Good Deeds

by Holly Hungerford

Fred Peet’s firm has the title role in real estate transactions

peet_lead_105Fred Peet opened his law practice in 1995, just two years out of Vermont Law School. Now, the Law Offices of Fred V. Peet PC in South Burlington boasts five lawyers, four paralegals, a closing coordinator, and a summer law clerk.

Fred Peet stumbled upon the law by accident. “I never had any intention of going to law school,” says the son of a dairy farmer with a laugh. “My college roommate for three years knew from day one that he wanted to go to law school. He was going to take the LSAT and he encouraged me to take it with him. I said okay and then forgot completely about it until about midnight the night before the exam.”

Despite the lack of preparation, Peet did well on the LSAT, but he still didn’t have any intention of going to law school. In 1990, the Cornwall native graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in agricultural economics. Finding there was not much that interested him in the way of work, and encouraged by his father, he enrolled at Vermont Law School. “School is a good way of delaying life, and I liked being a student,” says Peet with a smile.

The decision appears to have been a good one. Now, 17 years after he earned his J.D., Peet owns and runs the Law Offices of Fred V. Peet PC, a five-attorney real estate law practice in South Burlington that includes four paralegals, a closing coordinator, and a summer law clerk — usually a student at Vermont Law School.

Most of the transactions Peet handles are residential, with commercial transactions accounting for about 10 percent of the overall business. His firm represents both buyers and sellers of real estate as well as mortgage lenders. He is also an agent for Vermont Attorneys Title Corp., which provides title insurance — something all lenders require today.

The makeup of the practice has changed since 1995, the year Peet started the firm. “The job market was fairly slow for new attorneys,” he says of his decision to work on his own instead of joining an established practice. “I had just finished working for Barbara Snelling as her campaign manager. I wasn’t doing anything better and had nothing to lose, so I decided to start my own practice.”

He rented a small office near the corner of White Street and Patchen road in South Burlington, just a shout from his current location. In those days, though, with a statewide practice and the need to do title searches all over Vermont, he jokes that his real office was his car.

By September 1998, he had more business than he could handle alone and he hired Richard Maxson.

The following year, he added Chris Perra, who is still with the firm but currently serving in the Vermont Army National Guard Judge Advocate General Corps in Afghanistan. “He was just promoted to colonel,” says Peet.

Brian Stark joined the practice in 2002, and Kevin Shortell rounded out the team in 2007.

All the attorneys are licensed in Vermont and Peet has no plans to expand the practice out of state. He puts a premium on working locally, he says. “The local lenders are great: You can call them up and get someone on the phone; they’re responsive; and they understand what is going on with local real estate laws.”

He’s noticed that a lot of local lenders are expanding their business. “When the real estate market crashed, I think people put a premium on working with someone local versus working with someone they found on the Internet.”

In the early days, Peet handled a variety of matters such as DWIs and small claims court cases — essentially whatever walked in the door — but within that first year, he narrowed his aim. “Real estate very quickly became a focus that I found I was good at and I enjoyed it. It suits my personality better than most areas of law would,” he says.

“If I do my job right, I have a buyer who wants to buy and a seller who wants to sell and everyone wins when we get to the closing table. I started focusing on attracting more of that type of business and it’s worked.”

Connie Houston, a real estate agent with Lang McLaughry Spera in Middlebury, has worked with Peet both professionally and as a client. “My husband and I have complete faith and trust in Fred’s ability,” she says. “We’ve used him several times for our own real estate transactions. He has a wonderful reputation and provides a high level of service. He’s earned his business.”

Starting in 1995 or ‘96, Peet began working with many of the manufactured-home dealers in Vermont. “I received referrals from the financing companies for manufactured housing and developed good relationships with the dealers,” he says. “We did a pretty high volume of those until the market died about seven years ago. Buyers couldn’t get financing because the financing market dried up, which in turn dried up that business.”

There was plenty of other business, though, as the real estate market was strong — something Peet experienced even with the housing crash. “2009 was one of the busiest years we’ve had,” he says.

Most of that business was from refinancing, although the first-time homeowner’s tax credit was instrumental, too. That tax credit, combined with the existing homeowner’s tax credit, has had a positive impact on this year’s figures as well.

These days, Peet’s time is spent less on the road and mostly in the office, managing the business and working on purchase and sales contracts. He plans where the attorneys will go on a given day, making sure to maximize their time by keeping them in the same geographic area for the day. “If we have a closing in Brattleboro, then the attorney who’s going to do the closing will do all the title searches down the Interstate that day,” he explains.

Since Peet has been in practice, standards for title searches have changed in Vermont to include permitting matters, which has added quite a bit of time to completing a title search, he says. “We have to do an analysis of what permits are required for a property and determine if those permits are in place and there are no violations of those permits,” Peet explains.

This is in addition to the requirement that titles be checked for the previous 40 years plus one good deed prior to that. In situations where an entity such as the state has owned a property for a long time, this can mean searching back into the 19th century.

Peet does more than just title searches and purchase and sales agreements, however. Every few months he offers a class for first-time home buyers during which he explains the role of the attorney and talks about purchase and sales contracts. His seminars for Realtors and lenders cover specialized subjects such as permitting rules, property tax adjustments and their impact on closings, or whatever the hot real estate topic of the day is. He also serves on the board of the Vermont State Housing Authority, a position to which he was appointed by Gov. James Douglas about five years ago.

Away from work, he is perhaps best known — at least among his colleagues and clients — for the client appreciation barbecue he hosts every July 3 at his South Burlington home. Last year 450 people attended.

The menu is “all barbecue food,” says Peet, “although strawberry shortcake seems to be the most popular thing.”

For his own enjoyment, Peet loves to travel. He names favorite places he’s visited, such as Brazil, Croatia, Turkey, and Prague. “I haven’t seen Paris yet,” he adds. “I’d like to go there, too.” Single and with no pets — “I have trouble keeping a plant alive,” he says with a chuckle — Peet also enjoys downhill skiing and biking.

That accidental foray into law school has paid off in full. •