Articles Posted in Real Estate

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A variety of Rhode Island property law issues that require legal advice can affect property owners in the state. One such issue is eminent domain, which is the way that a state, municipality, or other entity granted eminent domain power by statute can take personal property for government use. Government entities must follow state and federal law in exercising eminent domain power, and the laws are designed to be fair to the private property owner who is giving up their property.

A commonly recognized use of eminent domain powers is for the construction or widening of roadways, however, there are several acceptable uses that allow the government to take private land. Rhode Island General Laws section 42-64.12-6 lists these uses as:

  • Providing for the public’s ownership and use;
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For the most part, property owners can do what they wish with their property. However, Rhode Island property law steps in to provide some guidance and regulation of how landowners use their land. For the most part, this is to ensure that others who own nearby property are not negatively affected by a landowner’s decisions.

One of the more common issues that arise between neighbors involves the lawfulness of a property owner’s fence. In many situations, fences are necessary to keep people or animals out; however, fences can also have a deleterious effect on the “feel” of an area or neighborhood. Fences can also obstruct nearby homeowners’ view, or, interrupt their access.

It may come as a surprise to some homeowners, but Rhode Island fencing law outlines precisely what types of fences are permitted. For example, below is a list of permissible fences, discussed in terms of minimum height:

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One of the more complex areas of Rhode Island real estate law is zoning. Zoning refers to the process in which a city or town divides land and designates certain permissible or prohibited use. For example, Rhode Island zoning laws govern whether a homeowner can run a retail business out of the first floor of their home or whether a manufacturer can construct a factory on a specific plot of land.

Historically, the state government allowed local municipalities to make their own zoning decisions. However, after being confronted by the reality of having a total lack of a uniform zoning system, the state government passed the Rhode Island Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act (the Act). The Act was designed to implement a state-wide zoning system while still allowing municipal discretion.

The Rhode Island zoning laws impose several layers of restrictions. First, all land is broadly classified into the following categories, known as zoning districts:

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Rhode Island tenants may wonder whether they can recover compensation for injuries incurred on their leased premises by filing a Rhode Island personal injury claim. Under the common law, a landlord could not be held liable for injuries sustained by a tenant or a guest on the premises, unless the landlord breached a covenant to repair in the lease or if the injuries resulted from a latent defect that was known to the landlord. However, this changed through the passage of Rhode Island’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.

The Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (the “Act”), which took effect on January 1, 1987, was meant to update and clarify the laws regarding rentals and the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants. The Act applies to rental agreements for residential dwelling units that were entered into, extended, or renewed after January 1, 1987. It also applies to most rental agreements involving public housing or federal subsidized or regulated housing, subject to some exceptions.

Under the Act, a landlord has the responsibility to maintain the premises in a fit and habitable condition. Under section 34-18-22 of the Act, a landlord must comply with applicable building and housing codes, make necessary repairs to keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition, supply running hot water, maintain common areas in a clean and safe condition, and maintain all facilities and appliances supplied by the landlord in good and safe working order, among other duties. These standards were adopted in conformity with the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA).

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Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Not only that, but it seems that lately Rhode Island property taxes move in one direction: up. Rhode Island property taxes average 1.53%, which puts the state at the 10th highest property tax rate in the country.

While property tax may be a certainty, there are some steps homeowners can take in the face of a mounting tax bill. One option is to apply for a property assessment freeze. The most common reason for a property tax increase is a reassessment of the property value. In Rhode Island, cities and towns are required to perform a statistical update every third and sixth year, and a full re-evaluation every ninth year. A property assessment freeze prevents a home from being reassessed at a higher value in the future.

Another option is to apply for a property tax freeze. Rhode Island is one of just six states that allows some residents to freeze their property tax rate. To qualify for a Rhode Island property tax freeze, a homeowner must be at least 65 years old and earn an annual income of less than $4,000. Those who have recently become totally disabled may also qualify for a tax freeze. In neighboring Connecticut, the rules are more favorable, allowing any homeowner over the age of 70 to apply for a tax freeze, regardless of income.

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The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently decided a property case, demonstrating the importance of preserving arguments for appeal. In this case, the plaintiff entered into a lease with the defendants to rent commercial property owned by the defendants. The plaintiff paid the defendants $18,600, which was comprised of $9,300 for a security deposit and $9,300 for the first month’s rent. A “receipt agreement” signed by the parties stated that if the property was not ready on or before November 14, 2013, “all deposits are fully refundable.”

