Safety

Legislation Would Temporarily Allow Video-Conferencing Technology For Attorney Notaries

The real estate legal community, including yours truly, have been working and lobbying tirelessly to address the various impacts of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis on real estate transactions and closings. One of the first solutions we proposed is legislation allowing for remote or virtual notarizations of deeds, mortgages and other closing documents so that buyers and sellers can sign documents in the safety of their own homes on their computers. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many folks are subject to the Governor’s Stay At Home Order or don’t feel safe traveling outside to an attorneys’ office for a real estate closing. Meanwhile, while the economy heads towards a recession, real estate is one of the few assets with available equity for consumers.

Under our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882), a licensed Massachusetts attorney may notarize legal documents using video-conferencing technology. There is a two-step process laid out in the legislation to complete the notarization process where the signer shows the attorney his/her state issued identification, sends the original signed documents back to the attorney, and then verifies the authenticity of the signed documents. Once that process is complete, the attorney can stamp the documents as notarized and must also complete and sign an affidavit attesting that all requirements have been met. Those notarized documents may then be recorded with the Registry of Deeds as valid, legal and binding recordable instruments. Additionally, the two video-conferences must be recorded and kept on file for 10 years. The bill would only be in effect during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.

The bill has widespread industry support from the Real Estate Bar Association (including the Probate Section), the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Twenty three (23) states have now passed remote notarization bills, including just recently due to the COVID19 crisis, including New York State, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, Virginia, Texas, and Nevada. Moreover, a nationwide bill has been proposed by the American Land Title Association.

There are a number of technology companies that offer end-to-end remote notarization systems and are approved by national title insurance companies and lenders. They include:

To our real estate partners and colleagues, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW! We need you to email or call your State Rep. and Senator and tell them you support our proposed legislation, An Act Relative To Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency (S.D. 2882). To search for your state legislator, please click here.

Thank you! I will keep you posted as to developments and hopefully passage of the bill. Also many thanks to Attorneys Kosta and Nik Ligris on spearheading the bill!

Massachusetts Act relative to remote notarization during COVID-19 state of emergency. by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Closings May Proceed Forward Without Smoke Detector Inspection Certifications

Due to the Coronavirus Crisis, many local fire departments have been ceasing state mandated smoke detector inspections, which are required for real estate transactions to close. I’m happy to report that on March 20, 2020, after intense lobbying from the real estate industry, Gov. Baker issued an Emergency Order allowing for the deferral of inspections by local fire departments until the Coronavirus (COVID-19) State of Emergency is lifted. The Order is embedded below and can be found here: COVID-19 Order Permitting the Temporary Conditional Deferral of Certain Inspections of Residential Real Estate.

Inspections may be deferred only if the following requirements have been met:

  • The parties agree in writing that the buyer, not the seller, shall be responsible for installing approved smoke/CO detectors in the premises;
  • The buyer agrees as a condition of taking title to equip the premises with approved detectors immediately after the closing
  • The state required smoke/CO detector inspection must be conducted no less than 90 days after the Mass. COVID-19 State of Emergency is lifted.

We (real estate attorneys) are drafting up new compliance agreements and language for Offers and Purchase and Sale Agreement to comply with this new Order. Please email me at [email protected] for assistance.

Massachusetts Gov. Baker CO… by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Significant Impacts Hitting: Registry and Court Closures, Closing and Financing Delays, Social Distancing, School Closings, Quarantine Potential

As I was writing this post tonight, Gov. Baker ordered the shutdown of all schools through April 6, closed down restaurants and bars, and is banning gatherings over 25 people. Also announced tonight is the shut down of all Trial Court facilities on March 16 and March 17, which includes the Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries of Deeds. We are now hitting the tipping point, and going forward there will be substantial impacts on the real estate and legal industry.

I first wrote about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic five days ago. Seems like an eternity ago. As of that writing (data as of March 9), there were 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. As of tonight March 15, cases have over quintupled with Johns Hopkins reporting 3,722 confirmed cases and 61 deaths. With the well publicized testing delays, the real number of cases are likely far higher.

Registry of Deeds Impacts

As mentioned above, Gov. Baker just ordered the closure of all Trial Court facilities for Monday March 16 and Tuesday March 17. Both Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries are housed in Trial Court facilities so they will be closed for those two days. I spoke to Maria Curtatone, Registrar of Deeds for Cambridge Middlesex South, and she indicated that this may well be the precursor to widespread shutdown of all registries of deeds and courts throughout the state. We will await further announcements on that.

Update (3/17/20) — Suffolk and Cambridge are closed to the public until at least April 6. Currently, they are both still processing electronic recordings for recorded land. All Land Court recordings and plans must be sent in by overnight or regular mail.

We have just received a chart below showing current Registry status:

I remain concerned, however, that all Registries will be forced to shut down and will not offer in person, mail or electronic recordings. If that occurs, we will see a potentially catastrophic impact to real estate in Massachusetts. Title insurance companies have assured its attorney agents that they will offer “gap coverage” in case recordings are delayed. This coverage offers insurance coverage between the time of the physical closing and the time of actual recording of documents at the registry. However, it remains to be seen how this will play out. Will mortgage payoffs still be processed even though deeds will not be recorded? Will sellers allow buyers to get keys and move into homes if deeds aren’t recorded and their sale proceeds are held in escrow? We will need to work through these issues.

I am also concerned if COVID-19 starts hitting closing attorney offices. If a lawyer or staff member is infected, it could result in the quarantine of their entire office, essentially shutting it down for some time.

COVID-19 Contingency Provision

In my previous post, I discussed a new COVID-19 Impact Clause for Offers Purchase and Sale Agreements. (Sample language below). It is imperative that these clauses are used in both Offers and PSA’s. It’s also very important that all parties and their attorneys work together cooperatively throughout this crisis, acknowledging that there will likely be substantial impacts and delays. The goal, as always, is to get to the closing and complete the deal, by any means necessary.

COVID-19 Impact Provision. The Time for Performance may be extended by either Party by written notice for an Excused Delay which materially affects the Party’s ability to close or obtain financing. As used herein an Excused Delay shall mean a delay caused by an Act of God, declared state of emergency or public health emergency, pandemic (specifically including Covid-19), government mandated quarantine, war, acts of terrorism, and/or order of government or civil or military authorities. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if the Time for Performance is extended, 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. Notwithstanding the foregoing, said Extension shall not exceed [insert number of days].

Virtual and Remote Closings

Another impact that we are already seeing is that parties to the real estate transaction are afraid of traveling outside their homes right now (or even being visited at home) and being in contact with other people, especially those who are high risk. My colleagues and I are working on an emergency executive order for Gov. Baker to sign which would temporarily authorize remote or virtual closings using such technology as Zoom and Docusign.

For more information on this please read my new post, Massachusetts Remote Notarization Bill Filed in Legislature

Court Closings

Update (3/17/20): The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered that, because of the public health emergency arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning tomorrow (March 18, 2020) and until at least April 6, 2020, the only matters that will be heard in-person in Massachusetts state courthouses are emergency matters that cannot be held by videoconference or telephone. Each of the seven Trial Court departments, in new standing orders to be issued today, will define emergency matters for their departments.  As a result of the SJC order, courthouses will be closed to the public except to conduct emergency hearings that cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing.  Clerk’s offices shall remain open to the public to accept pleadings and other documents in emergency matters only.  All trials in both criminal and civil cases scheduled to commence in Massachusetts state courts between today and April 17, 2020, are continued to a date no earlier than April 21, 2020, unless the trial is a civil case where the parties and the court agree that the case can be decided without the need for in-person appearance in court. Where a jury trial has commenced, the trial will end based on the manifest necessity arising from the pandemic and a new trial may commence after the public health emergency ends. Courts, to the best of their ability, will attempt to address matters that can be resolved or advanced without in-person proceedings through communication by telephone, videoconferencing, email, or other comparable means.

