3 Things to Consider When Hiring a Landlord Attorney

Hiring a landlord attorney is necessary when problems with tenants will not go away. Choosing the right landlord attorney is an important decision, and one that can make all of the difference in your case. Here are three things to consider when making such a choice.

Knowledge of Landlord-Tenant Law

Just as you wouldn’t hire a plumber to work on an electrical problem, you don’t want a landlord attorney who does not have expertise in landlord-tenant law. All lawyers are not the same, and you want one with a background in this area of law.

A great example of this is Massachusetts’s security deposit law. At first glance, the holding of a security deposit wouldn’t seem like a big deal. However, Massachusetts law heavily regulates the receipt, holding, and return of such a deposit, with steep penalties for those who do not comply with these provisions. A good landlord attorney knows the importance of this law and how to keep landlords out of trouble.

Trial Experience

A good landlord attorney should have trial experience. While many eviction cases end up getting resolved short of trial, trials can and do happen for landlord-tenant cases. You want to be prepared for this by having an attorney who knows how to litigate such a matter.

Keeping Costs Under Control

Legal services aren’t cheap. However, a good landlord attorney makes a real effort to keep his or her fees and costs as low as possible.

The best example of this is using mediation for an eviction matter. Even in the strongest eviction case, there are fees and expenses that are unavoidable if the matter goes to trial. Mediation, where each party compromises in an effort to get the case resolved, can go a long way towards keeping legal fees under control.

Conclusion

These are all important topics to keep in mind when selecting a landlord attorney. If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

3 Things To Know About Buying a Home with Existing Tenants

Buying a home with existing tenants has many traps for the unwary. While there are advantages to having existing tenants with the purchase of a home, there are also potential areas of liability. Here are three things to keep in mind when considering such a purchase.

1. Existing Tenancies Do Not End When a Home Is Sold

If a landlord-tenant relationship existed between the tenants and the prior owners of the home, that tenancy continues with the new owner. This is true regardless of whether there was a written lease or a tenancy at will (month-to-month lease agreement). The same terms of the prior tenancy agreement, in almost all cases, will carry over to the new owner of the home.

If a new home owner does not wish to have tenants (or wants new ones), an eviction will be necessary. Any attempt to remove tenants without a formal court case is a huge, huge violation of the law and comes with steep penalties.

If you are buying a home with existing tenants, and do not want to keep these tenants, it is strongly worth considering making the existing owner deliver the property without tenants in it.

2.Proceed With Caution With a Security Deposit

If the prior owner of the home accepted a security deposit from the tenants, you as the new owner are responsible for this deposit (unless the prior owner returned it to the tenants). The law requires the new owner to notify the tenants that they received this deposit and to comply with this law’s detailed provisions on holding a security deposit.

If the prior owner returned the deposit to the tenants, be sure to get this in writing.

As I have written about in the past, Massachusetts’s security deposit law is an incredibly complex law, filled with numerous regulations on the acceptance, holding, and return of a security deposit. New landlords should give careful consideration to not accepting a security deposit in the first place.

3.Landlords Must Maintain Residential Rental Property

Residential rental property comes with an implied warranty of habitability. This means that the property is fit for human habitation. The most common standard for measuring this is through compliance with the state sanitary code, a detailed list of the minimum standards for residential property. Local municipalities, as well as tenants themselves, have the right to enforce these regulations.

Residential rental property is quite different from commercial rental property, which is often rented “as is.” This is not allowed for residential rentals, and any attempt to get a tenant to waive the warranty of habitability will be void.

If you are buying a home with existing tenants, you need to be aware of these obligations. Failure to maintain rental property can lead to enormous liability, expenses, and other costs.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Requirement #2 for a Massachusetts Zoning Variance: Hardship

Massachusetts zoning

This will be a three part blog series on the requirements for obtaining a variance under Massachusetts zoning law.  The first post concerned the first variance criterion: a showing that the property has unique conditions. This post discusses the second requirement: hardship.

Massachusetts zoning regulates the use of property. For a party to obtain a exemption from a zoning ordinance, they need to obtain a variance. The requirements for a variance are rigorous, and an applicant must satisfy each. Here, I’ll discuss the second requirement: hardship.

What Is A Hardship?

A hardship is an inability to reasonable use one’s property. For example, if a zoning ordinance makes it impossible to construct a building on a vacant lot, an owner may have grounds for arguing hardship.

Such hardship must relate to the property itself. For example, a limitation on the size of a home that may be built on a property could cause personal hardship to an owner, who may need additional bedrooms for a growing family. This, however, is likely not sufficient as grounds for a variance, as the hardship must be based on a unique condition of the property itself.

What’s the purpose of requiring a hardship for a variance? Variances, under Massachusetts zoning law, aren’t meant to be granted on a whim, just because someone wants one. Rather, one is suppose to have a really strong justification for needing one.

