrated if the plaintiff shows both “a particularized harm to the plaintiff’s own property and a detrimental impact on the visual character of the neighborhood as a whole,” Spina wrote, and the Kenners failed to satisfy this burden.

Harm, Not Just Impact, Required For Standing

My fellow counselor and friend, Daniel Dain, Esq. who represented the Town of Chatham, commented to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly that the SJC clarified for the first time the specific distinction between harm and impact in standing cases, where views, noise and traffic are central. “It has to be harm, not just impact. All impact is not harm,” Dan said.

Dan’s synopsis of the decision is spot on. Standing is always a threshold battle in zoning appeals. Abutters who challenge permits need to gather real, hard evidence — from traffic engineers and other experts — to prove the project will have a real and substantial impact on their protected property rights. Here, a minimal 7 foot increase in view obstruction just wasn’t good enough to prevent a neighbor from rebuilding his oceanview home.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Zoning and Special Permit Attorney. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

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The Boston Globe is reporting that foreclosures in Massachusetts took a steep dive in May, the second consecutive month they have fallen, according to data released yesterday by Boston real estate tracking firm Warren Group.

According to the Globe, there were 582 foreclosure deeds recorded in May, a 58.6 percent decrease from 1,405 during the same month in 2008, and a 24.3 percent drop from April.

Others attribute the drop to the so-called Ibanez decision by the Massachusetts Land Court in late March that invalidated two foreclosures because the lenders failed to show proof they held titles to the properties. The Ibanez decision is a product of the Massachusetts conveyancing practice struggling to keep up with modern mortgage lending practices. The ownership of a 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 brought the ownership documentation (the assignments) up-to-date after the foreclosure sale had already taken place — even if the effective date of the assignment was before the first foreclosure notice. The ruling, which is ultimately expected to head to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, has prompted concern throughout the conveyancing and mortgage industry, and is stalling sales of foreclosed properties, real estate specialists say.

Based on discussions I have had with other real estate attorneys, up to 20% of all foreclosure titles in Massachusetts may be affected by the Ibanez decision.

This is causing so much angst in the industry that title insurers are refusing to insure foreclosure titles affected by the problem. That means in cases where this issue is present, the lender cannot foreclosure, and the real estate sits barren for the indefinite future. This is bad for the lender who is trying to get rid of a non-performing asset, for the potential buyers interested in purchasing foreclosed properties, and certainly for the neighborhoods affected by blighted foreclosed properties.

Here is a copy of a portion of a memo sent by Stewart Title Company to its local title agents suspending authorizations to issue title insurance over titles derived from foreclosures which are affected by this problem:

Date: April 22, 2009
To: All Massachusetts Issuing Offices
RE: Recent Land Court Decisions Requiring Suspension of Authorization to Insure Massachusetts Titles Based on Foreclosures with Post-Foreclosure Assignments

Dear Associates:

As you may be aware, the Land Court issued two recent decisions that call into question the validity of several titles coming out of foreclosure.

The result of these two decisions is that titles based on foreclosures by an Assignee lender are potentially fatal unless the Assignment in question was executed and held by the foreclosing lender prior to the commencement of foreclosure under M.G.L. c. 244, §14. Foreclosures based on Assignments that were dated after the foreclosure sale were deemed invalid even if the Assignments were “backdated” (i.e., contained an “effective date”) prior to the first c. 244, §14 notices.

Accordingly, subject to certain exceptions discussed later in this Bulletin, until further developments in these cases and the law upon which these cases were decided, Stewart Title Guaranty Company is suspending authorization to insure titles derived from foreclosures where the recorded Assignment into the foreclosing Lender is not dated prior to the date of the first publication under c. 244, §14.

I will be monitoring the Land Court decision through what will surely be an appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest appellate court in Massachusetts.

Update (Aug. 27, 2009):  I have been informed by attorneys involved in the Ibanez case that the lenders have filed a motion to reconsider the Land Court’s ruling. Also, 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. The National Consumer Law Center and well known consumer class action attorney Gary Klein has also joined the fray. As of now, Judge Long of the Land Court has not made a final decision. I will update you when the ruling comes down. Either way, this case is going up to the Supreme Judicial Court, and probably on direct appellate review.

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