A link to the SJC Order OE-144 is here.

In addition to the closings on March 16-17, the Massachusetts Court System announced over the weekend major “triage” changes reducing the number of persons entering state courthouses. These rules are effective Wednesday March 18, 2020. A link to all of the new changes can be found here — Court System Response to COVID-19. A summary of each court and respective changes are as follows:

Superior Court — All jury trials postponed until April 22. Motions handled by individual judges with preference for telephonic hearing and postponement where necessary to limit number of people entering courtroom. Emergency matters may proceed normally. The new Standing Order 2-20 can be found here.

Housing Court — All cases including evictions (except emergencies) postponed until after April 22. Matters may be heard earlier upon a showing of good cause. New Housing Court Standing Order is here.

Probate and Family Court — Trials postponed until May 1. Motions and pre-trials heard telephonically or postponed until after May 1. Modification complaints won’t be heard until after May 1. New Probate and Family Court Standing Order 1-20 is here.

District Court — No jury trials until after April 21. All criminal appearances rescheduled for 60 days, and no earlier than May 4. Arraignments and Bench trials may proceed. The new District Court Standing Order is here.

Land Court — All trials postponed until after April 21. All other motions and proceedings shall be held telephonically at judge’s discretion. Registration of title documents should not be done in person. Mail or email is now preferred. (Not sure how that will work). New Land Court Standing Order 2-20 is here.

Appeals Court — Oral argument for March will be telephonic.

Supreme Judicial Court — Please see the Court’s website.

As you can glean from the changes, virtually all trials are being pushed out through the end of April. Motion hearings are court specific with telephonic hearings being substituted for in-person hearings. Of course, if the courts are all shut down, all bets are off. With no staff, the courts will not even be able to handle new filings. The system would just stop in its tracks, except for the most emergency of matters.

Lender/Financing Delays

This week we will see if there are any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. I am seeing some smaller mortgage companies moving to remote employee staffing. I’m also hearing about appraisal delays. If there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. I think it’s inevitable that we will be seeing lender delays moving forward.

Municipal Closings

I am also hearing of closings of municipal departments, which may affect the availability of final water/sewer readings and possibly smoke detector certificates. Title 5 inspections could also be impacted.

25 Person Social Gathering Restriction

New restrictions on crowd sizes that Gov. Charlie Baker issued on Sunday, March 15, could upend open houses. The restrictions banned gatherings of 25 or more people. Brokers seemed to anticipate a possible drop-off in attendance, even before Baker’s restrictions and despite strong numbers the past couple of weeks. “Next week may be a different story,” Jason Gell, a Keller Williams broker and president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, said on March 12. “Unfortunately, any decline in open houses or listings is likely to make the conditions for buyers even more difficult.”

Social Distancing, School Closures and Possible Lockdown

The impacts of COVID-19 are manifesting not necessarily in the actual infection and sickness of patients (which I’m not discounting at all) but all the measures we are taking to “flatten the curve.” I want to urge all my readers that COVID-19 could wind up being the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu and should be taken as seriously as life and death. If you can work from home, do that and don’t go into the office. If you can arrange for remote employee access, please do that. Take advantage of technologies like Zoom, Docusign and Dotloop. Please keep your kids at home. No playdates, family gatherings or hang-outs. They say we are only 2 weeks behind Italy and you see what’s going on there. Stay safe! More updates to follow as I get them.

-Rich

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Potential Impacts: Registry of Deeds Closings, Financing Delays, New Covid-19 PSA Clause, Housing Market Slow Down?

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a highly infectious respiratory virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread across the globe, wreaking havoc on financial markets, public health systems, schools, universities, and daily lives. As of March 9, there are 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. Here in Massachusetts, as of March 9, there are 41 cases with no reported deaths. Infectious disease experts predict that the virus will continue spreading across the United States, affecting just about every aspect of our lives.

Update (3/17/20): Registry and Court Closings

Update (3/27/20): Impact on Rental Housing

Update (3/26/20): Remote Notarization Legislation

Here in Massachusetts, we are beginning to see significant impacts. Harvard University just cancelled all classes in favor of online instructions. Mayor Walsh has cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Some schools are closing temporarily and cancelling events. Companies are cancelling conferences and restricting travel. And of course, the stock market has dropped precipitously.

Likewise, in the real estate industry we are starting to see impacts as well. Despite the COVID fear factor, most agents are still reporting robust attendance at open houses and market activity, as confirmed by Curbed Boston. However, that may soon change as the virus gets increasingly widespread and the impacts to the financial markets begin to set in. I’m going to outline some potential impacts going forward, and I’ll update this post as developments emerge.

Registry of Deeds and Court Closings

Update (3/13/20): Suffolk and Salem Registry have shut down public closings. Only title examiners and attorneys are allowed access. They are still recording documents.

We are starting to see court and government building closings in other states. Federal courts in New York’s Southern District, including Manhattan, are restricting entry. No one will be allowed in who traveled within the past 14 days to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran, or who had close contact with someone who has. Trials have been postponed in Seattle and Tacoma courts.

No closings have been announced here in Massachusetts, but it’s a possibility. Virus impacts may result in Registries of Deeds and the Land Court being forced to closed or operate with a skeleton staff.

Fortunately, we have electronic recording capabilities here in Massachusetts. If the registries are closed, hopefully they will still allow for e-recording which should enable closings to keep on track. However, registry staff must still examine each electronically recorded document so there still could be impacts. We don’t know the fully extent of the impacts, if any.

Lender/Financing Delays

I have not yet heard of any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. However, it’s not out of the realm of reason if companies are requiring their employees to work from home, etc. Further, if there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. The same is true if appraisers cannot get out into the field and do their reports. I’ve already heard of at least one lender asking an attorney for a COVID-19 delay provision in a purchase and sale agreement, which brings me to the next topic…

COVID-19 Delay Clause In Purchase and Sales Agreement

Due to the various impacts and possibilities for delays as outlined above, we are already seeing requests for language dealing with the Coronavirus in purchase and sales agreements. As just mentioned, there may be lender delays affecting a buyer’s ability to obtain timely financing due to virus impacts. Buyers and sellers may be subject to quarantines, or if they are traveling, they may be stuck in a public health purgatory like the Princess Cruise ship. If Registries are closed and no e-recording is allowed, then closings will need to be cancelled or rescheduled. My colleagues and I are working on a new COVID-19 clause that will balance all of these concerns.

Our draft provision (subject to change) is as follows:

COVID-19 Impacts. The Time for Performance may be extended by either Party by written notice for an Excused Delay which materially affects the Party’s ability to close or obtain financing. As used herein an Excused Delay shall mean a delay caused by an Act of God, declared state of emergency or public health emergency, pandemic (specifically including Covid-19), government mandated quarantine, war, acts of terrorism, and/or order of government or civil or military authorities. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if the Time for Performance is extended, 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. Notwithstanding the foregoing, said Extension shall not exceed [insert number of days].