What Is Not A Hardship?

There are several circumstances that are generally not recognized as hardships under Massachusetts zoning law.

Simply wishing to build a larger home, on its own, is not enough for a hardship. A property owner will generally need to make a showing that it is no longer economically feasible to make a reasonable use of their property with the existing building in place.

Hardship also does not exist from simply being located next to a zoning district. For example, if you own a property in a residential zoning district that is across the street from a business district, and wish to use your property for a commercial purpose, it generally won’t be sufficient to argue hardship simply because of how close you are to the desired zoning district.

Conclusion

Massachusetts zoning requires an explicit showing of a hardship to obtain a variance. Often, what many of us might consider to be a hardship does not satisfy this criterion, as the hardship must directly relate to the property itself. Without such a showing, a zoning variance will not be upheld.

If you need assistance with a Massachusetts zoning matter, contact me for a consultation.

Collecting Rent During An Eviction

Massachusetts’s highest court will be issuing a decision in the coming months on an important (and unclear) matter of importance for landlord-tenant law: collecting rent during an eviction. Namely, the court will decide if, during an eviction proceeding, a court can order a tenant to escrow rental payments for the duration of the case.

Information on this case, Davis v. Comerford, can be found here.

Background

The factual background for Davis is common to many Massachusetts eviction cases. Many evictions begin due to a tenant’s non-payment of rent, leaving a landlord without payment as the eviction proceeds. For evictions not involving non-payment of rent, such as a no-fault eviction case, it is not uncommon for tenants to stop paying rent once a case begins.

A common request for landlords in such cases has been to ask for an order that the tenant make use-and-occupancy payments for the duration of the case. These are rental payments that are escrowed while the case goes forward: the money sits in a bank account, and is not withdrawn until the case is resolved. Landlords, of course, want use-and-occupancy payments so there is money available if they win the case.

Trial courts have been generally split on whether they can order rent escrow during an eviction case. Davis is expected to resolve this question.

Legal Arguments For/Against Collecting Rent During An Eviction

The general argument for collecting rent during an eviction is that a tenant should be paying something while the case goes on. Landlords argue that the failure of a court to require such payments will harm landlords, as they won’t have assurance that rent money is available to them at the end of an eviction case.

Opponents of this generally argue that such an order is similar to that of a preliminary injunction; a court order requiring a party to do something prior to the resolution of a case. A preliminary injunction generally requires a showing of “irreparable harm”, such as a loss of property. Loss of money, alone, is generally not enough for a preliminary injunction.

Opponents also argue that there is no Massachusetts law that explicitly requires rent withholding, unlike other states, such as Vermont, which permits this relief.

My Take

I predict that Davis will be decided on a critical (but overlooked) part of this particular eviction case: the tenant’s request for a jury trial. In all Massachusetts eviction cases, a tenant has a right to a jury trial. Choosing this option, almost always, delays an eviction case, as it takes additional time to schedule, select, and seat a jury.

The argument goes that, because a tenant has chosen a jury trial, they should be paying rent for the delay in the case. Without a jury trial, an eviction case usually goes to trial several weeks after it is filed, leading to a much more immediate resolution.

One could argue that a requirement to pay rent as a condition for a jury trial infringes on this sacred right, found in Massachusetts’s constitution. Nonetheless, this appears to be a solid middle ground for this tricky legal question, and I would not be surprised if Davis goes this way.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Zoning in Massachusetts: Proposed Legislation

Governor Baker is backing a bill to reform zoning in Massachusetts, which will give local municipalities more flexibility in making zoning changes. This bill is a good example of some important lessons for understanding Massachusetts’s land use laws.

Zoning 101

Zoning in Massachusetts is generally done at the local level, through town and city ordinances. Zoning regulates how an owner may use their property, through usage and dimensional controls.

The proposed bill will allow towns and cities to switch to a majority vote to change local zoning ordinances. Presently, most zoning changes need to be done by a two-thirds vote, which makes enacting such changes a high hurdle to clear. Supporters of the bill argue that it will help create additional housing and make Massachusetts more affordable place to live.

Understanding Zoning in Massachusetts

This proposed bill is a good example of an important lesson regarding Massachusetts zoning: these land use regulations are often not very flexible. Many property owners find that their local zoning regulations can completely prohibit how one wishes to use their property. Sometimes, a seemingly minor regulation can put the brakes on a proposed development.

Zoning in Massachusetts provides exceptions to these regulations, known as variances. It is a common misconception, however, that one merely needs to show hardship to qualify for a variance. Rather, the variance criteria is extensive and requires a high burden to meet, including a showing that the subject property is unique.

This, in my opinion, is one of the driving forces behind this proposed legislation. Since many zoning laws have a “take it or leave it” approach for regulating property, fixing the law itself is really the only way to change the zoning process.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with zoning in Massachusetts, contact me for a consultation.

