In today’s world of e-commerce, various forms of internet and email scams have arisen because large sums of money swap hands on digital platforms, through insecure communications.  In real estate, and everyday communication, be wary that criminals often divert large sums of money by spoofing, phishing, or otherwise diverting your personal information for their own personal gain.

For example, in Minnesota the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities, fraudsters posed as the charitable organization to get donations, frequently using kids on street corners to gain the sympathy of passersby. In England, according to this article, there have been several instances of fraud.

To avoid these tragedies, there are ways for you to protect yourself when conducting real estate business online. One key step is to verify that the website is properly secured.  One way to know that is  if the website starts with HTTPS (“s” means secure).   Personally ask the lawyer or the law firm assistant or other contact what kind of security features are observed both with the computer and with the maintenance of private information.   Be careful if the internet web-site you are using is not secured.  Be wary about what information you send by email communication, being sure there is a secure, encrypted connection before sending any sensitive materials or information like bank account numbers or social security numbers.

People generally view the advent of solar panels positively because the beneficial impact on the environment and expected savings from lower electricity bills.   Traditionally, homeowners have two options: buying or leasing solar panels.  Buying solar panels is often prohibitively expensive for the average American; so many homeowners now consider leasing solar panels instead.   While initially seeming like the more attractive option, solar panel leases often complicate homeowners’ lives due to hidden problems that many do not consider when initially signing the leases.

To begin with, as mentioned in this article, there are many unanticipated costs that may arise when undertaking a solar panel lease as a homeowner.  Before installation, homeowners might incur roof repair costs because solar panel leases last for, sometimes, longer than twenty years, while roofs last only thirty years.  Leasing often means that the homeowner does not get the benefits often available to owners because they are only the lessee of the panels.

For example, as mentioned in this article, Solar Panel leases can complicate the real estate transaction because solar panel companies place liens on homeowners’ properties to ensure payments are made.    A lien can stall refinance and real estate transfers because they must be satisfied or transferred.   In particular, when homeowners use property-assessed clean energy (PACE) loans to finance the use of solar panels at their properties, the company often requires a lien to secure the repayment of the loan.  Another issue with solar panel leases is the difficulty in transferring ownership of the solar panel lease to buyers.   If you cannot make the transfer of ownership, some states require the seller to pay any future solar panel expenses, as well as court fees associated thereof, according to the article. Solar panel leases have many unintended consequences for homeowners who might plan to sell their homes in the future.

In a rare bi-partisan effort, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill called the Consumer Review Fairness Act, which should give on-line reviewers some respite from overreaching “terms of service” clauses, buried deep within the fine print of the internet, which purport to limit or preclude on-line reviews through “gag” orders.

Gone are the days were people rely solely on Consumer Reports to understand whether the service or good he is buying lives up to the claims.   Since the rise of the internet, sites like Yelp, Trip Advisor, eBay, and others have allowed consumers to review all forms and types of sellers, restaurants, products and service providers.    That said, in an effort to combat negative reviews, various service providers have used their “terms of service,” to threaten and retaliate against consumers who post “negative” reviews.   The legislation arose from a series of cases like Palmer v. KlearGear, where the consumer posted a negative review and the company demanded thousands of dollars in fines because of the terms of service contained in the fine print of the terms of service.   When she did not remove the review, the company notified debt collectors of an “outstanding debt” and torpedoed Palmer’s credit rating.  In the end, the consumer won $306,750 in damages, but the case earned the ire of our elected officials.

Other examples of internet companies seeking “retribution” for on-line reviews and alleged “non-disparagement clauses” used to avoid negative online reviews led to the need for national legislation regulating the use of such “gag clauses.”   The new bill makes it illegal to have terms of service that “disparage, restrict, or penalize poor customer reviews.” If companies do not abide by these terms, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can penalize the company and stop lawsuits based on negative reviews, according to this article.   Notably, the law does not protect against libel or slander lawsuits by these vendors, but it is a landmark bill in protecting consumer rights, since the internet is considered the Wild West of the law with lack of government oversight in many cases. Sen. John Thune (R-ND), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said in this article that “by ending gag clauses, this legislation supports consumer articles and the integrity of critical feedback about products and services sold online [the bill also protects offline reviews].”

By the time the 1970s rolled around, there were about fifty breweries in the United States, according to The Economist. A slew of new laws promoting tax breaks for small microbreweries spurred an era of innovation and explosion of smaller, craft breweries. Today, there are over 3,000 breweries, making the industry both crowded and competitive.

One of the prominent issues that arises, according to this article from NPR.org, is the challenge of finding a name that is not already taken by another brewery. There is a dearth of names that have not already been trademarked by others that connote a positive association with beer. Consequently, there have been more legal issues popping up with name trademarks because so many designs and names infringe on others’ similar ideas.

With so many breweries around the country, people do not have malicious intention to copy others’ names and designs, but there is inevitable overlap with so much market saturation.  Frequent legal issues emerge because there are public misconceptions about the fact that merely providing state registrations and ownership of domain names ensure ownership of the copyright/trademark; but that is not always the case.   A trademark attorney navigates murky waters where there is no national database of  beer brands/trademarks, and conducts common law and internet searches  – to see if there are overlapping images or names of other breweries. Intellectual property is vital to creating a strong business, and this web of legal issues associated with craft breweries’ trademarks illustrates that.

