Renovating Among The Stars

Justin Theroux, photo by David Shankbone

Realtor.com quoted me in Justin Theroux’s Renovation Drama: What Went Wrong? It opens,

Actor Justin Theroux might have many admirers (including his wife, Jennifer Aniston), but apparently the “Leftovers” hunk inspires more than his share of haters, too—including his Manhattan neighbor Norman Resnicow. Apparently their feud started two years ago, when Theroux decided to renovate his apartment; Resnicow lives one floor down.

As anyone who’s lived under, next to, or anywhere near a demolition site knows, home renovations can get noisy—which is why Resnicow, a lawyer, felt it within his rights to ask Theroux to do the neighborly thing and install soundproofing to muffle the ruckus. There was just one problem: According to the New York Post, the requested soundproofing would cost a whopping $30,000 and make it difficult for Theroux to preserve the original flooring in his place, which he was keen to do. So he refused.

That’s when things got ugly. According to a lawsuit filed by Theroux, Resnicow embarked on a “targeted and malicious years-long harassment campaign” to derail those renovations and just make life unpleasant for the actor.

  • Resnicow accused Theroux’s contractors of damaging the marble in the building’s entranceway, and demanded they make repairs.
  • He halted Theroux’s roof deck renovations by arguing that the fence separating their portions of the deck encroached on his property.
  • Then, for good measure, he cut down the ivy lining the fence purely because he knew that the site of the foliage made Theroux happy.

Theroux now seeks $350,000 from Resnicow, alleging nuisance, trespass, and all in all “depriving Mr. Theroux of his right to use and enjoy his property.”

But Resnicow remains resolute, telling the Post, “I have acted for one purpose only, which remains to assure my and my wife’s health and safety.”

How to balance renovations with neighbor relations

As Theroux’s predicament makes painfully clear, few issues can ruin a neighborly relationship like noise—particularly if you live in an apartment building or other tight quarters. Problem is, homeowners also have a right to make home improvements. So at what point does reasonable renovation ruckus become so loud it’s a legitimate nuisance? That depends, for starters, on where you live, as noise ordinances and other regulations vary by area.

New York City’s Noise Code prohibits construction noise that “exceeds the ambient sounds level by more than 10 decibels as measured from 15 feet from the source.” (And in case you have no clue how to figure that out, the city uses devices called sound meters; you can also download sound meter apps to take your own measurements.) Volume levels aside, most areas have limits on when you can hammer away; in New York, work is typically limited to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The third variable to consider is the co-op, condo, or HOA board that governs your building or community, which may place further restrictions on hours or even the type of renovations you do. Yet if a homeowner like Theroux is following these rules, odds are he’s in the clear.

“In New York City, they say ‘hell hath no fury like an attorney dealing with noisy neighbors,’ but as long as you have the proper permits, then construction noise created during normal business hours is generally allowed, with the understanding that it will only be temporary,” says Emile L’Eplattenier, a New York City real estate agent and analyst for Fit Small Business. “As long as he isn’t running afoul of his building’s rules—which is doubtful—then his neighbor has little recourse.”

Still, if you’re a homeowner about to embark on a renovation who doesn’t want to drive your neighbors nuts, what can you do? For starters, keep in mind that even if the sounds don’t ruffle you, people’s noise sensitivities can vary.

In the words of David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, “One person’s quiet hum is another’s racket.”

HOA Crybabies

by Brandon Baunach

Realtor.com quoted me in Neighbor Files Noise Complaint With HOA for Crying Baby. It opens,

People file noise complaints against neighbors for all kinds of reasons, from dogs that won’t stop barking to partiers who won’t stop blasting Britney Spears. (Britney? Really?) Yet recently intrabuilding warfare—and a resulting official noise complaint—was lodged against a far more dubious target: a baby. A crying baby, to be exact.

The conflict escalated when condo owners Jessica and Karl Ronnevik in Greensboro, CT, learned just how much impact their 1-year-old son’s bawling was having on their next-door neighbor, via the following passive-aggressive (emphasis on aggressive) note.

“Please consider buying a parenting book or consult with a child care expert,” the missive read, according to local news channel Fox 8. “Your baby should not be crying that loudly and for that long. Try more calming techniques, music, turn on a vacuum, rocking chair, go for a walk … anything!”

File that under “helpful, not.” A parenting book! Some really out-of-the-box thinking there, neighbor! If only more parents knew about those, there would surely be no crying babies, ever. The note goes on to say, “If you don’t make changes immediately, you risk being fined by [the homeowners’] association.”

And apparently, the HOA isn’t keen on crying babies, either: A previous noise complaint by this neighbor, in December, spurred the HOA to send the Ronneviks a warning to shut their kid up—or pay a penalty.

The frazzled parents told Fox they’re doing their best to keep their son, Peter, quiet, but come on—kids cry. They contend that their son squalls no more than any other 1-year-old. The couple is also expecting a second child soon. So they caved and decided to move.

