Buyer Guide

Buying property involves a seemingly endless number of details. This guide is designed to make the process easier to navigate and understand.
4. THE NITTY GRITTY

 

This section introduces you to a variety of practical details you may encounter in your search.

 

FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS

The following items can affect your budget. Let your REALTOR® know if you want to take any of them into account.

  • Property Tax Rates. Property tax rates differ from town to town.
  • Homeowner and/or Road Association fees.
  • Insurance. If the house is on a river or lake, you may be required to get flood insurance in addition to your insurance, which increases annual costs.
  • Energy efficiency. Green features can help the budget by lowering annual operating costs.
  • Rental Potential. You may want to take advantage of properties that lend themselves to generating rental income.

 

ASSESSED VALUE, MARKET VALUE & APPRAISED VALUE

It’s useful to understand each of these terms. Assessed value is what the town uses to calculate your property tax. Market value is what a buyer is willing to pay and a seller is willing to accept for a given property. The CMA (Comparative Market Analysis) shows what buyers have recently paid for comparable properties. Along with their gut knowledge of what the market will bear, a REALTOR® uses the CMA to help you get an idea of market value. Appraised value is a licensed appraiser’s version of the realtor’s CMA. It is used by the bank to make sure the mortgage is in line with the value of the property.

 

COVENANTS AND RESTRICTIONS

Some developments have covenants and restrictions to regulate the use, appearance and maintenance of the community. If you don’t want to be bound by these, you should look elsewhere.

 

CONDO DOCUMENTS

A savvy condo buyer scrutinizes the financial health of the association. You will also review additional documents such as the Master Deed, the Bylaws, and Rules & Regulations. Your attorney can help you with this.

 

SURVEYS AND PLOT PLANS

A survey is a detailed, reliable depiction of all the boundaries and dimensions of the property, as well as the position of any structures—house, sheds, fences, etc. It also shows any encroachments and easements. A plot plan is a less precise version, focusing simply on the placement of the structures and the boundaries. If a seller has an existing survey of the property, they will provide it. But in many cases, they don’t have one. Typically, your attorney will order a plot plan for you—not just for your own benefit, but because most lenders will require one.

 

HEATING, COOLING & DOMESTIC HOT WATER

Heating and cooling systems—both type and fuel—are key components of your search. Here are the options:
 

HEATING

  • Hot water baseboard (boiler)
  • Forced air heat (furnace)
  • Electric baseboard
  • Radiant (provided by hot water, or sometimes electric, under the floor)
  • Direct (Wood stoves, pellet stoves, propane stoves/fireplaces)
  • Ductless mini-split and whole house multi-split systems (both heat and A/C)

COOLING

  • Central Air (using ductwork throughout the house) or
  • Ductless mini-split and whole house multi-split units

Relatively few homes in the Berkshires feature air conditioning. Central A/C can share ductwork with forced air heating systems, so when a given home has forced air heat, air conditioning can be added as long as the ductwork is insulated. (Older systems lack insulated ductwork.)

HOT WATER

  • An independent hot water heater (electric, propane, natural gas, solar) or
  • “In line with a boiler (oil, propane, natural gas).

 

Of course, as with anything, there are pros and cons. From an energy conservation standpoint, operating the boiler all summer for the sole purpose of heating domestic hot water is inefficient.

 

SEPTIC SYSTEMS

Town sewer is found only in a few village centers. Properties in most of the county use septic systems to treat household waste. Commonly, they consist of a tank, a distribution box, and a soil absorption field where effluent is slowly leached into the soil. Of course there are many variations depending on the idiosyncracies of the property. If the field can only be located above the tank, a pump is used. On small properties that lack space for a conventional field, or properties near natural bodies of water, high tech septic systems are used.

 

TITLE 5

Title 5 is the part of the Massachusetts State Environmental Code that regulates private septic systems. A passing Title 5 (or a Certificate of Compliance for a newly installed septic system) is required for most closings. Few banks will approve a mortgage on a property that failed septic inspection. That said, in some cases, careful provisions can be put in the contract for the buyer to install a new system, usually including escrowing 150% of the estimated cost. If you are a cash buyer, you can purchase a property that has failed Title 5, but you must upgrade the system within two years of the inspection.   If the seller doesn’t already have a passing Title 5 report on hand, they will need to hire a licensed excavator to inspect the septic system. The contract specifies a date by which they must provide you with the Title 5 Report. The system may pass, pass with conditions, or fail. If the system is given a conditional pass, this means it requires some relatively minor repairs. The seller will receive the passing report after they complete the necessary repairs. If the system fails, in many cases, the seller commissions any major repairs required to bring the system into compliance, or has a new septic system designed and installed. Sometimes, the seller won’t be willing or able to do this. They may ask you to do it, or perhaps ask you to share the expense of a new system. In any case, if the system fails to meet Title 5 regulations, the P&S agreement allows you, the buyer, to cancel. If you don’t cancel, and you reach an agreement with the seller, all parties will sign a revised P&S.