That is the question posed in a wonderfully entertaining and historically interesting article written by Dave Kluft from Boston’s firm Foley Hoag.

As his article points out, accusations of being a “witch doctor” and the use of “witchcraft” have served as a basis for defamation and slander suits around the country, and still percolate through various courts.   In New York, witchcraft is no longer considered a crime, so it is unlikely to be considered slander per se, however, you should still mind what you say.

In defamation per se cases, New York law doesn’t require a plaintiff to prove that they were “damaged” by the offending words, but a jury will decide how much or how little injury occurred. Damages are assumed only where the person defaming someone alleges that the injured person:

The Closing is scheduled for 1 PM at the office of the Bank Attorney, you arrive at your dream home, ready to sign all of the mortgage documents, and close; when you realize that the sellers have moved out, taking all of the covers to all of the electrical outlets, light switch plates, architectural stained glass windows in the bathroom and mail box.   Fact or fantasy?  That’s a real example from everyday real estate practice in upstate New York, and lead to a very unpleasant closing.

Among the standard details of a real estate contract is a paragraph innocuously labeled “personalty” or “personal property.”   First time home buyers sometimes pay close attention to the details in the contract, but not always:

  1. Personal Property: Included in this sale: (a) The sale includes all of Seller’s right, title and interest, if any, in and to:

Over the years I have received various telephone calls from prospective purchasers, and handled many cases involving condominium insurance claims.   Condo owners are often laboring under the misconception that the Condominium Owners Association insurance policy covers them in the case of disaster.   This article from the Washington Post helps explain some of the differences between home owners coverage for the interior of the Condominium and the Home Owner’s Association coverage that covers damage to existing for already constructed portions of the unit.

Let’s take the example of a water valve break in an upstairs condominium unit.    The water line breaks, flooding the upstairs apartment, and running down into, and ruining, interior walls, existing floors, and plaster ceilings of the unit below.    In the case Klose & Associates handled, the water valve was originally installed by the condominium association when the unit was built, and there was a faulty water pressure regulator on the main water line coming into the stand alone building containing the five (5) units.  The failure to regulate the pressure of the water caused the water filter to rupture many years later.

The condominium association had insurance coverage (but refused to pay) for the lines coming into the building (faulty regulator), and that insurance policy should have responded to the damage to the existing walls, floors and ceilings in the downstairs unit.   The owner of the upstairs unit received payment from her insurance company of items damaged inside her apartment, and the owner of the downstairs unit received some coverage for items that she had installed in her unit, but the “master” insurance policy owned by Condominium Association should have paid for the damage caused by the failure of the pressure regulator to originally existing items in both Units.   The condominium association refused to permit its insurance carrier to pay for any of the damage.  [Whether that was appropriate or not should be the topic of another blog entry].

When thinking about restructuring a mortgage or even going through the foreclosure process, most homeowners are motivated by the bottom line-lower monthly mortgage payments or relief from burdening debt.

What most homeowners do not consider is that along with lower mortgage payments, they may receive an income tax bill from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The Internal Revenue Code, which embodies the federal tax laws, classifies some discharge or forgiveness of debt as taxable income.

In other words, if the bank agrees to foregive or reduce your principal on the mortgage you signed, then you may owe income tax on the foregiven portion of the mortgage. For example, say you restructure the mortgage on your New York State home and you consequently owe $30,000 less, that $30,000 is considered “income” and is potentially taxed. The idea is that if you borrow money, which is then not paid back, it is a debt that is not being paid back and is akin to receiving “free” money. The taxing authorities consider such foregiveness “income,” because you got the value, but are now not paying it back.

In New York, grieving your property taxes means more than just complaining when your bill and assessment arrives. Each year the tax assessor for hundreds of municipalities sets a base line “assessment” for how much your they believe your real estate property is worth. Then, based upon formulas adopted by the State, they determineshow much you pay in taxes. You have the right to “grieve” your taxes by filing the correct form with your local “assessor,” in a formal review of the assessment, called a “tax grievance.”

As the property values escalated during the last decade, municipalities gleefully re-assessed the properties at higher and higher values so they could increase the amounts of revenue they collected from the real estate taxes. Homeowners are traditionally skitish about filing a tax grievance for various reasons– maybe they benefitted from such increased assessments because they took out home equity loans, or mortgages. That said, others refrained from filing a grievance fearing that the Town would reassess their property, find the various improvements made to the property, and then tax you more? While you may not file objections every year, the municipality is not permitted to raise your assessment because you grieved your taxes.

What does it mean for New York homeowners to “grieve” your property taxes. To begin with, you must file an RP-524 Form. This process is supposed to be simple, and is well explained here.

Yesterday’s Blog dealt with what happens if you don’t diligently apply for your mortgage while attempting to buy a house. But, what happens if you got your commitment and the bank thereafter revokes it?

According to the case law, a purchaser should be entitled to return of the down payment. Kapur v. Stiefel (1999) 695 N.Y.S.2d 330, 264 A.D.2d 602 (1999). In that case, the purchaser obtained a refund where the mortgage commitment was revoked, makeing the mortgage contingency clause (generally relied upon to cancel the contract)unavailable. This is not automatic, and the question becomes whether the purchaser acted in “bad faith,” or intentionally caused the bank to withdraw the commitment. Although litigation might errupt over whether the purchaser acted in bad faith, if a court finds that they did not (based upon documentary evidence), then the purcahser should be able to get the money back from the seller.

Specifically, the Court held: