Recently, a home buyer found out after the house was his that the seller failed to tell him about a drainage problem. During rainstorms, muddy runoff accumulated in the swimming pool. The buyer found it hard to believe that the seller hadn’t known about this.
The property is in California where disclosure laws require sellers to disclose material facts about the property to prospective buyers. A material fact is one that would influence whether or not the buyer would buy the property, or the price he would pay.
It’s possible that the problem occurred for the first time after the buyer took possession. The buyer’s home inspector did not note the faulty drainage condition. Problems can arise in all houses, even new ones.
The buyer mentioned above also experienced another problem involving the roof. In this case, there was evidence that previous repairs had been made.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: To get a clear picture of a property’s condition before you buy it, ask sellers for a list of repairs and modifications they made to the property. This should include the name of the contractor who did the work and his contact information.
It doesn’t occur to some sellers to disclose this information, probably because they figure the problems are fixed. However, repairs are often only temporary fixes. By talking to contractors who worked on the house, you may be able to determine if more repairs will be needed.
What should you do if you think the seller misled you? The first thing to do is review the seller disclosure requirements in your state; they vary from state-to-state. Your real estate agent or attorney can help you with this.
Then carefully scrutinize the seller’s disclosures and any reports on the property. Find out if there were references to the problems that may have slipped your mind. Some buyers are so anxious to buy that they overlook potential property problems. If you should have been aware of the problem before you bought, the seller may not be responsible for your current problems.
However, there are sellers who, even when the law requires them to disclose defects, choose to overlook their disclosure responsibilities. There are also homeowners who live in their homes with a blind eye to problems.
But, most sellers who fail to disclose what they should do so because they think it will keep their home from selling. This is unfortunate because buyers appreciate knowing any bad news before they buy. The problems arise when they discover defects after closing they that are sure the seller was aware of, but intentionally failed to disclose.
Once you’re sure that the problem hadn’t been pointed out to you, there are several avenues you can take. Since a full-blown legal procedure can be costly, time consuming, and the outcome uncertain, it’s usually best to see if you can resolve the issue informally with the seller.
You might write the seller a letter stating your concerns. If you feel that you lack adequate expertise to do this, consult a knowledgeable real estate agent in your area for help. You may have agreed in your purchase contract to use mediation or arbitration as your method of dispute resolution rather than suing in court. Even so, you can still consult with an attorney.
It might help to expedite a solution to the problem if you include an expert’s assessment of the situation and repair estimates with your letter. If you’re not sure if a problem is new or recurring, consult with an experienced contractor or engineer.
THE CLOSING: A trained professional ought to be able to tell you if the problem has been ongoing or not.
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.