Articles Posted in Real Estate Litigation

So you have finally updated your home by addition, new kitchen or other improvement. You tried doing it by the book, went through the normal channels; obtained estimates, interviewed contractors, investigated their references and made that home improvement using your hard earned dollars. The work commences, is substantially complete and your contractor suddenly disappears, starts showing up sporadically, or starts pressuring you for more money. Ultimately, you dispute the contractor’s view of the costs, his final project or some of the final punch list items and make the decision to withhold payment. What happens next? The Contractor likely files a mechanic’s lien with the county clerk.

New York

Since the home improvement was done to your “real property”, the contractor has the legal right to file a lien, without legal process or litigation. In New York, a contractor who has not been paid for services rendered or materials furnished for the improvement of real property can file a mechanic’s lien against your home. See N.Y. Lien L., Art. 3, § 40 (2010). In other words, the unpaid contractor has the power to get in the way your ability to transfer or finance your real property (i.e. sell or refinance your home) until it is paid.

In New York, mechanic’s liens are filed in the office of the county clerk where the property is situated, and can be filed without first commencing a law suit. Once properly filed, the mechanic’s lien-like an outstanding mortgage-is an impediment to clear title. New York allows a contractor to file a mechanic’s lien against your home even if the underlying “contract” was oral (not in writing). Cynically, even though the work conducted may not have been what you wanted or you do not accept the work, the contractor may seek to “enforce” their right to payment through a lien without intervention of a court. This turns the normal idea of “due process” on its head, giving the contractor (and others) significant power.

This seemingly unfettered right to encumber real property without process does not come without a a responsibility. The law has several safeguards to protect homeowners. First, although a contractor does not need a homeowner’s permission to file the lien (and in New York, does not even need to first notify the homeowner about filing) there are stringent requirements that must be met in order for such lien to be valid.

For example, the home improvement contractor must file the lien in the county clerk’s office, then notify the homeowner of the filing by sending a copy of the lien by both regular and certified mail within thirty (30) days of the filing date, and then finally must provide the clerk with an “affidavit of service” advising the clerk that the homeowner has been properly notified of the lien’s filing. More importantly, if the contractor wilfully exaggerates the amount or nature of the lien, the law permits a counter-claim for treble damages and attorneys fees. Also, the encumbrance on your title does not last indefinitely. The contractor must file an action to “foreclose” the lien within one year, or seek court intervention to extend its duration.
Generally, the liens expire on their face after one year (unless extended), and after three (3) years in the eyes of most title companies.

The Bottom Line

Be careful. When contracting with the home improvement contractor protect yourself by requiring “lien releases” at each stage of the construction. When a dispute is inevitable, be sure that you have the paperwork to show how much you have paid and how much you agreed to pay. If it’s a really big job, pay an attorney a flat rate to advise you on the contract.

We at Klose & Associates help contractors and home owners realize clear agreements as to what improvements are going to cost, and how to handle the disputes that arise.
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When I bought my house I saw some unexplained pipes in the wall. The owners said that the house was heated by natural gas, they had never used oil. The inspector made no mention of the potential that there might have been an underground tank. I wasn’t taking any chances. I called a tank investigation company.

Under the Navigation Law of New York, the owner is absolutely and unconditionally responsible for oil contamination. In fact, the Department of Environmental Protection is entitled to clean up the site and bill the owner for the costs associated with cleanup.

Luckily, the tank inspection company found the tank (1000) gallons, and we refused to close unless the Sellers cleaned up, which they did at a cost of more than $30,000 (often not covered by home owners insurance). That would not have been a happy day for a new home owner. I learned my lesson, and I try to impart that knowledge to my clients.

So, your next door neighbor wants to “legalize,” install, or expand an airport in New York, what do you do? Hire a lawyer, participate in the process and call your legislators because any installation of an “airport” in New York requires legislative approval from the legislative body of the municipality. That approval, together with the “positive declaration” of the New York State Department of Transportation might just mean that you are dealing with an airport in your back yard.

Specifically, the Gen Bus. L, Section 249, states:

(3). Approval of privately-owned airports. No person shall hereafter establish a privately-owned airport or make an airport improvement to an existing privately-owned airport except by authorization of the governing body of the city, village or town in which such airport or any part thereof is proposed to be established or improved. The governing body of a city, village or town shall not authorize the establishment of such an airport or an airport improvement at a requested location unless in accordance with the standards prescribed by the commissioner of transportation. The local governing body of a city, village or town shall, prior to granting such authorization, request the commissioner of transportation to determine whether or not the establishment of such a privately-owned airport improvement complies with his standards.

The NYTimes reported that a legendary sports figure being investigated as part of an ever widening criminal investigation transferred his house just four (4) months prior to the scandal hitting the national press. Forbes.com wrote an interesting article that discusses the reasons for such a transfer.

As reported in the article, the question of whether a real estate transfer is fraudulent or designed to divest creditors of assets will be a fact intensive review. In this case, the elderly embattled figure may have transferred the home to effect an estate plan, may have just learned that he is ill, or could have done it to avoid personal liabilty for the alleged coverup.

In New York, the creditors will have a long battle ahead. They need to prove a case, win a judgment, and then chase after the debtor.

The plaintiff in McColgan v. Brewer owned a part of what was a larger parcel of property owned by M. Kelley. During construction of the New York State Thruway, the state of New York acquired the middle part of the original Kelley parcel.