Impact On The Real Estate Market

If you’re in the market for a house, all this uncertainty might have you worried about the housing market. Will it suffer a swoon similar to Wall Street? There are a few ways the virus could affect the housing market that you should be aware of. However, I think we can breath a sigh of relief, because a housing catastrophe on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis is almost certainly not going to happen.

The good news is that mortgage interest rates are still at historic lows. However, I’m also hearing that a lot of lenders are at full capacity with demand for both refinances and purchases so rates may be heading up in the very near future.

I think as we are heading towards a global recession and the continuing daily life impacts of the virus, we are going to see a slowing down of the real estate market in general. Uncertainty is the hobgoblin of the home buyer. Indeed, this is exactly what Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist at the National Assoc. of Realtors is saying:

I hope I’m wrong. Comment below or shoot me a line ([email protected]) and tell me what you’re seeing out there. I’ll keep you posted with any developments.

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Appeals Court Rules That Law Places Responsibility On Parents

From hotel quality pools, to monster play-sets, to the ubiquitous trampoline and fun houses, backyard activities are all the rage these days. But what happens when a guest or young one is injured in your backyard play space? Can you be held liable for negligence and personal injuries? Or are the parents responsible for the actions of their own children? A recent court ruling considered these issues.

LaForce v. Dykeman, Mass. Appeals Court Sept. 9, 2019

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Appeals Court considered a case where a 6 year old boy fell off a backyard zip-line and sustained a very serious fractured arm. The little boy was a guest of the homeowners. The zip-line was of the classic variety with the line attached to two trees, and a hand trolley used to traverse the line. The little boy was helped onto the hand trolley by his father, who held him for the first few yards, then (as we fathers tend to do), let him go, saying “You’re on your own, buddy!” Unfortunately, mid-way down the line, the child fell off the trolley and broke his arm in several places, requiring multiple surgeries.

Parental Responsibility Remains the Rule of Law

The child’s father sued the homeowners, whose insurance policy covered the loss, claiming that the zip-line should have had a seat apparatus which was recommended by the manufacturer. The Appeals Court, in an opinion written by Justice Gregory Massing, held that the law puts responsibility on the boy’s father, not the homeowner, to ensure that his kid is safe on the zip-line. The father argued that a duty of care was owned not to him, but to his young son, who is too young to assess the dangerousness of the zip-line without a seat component. Justice Massing, using a dose of common sense, saw otherwise, commenting that “Aaron [the boy] used the zip line with his father’s assistance and under his father’s supervision. Any duty to warn would be owed to Aaron’s father, who was expected to keep his son safe, had the opportunity to prevent his son from using the zip line, and placed his son in the position that led to his injury. And because the danger was open and obvious to Aaron’s father, the defendants had no duty to warn him.” The end result is that the homeowners are off the hook for liability.

An Insurance Agent’s View

I asked my friend and insurance company owner, Carlos Vargas of Vargas and Vargas Insurance about the take-away’s from this case. He stated that “insurance companies do get nervous with “attractive nuisances,” and that’s why it is important to review your policy. If your neighbor’s kid gets hurt using the trampoline and mom and dad sue you then your policy would afford coverage or at least the cost of legal cost to defend you. Insurance is designed to provide you coverage, however, it is a legal contact and you want to honest with your agent on what is happening on your property. A phrase we like to use is that “You are paying for coverage, don’t risk it by not answering questions honestly.” Carriers are loosening the guidelines for certain liability scenarios. Go back 10 years ago, you couldn’t find a company to insure you if you had a German Shepherd. Today we have 3 markets that will accept the breed. Same goes with trampolines, we have some carriers that are okay with the trampoline in the backyard and they are not restricting the liability.”

Rich’s View

I have mixed feelings about this case. I just googled “backyard zip-lines” and they all have seats or safety harnesses. The older ones were definitely not the safest contraptions around. On the other hand, this child was only 6 years old and obviously didn’t have the upper arm strength to stay on the trolley for the entire length of the line. That’s on the father. It’s a tough case for the court. But accidents do happen, and not every accident is a result of someone else’s negligence.

That said, this case simply underscores why you want to have a good property insurance policy in place. Here, the insurance company paid for all the legal fees for the homeowner. (This case was originally filed in 2016). Also, and especially if you have a zip-line, trampoline or pool, you definitely want to get yourself an umbrella excess policy in case you get sued for something catastrophic. If you need insurance guidance, click Carlos’ link above!

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Property Owners — Shovel Early and Often!

As I sit here working from home watching the “Bomb Cyclone” storm make its way up the East Coast, the clicks on my blog searching for “Massachusetts snow removal law” are going as rapidly upward as the barometric pressure of this “Bombogensis” storm system. Massachusetts law underwent a monumental change back in 2010 with a Supreme Judicial Court decision overruling the 125 year old “Massachusetts Rule” which allowed property owners to leave “natural” accumulations of snow and avoid liability. Now, all Massachusetts property owners are under a legal duty to keep their property free from dangerous snow and ice. Moreover, cities and towns have been passing all types of new snow removal ordinances and by-laws regulating whether owners must shovel public/private sidewalks, and how long they have to clear snow. So let’s do a quick Frequently Asked Question post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The City of Boston’s policy is to give businesses 3 hours to clean snow, and 6 hours to residents. In Worcester, it’s 10 hours to clear snow. Those are the minimums. As with any dangerous condition, my advice is to shovel and treat snow and ice early and often. Even a thin coating of black ice can cause someone to slip and fall and seriously hurt themselves. (Admit it if you’ve dumped on your rear end like I have!). If you are an out-of-town landlord, you must hire someone to shovel your snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful Links

City of Boston Snow Removal Notice

City of Worcester Snow Removal

City of Newton Snow Removal

City of Framingham Snow Removal

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DPH Proposes Changes To State Sanitary Code

by Rich Vetstein on October 26, 2017

Changes Catching Landlords By Surprise

Without much publicity or property owner input, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has rolled out proposed revisions to the State Sanitary Code which provides minimum standards of habitability for all rental housing units across the state. There are some significant changes which will definitely impact both small and large property owners/landlords.

Integrated Pest Management Plan
The proposed rules requires that any rental property with 4 or more units implement an Integrated Pest Management Plan with pest inspections conducted at least every 4 months. Owners are required to maintain a record documenting the following activities conducted within the residence including inspection results, complaints filed by occupants, the date, location, product name, and name of any person applying pesticides, and modifications to the original IPM plan, all of which should be available upon request by the board of health.

Mold, Mold, Mold
DPH is on a mission to eradicate mold in rental housing. The new rules place landlords responsible to remove all possible signs of mold in apartments as well as any areas of “chronic dampness.” As every landlords knows, tenants are often the ones who cause mold growth by not using proper ventilation or having poor hygiene. Boards of health are now authorized to conduct mold-specific inspections and conduct air quality tests.

Bathroom Exhaust Fans

The new rules require exhaust fans in every bathroom whether or not there is a window. Previously, landlords did not have to install a fan if there was a bathroom window.

Central Heating Systems

Property owners are required to provide a “central heating system” for all units. Fireplaces, woodstoves, pellet stoves, portable electric space heaters and unvented propane or natural gas-fired space heaters will not meet the requirements of this new standard. This will impact rental housing in the outer counties. Also prohibited from use in any residence are (1) any portable space heater, parlor heater, cabinet heater, or room heater that has a barometric fed fuel control and a fuel supply tank located less than 42 inches from the center of the burner, (2) heating appliances adapted for burning propane, kerosene, range oil or number one fuel oil, and (3) Portable wick type space heaters.

Code Violations/Tenant Remedies

Of course, any violations of the State Sanitary Code entitles tenants to withhold rent under state law. There can also be Chapter 93A/Consumer Protection liability which carries the prospect of triple damages and payment of tenant attorneys’ fees. Code violations can severely de-rail any eviction action so landlords must ensure that any code violations are quickly and properly addressed. Without the passage of a rent escrow law, landlords remain at risk of tenant abuses of the rent withholding statute.

The proposed revisions to the State Sanitary Code, 105 CMR 410 can be downloaded here.

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347New Smoke Detector Rules Go Into Effect On December 1, 2016

Catching many people by surprise, including me, a new change in Massachusetts smoke detector regulations will take effect Dec. 1. The new rules provide that when homes built before 1975 are sold, the house must be equipped with smoke detectors with a 10-year life span. These detectors are sold as 10 year sealed lithium battery power smoke alarms. They can be found at your local Home Depot or hardware store.

Also remember that current rules require photoelectric detectors covering the area within 20 feet of a kitchen or bathroom containing a bathtub or shower. The 10 year sealed detectors are sold with both photoelectric and the older ionization technologies. I found this Kidde 10 Year Kitchen Model at Home Depot selling for $49.97.

As part of this year’s Fire Prevention Week in October, State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey told the Boston Globe that “what we’ve seen in the past eight to 10 months across the state is that our fatal fires involve homes that have smoke alarms in them, but they are inoperative.” Ostroskey said that as investigators search charred wreckage of fatal fires, they have discovered that batteries have been removed or that the smoke alarms themselves have not been replaced even though they are no longer functioning properly because they are 10 years old or older.

Ostroskey said the 1975 cutoff date was chosen because homes built after that year were already required by the state building code to have hard-wired power supplies for smoke detectors. But even those hard-wired detectors need to have backup batteries replaced and the detectors should be replaced every 10 years, too, he noted.

A Fact Sheet from the State Fire Marshal is available here.

Thank you to Realtor Rona Fischman at 4 Buyers Real Estate for advising me of the new rules.

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Landlord Not Liable For Shooting Death At Rental Property

by Rich Vetstein on September 16, 2015

Copyright Josh Reynolds 2010

Landlord Sued for Wrongful Death After Assailant Shoots Four Guests At House Party, Killing One

A landlord’s worst nightmare is someone getting hurt, or worse, shot and killed on their rental property, and then getting sued for wrongful death. This was the situation facing a property owner in Dorchester in the recent case of Belizaire v. Furr, (Appeals Court 13-P-1908 Sept. 11, 2015). Fortunately for the landlord, the Court ultimately concluded that she was not legally responsible for the shooting because there was no reason to predict it would happen. Had the facts been different in this case, the landlord would not have been so luck to escape liability. After discussing this important case, I’ll talk about some ways that landlords can manage their risk.

Shooting at House Party, 5-7 Edson Street, Dorchester

The landlord owned a two-family in Dorchester which she rented out to several individuals. The landlord was fairly lax with written lease agreements, with some of the tenants having leases, but others not. On the night in question, the landlord’s son and one of the occupants (who were friends) hosted a party with a DJ, alcohol and dancing. Carl Belizaire attended the party as a guest. Late at night, an unknown assailant shot up the room, killing Belizaire and injuring three other guest. The assailant was never found or charged. There was no prior history of violence at the property.

Landlord Sued For Wrongful Death

Belizaire’s estate sued the landlord for wrongful death, alleging that she failed to keep the property safe. The Court first analyzed whether there was a tenancy or lease in place, because that would minimize the landlord’s liability and control over injuries occurring on rental property. The landlord’s failure to secure leases with the tenants at the property, particularly the tenant who threw the party, resulted in the court concluding that there was insufficient evidence to rule that there was a valid tenancy in place to shield the landlord from liability.

The Court, however, ultimately ruled that the landlord was not liable for the shooting because there was no evidence of prior shootings or similar violent incidents on the property. Although there was evidence of prior drug activity at the property, the court found this insufficient to support a finding of liability. There was no evidence of other large parties with uninvited guests similar to the one in question taking place on the property. Nor was there any evidence that the landlord was affiliated in any way with, or knowledgeable about, the assailant or any dispute that the assailant may have had with the victim. The evidence submitted suggests that the victim’s death was tied to events beyond the party at the rental property. As a general rule, a landowner does not owe a duty to take affirmative steps to protect against dangerous or unlawful acts of third persons. In certain exceptional circumstances, landlords may be liable for ignoring criminal activities that occur on their premises and were known or should have been known to them. That was not the case here.

Managing The Risks Of Property Ownership: Use Strong Leases and Set Up LLC’s to Hold Title

Many of my landlord clients often worry about liability issues at their rental property. They often ask me whether they can get sued over someone getting hurt on their rental property and what they can do to minimize their risk.

The landlord in this case made some catastrophic mistakes which, had the facts been different, could have resulted in a multi-million dollar liability. The first mistake she made was not securing written leases for all tenants and occupants at the rental property. The form lease that I have drafted contains a unique indemnification clause which would have help shield the landlord for liability for injuries caused by the tenants. The second major mistake made by the landlord was holding title to the rental property in her individual name, thereby exposing her personal assets to a lien or judgment. Although not always appropriate for every landlord, it’s a prudent idea to hold rental property in a limited liability company which would shield the landlord’s personal assets from liability. There is expense to set up the LLC and there is a $500 annual fee, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it relative to the risk of getting sued for wrongful death.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngIf you are a rental property owner and would like advice concerning your leases or would like to discuss setting up an LLC, please contact me at [email protected] or 508-620-5352. I would be happy to help you in any way.

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ice-dam-2As we shovel out from the snowiest winter in history, the Greater Boston area will soon be facing a new and potentially more destructive situation — ice dams and roof collapses. This could be the worst winter ever for ice dams and roof issues due to the ridiculous amount of snow still stuck on our roofs. I’ll take a minute to go over the insurance issues and preventative measures you should be taking now.

Ice Dam Insurance Coverage – Massachusetts

Interior or exterior damage caused by an ice dam on your roof is typically covered by standard homeowner’s insurance policies. However, most policies will not cover ice dam or snow removal from your roof or anywhere else on your property. As with any insurance claim, call the claims department immediately and take photos of the damage.

Ice Dam Treatment & Prevention

The best way to deal with ice dams is to physically remove them from your roof. I’m not a fan of homeowners putting their spinal cords at risk by hopping on snow covered roofs, so my advice is to leave this to the professionals. Crews are out in full force clearing snow and chipping away at ice dams. Feel free to call my friend George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction in Framingham (Tel:  508-875-0052). Tell them Rich Vetstein sent you. Also, be aware of price gouging and scams.

In the short term, there are a couple things you can try.