According to the plaintiff, after the city found out that the plaintiff planned to grow medical marijuana in the building, the defendant told the plaintiff to “forget about” the property and that he was keeping the security deposit “for his aggravation.” The defendant testified that he did not return the security deposit because the plaintiff left the lease “without even trying to do anything.” The plaintiff could not occupy the property, and the defendants refused to return the security deposit. The plaintiff claimed that the defendants breached the contract, and also that the refusal to return the security deposit constituted a conversion of his property. A jury agreed, finding the defendants converted the plaintiff’s security deposit to their own use.

On appeal, the defendants argued in part that the economic loss doctrine barred the plaintiff from recovering under the conversion claim. The defendants argued that the plaintiff should not have been able to receive a damages award for the conversion claim because the plaintiff did not suffer any injury, and thus should be barred under the economic loss doctrine.

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Waterfront property is widely considered to be the most desirable property in the state. And while Rhode Island has just 40 miles of coastline, when considering all inlets and tidal areas, there are closer to 385 miles of shoreline. Still, that is a limited amount of space for an area that is known for its beautiful beaches and temperate summer climate.

With the gorgeous views and access that it affords property owners, Rhode Island waterfront property is also among the most valuable. However, property owners are not the only ones who hope to benefit from the perks that waterfront property provides. Indeed, the tension between a property owner’s right to exclude others from their property and the public’s access to beaches has been a consistent theme throughout New England property law since the formation of our country.

When it comes to determining ownership rights along the coastline, Rhode Island uses a public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine essentially states that the submerged land is owned in public trust, and owners of the beach cannot prevent the public from using this land (and the water above it). The Rhode Island public trust doctrine is contained in Article I Section 17 of the Rhode Island Constitution, and specifically provides that the public has a right to use the beach for “fishing from the shore, the gathering of seaweed, leaving the shore to swim in the sea and passage along the shore; and they shall be secure in their rights to the use and enjoyment of the natural resources of the state with due regard for the preservation of their values.”

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The income provided by a Rhode Island rental property can be a great way to increase your monthly cash flow. Not only do properly managed investment properties bring in cash each month, but they can also appreciate over the years. However, while rental property income is considered passive, there are some common issues that Rhode Island landlords find themselves needing to deal with regularly. Having a dedicated Rhode Island real estate attorney can help reduce the time it takes to resolve these inevitable issues, making sure your property stays occupied for as much of the time as possible.

Rhode Island investment properties are governed by a combination of local, state, and federal laws. Most of the important laws that landlords will encounter are state laws; however, federal laws provide for certain requirements related to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and discriminatory renting practices. Local municipal laws may tweak how landlords must handle specific situations, such as dealing with noise ordinances, but generally govern more minor issues.

As noted above, Rhode Island state law is most important for landlords to understand. A few common areas of concern under Rhode Island’s rental property laws are:

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Evictions are an unfortunate reality that most Rhode Island landlords will likely have to do deal with at some point. It is crucial that landlords follow Rhode Island landlord-tenant laws to ensure that they do not end up tangled in a lengthy and costly legal process. Rhode Island landlord-tenant attorneys can assist in navigating the complex landlord-tenant system.

Even if a tenant is behind on rent or is otherwise violating their lease, landlords must still follow the legal process. This means that Rhode Island landlords cannot constructively evict a tenant. Constructive evictions are landlord behaviors that force a tenant to leave a property. Unlawful landlord behaviors include changing the locks, turning off utilities, emptying the property, or failing to fix essential aspects of the property.

When a tenant is 15-days past due on their rent, a landlord can begin the eviction process. Rhode Island law requires the landlord to serve the tenant with a 5-Day Demand Notice for Nonpayment of Rent. This notice must layout any violations and clearly state the amounts owed. Further, the notice must state that the owed amounts are to be paid within five days of when the landlord mailed the notice. Finally, the notice requires the landlord to inform the tenant that court action will commence if they do not pay the arrears.

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Owning a home comes with its share of responsibilities and, occasionally, legal issues can arise related to home ownership. When dealing with rental properties, however, the duties and potential legal problems that a property owner may have to deal with increases dramatically. For this reason, it is essential that anyone who owns Rhode Island rental properties has a dedicated real estate and property law attorney to whom they can look for advice and representation should the need arise.

Rhode Island landlords face a variety of legal issues, including the following:

Drafting a lease – All landlords should ensure that they have a comprehensive Rhode Island residential lease that covers all potential situations that may arise during a tenancy. Of course, leases should cover the basics such as the amount of rent, when it is due, and what the late fee is if a tenant does not pay on time. However, leases should also cover the pet policy, the landlord’s right of entry, who is responsible for repairs, and other potential points of contention.

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