 

TOWN SEWER

Properties with town sewer offer the convenience of “out of sight, out of mind” regarding sewage—no septic system to periodically pump or maintain, and no need to keep cars or heavy equipment from driving over it. However, one potential issue is associated with town sewer—old sewer systems can be susceptible to damage by tree roots or deterioration from age. If it is determined that the sewer connections are older, a sewer scope is recommended to make sure the lines are in good repair.

 

 

RADON

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, relatively common in the Berkshires. Exposure to decaying radon particles can damage lung tissue, and thus increase the risk of lung cancer. You should hire your inspector to test the radon level in the home. They will set the detector in the lowest living area of the home—in other words, the lowest space in which you might spend at least 7 hours a week. If your radon test result is higher than 4 PCi/L (picoCuries per liter of air), the EPA recommends you have a mitigation system installed. There are two kinds of mitigation systems. One draws the radon gas through a PVC pipe to a fan, and vents it out of the home. The other continually flushes the affected area with fresh air. Here is a link to more information >>

 

WOOD STOVE PERMITS

Just because a property has a wood stove doesn’t mean it’s permitted or safe. You will often hear from showing agents that a wood stove conveys, but will be disconnected at closing. This puts the liability for connecting and operating the stove on you. Consult the building inspector to see whether your installation can be permitted. Stoves that are not UL-listed are simply too old to be permitted.

 

SOLAR PANELS

If you’re considering a property that has solar panels, find out whether they are owned, financed, or leased. Carefully scrutinize any contracts and make sure they’re transferable. Solar panels have a lifespan—typically 20 years. Roofs, too, have a lifespan—30-year architectural shingles are most common. Verify that the roof was either new or recent when the solar array was installed. (The installation may have affected the roof warranty.)

 

PROPANE TANKS

Propane fuel may be used to power kitchen stoves, clothes dryers, propane stoves, fireplaces, boilers or furnaces. Usually your fuel company owns and maintains the tank, but some people opt to purchase their own. If you buy a property with a resident-owned propane tank, take into account the added responsibility and insurance liability.

 

OIL HEATING SYSTEM REQUIREMENT

In 2011, Massachusetts enacted a law to prevent leaks from tanks and pipes that connect to home heating systems. The system must be equipped with an oil safety valve or a protective sleeve must be installed around the oil supply line.

 

BURIED OIL TANKS

It is rare, but an older property could still have a buried oil tank. In this case, if you’re still interested in purchasing the property, the seller should professionally remove the tank, and test the soil to ensure no contamination occurred (as per Massachusetts regulations).

 

ENERGY EFFICIENCY / MASS SAVE

Mass Save is an invaluable program to help homeowners reduce their energy usage. The first step is a free energy assessment. Then, you may take advantage of various rebates and incentives available through the program. The result is you save money and the planet benefits, too.

 

 

RIGHT TO FARM

Most communities in South Berkshire County have passed some form of Agricultural Farming bylaws, many of which include a “right to farm” provision. When selling property in these towns, sellers must inform buyers that the property they are about to acquire lies within a town where farming activities occur. Such farming activities may include, but are not limited to, activities that cause noise, dust and odors. This is done using a Right To Farm disclosure form.

 

WETLAND CONSIDERATIONS

The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (MGL Chapter 131, Section 40) protects certain types of wetland areas and activities in those areas. Many Berkshire towns have additional wetland by-laws. If you want to make changes like removing trees or adding structures in protected areas, you should bring in a knowledgeable wetlands consultant and/or land engineer.

 

FLOOD INSURANCE

If the property is in a high-risk area for flooding, find out if the seller currently carries flood insurance. Because FEMA flood maps are periodically updated, even if they don’t currently have coverage, you may be required to. Your insurance agent will likely need an Elevation Certificate (EC) to determine your flood insurance premium. An EC documents the elevation of a dwelling compared to the estimated height floodwaters will reach in a major flood. It determines flood risk and the cost of flood insurance. If the insurance company requires it, and the seller doesn’t have one, it will have to be commissioned, and this can take time, and can cost hundreds of dollars. Here is a link to more information >>

 

SMOKE & CO DETECTORS

At closing, the seller is required to deliver a Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector Certificate of Compliance (“Smoke Certificate”). This indicates that the fire chief has inspected the premises to make sure units are installed everywhere they are supposed to be, are functioning, and are not too old.

 

RENTED EQUIPMENT

Occasionally you will view a property that has a rented hot water heater. Check the details of the rental contract to see if you want to assume it. Otherwise, you’ll need to negotiate an alternative.