As a result, Kelley owned two separate parcels, one west of the Thruway and the other east of the Thruway. The physical layout required Kelley, and now the plaintiff, to use Albert’s Lane to reach Route 32. Kelley’s southern neighbors entered into a series of right-of-way agreements with the owners of the northern parcels to secure access to Route 21 via Alberts Lane in 1953. Kelley was never a party to these right-of-way agreements granting an easement between her property and Route 32.

The plaintiff purchased the Kelley parcels. Prior to purchasing the subject property, the plaintiff (1) hired the defendants Rothe Engineering & Construction and Donald Brewer to conduct a survey of the subject property, (2) hired the Attorney defendant Philip Kirschner to determine if the easterly portion of the property had access to Route 32 via Alberts Lane, and (3) obtained insurance from the defendant Chicago Title Insurance Company through a local agent, Abbacy Abstract, to insure against any losses that he would incur if the landlocked portion of the property did not have access to Route 21.

In today’s real estate market of short sales, mortgages underwater, depressed prices and a buyer’s market, where financing can be a tricky and arduous journey there is one contingency that may protect the buyer– the appraisal contingency, often negotiated by attorneys for real estate buyers.

Stated simply, the appraisal contingency is designed to give a buyer the right to cancel the contract if the home does not appraise for the price the buyer agreed to pay. Take the case of a Florida couple who contracted to buy a house from for $620,000. The purchase and sale contract provided that the sale was “contingent upon this property appraising for no less than $620,000.” The purchasers commissioned an appraisal which apparently came in at $560,000, and refused to close.

In response, the Sellers secured an appraisal which valued the real estate at $635,000. The sellers sued for breach of contract, arguing that any appraisal of $620,000 or more obligated the purchasers to buy the house. The purchasers argued that since it appraised for less (by their appraiser) they could terminate. The Florida appellate court favored the buyers, ruling: “In our view, ‘appraising for no less than $620,000’ means that no appraisal may be less than $620,000,” the court ruled.

So, you want to buy a house, condominium, cooperative apartment or vacant land with your significant other in New York. You have been serious about this life partner for years, but you aren’t bound by the typical bonds of legal matrimony.

Did you consult with your real estate attorney, did you ask that attorney about a partnership or “co-habitation” agreement? What are you going to do if you are no longer interested in “cohabiting?” Too many times, people don’t ask these questions, and get burned later. Take for instance the common predicament of this individual.

As a real estate lawyer, I always ask unmarried couples whether they want a basic partnership agreement about what happens when they dissolve their relationship from a real estate perspective. In addition to a real estate partnership agreement, non-married couples should consider a cohabitation agreement, which is a contract that includes provisions about each partner’s separate property, debts and financial responsibilities and spells out the division of goods, property and responsibilities should the relationship dissolve.

Do you remember the 1990 release of Pacific Heights where the young couple renovates their home and takes a nightmare tenant who refuses to leave. Whether you are a tenant or a homeowner, these river village towns in suburban New York incubate potential problems between unrelated families living under the same roof, sharing utilities, driveways, even entrances. What a complex relationship.

At the core is the landlord’s ownership interest in the land, which may be devised, lent or leased to a tenant. In exchange for paying rent, the tenant is supposed to be able to “quietly enjoy” the “demised space” without interference from the landlord, but subject to certain basic written or unwritten rules. Sometimes the tenant fails to pay rent, or the landlord fails to provide a clean, safe, warm place to live. Both parties jealously guard their rights (their castle), and feel indignant when the other fails to live up to their end of the “bargain.”

That bargain generally comes in two forms, either with a written lease or a “month to month” tenancy. Generally, a written lease has well developed language setting forth in plain language the rent, security, term, location, and the nuances of daily living by which the landlord expects the tenant to abide. Two rules of thumb for landlords: the security should be sequestered in a separate bank account even for a two family house; and the right to retain it at the end of the lease is not a given, meaning you have to follow the rules if there is damage.

Almost universally as a house closing or refinance closing approaches, I am asked why the itemized cost for “title insurance” is so high. Sometimes, clients even tell me that they do not have to pay for “title insurance” because they are putting more than twenty percent down, but have confused Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) with “title insurance.” So, what is title insurance and why do you need it?

To begin with, PMI is insurance designed to protect lenders against losses should the borrower default, and is required by lenders for virtually all borrowers who put less than twenty percent (20%) down. It has nothing to do with who owns or has “title” to the property, and who insures that no one is going to claim against it.

Title insurance is a contract where an insurer guarantees a lender or a home owner that there are no known claims or defects in title caused by past events such as mortgages, liens, or possession of property by another person not the owner. Title insurance companies search public records to develop and document the chain of title and to detect known claims (defects) in the title. For example, the title search may identify an old home equity loan that is still outstanding or that a contracting firm filed a mechanics lien against the owner years before. If they missed those defects, then the title insurance company would pay to have them fixed, even if it meant litigation.

Do you hire a doctor or a lawyer without checking their licenses, their pedigree, and their referrals? So, why is it that when it comes to investing in their greatest asset (the home), so many people become victims of dishonest contractors who demand large advance payments for projects, and then fail to complete the work fully or competently. What are your rights.

In Rockland County, there are several resources designed to protect us from unscrupulous home improvement contractors. The first, Rockland County Code, Section 286, empowers the Office of Consumer Protection to license and regulate nearly all home improvement contractors and transactions. [Rockland County Law can be found at http://www.ecode360.com/?custId=RO1021, Chapter 286].

The comprehensive law covers everything from licensing individual contractors; (286-7) the contents of home improvement contracts (286-12); the prohibited acts (286-10); the penalties for not complying with the law (286-21); and the powers of the Board. While the nuances of such law are complex, the goal is to provide minimum standards to avoid the main problems that homeowners have with contractors.