  1. Try to remove snow from the roof but only if it can be done safely. A roof rake or push broom can be used but may cause damage to the shingles. There is an amazing new type of roof rake on the market called a Roof Razor which can be purchased here. If it’s not possible to remove the snow safely, call a professional like I did.
  2. Chisel grooves into the dam to allow the water behind it to drain off. This is a good emergency measure, especially if rain or a sudden thaw is coming. Be careful not to damage those shingles!
  3. Don’t laugh, but fill an old pair of your wife’s pantyhose with calcium chloride snow melt and lay it across the dam. I’m not kidding! It will help to melt the dam and also keep that area of the roof clear. DO NOT USE ROCK SALT! It will stain the roof and siding. It is best for small dams or prevention. It’s also a good idea to scrape the snow off the roof first.
  4. There are also ice melting pucks you can use. You can get them at Home Depot.

To prevent ice dams in the longer term, keeping warm air from escaping into the attic is the first course of action. More insulation and new shingles are a start.

Good luck with your roof!

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Winter Storm Minnesota

Shovel Early and Often!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful Links

Arlington Snow Info

Belmont Snow Ordinance

City of Boston Snow Center

Brookline Snow Alerts

Cambridge Snow Guide

Lawrence Winter Parking Rules

Lynn DPW Winter

Marlborough DPW

Medford Police Dept. Snow 

Needham MA Snow & Ice

Newton Snow Page

Quincy Snow Removal

Salem Snow Emergency Rules

City of Springfield Snow Rules

Somerville Snow Guide

Waltham Snow Policy

Wayland Snow Policy

Worcester Snow DPW

Winter Storm Precautions

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

 

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City Universities Providing ISD With Addresses of Student Apartments

In the coming weeks, some Boston college students living off-campus and their landlords may be greeted by city inspection officers at their doors. Shrugging off privacy concerns, pursuant to a new city ordinance, the city’s 31 local colleges and universities have sent the city’s Inspection Services Department the addresses of their students who live off-campus. Of the 25,000 addresses it received, ISD will pay visits to the 580 it deems to be suspect of violating zoning codes. Boston.com reporter Julie Xie in her article “City Will Inspect Off-Campus Student Apartments, And It’s Legal” reported this new development.

They’ll primarily be looking for issues related to overcrowding. There are over 45,000 undergraduate and graduate students living off-campus in Boston, according to The Boston Globe . A 2008 city ordinance prohibits more than four undergraduates living together in one apartment.

The city’s crackdown comes in the wake of BU senior Binland Lee’s tragic death in 2013 from a fire in her overcrowded Allston apartment. Flames blocked the staircase from the third floor — her only egress. Scofflaw landlords and poorly managed units unsafe for students were the subject of the Globe’s “Shadow Campus” investigation last year. Now, an ordinance requires colleges to provide a list of where students live off-campus every semester. Another requires private rental units to register their properties annually, and inspections are performed every five years.

There is no question that some Boston landlords catering to the huge undergraduate population have skirted the law, creating dangerous living spaces for far too long. Regardless of the issue of occupancy limits, landlords need to comply with the sanitary and building codes so they don’t create fire traps for housing.

However, I have always had issues with the legality of the 4 undergraduate rule. I’m quoted in the article as saying that the no-more-than-four rule has always been somewhat suspect, arbitrary, and tough to enforce. Though neighbors do complain about late-night parties and loud college students, not all undergrads are troublemakers.” “Undergrads are not a protected class under any discrimination laws, and they’re transient, so it’s not like they’re going to come up with a lobbyist or fight for their rights in that way,” I’m quoted. “Colleges don’t want to get in trouble and they know they won’t get much pushback from Boston’s student body.”

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Realtor Murdered During Home Showing: Time For A Change?

by Rich Vetstein on September 30, 2014

Beverly-Carter-jpgShould The Real Estate Industry Change The Way Agents Do Showings and Open Houses?

What other industry requires unaccompanied female (and male) agents to meet perfect strangers in empty houses? None. One would think this is a recipe for disaster. It is.

Last night, authorities found the body of Arkansas real estate agent Beverly Carter, days after she vanished while showing a house to a prospective customer. Aaron Lewis, 33, has been apprehended and admitted to the kidnapping after being questioned by police, ABC News said.

This is not the first time an agent has been murdered, raped or assaulted while on the job. According to the latest Bureau of Labor study, the real estate industry experiences about a 40% higher rate of on-the-job crime than the average profession. Indeed, one my close Mass. Realtor friends was accosted several months ago and was very shook up about it.

My mother was a long time Realtor. My father recalls how nervous he was that some stalker would do something terrible at an open house or showing. Thankfully that never happened.

There must be a better way. I think the time has come for a change. What can be done?

Should open houses be outlawed? Should open houses be allowed only if there are two agents present? Most Realtors say they are a waste of time anyways. Should Realtors have a special exemption under the law to carry mace, a taser or even a handgun? What about a new lockbox system so prospective home buyers can peek into a home themselves without an agent present? What about some type of panic button device or other technology? Here is a great article on Using Technology for Realtor Safety.

What is your office doing to protect your personal safety? What is the National Association of Realtors and local chapters doing about this issue?

Regrettably, the NAR issued a rather weak statement on the Beverly Carter tragedy:

“As both a REALTOR® and an Arkansan, I am saddened by this morning’s news of Beverly Carter’s untimely death. My heart goes out to her family, her friends, her co-workers, and everyone whose life Beverly touched in her 49 years with us.

Working in real estate involves risk and, unfortunately, that risk takes many forms. As an industry, we collectively work very hard to promote safety awareness among our members. We are fully committed to educating REALTORS® about potential threats and providing them with resources to protect themselves.

I urge all REALTORS® to honor Beverly Carter by keeping safe and looking out for each other.”

“Keeping safe and looking out for each other” frankly isn’t going to cut the mustard in my humble opinion. The NAR should be at the forefront of this issue, and doing a lot more than telling agents to “keep safe.” That doesn’t help anyone. 

How about paying for some of the personal safety devices for agents as part of the membership dues? How about lobbying Congress and state legislatures for exemptions for personal defense weapons like mace, tasers and firearms? How about lobby for increased criminal penalties for crimes against Realtors? Anything but telling agents to “keep safe”….

For its part, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors has issued its own Realtor Safety Tips.

There has to be a better way.

As always, I’m here to support real estate agents anyway I can.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who works with Realtors every day. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Hull-Wind-Turbine-from-seantyler-via-FlickrControversial Wind Turbine Project Approved, Over Neighbors’ Opposition, Appeals Court Rules

Plans for a controversial wind turbine on top of Turkey Hill in swanky coastal Cohasset could soon move forward after the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld a land court ruling that the town’s planning board acted appropriately when it approved the project. The court dismissed opposition arguments by neighbors and a nearby skilled-nursing home who challenged the project’s legality.

The wind turbine is proposed to be sited at the apex of 410-foot-tall Turkey Hill in the northwest corner of Cohasset, in the 314-acre Whitney Thayer Woods, and would be within 1,000 feet of the Golden Living skilled-nursing home and homes on the Hingham side of the border. The nursing home and neighbors complained that the turbine would emit excessive “shadow flicker,” noise and also risk various public safety issues. 

In 2011, the Cohasset Planning Board held hearings on the wind turbine plans, and issued a special permit with numerous conditions for which the operator must comply. The abutters focused on the “flickering shadows” that the 150-foot blades would cast on nearby properties. Land Court judge Gordon Piper in 2012 upheld the board’s approval, determining that the permit’s special conditions adequately address safety concerns and follow zoning bylaws. For example, the permit requires that the organization monitor flickering and make sure that it doesn’t exceed 30 minutes per day or 300 hours per year.

