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Rarely do you find a home to buy that’s in exactly the condition you’d like it to be. Even if the home is new, relatively new or well-maintained, you may want to make changes to the decor so that it suits your style preferences and works with your possessions.

It would be great if this sort of work could be done before you move in. If the home you’re buying is vacant, what’s wrong with taking possession early and completing the improvements before closing?

There are risks for both buyers and sellers if a buyer does work before the purchase transaction closes. As a buyer, keep in mind that when you do the work before closing, you’re improving a property that belongs to someone else. If the closing doesn’t occur for some reason, it may be hard to get your money back.

From the seller’s standpoint, what if the buyers back out at the last minute and leave the house in a state of disarray? You then have to complete the buyer’s handiwork, or undo it and redo it before you can put the property back on the market. You could also face the threat of mechanics liens from contractors that you didn’t hire, but that the buyer didn’t pay.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Having work done to a property before you move in is a great idea. But, the safest strategy is to line up contractors ahead of time who can start work immediately after closing. Delay your move until the work is done.

A listing that’s empty before closing would seem to provide opportunities for buyers who are having trouble juggling their move. Often home sale transactions are linked together with tight time frames between each party’s move.

Let’s say you’ve sold your home to someone who is anxious to get into your home because he has sold to someone who has sold his home to yet another buyer. No one can start moving until you move out of your home. If the home you’re buying is vacant, why not request permission to move in before closing and help solve everyone’s moving dilemma? 

One home seller who moved out of her house before closing was badgered by the buyer to let him move in early. She stood firm and said no. The day before closing, the deal fell apart. Apparently, the buyer was divorced and delinquent on his support payments. A lien was slapped on him just before closing that meant he no longer qualified to buy the house. If the seller had let him move in early, she would have ended up with a tenant in the house that she would then have to resell. It can be difficult to get a tenant who is in possession out of a property. And, tenant-occupied properties are usually more difficult to sell.

Rather than move in early, some buyers ask for permission to start moving some of their possessions in early, perhaps just into the garage. This scenario also poses risks for buyers and sellers. Who is responsible if a buyer falls and injures himself on the seller’s property while moving his things in? Who’s responsible if the buyer’s possessions are stolen from the seller’s garage? The seller’s homeowner’s insurance is usually in effect until he ceases to be the owner. But, his insurance may not cover the buyer’s possessions.

THE CLOSING: It’s better for the buyer to take possession after closing. However, if a buyer does take early possession, there should be an ironclad agreement drafted by an attorney to cover the various what-if scenarios.

Dian Hymer is author of “House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers,” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide,” Chronicle Books.


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