Benny Kass, D.C. lawyer and Washington Post real estate columnist, dies at 82

Lawyer and Washington Post real estate columnist Benny L. Kass in 2013. (Dupont Photographers)

Benny L. Kass, a D.C. lawyer whose syndicated Washington Post real estate column helped readers navigate the legal intricacies of foreclosures, timeshares, reverse mortgages and the “problem Ps” of condo living — parking, pianos, pets and prostitutes — died March 30 at a hospital in Washington. He was 82.

Mr. Kass was battling a clival chordoma, a tumor at the base of his skull, and had recently been diagnosed with pneumonia, said his son-in-law, Keith M. Sterling.

His column, Housing Counsel, had been a regular feature of The Post real estate section since 1972, often taking the form of a Q&A with beleaguered homeowners or frazzled condominium residents. It appeared weekly for many years and typically offered a succinct piece of advice: Do your homework and call a lawyer.

“Readers should understand that buying a house is, for most consumers, the largest investment they will ever make,” he wrote in 2013. “When we buy a car, we at least kick the tires; when you buy a house, you have to do a lot more research.”

Mr. Kass’s column dovetailed with a legal career in which he brought truth-in-lending cases on behalf of consumers, represented businesses that were displaced by the construction a new convention center in the Shaw neighborhood of the District, and became “the scourge of Washington real estate agents,” according to a 1978 profile in the New York Times.

He was known for encouraging homeowners to sell without the aid of real estate agents, allowing them to pocket a 6 percent broker fee, and described the real estate sector as “Washington’s biggest flea market,” highlighting the fact that “everything in the process is negotiable.”

Mr. Kass wrote handbooks and checklists for home buyers and condo owners, and he held monthly seminars teaching people how to sell without a broker, offering tips that ranged from advice on arcane contracts and mortgages to the use of flowers as a way to brighten up the home.

As a member of the Uniform Law Commission, he also shaped real estate laws that have been adopted in many states, “emphasizing consumer protection and residents,” according to Dawn Bauman, a senior vice president at the Community Associations Institute, an international trade association.

Mr. Kass was among the first Washington-area lawyers to specialize in community-association law, helping residents navigate the condominium market after it took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

In his writing and in news interviews, he was pragmatic and sometimes blunt, professing to have little patience for deadbeat or delinquent neighbors. “I tell every condo board of directors that you have to be a bastard about it,” he once said. “If they can’t pay when they’re one month behind, how will they pay when they’re three months behind?”

Mr. Kass used his column “to warn homeowners and buyers about scams and to show them how they can use the law to their advantage,” said Washington Post real estate editor V. Dion Haynes.

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He also addressed a dizzying array of legal issues, often pertaining to condos, whose telephone-book-sized rules and regulations kept him busy responding to reader letters about pets, flower boxes and window replacements. When a Post journalist asked him for advice in 1991, wondering what he recommended for someone who was thinking about buying a condo, Mr. Kass quipped: “Buy a house.”

[Appreciation: Benny L. Kass made buying and owning a home less scary for a generation of readers]

Benny Lee Kass was born in Chicago on Aug. 20, 1936. His father owned a clothing store, and his mother was a homemaker who trained as a nurse.

He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1957 and, after graduating from law school at the University of Michigan in 1960, he moved to Washington, where he worked for Rep. John E. Moss while the California Democrat spearheaded the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Kass, who received a master of laws degree from George Washington University in 1967, also worked briefly as a lawyer with the U.S. Maritime Administration and played a supporting role in D.C. politics, holding economic positions under Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington and Mayor Marion Barry.

According to the Times profile, his Post column came about in the early 1970s “as a result of a letter he wrote to the newspaper charging it with acting as a house organ for the Washington real estate establishment.” He partnered with lawyer Steven A. Skalet about the same time, forming Kass & Skalet.

The duo worked together for nearly three decades. Mr. Kass was still practicing shortly before his death, as a senior partner at Kass Legal Group in Washington. With his wife, the former Salme Lundstrom, he often struck out for the Chesapeake Bay, where he sailed a boat named Excalibur that he described as his “battery charger.” Following the Arthurian theme, he also named one of his cars Guinevere.

In addition to his wife of 55 years, of Washington, survivors include two children, Gale Kass Sterling of McLean, Va., and Brian L. Kass of Washington, a partner at Kass Legal Group; and seven grandchildren.

Early in his career, Mr. Kass was identified less with real estate than with consumerist causes. A champion of truth in advertising, he was a founding member of the National Advertising Review Board, now known as the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council.

But he told the Times he resented being described as a “public interest lawyer,” saying, “It’s a loaded term. I represent clients and causes. To me, the law should be in the public interest whether you are representing General Motors or the little home buyer.”

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