By accident, I discovered A&E’s new show, Flipping Boston. In the series opener, disputes between the neighbors and the developers made up the show’s dramatic focus. Of course, neighborly disputes are a big interest of mine, so I had to chime in. Even better, the neighbors asserted a list of legal claims/threats – some valid and others not-so-much – that made this post write itself.
For those of you who didn’t catch the episode, here’s the summary: Developers Peter Souhleris & Dave Seymour purchased a rundown house to flip it at 95 Jenness Street in Lynn, MA. (Map – Property Listing). Problems with a neighbor, who also had offered to buy the house, begin at the outset. While TV production can admittedly distort someone’s personality, he was the nosy neighbor that complained about everything, making a host of legal claims. Neighbors on the other side were much more amicable, though a dispute over the location of the fence did arise.
So, for me, this episode gives me the chance to play legal mythbuster, explaining the neighbors’ claims/threats. (Yes, this would be more interesting if you watch the episode). So here are the different issues I saw in the episode:
1. “I made a verbal agreement to buy the house with the old owner. Under Massachusetts law, that’s binding.” Wrong. The Statute of Frauds applies to all contracts for the sale of real estate. So, enforcement of this contract requires a signed writing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal purchase and sale agreement. A verbal agreement for real estate, though, isn’t enforceable in Massachusetts (or anywhere else I know). To be technical, it’s not that the agreement is void. It just can’t be enforced.
2. Bringing over a property boundary map when meeting the new neighbor. Bad idea. Ok, this isn’t really a legal issue, but it shaped the course of the episode by tainting the neighbors’ relationship. Even as a lawyer, I recognize that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. While you may eventually need to check the property map, cupcakes would make a better housewarming gift.
3. “If they don’t keep the property clean, I’m going to call City Hall.” Valid threat. While the make-nice suggestion in #2 fits here, too, cities and towns (usually through the building inspector or inspectional services department) can issue citations for violations of the state building and sanitary code as well as the municipal zoning bylaw/ordinance. As I discussed in an earlier post, those fines can be added to property tax or municipal lien. In this episode, they were assessed a $100 fine for trash by the City of Lynn.
4. “The way the laws of the Commonwealth read, … when a former tenant moves out and leaves his stuff behind, the homeowner must place it in storage for six months.” True, in some circumstances. After an eviction, a landlord must properly store a tenant’s personal property up to six months under state law. There is a difficult distinction between trash, abandoned property, and personal property. While a landlord can eventually seek reimbursement from the tenant (which is practically difficult from an evicted non-paying tenant), they must provide adequate post-eviction storage. It’s unclear from the episode what exactly happened with the tenant, but the neighbor could be right. Important note, though: the neighbor has no standing to argue for the tenant’s rights. Even if the neighbor is entirely correct about the developer’s legal responsibilities, I don’t see how he could use this to his advantage.
5. The developers are liable for lead paint and other environmental risks. Too much for this post, but there is responsibility. Environmental pollution could violate many laws: federal laws & regs, state laws & regs, municipal zoning, and CERCLA liability. Also, impacted neighbors could have common law causes of action for their own damages.
6. Fences. Obviously, you can’t build a fence on somebody else’s property. Also, your right to build can be curtailed by local zoning ordinances and set-back requirements.
Despite the neighborly complaints that delayed some construction, the developers still made out. After spending $75k for the house and investing another $154k, they sold it quickly for $279k. Profit = $50k. I’d also venture a guess that the neighbors made out, too, with a bump in property values.
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