The Appeals Court quickly shot down all of the neighbor’s concerns, holding that it would not second-guess the judgment of local officials who granted the permit.

According to the Patriot Ledger, Jim Younger, the director of structural resources and technology at the Trustees of Reservations said that the group is “very pleased” with the court’s ruling and grateful for the widespread support for the project. “At this time, we are still very interested in moving forward with the project and will be reassessing our options following the lengthy delays to the project. We will keep the community informed as we complete this review.”

Wind turbine projects are becoming increasingly more accepted by towns to boost both power and revenue so they are less reliant upon the “grid.” This ruling shows how difficult it is for abutters and neighbors to challenge a wind project once the town planning board has issued a permit.

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peeling-paintFraught with liability and danger, the Massachusetts Lead Paint Law is always a hot topic for Massachusetts residential real estate professionals.

The overriding policy of the Mass. Lead Paint Law is to encourage full disclosure of all lead paint related issues and give buyers the opportunity to test for lead paint before they purchase a home with lead paint. Unlike rental properties, however, there is no obligation on the seller to de-lead prior to a private sale. But common sense dictates that a lead-free house may be more valuable and marketable, and this is particularly true for multi-family properties where tenants with children under six years of age may in any event trigger the de-leading requirements of the law.

Further, penalties for non-compliance with the disclosure requirements are quite stiff. Sellers and real estate agents that do not meet the requirements can face a civil penalty of up to $1,000 under state law and a civil penalty of up to $10,000 and possible criminal sanctions under federal law for each violation. In addition, a real estate agent who does not meet requirements may be liable under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, which provides up to triple damages.

What lead paint disclosures does a listing agent have to provide?
Whenever an owner of a home built before 1978 sells, the listing agent must provide the (1) the “Property Transfer Notification Certification”, and (2) all 10 pages of the Department of Public Health’s “Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program ‘CLPPP’ Property Transfer Lead Paint Notification.” Most agents only use the one page form, and that’s a “no-no.”

Practice tip: It is a good idea to combine the two forms as one document in DotLoop (or other transactional software system) or on the MLS when the listing agent is providing these to the Buyer.

Can the Buyer sign the Property Transfer Notification Certification form before the Seller?
No. It is invalid. The Property Transfer Notification Certification (“Property Transfer Form”) must be completed and signed by the Seller before the Buyer can sign. The Buyer’s signature acknowledges they are in receipt of the disclosure. Thus, the Buyer cannot be in receipt of the disclosure until the Seller first completes the form.

Practice tip: If the listing agent is slow to send the Property Transfer Form, then the buyer’s agent should document the requests by email. In addition, the buyer’s agent should email the listing agent’s broker to request the timely receipt of the Property Transfer Form.

What disclosures and acknowledgements have to be completed on the Property Transfer Form?
All disclosures and acknowledgements have to be accurately completed, including the Seller’s Disclosure, the Purchaser’s or Lessee Purchaser’s Acknowledgement and the Agent’s Acknowledgement. Agents should be aware that HUD and the EPA have audited broker’s files in the past and have at times found them deficient from a compliance standpoint. Thus, it is critical to accurately fill out the form.

Practice tip: Make sure that the Property Transfer Form includes the property address. The older form, “CLPPP form 94-3 dated 6/30/94” does not include a line for the address. Both agents working on the transaction should sign the form.

Does a listing agent have to provide a Property Transfer Form for a property built after 1978?
No. The lead paint law only applies to homes built before 1978. Therefore, testing for lead-based paint is not required.

Practice tip: If the listing agent provides a Property Transfer Form for a home built after 1978, neither the buyer nor the buyer’s agent has to sign the form.

Does a Seller have to accept an offer from a Buyer who is requesting lead paint testing?
A property owner or real estate agent cannot sidestep the lead paint law simply by refusing to sell or rent to families with young children. The purpose of the lead paint law it to protect the health of children and pregnant women. An owner cannot refuse to sell or refuse to renew the lease of a pregnant woman or a family with young children just because a property may contain lead hazards that they do not want to spend the money to remove. Any of these acts is a violation of the Lead Law, the Consumer Protection Act, and various Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes that can have serious penalties for a property owner or real estate agent. A case in point: a Boston area landlord was recently hit with a $75,000 penalty by the Mass. Attorney General’s office for lead paint violations.

What is required to obtain a Certificate of Compliance?
Owners of homes built before 1978 where children under six live should have the property inspected by a licensed lead inspector. Typically, an inspector will look to remove peeling, chipping or flaking paint. A full list of surfaces to be deleaded is available in the CLPPP form.

Practice tip: To contact a licensed lead inspector, click this link.

Does a listing agent need to disclose a Letter of Interim Control?
Yes. A Letter of Interim Control is only valid for one year. Thus, if a home built before 1978 that has a Letter of Interim control but does not have a Certificate of Compliance, then the agent needs to Disclose the Interim Letter of Control and the seller should likely engage a professional to determine what work is needed to bring the property into compliance.

What is the contractors’ role in the lead removal process on home improvement projects?
In a previous article, I noted that new regulations went into effect in 2010 that cover paid renovators who work in pre-1978 housing and child-occupied facilities, including renovation contractors, maintenance workers in multi-family homes, painters and other specialty trades. These regulations provide that most home improvement projects on homes built before 1978 require certified lead paint removal project contractors to follow strict lead paint removal precautions. Nothing in these new rules requires owners to evaluate existing properties for lead or to have existing lead removed.

Are there lead paint removal tax credits and loans available?
There are a number of lead paint removal no and low cost loans available. MassHousing, for example, has a “Get the Lead Out” Lead Paint Removal loan program for income eligible owners or tenants.

In addition, Massachusetts has a tax credit of up to $1,500 for each unit deleaded.

If an agent has a buyer purchasing a home built before 1978, should the agent request lead removal be done before the closing or after the closing?
If making these strategic decisions, we recommend that you consult a real estate attorney in order to be in full compliance with lead paint laws.

At closing, should a Buyer sign the form in the closing package that says he or she agrees to indemnify the lender for all lead paint issues?
Yes. The form typically contained in most lender closing packages states that the Buyer agrees to indemnify and hold the lender harmless in the event of any non-compliance with lead paint laws. The lender won’t close unless the disclosure form is signed.

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Richard Vetstein and Marc Canner are Massachusetts real estate attorneys. Rich can be reached at [email protected] and Marc at [email protected]

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apartment-balconySheehan v. Weaver: Strict Liability For Building Code Violations Does Not Apply To Residential Structures

I love being right.

Two years ago, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman issued a controversial ruling that an owner of a mixed used building was “strictly liable” for a intoxicated tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail in the case of Sheehan v. Weaver. In my prior post on this troubling case, I said “given the concerning expansion of liability in this case, look for this ruling to get appealed. Judge Kerman is a well-respected judge, and this decision is a close call, but I think he went a bit too far outside the legislative intent behind the law.”

Well, that’s exactly what the Supreme Judicial Court said in its ruling today which should provide some relief for residential landlords and their liability insurers.