Guides written by Barney Stein,

LVRE agent since 2007

4. THE NITTY GRITTY

 
This section introduces you to a variety of practical details you may encounter in your search.
 

 

FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS

The following items can affect your budget. Let your REALTOR® know if you want to take any of them into account.

  • Property Tax Rates. Property tax rates differ from town to town.
  • Homeowner and/or Road Association fees.
  • Insurance. If the house is on a river or lake, you may be required to get flood insurance in addition to your insurance, which increases annual costs.
  • Energy efficiency. Green features can help the budget by lowering annual operating costs.
  • Rental Potential. You may want to take advantage of properties that lend themselves to generating rental income.

 

ASSESSED VALUE, MARKET VALUE & APPRAISED VALUE

It’s useful to understand each of these terms. Assessed value is what the town uses to calculate your property tax. Market value is what a buyer is willing to pay and a seller is willing to accept for a given property. The CMA (Comparative Market Analysis) shows what buyers have recently paid for comparable properties. Along with their gut knowledge of what the market will bear, a REALTOR® uses the CMA to help you get an idea of market value. Appraised value is a licensed appraiser’s version of the realtor’s CMA. It is used by the bank to make sure the mortgage is in line with the value of the property.

 

COVENANTS AND RESTRICTIONS

Some developments have covenants and restrictions to regulate the use, appearance and maintenance of the community. If you don’t want to be bound by these, you should look elsewhere.

 

CONDO DOCUMENTS

A savvy condo buyer scrutinizes the financial health of the association. You will also review additional documents such as the Master Deed, the Bylaws, and Rules & Regulations. Your attorney can help you with this.

 

SURVEYS AND PLOT PLANS

A survey is a detailed, reliable depiction of all the boundaries and dimensions of the property, as well as the position of any structures—house, sheds, fences, etc. It also shows any encroachments and easements. A plot plan is a less precise version, focusing simply on the placement of the structures and the boundaries. If a seller has an existing survey of the property, they will provide it. But in many cases, they don’t have one. Typically, your attorney will order a plot plan for you—not just for your own benefit, but because most lenders will require one.

 

HEATING, COOLING & DOMESTIC HOT WATER

Heating and cooling systems—both type and fuel—are key components of your search. Here are the options:
 

HEATING

  • Hot water baseboard (boiler)
  • Forced air heat (furnace)
  • Electric baseboard
  • Radiant (provided by hot water, or sometimes electric, under the floor)
  • Direct (Wood stoves, pellet stoves, propane stoves/fireplaces)
  • Ductless mini-split and whole house multi-split systems (both heat and A/C)
 

COOLING

  • Central Air (using ductwork throughout the house) or
  • Ductless mini-split and whole house multi-split units

Relatively few homes in the Berkshires feature air conditioning. Central A/C can share ductwork with forced air heating systems, so when a given home has forced air heat, air conditioning can be added as long as the ductwork is insulated. (Older systems lack insulated ductwork.)

 

HOT WATER

  • An independent hot water heater (electric, propane, natural gas, solar) or
  • “In line with a boiler (oil, propane, natural gas).

Of course, as with anything, there are pros and cons. From an energy conservation standpoint, operating the boiler all summer for the sole purpose of heating domestic hot water is inefficient.

 

SEPTIC SYSTEMS

Town sewer is found only in a few village centers. Properties in most of the county use septic systems to treat household waste. Commonly, they consist of a tank, a distribution box, and a soil absorption field where effluent is slowly leached into the soil. Of course there are many variations depending on the idiosyncracies of the property. If the field can only be located above the tank, a pump is used. On small properties that lack space for a conventional field, or properties near natural bodies of water, high tech septic systems are used.

 

TITLE 5

Title 5 is the part of the Massachusetts State Environmental Code that regulates private septic systems. A passing Title 5 (or a Certificate of Compliance for a newly installed septic system) is required for most closings. Few banks will approve a mortgage on a property that failed septic inspection. That said, in some cases, careful provisions can be put in the contract for the buyer to install a new system, usually including escrowing 150% of the estimated cost. If you are a cash buyer, you can purchase a property that has failed Title 5, but you must upgrade the system within two years of the inspection.   If the seller doesn’t already have a passing Title 5 report on hand, they will need to hire a licensed excavator to inspect the septic system. The contract specifies a date by which they must provide you with the Title 5 Report. The system may pass, pass with conditions, or fail. If the system is given a conditional pass, this means it requires some relatively minor repairs. The seller will receive the passing report after they complete the necessary repairs. If the system fails, in many cases, the seller commissions any major repairs required to bring the system into compliance, or has a new septic system designed and installed. Sometimes, the seller won’t be willing or able to do this. They may ask you to do it, or perhaps ask you to share the expense of a new system. In any case, if the system fails to meet Title 5 regulations, the P&S agreement allows you, the buyer, to cancel. If you don’t cancel, and you reach an agreement with the seller, all parties will sign a revised P&S.