What is a Tenant at Sufferance?

Most people familiar with Massachusetts landlord-tenant law know the two most common types of tenancy agreements: a tenancy by lease, where the parties agree to a fixed term for the length of the tenancy, and a tenancy at will, where either party can end the tenancy with proper notice to the other side. A less commonly known tenancy is a tenancy at sufferance.

What is a Tenant at Sufferance?

A tenant at sufferance is a tenant who “stays past their welcome” and remains in a property without the owner’s permission. This most commonly occurs for tenants who remain in rental property after their leases expire. If the landlord does not give the tenant permission to stay past their lease (and, importantly, does not accept rent from them), the tenant becomes a tenant at sufferance.

What’s the difference between a trespasser and a tenant at sufferance? A tenant at sufferance, importantly, once had the property owner’s permission to stay in the property, but no longer does so. A trespasser, on the other hand, never had the owner’s permission to be in the property.

Practical Implications

Although a tenant at sufferance does not have permission to remain in the rental property, a landlord must still bring a formal eviction case to obtain possession. Unlike evictions for other tenancies, a notice to quit is technically not required. Most courts, however, still prefer that the landlord provide some form of notice to the tenant. A 72 hour notice to quit is most common in these scenarios.

A landlord needs to be careful about accepting money from a tenant if they do not want them to stay in the rental property. Accepting money from a tenant can re-create a formal tenancy between the parties and delay the eviction process. A landlord, however, can accept rental money solely for the purposes of use-and-occupancy, so long as they tell the tenant this in writing before accepting it.

A landlord also needs to continue maintaining rental property for a tenant at sufferance. Even though the tenant is in the rental property past their welcome, Massachusetts law still requires compliance with the state sanitary code.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a landlord-tenant matter, contact me for a consultation.

Requirement #1 for a Massachusetts Zoning Variance: Unique Conditions

This will be a three part blog series on the requirements for obtaining a variance in Massachusetts.  This first post concerns the first (and often most consequential) variance criterion: a showing that the property has unique conditions.

Overview of Variances

Massachusetts towns and cities regulate the use of property through zoning ordinances, which generally include restrictions on the type of activities permitted on properties, including height, width, and other building dimensions.  A property owner is permitted to apply for an exemption from one of these requirements, known as a variance.

A zoning variance is not granted automatically. Such a request must be decided by a local zoning board, which must find that the applicant complies with all of the requirements for a variance.  Failure to meet any of these criteria will result in a denial.

Requirement #1 for a Variance: Unique Conditions

The first requirement for a variance is a showing that the property has unique conditions.  Specifically, it must be shown that there are “circumstances relating to the soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures and especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located . . .”

As I will discuss in my next blog post, a variance requires that the unique condition of the property result in some form of hardship.  A property, for example, that is oddly shaped may qualify for a variance of a setback requirement if such a requirement makes it impossible to reasonably use of the property.

What’s The Purpose of This Zoning Requirement?

It is helpful to understand the purpose of this requirement in order to understand its relevance for a zoning variance. 

If a property is like every other property in its zoning district, the town or city would have considered this when they passed its zoning ordinance. For example, if every property in a zoning district has a narrow width, it is reasonable to think that the town and city took this into account when determining its zoning regulations.  It would be unfair to allow an exemption of one of these requirements if such property was no different than every other one in its location.

The picture I used for this blog post is, obviously, not from Massachusetts.  It’s from the Cliffs of Kerry, one of the most breathtaking locations in Ireland (much better than the more commonly visited Cliffs of Moher).  I include it to make this point: a location like the Cliffs of Kerry is particularly unique, and an example of the kind of property that qualifies for a variance: different than the surrounding property in its location.

Practical Implications

It isn’t necessary, of course, to have land like the cliffs above to get a variance.  It is critical, however, to show something unique about the property.  Failure to satisfy this requirement is one of the most common grounds for denying a variance.

It is a common misconception that mere hardship, on its own, will allow for a variance.  This is incorrect: one must atisfy this first requirement in addition to a showing of hardship from the applicable zoning ordinance.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a zoning matter, contact me for a consultation.

Elderly Parents Facing Foreclosure

I often get consultation requests from adult children whose parents are facing foreclosure. As if foreclosure is not stressful enough already, the potential foreclosure for one’s parents is particularly difficult. Elderly parents facing foreclosure is a sensitive topic that requires appropriate action.

Overview of Foreclosure in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state. This means that a bank is permitted to foreclose a home without going to court, through the sending of legal notices to the homeowner and a public foreclosure auction.

For senior citizens, Massachusetts’s foreclosure process can present a real challenge. It is not uncommon for elderly homeowners to misunderstand these foreclosure notices and get overwhelmed by this situation. Adult children who are helping parents facing foreclosure often tell me that their parents had little recollection about the status of their mortgage loan and the start of the foreclosure process.