“I don’t feel comfortable living here, knowing that our neighbor is so intolerant,” Jessica Ronnevik told Fox. “It makes me feel like we have been bullied in our own home.”

So Fox asked this neighbor for further comment (he’d left his name on the note but preferred to not be identified in the press).

“I stand by the note and its contents,” his statement read. “Any excessively loud noise that interferes with the rights of neighbors is subject to possible fines, as indicated in section 4 of the HOA Rules & Regulations.”

Which got us wondering: Is this ruffled neighbor right? The experts we spoke to say no.

“The Fair Housing Act generally prohibits discrimination on the basis of familial status by housing providers,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. This is also true for common interest communities such as those under the mandates of HOAs. “So, if a CIC discriminated against a family with children by unreasonably requiring that infants only cry softly or not at all, it could run afoul of the FHA.”

In other words, the Ronneviks could have had a decent case to stay put and let Peter cry to his heart’s content.

“Households that believe they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with state and federal regulators or consult with an attorney,” Reiss continues. “The CIC could face lawsuits which could lead to judgments where they pay damages.”

Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers

 

photo by Ben Jacobson

Realtor.com quoted me in Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers (and What It Means to You). It reads, in part,

Take that, Alan Dershowitz: Although both doctors and lawyers can typically afford better-than-decent-sized homes, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in states with a certain legal provision, physicians’ houses are bigger. Often much bigger.

So what’s the deal? It seems to come down to two factors: First, the skyrocketing costs of financially devastating medical malpractice suits; second, a once-obscure provision called “homestead exception” which can protect the assets of doctors in some states from being wiped out by those suits when they invest their cash in their homes.

“We have been interested in understanding how does that pervasive aspect of a physician’s career influence the decisions they make … whether it means they invest more in houses to protect themselves against liability,” Anupam Jena, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the paper, tells the Washington Post.

Here’s how homestead exception works: If creditors are hounding you for unsecured debts—as opposed to secure ones, like your mortgage—they can’t take your home as collateral, as long as you declare bankruptcy. In fact, they can’t even place a lien on the property to collect when you sell. These exemptions vary by state: Some, such as New Jersey, have no such safeguard; in California, individuals’ homes are protected up to $75,000 (which generally won’t get you past the front porch).

Yet a handful of states—Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as the District of Columbia—have unlimited homestead exemption. Doctors in those states bought homes that were 13% more expensive than the homes of doctors elsewhere. The homes of medical doctors (and dentists, who are essentially in the same medical malpractice boat) were markedly more expensive than the homes of professionals making similar salaries—even lawyers, who know a thing or two about malpractice suits. The authors drew from U.S. Census Bureau data on 3 million households about profession, household income, and home value.

So why should you care? Because homestead exemptions apply to you, too—even if the closest you come to the medical profession is annual checkups and late night reruns of “ER.”

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But don’t get the wrong idea: The homestead exemption isn’t a bulletproof way to ward off foreclosure. Remember, it applies only to unsecured debt such as credit cards—not secured debt like your mortgage.

“If you borrow money for a home, the homestead exemption typically does not apply,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. In other words, if you don’t pay your mortgage and default on your loan, your lender can foreclose and seize your home.

And we’re not saying you should run from your creditors, because eventually they’ll catch up to you. But if you are in financial straits and scared sick of losing your house, check your local homestead exemption laws first—you might be safer than you think.

Luxury Real Estate and Transparency

photo by tpsdave

Law360 quoted me in Atty-Client Privilege At Stake In Real Estate Bill (behind a paywall). It opens,

The push to reveal the individuals involved in anonymous real estate deals has moved from title insurers to attorneys and real estate agents, but lawyers say requiring them to reveal the names of clients they help set up limited liability companies and other vehicles could weaken attorney-client privilege.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Peter King, R-N.Y., plan to reintroduce legislation this week that would require states to collect the beneficial ownership information for limited liability companies and other vehicles used in real estate transactions, or to have the U.S. Department of the Treasury step in if states are unable to meet the requirement, in order to prevent criminals, corrupt government officials and terrorists from using real estate purchases to launder funds.

Doing so would close a loophole that allows attorneys to advise clients without meeting the same reporting requirements as banks and would help prevent potentially illicit funds from making their way into real estate markets, Maloney said. But it also has the potential for putting attorneys in the uncomfortable position of reporting clients to the government in cases where there may not be a criminal violation, said Marc Landis, the managing partner of Phillips Nizer LLP.

“This will certainly be an area where client confidentiality and attorney-client privilege will be weakened in ways that they have not been previously,” he said.

Lawyers in real estate transactions came under renewed attention after the transparency advocacy group Global Witness and the CBS News program “60 Minutes” released a blockbuster report Sunday night that showed several New York law firms providing information to an individual posing as an adviser to a minister from an African government who was looking to buy a Gulfstream jet, a yacht and a New York brownstone without the money being detected.

