What you see is what you get, right? Not necessarily in real estate, unless you go out of your way to document your expectations and assumptions and make them known to the seller. This is especially true in recreational properties that are in remote locations.

Some years ago our neighbors purchased a large summer cabin on a mountain lake. While very few people visited the area in the winter, the couple felt they could use the cabin in cold weather because the living room included a fireplace with a new, efficient insert. They even shared with us their feeling of relief that the getaway could be heated by wood because electricity was extremely expensive in the area. They also felt they had saved some time by not having to research other insert options or freestanding wood stoves.

When moving day finally arrived and they began setting boxes in the living room, they noticed the insert was gone. How could this be? If this was not a “fixture” that was to stay in the house, what exactly was a fixture?

Through their real estate agent, they learned the seller was an attorney who said he never even considered leaving the insert behind. The cherry on top of this dessert was that the seller had no place to re-insert the insert. But he would gladly sell it to the couple or keep it in his garage. They eventually bought their own insert. They were shocked, upset and out about $1,500.

The insert was gone because their earnest-money agreement had not included a definitive list of items they expected to find when they took possession of the house.

Most multiple listing associations and real estate companies annually review and generally add to their lists of “fixtures” included in a residential sale. The list typically is a specific paragraph in company “Residential Real Estate Purchase and Sale Agreement” forms (sometimes referred to as an earnest-money form), and usually grows as a result of complaints and lawsuits. Here’s a typical paragraph in the form regarding fixtures:

“Any of the following personal property located in or on the property is included in this sale: built-in appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting; curtains, drapes and all other window treatments; window and door screens, awnings; storm doors and windows; installed television antennas; ventilating, air conditioning and heating equipment; woodstoves; fireplace inserts; doors; gas logs and gas log lighters; irrigation fixtures and equipment, electric garage door openers; water heaters, installed electrical fixtures; lights and light bulbs; shrubs, plants and trees; hot tubs; and all bathroom and other fixtures.”

The paragraph has come a long way toward clarifying what is typically included in a sale, although the phrase “and other fixtures” still leaves room for dispute. What are other fixtures? Can they be washing machines attached to the wall by a rubber hose? Typically not.

But there is a case in which a real estate agent who was representing a religious congregation buying a church building assumed that the bolted-to-the-floor pews were included in the sale. A court ruled otherwise.

Attorneys for multiple listing associations say the “fixtures” list has grown due to some absurd cases that should have seemed logical to both buyer and seller. In some cases, the buyer’s wishes simply fall through the cracks — a coveted refrigerator never was included on the fixtures list, so it was not included in the sale and it was carted away by the seller. If there are beautiful rose bushes or rhododendrons in the yard, it’s best to say they are included in the sale or they will not be included in the sale.

Stained-glass windows caused a recent problem. The seller assumed they were art and planned to replace them with the common windows stored in the basement. The buyer said the stained-glass was one of the reasons the home was appealing and assumed they came with the house. After shock, resentment and bitterness, the two parties settled on a lower sales price and the seller took the stained glass.

The moral to the story? When in doubt, spell it out — especially if it’s going to heat a cabin on a remote mountain lake.

To get even more valuable advice from Tom, visit his Second Home Center.

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