Massachusetts purchase sale agreement

What happens if the property you have under agreement is wiped out by a tornado, burns down or is otherwise subject to a casualty?

Yesterday’s horrific tornadoes — which leveled parts of Springfield and Central Massachusetts — demonstrate the power and fury of Mother Nature and how little control we have over natural disasters. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by the tornadoes….

The tornadoes were also a stark reminder to me that an extremely important part of my job as a real estate attorney is disaster planning. Although most buyers and Realtors don’t like to think pessimistically (and neither do I), we always have to plan ahead for the worst case scenario.

Which bring us to the topic of this post. What happens if the property you have under agreement is wiped out by a tornado, burns down or is otherwise subject to a casualty?

The Standard Form Casualty & Insurance Provisions

Let’s start with the basic concept that the buyer does not own the property until the closing occurs, money is exchanged and the deed/mortgage is recorded with the registry of deeds. The purchase and sale agreement is there to govern the parties’ relationship and the property from the time the offer is signed until the closing. The seller retains ownership and control over the property during this period of “under agreement.”

Seller Must Keep Property Insured

The standard form Massachusetts purchase and sale agreement contains two important provisions dealing with homeowner’s insurance and casualty. First, the standard form provides that the seller must keep the existing homeowner’s insurance coverage in place. A good buyer’s attorney will insert language that the “risk of loss” remains with the seller until the transaction closes, to ensure that if a tornado levels the home, that loss is the seller’s responsibility.

Opt Out/Election

Second, the standard form spells out what happens if there is a casualty. If the house is deemed a causualty loss, the buyer has the option of terminating the agreement and receiving his deposit monies back. However, the buyer has the option of proceeding with the transaction and can require the Seller to assign over to the buyer all of the insurance monies available. Depending on the amount of coverage available and the cost to re-built, this may not be a bad situation, but it’s the buyer’s call.

As a “belt and suspenders” measure, I also add the following provision to my purchase and sale rider to ensure that the buyer is protected in case of a disaster:

Notwithstanding any provisions of this Agreement to the contrary, in the event that the dwelling and/or other improvements to the Premises are destroyed or substantially damaged by fire or other casualty prior to the delivery of the deed, the cost to repair which exceeds $10,000.00, BUYER may, at BUYER’S option, terminate this Agreement by written notice to SELLER, whereupon all deposits made hereunder shall be forthwith refunded, all obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this Agreement shall become null and void without further recourse to the parties hereto.

Although natural disasters are rare, a certain amount of disaster planning must be done for every Massachusetts real estate transaction. Think of a real estate attorney as part of your insurance policy to protect you in a worst case scenario.

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This week the Massachusetts Appeals Court handed down an important decision involving the standard form purchase and sale agreement and a listing broker’s fiduciary duties as the escrow agent. The case is NRT New England, Inc. v. Moncure (click for link). I’m going to break this decision down into 2 blog posts because it’s a lot to cover.

Seller Entitled To Retain 5% Deposit When Buyer Couldn’t Close

The first important part of the decision is that the court upheld the “industry norm” 5% deposit under the purchase and sale agreement as “liquidated damages” when the buyer lost his financing and couldn’t close–even in a hot and rising market (2004) and even when the seller ultimately sold the home for a better price.

“Liquidated damages” is essentially an estimate of the anticipated damages a seller would incur if the buyer defaults and cannot close. The parties under a purchase and agreement agree on a number, typically 5% of the purchase price, as the liquidated damages that the seller is entitled to retain–in case the buyer is unable to close. (The buyer is usually protected under the financing contingency until she received a firm loan commitment).

The typical liquidated damages clause in the Massachusetts purchase and sale agreement looks like this:

If the BUYER shall fail to fulfill the BUYER’s agreements herein, all deposits made hereunder by the BUYER shall be retained by the SELLER as liquidated damages, which shall be the SELLER’S sole remedy at law or in equity.

In the NRT case the seller was scheduled to buy another property on the same day as the closing on his sale–a “back to back.” He needed the proceeds from the sale to use for his purchase transaction. However, when the buyer’s financing fell through, the seller was able to obtain a bridge loan, so he could close on his purchase. And he ultimately re-listed his property and sold it for a higher price. So the seller didn’t suffer that much in damages, certainly not equal to the $92,500 in escrow.

Nevertheless, the court upheld the seller’s entitlement to the entire $92,500 deposit. The court said that it wouldn’t take a “second look” at the liquidated damages amount, finding that the 5% was the industry norm in Massachusetts, and represented a reasonable forecast of damages in the event of a buyer’s default given the considerable risk associated carrying the expense of 2 mortgaged properties indefinitely.

Lesson To Be Learned

The lesson here for buyers is that in almost every case where a buyer defaults without legal excuse–say goodbye to that 5% deposit! And that could be a lot of dough down the tubes. So make sure you have an experienced real estate attorney review your purchase and sale agreement so you don’t find yourself in the same quagmire as the buyer in this case.


Part 2 will be a discussion about what happened when the listing broker messed around with the seller’s deposit. Two words: triple damages. Uh oh.