Faulty Porch Guardrail

The landlord, David Weaver, owned a building with three residential apartments located above a commercial establishment. None of the apartments were owner-occupied. After a night of drinking, one of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. The connection of the guardrail to its post gave way because it was defective and in violation of the Building Code.

After a four-day trial in the Housing Court, a jury found for the tenant on the negligence claim, awarding approximately $145,000 after a 40% reduction for the his own fault. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages. With the strict liability, the landlord was on the hook for the full $242,000 verdict without consideration of the tenant’s own fault. The case went up to the SJC on appeal.

Interpretation of Building Code Statute

The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict liability, that is, liability without any consideration of the comparative fault of the injured, for any personal injuries caused by a building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The SJC ultimately agreed with the landlord that the structure where the tenant was injured was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. The court held that “what commercial and public structures listed in § 51 have in common is that they are places in which a large number of people gather for occupational, entertainment, or other purposes.”

What this means is that owners of residential rental property will no longer have to worry about getting hit with a substantial strict liability award for injuries caused by building code violations. However, this does not mean that property owners should not take care of their buildings. They must, and they can still get hit with lawsuits for injuries occurring on their property due to failure to repair or maintain the premises in good condition. Indeed, in this case, the final result is that the tenant’s award will be reduced by about $100,000 but the landlord’s insurance company will still be on the hook for a $145,000 judgment plus 12% interest.

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NIGHTCODE_CRR3The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code governs the minimal standards of fitness and conditions for human habitation of rental occupancy of property. Unfortunately, most landlords become familiar with the lengthy code only after tenants or the local Board of Health cites them for code violations. As a landlord-tenant attorney, I’ve created this comprehensive summary of the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code. Mind you, this does not cover every single provision,  just the important ones, in my opinion. Keep this handy guide on your nightstands in case you have insomnia! Seriously, this is important information for all rental property owners in Massachusetts.

Scope

The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code is found at 105 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 410, which can be downloaded by clicking here. The Sanitary Code applies to all rental properties in Massachusetts including owner-occupied multi-families, rooming houses and temporary housing. The only exceptions are dwellings located on a campground and civil defense shelters.

Kitchen and Bathroom Requirements

The Code provides that every rental unit where common cooking facilities are provided shall contain a kitchen sink, a stove and oven and space and proper facilities for the installation of a refrigerator. Each unit must include at least one toilet, one washbasin (which cannot be the kitchen sink) and one bathtub or shower in a separate bathroom. Privies and chemical toilets are prohibited except with Board of Health permission.

Potable Water

Landlords must provide “a supply of potable water sufficient in quantity and pressure to meet the ordinary needs of the occupant” either connected to town/city water or private well with Board of Health approval. The landlord may charge tenants for actual water usage if separately assessed and metered. Hot water must also be provided of not less than 110°F and no more than 130°F.

Heating

Landlords must provide for adequate heating in every habitable room of a rental unit including bathrooms. Portable space heaters and similar equipment are prohibited. Heating must be provided to no less than 68°F between 7AM and 11PM and at least 64°F between 11PM and 7AM, except between June 15 and September 15.

Natural Light and Lighting Fixtures

The Code requires at least one window in all rooms except the kitchen if less than 70 s.f. Lighting fixtures must be provided in all bathrooms. Two outlets must be provided in every habitable room, and sufficient lighting provided in all hallways, foyers, laundry rooms and the like. Buildings over ten units must have auxiliary emergency lighting. Screens must be provided for all windows on the first floor.

Maintenance Obligations

An oft-litigated area, the Code provides for maintenance obligations for both landlord and tenant. Landlords must maintain and repair whatever appliances he has installed in the unit. If a tenant has paid for and installed an appliance himself, however, he is responsible for maintaining it. Tenants are also responsible for the general cleanliness of toilets, sinks, showers, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances. So when the tenant claims there is mold in the bathroom, the landlord can argue that the tenant’s lack of cleanliness is the cause. Landlords must also exterminate any pest, insect or rodent infestation.

Asbestos and Lead Paint Materials

If there is asbestos material in the unit, the landlord must keep it in good repair, free of all defects, cracks and tears which would allow for the release of asbestos dust. Due to the liability exposure, it’s a good idea for any landlord to remove all asbestos materials. Lead paint is absolutely prohibited where children under 6 are occupying. See my previous posts on the Lead Paint Law for more info on this complex area.

Utility Metering

Owners must provide electric and gas service to tenants unless they are separately metered and billed to the unit and the lease provides for same. Separate water metering is permissible so long as the landlord gets written approval from the local Board of Health and complies with the metering requirements of General Laws chapter 186, section 22. For homes heated with oil, the owner must provide the oil unless it is provided through a separate oil tank servicing only that dwelling unit.

Minimum Square Footage

* 150 s.f. for the first occupant, and no less than 100 s.f. for each additional occupant
* Bedrooms — 70 s.f. for first occupant, 50 s.f. for each additional occupant
All ceilings must be no less than 7 feet.

Egress/Snow and Ice Removal

Property owners must keep all means of egress free from obstruction. As for the removal of snow and ice, the Code provides that the owner shall maintain all means of egress at all times in a safe, operable condition and shall keep all exterior stairways, fire escapes, egress balconies and bridges free of snow and ice. A landlord may require the tenant be responsible for snow and ice remove only where a dwelling has an independent means of egress, not shared with other occupants, and a written lease provides for same. Otherwise, landlords are responsible for snow and ice removal. Even if the tenant is responsible, the landlord could still face liability for slip and falls on snow and ice under recent Massachusetts case law.

Locks

Owners must install locks for every door of a dwelling unit capable of being secured from unlawful entry. The main entry door of a three unit dwelling or more must be installed with a automatic locking mechanism.

Smoke/CO2 Detectors

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors must be installed in accordance with the Mass. Fire Code.

Railings

Owners must provide safe handrails for every stairway, and a wall or guardrail on every open side of a stairway no less than 30 inches in height. For porches and balconies, a wall or guardrail at least 36 inches high must be provided. Between all guardrails and handrails, balusters at intervals of no more than 6 inches for pre-1997 construction, and at 4.5 inches for post 1997 construction must be provided.

Inspections and Code Violations

The Code provides that the local Board of Health or Inspector can inspect any unit upon the  oral or written complaint of an occupant. Inspections are supposed to take place within 24 hours of the complaint, but that rarely happens. The inspector will prepare a code violation form. Serious violations such as failure to provide heat or water must be corrected within 12 hours. Less serious violations should be corrected within 5 – 30 days depending on the type of violation. Violators have a right to a hearing before the board of health to contest any code violations.

Code violations are criminal proceedings and should not be ignored. Penalties can result in $500/day fines and even condemnation of the premises.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord-tenant attorney. If you have been cited for violations of the State Sanitary Code or have questions about it, please contact me at [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

 

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The Ice Dam Cometh!

by Rich Vetstein on February 19, 2014

Massachusetts Ice Dam Treatment & Prevention

A little break from law stuff to talk about some important safety information. With up to a foot of snow on most Massachusetts roofs and a spring thaw on the way, there will be widespread ice dam and roof damage afflicting homeowners in the next weeks. I have a feeling it’s going to be very bad.

There are ice dams all over my roof. My son’s bedroom just sprung a leak. And I can’t get a crew out here to get on my roof until Friday at the earliest. (Sorry, but I’m not risking life or limb climbing up my ice covered roof!). I did use a roof shovel to clear a few feet of snow off the roof, but I need some professional help.