Options for Elderly Parents Facing Foreclosure

Elderly parents facing foreclosure need to carefully consider their options. For most homeowners, a loan modification is the best option for attempting to avoid foreclosure. This, however, is not always a viable option for senior citizens, who may be on limited income or not in a position to make loan payments for an extended period of time.

Most lenders, however, do consider a household member’s income when reviewing a borrower for a modification. Seniors who have adult children living with them and earning income may make a loan modification feasible.

Another option for elderly parents facing foreclosure is to simply sell the home. This is something to strongly consider if the home has significant equity in it. Rarely does a foreclosure give the borrower a good financial return from a home sale.

If these options are not feasible, it may also be possible to negotiate a deed in lieu of foreclosure, short sale, or other alternatives for avoiding foreclosure.

Conclusion

I’ve helped many Massachusetts homeowners avoid foreclosure, including elderly parents and senior citizens. If you or your parents need such assistance, contact me for a consultation.

Security Deposit Violations in Massachusetts

Massachusetts heavily regulates security deposits for residential tenancies. The law covers nearly every aspect of the acceptance, holding, and return of a security deposit.

Security deposit violations can occur in many ways. The penalties for not complying with this law can result in a tenant being entitled to the immediate return of their deposit or, in severe cases, treble damages, costs, and attorney fees against the landlord. Here are some common security deposit violations.

Please note that this list is not all of the security deposit requirements; one should always consult the law (or a landlord-tenant lawyer) to ensure compliance with this detailed law.

Proper Receipt

A landlord must give the tenant a receipt indicating, among other things, the amount collected for a security deposit and the name of the person receiving it. This receipt must include the date on which the deposit is received and a description of the rented premises. The landlord (or the landlord’s agent) must sign this receipt.

Separate Bank Account

The landlord must put this security deposit into a separate bank account, located in Massachusetts. Within thirty days of depositing these funds, the landlord must provide the tenant with name and location of this bank and the bank account number.

Timely Return of the Security Deposit

Most security deposit violations occur during the process of returning the security deposit. A landlord may only keep a portion of a security deposit for 1) unpaid rent or water charges 2) unpaid increase in real estate taxes which the tenant is obligated to pay (rare for most residential tenancies) or 3) a reasonable amount necessary to repair any damage to the rental unit, reasonable wear and tear excluded.

Any portion of the security deposit that the landlord is not entitled to keep must be returned to the tenant within thirty days after the end of the tenancy. Failure to do so is one of the most severe violations of the security deposit law, and will likely subject a landlord to the maximum penalties available under the law.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a security deposit matter, contact me for a consultation.

Appealing a Variance in Massachusetts

Appealing a Variance in Massachusetts

Like most states, zoning decisions in Massachusetts are primarily made at the local level, through municipal boards.  One of the most common types of zoning decisions are requests for variances. While a municipal board (commonly called the zoning board of appeals in most towns and cities) makes the decision on whether to grant a variance, such a decision can be appealed.

What is a Variance?

A variance is an exemption from a zoning requirement. Zoning ordinances regulate how a land owner may use their property, which typically includes regulations on the allowed uses and activities.

A property owner has a right to seek an exemption from a zoning requirement by applying through a variance. A variance requires the following:

[T]hat owing to circumstances relating to the soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures and especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located, a literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance or by-law would involve substantial hardship, financial or otherwise, to the petitioner or appellant, and that desirable relief may be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and without nullifying or substantially derogating from the intent or purpose of such ordinance or by-law.

In short, a variance requires that the property have something unique about it, and due to this condition, the property owner will suffer hardship if forced to comply with the zoning ordinance.

Appealing a Variance

The decision to grant a variance is generally made by the local zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”). Such decisions are done at open public meetings, with members of the community permitted to speak in favor or in opposition of the request. After a decision is made, the ZBA issues a written decision stating its reasons for approval or denial.

A party aggrieved by a variance decision has a right to appeal. Such an appeal is made to either Superior Court or, most commonly, to Land Court. In such an appeal, the court hears all evidence about the variance and issues a decision upholding or denying the variance.

Practical Implications

What’s the most important thing to know about appealing a variance? Act quickly. There is a short deadline for filing such an appeal, and a detailed process for doing so. Failure to comply with these requirements can be grounds for immediate dismissal of an appeal.

Not anyone can appeal a variance. Only a person “aggrieved” by such a decision may do so. The issue of whether a person can bring such a claim (known legally as whether the party has standing) needs to be determined carefully. Simply not agreeing with a zoning decision, on its own, is not enough to bring an appeal.

Appealing a variance requires a thorough knowledge of the applicable law and underlining property. For this reason, one should strongly consider hiring an experienced lawyer for such a matter.

Conclusion

If you need help with a variance, contact me for a consultation.