 

TOWN SEWER

Properties with town sewer offer the convenience of “out of sight, out of mind” regarding sewage—no septic system to periodically pump or maintain, and no need to keep cars or heavy equipment from driving over it. However, one potential issue is associated with town sewer—old sewer systems can be susceptible to damage by tree roots or deterioration from age. If it is determined that the sewer connections are older, a sewer scope is recommended to make sure the lines are in good repair.
 

 

RADON

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, relatively common in the Berkshires. Exposure to decaying radon particles can damage lung tissue, and thus increase the risk of lung cancer. You should hire your inspector to test the radon level in the home. They will set the detector in the lowest living area of the home—in other words, the lowest space in which you might spend at least 7 hours a week. If your radon test result is higher than 4 PCi/L (picoCuries per liter of air), the EPA recommends you have a mitigation system installed. There are two kinds of mitigation systems. One draws the radon gas through a PVC pipe to a fan, and vents it out of the home. The other continually flushes the affected area with fresh air. Here is a link to more information >>

 

WOOD STOVE PERMITS

Just because a property has a wood stove doesn’t mean it’s permitted or safe. You will often hear from showing agents that a wood stove conveys, but will be disconnected at closing. This puts the liability for connecting and operating the stove on you. Consult the building inspector to see whether your installation can be permitted. Stoves that are not UL-listed are simply too old to be permitted.

 

SOLAR PANELS

If you’re considering a property that has solar panels, find out whether they are owned, financed, or leased. Carefully scrutinize any contracts and make sure they’re transferable. Solar panels have a lifespan—typically 20 years. Roofs, too, have a lifespan—30-year architectural shingles are most common. Verify that the roof was either new or recent when the solar array was installed. (The installation may have affected the roof warranty.)

 

PROPANE TANKS

Propane fuel may be used to power kitchen stoves, clothes dryers, propane stoves, fireplaces, boilers or furnaces. Usually your fuel company owns and maintains the tank, but some people opt to purchase their own. If you buy a property with a resident-owned propane tank, take into account the added responsibility and insurance liability.

 

OIL HEATING SYSTEM REQUIREMENT

In 2011, Massachusetts enacted a law to prevent leaks from tanks and pipes that connect to home heating systems. The system must be equipped with an oil safety valve or a protective sleeve must be installed around the oil supply line.

 

BURIED OIL TANKS

It is rare, but an older property could still have a buried oil tank. In this case, if you’re still interested in purchasing the property, the seller should professionally remove the tank, and test the soil to ensure no contamination occurred (as per Massachusetts regulations).

 

ENERGY EFFICIENCY / MASS SAVE

Mass Save is an invaluable program to help homeowners reduce their energy usage. The first step is a free energy assessment. Then, you may take advantage of various rebates and incentives available through the program. The result is you save money and the planet benefits, too.
 

 

RIGHT TO FARM

Most communities in South Berkshire County have passed some form of Agricultural Farming bylaws, many of which include a “right to farm” provision. When selling property in these towns, sellers must inform buyers that the property they are about to acquire lies within a town where farming activities occur. Such farming activities may include, but are not limited to, activities that cause noise, dust and odors. This is done using a Right To Farm disclosure form.

 

WETLAND CONSIDERATIONS

The Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (MGL Chapter 131, Section 40) protects certain types of wetland areas and activities in those areas. Many Berkshire towns have additional wetland by-laws. If you want to make changes like removing trees or adding structures in protected areas, you should bring in a knowledgeable wetlands consultant and/or land engineer.

 

FLOOD INSURANCE

If the property is in a high-risk area for flooding, find out if the seller currently carries flood insurance. Because FEMA flood maps are periodically updated, even if they don’t currently have coverage, you may be required to. Your insurance agent will likely need an Elevation Certificate (EC) to determine your flood insurance premium. An EC documents the elevation of a dwelling compared to the estimated height floodwaters will reach in a major flood. It determines flood risk and the cost of flood insurance. If the insurance company requires it, and the seller doesn’t have one, it will have to be commissioned, and this can take time, and can cost hundreds of dollars. Here is a link to more information >>

 

SMOKE & CO DETECTORS

At closing, the seller is required to deliver a Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector Certificate of Compliance (“Smoke Certificate”). This indicates that the fire chief has inspected the premises to make sure units are installed everywhere they are supposed to be, are functioning, and are not too old.

 

RENTED EQUIPMENT

Occasionally you will view a property that has a rented hot water heater. Check the details of the rental contract to see if you want to assume it. Otherwise, you’ll need to negotiate an alternative.

Guides written by Barney Stein,

LVRE agent since 2007

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