Here are some tips from my friend, George Lonergan of Lonergan Construction in Framingham (Tel:  508-875-0052) – whose roof clearing crews have been out 7 days a week. For folks closer to Boston, GF Sprague Roofing out of Needham is also good.

  1. Try to remove snow from the roof but only if it can be done safely. A roof rake or push broom can be used but may cause damage to the shingles. If it’s not possible to remove the snow safely, call a professional.
  2. Chisel grooves into the dam to allow the water behind it to drain off. This is a good emergency measure, especially if rain or a sudden thaw is coming. Be careful not to damage those shingles!
  3. Fill an old pair of your wife’s pantyhose with calcium chloride snow melt and lay it across the dam. It will help to melt the dam and also keep that area of the roof clear. DO NOT USE ROCK SALT! It may stain the roof and siding. It is best for small dams or prevention. It’s also a good idea to scrape the snow off the roof first.

To prevent ice dams in the longer term, keeping warm air from escaping into the attic is the first course of action. In addition to helping resolve ice dam issues, it will result in a more comfortable and less expensive to heat home.

Ice Dam Insurance Coverage

Very few insurance policies cover ice dam or snow removal from your roof or anywhere else on your property for that matter. However, certain cases of interior damage caused by an ice dam or roof collapse may be covered. As with any insurance claim, call the claims department immediately and take photos of the damage.

Good luck and happy raking and chiseling!

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dive-warningLandlords Could Be Held Responsible for Tenant Paralyzed Jumping from Trampoline into Kiddie Pool

I don’t write a lot about premises liability in this blog, but this tragic case out of my hometown of Framingham may be a classic example of the saying that “hard cases make bad law.” The Supreme Judicial Court has granted a new trial to a man paralyzed by jumping off a trampoline into a kiddie pool while playing with his small son. The case is Dos Santos v. Coleta (SJC – 11188). This is a case which will get all the tort-reformers screaming in protest, but it is evident that premises liability law in Massachusetts keeps on evolving and not in a good way for property owners.

The moral of this case for landlords and all homeowners is to not leave potentially dangerous contraptions in yards for tenants and kids to get injured on. Also, make sure you have liability insurance coverage for at least $1 Million, and look into getting an excess umbrella policy for up to $5 Million.

Summer Fun Goes Terribly Wrong

In the summer of 2005, Cleber Dos Santos lived with his wife and son in one unit of a two-family home in Framingham that he rented from the Coleta family. The landlords, who lived in the other unit, set up a trampoline immediately adjacent to an inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. The landlord disregarded warnings printed on the side of the pool cautioning against jumping or diving into the pool. He knew that setting up the trampoline next to the pool might be dangerous but thought it would be “fun.”

The landlords moved to South Carolina on July 31, but they maintained ownership of the home and continued to rent the other unit to Dos Santos and his family. The landlords left the pool and trampoline in the backyard and understood that both items would continue to be used by their friends and family.

On the evening of August 2, 2005, Dos Santos, who had never before used the trampoline, came home from work and decided to play with his son on the trampoline while his wife recorded a video of them to send to their extended family in Brazil. He decided to entertain his son by flipping into the pool. He severely underrotated the flip, entered the water headfirst, and struck his head on the bottom of the pool. As a result of the impact, Dos Santos sustained a burst fracture of his C-5 vertebrae, and is permanently paralyzed from the upper chest down. He has been hospitalized ever since with medical bills exceeding $700,000.

SJC Clarifies Open and Obvious Danger Rule

Perhaps not surprisingly, the jury rendered a defense verdict on the basis that Dos Santos’ backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool was an “open and obvious” danger. But the SJC found the trial judge’s jury instructions lacking, holding that even if the jury believed that the danger present was open and obvious, the jury should have considered whether the absentee landlord should have removed or remedied the dangerous trampoline/pool setup from the backyard.

Having established that the existence of an open and obvious danger will not necessarily relieve a landowner of all duties to lawful entrants with regard to that danger, we set out to answer the following principal question: where the duty to warn has been negated, in what circumstances will the duty to remedy nevertheless exist–or, in other words, in what circumstances “can and should a landowner anticipate that the dangerous condition will cause physical harm to the lawful entrant notwithstanding its known or obvious danger”?

In plain English, Judge Cordy is basically saying that performing a backflip from a trampoline into a kiddie pool may be stupid and dangerous, but it’s also just as stupid and dangerous for a landlord to leave the deadly contraption out in the backyard for anyone to get injured on.

The justices ordered a new trial in the case, so this tragic 8 year legal saga will continue on. (Also remember that it appears that the landlords are covered by a liability insurance policy, the amount of which is unknown).

In sum, the SJC has now shown that Massachusetts premises liability law continues to shift towards even greater responsibility and liability for rental property owners.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150Richard Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant attorney. You can contact him at [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

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539w-1.jpgRuling Calls Into Question Boston Ordinance Prohibiting 5 or More Students In One Unit

Those screams you are hearing now on Comm. Ave. aren’t the students. They are the landlords who are undoubtedly rejoicing upon news that the Supreme Judicial Court just issued a major ruling in how student rentals occupancy limits  — indeed all rentals — will be treated by housing inspectors and licensing authorities. This is an important decision which may have far-ranging implications across the state and not just to student housing.

The closely watched case is City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties (download link to case herewhere the SJC has held that renting to 4 or more students in one apartment unit of a two and three family home is not a “lodging house” requiring a special license under the Massachusetts lodging housing law, provided that the apartment meets all other sanitary and building code square footage occupancy thresholds. The state code requires 150 s.f. of living space for the first occupancy and 100 s.f. for each additional person (3 occupants = 350 s.f. of living space), and 70 s.f. of bedroom space for the 1st person, plus 50 s.f. for additional person (120 s.f. for 2 persons in one bedroom). This decision applies state-wide and to every type of rental housing, including multi-families, buildings and townhouses.

The timing of the ruling is interesting in light of the recent fatal fire involving an overcrowded student apartment house in Allston and Mayor Menino’s recent rental property registration and inspection rules.

Court’s Reasoning: Apartments ≠ Lodging Houses

For history buffs, the opinion is fun to read as it traces the Lodging House Law back to the days of brothels, houses of ill-repute and tenements. Using a common-sense analysis, Justice Lenk reasoned that lodging houses, which are essentially temporary rentals of rooms without such amenities as a separate kitchens and bathrooms, are quite different from the modern day apartment units with its more expensive amenities. The court ruled that if an apartment satisfies the state sanitary and building code provisions for the amount of living/sleeping space, utilities, egress, etc., then it would be not be deemed a lodging house despite the number of unrelated occupants.

City of Boston Undergrad Student Rule On the Chopping Block?

In the City of Boston, a new zoning ordinance went into effect in 2008 prohibiting 5 or more undergraduate students from living in one apartment unit. There is certainly a question as to whether the College Hill ruling effectively overrules this ordinance. We will have to see whether the ordinance is challenged in court.

The other impact of this ruling is we should see an push for even more increased density in apartment rental housing which is exactly what Mayor Menino and the City of Boston doesn’t want.

More Press Coverage:  Banker & Tradesman, Boston Globe, Worcester Telegram

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Greater Boston landlord tenant attorney who represents rental property owners throughout Boston and Massachusetts. You can contact him at 508-620-5352 or at [email protected]

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