According to the report, which used hidden cameras, 12 of 13 lawyers provided assistance when asked how to set up shell companies and other vehicles to avoid attaching a name to the purchases. One of those 12 later said he wouldn’t participate in the transactions.

The Global Witness report found that the attorneys — none of whom signed the group’s investigator as a client — broke no laws in providing the advice they did. And that’s a problem that Maloney wants to address.

“This is unacceptable, criminal, scandalous, and it has to stop,” she said on a conference call with reporters.

The New York Democrat’s solution to the problem is to require states to force attorneys, real estate agents and other advisers on a transaction to include the name of the beneficial owner of an LLC or trust on forms submitted to the state. If the state will not or cannot implement such a system, the Treasury Department, through the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, would require that disclosure.

In a similar move, FinCEN last month announced that title insurers would temporarily be required to provide the names of beneficial owners of LLCs that high-net-worth individuals use to purchase luxury real estate in Miami and Manhattan without mortgages.

Maloney’s bill, which she is introducing for a third time, will expand such reporting and make it permanent.

“We’re going after the loophole. We’re going after the real estate transactions. We’re going after the realtors and some lawyers that are setting these things up,” she said.

According to Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, Maloney’s bill, the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, has struck a good balance between giving law enforcement the power to root out illicit funds in high-end real estate and not infringing too much on attorney-client privilege.

“The attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest of the privileges recognized by courts, and in the aggregate it provides great benefits to society because it promotes open communications between clients and their lawyers. The privilege is not a shield for illegal behavior, though,” he said.

Dealing with Debt Collectors

V0015846 Portrait of a debt collector (?) thumbing through his papers Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Portrait of a debt collector (?) thumbing through his papers outside a front door. Mezzotint by W. Bonnar after T. Bonnar the elder. By: Thomas the elder Bonnarafter: William BonnarPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

I was quoted by CreditCardGuide.com in Know Your Rights with Debt Collectors. It reads, in part,

Regardless of how deep your financial troubles go, you are protected by state and federal law when it comes to how debt collectors can treat you.

First off, you should understand who the people are behind the debt collection notices and phone calls. “A debt collector is defined as someone who is not the original creditor,” explains David Reiss, professor of law and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, who also writes the REFinBlog. And, he says, what might start out as a legitimate debt collector contacting you on behalf of a creditor, can change over time since debt collection companies often sell their lists to other companies. Unfortunately, your contact information might end up with a fly-by-night operation that resorts to shady practices, such as trying to frighten you with threats and bullying.

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Consider this your peek into the debt collection rulebook so that you can arm yourself against abusive tactics:

What debt collectors cannot do

  • Call you under a false identity. “That means they cannot say they are an attorney if they are not, or say they are from the sheriff’s office if they are not,” says Reiss.
  • Discuss your debt with your employer, family members (other than your spouse), neighbors or publish your name on a list of people who owe money. “They can call a third party and leave a message for you, but they can’t disclose the details of your debt,” says Tayne. Generally, they can only discuss your debt with you, your spouse and your attorney.
  • Call you at ridiculous hours, such as before 8 a.m. or past 9 p.m. They also cannot call you repeatedly in a single day.
  • Be abusive, threatening or vulgar. In other words, says Tayne, they cannot bully you by calling you a deadbeat or loser for not making payments, and they should never curse at you.
  • Make false threats that they will seize your property, drain your bank accounts or arrest you, says Reiss.

What debt collectors can do

  • Contact you in person, by mail, by phone or by fax between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. However, they can’t contact you at work if they are told you can’t get calls there. Also, if you write to them to stop calling you, they must comply, although they might respond by suing you, so think carefully before sending that letter.
  • Sue you in court. If they do, you’ll have to appear, and it’s in your best interest to hire an attorney. Ideally, you want to work something out before getting to this stage, says Reiss, because court and attorney costs can pile up.
  • Report you to the credit agencies. “Debt collectors can report your default to the credit bureaus,” says Reiss. This negative item will remain on your report for seven years, and your credit score will take a hit.

What you can do

If you think debt collectors are crossing the line, you do have options for recourse, says Reiss. “First, build up a paper record as this can help you later on.” That includes taking notes on every conversation you have, with dates, times and who you spoke to.

You could also try sending a cease-and-desist letter, or asking a lawyer to do so on your behalf, says Reiss. “They may be afraid and back off if a lawyer is involved,” he says.

Tayne finds that such letters aren’t always effective for more hostile debt collectors. “If they’re really out of line, file a lawsuit in small claims court,” she says.

You should also report shady collectors to your state attorney general’s office as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, say Reiss and Tayne.

If you do end up making a payment to a debt collector, request documentation that states your debt is paid, and then be sure that the payment is reflected on your credit reports within 90 days. You can get your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Ideally, you don’t ever want to be in a situation in which debt collectors are tasked with contacting you, and incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to pay them. But if you do end up in that situation, knowing your rights is your best defense. Says Reiss, “Debt collectors do not want consumers to invoke their rights under the FDCPA because the act can severely limit what they can do.”