It’s common for buyers to ask for appliances or other personal items when they purchase a property, but what about the seller who voluntarily leaves personal items as part of the sale?

There are numerous pitfalls when it comes to dealing with personal property included in a real estate sale. The lender can deduct the value of the personal items from the appraised value of the property, which results in a reduction in the loan amount. Furthermore, many states require sellers to transfer personal items with a "bill of sale" calculated and reported separately from the real estate sale.

It’s common for buyers to ask for appliances or other personal items when they purchase a property, but what about the seller who voluntarily leaves personal items as part of the sale?

There are numerous pitfalls when it comes to dealing with personal property included in a real estate sale. The lender can deduct the value of the personal items from the appraised value of the property, which results in a reduction in the loan amount. Furthermore, many states require sellers to transfer personal items with a "bill of sale" calculated and reported separately from the real estate sale.

There are risks as well. Several years ago, my partner was out of town and I took her buyers to see five houses. They found a beautiful house owned by a 78-year-old widow who was moving in with her son. Her 70-something sister was the listing agent. The house was immaculate and beautifully decorated.

Once the property was under contract, the widow invited the buyers and their two little girls over for tea. She shared a number of stories about how she and her recently deceased husband had lived happily in the home for 30-plus years. She also pointed out the "indentures" from the 1700s (contracts binding one party into the service of another for a specified term) lining the walls of the center hallway directly in back of the living room fireplace. She emphasized what a shame it would be to take them down. She also graciously agreed to leave the two twin beds downstairs for the little girls. She would no longer need the beds for her grandchildren. The buyers were delighted.

The transaction went smoothly and closed. Several days after closing, the buyer called and was livid. The painters were at the house and had just taken the indentures down, which had concealed a 1-inch-wide crack that surrounded both sides of the fireplace. Making matters worse, the beds in the basement bedroom were bolted to the wall to disguise a major slope in the floor. The foundation and part of the wall had actually separated.

After I calmed the buyers, they decided to ask the seller to pay for the repairs and some penalty for failure to disclose. This was a major concession, because they originally wanted to rescind the deal. The widow and her agent seemed willing to agree. Then the agent’s manager took over. His response to the buyer’s request was, "Go ahead and sue us!" Needless to say, that’s exactly what the buyers did. I wrote a check for my deductible even though the buyers never filed anything against us. The reason: that same manager cross-complained against our company in an attempt to collect part of the judgment from us.

On a recent television show about million-dollar properties in Los Angeles, one of the sellers removed all the furniture from their home with the exception of a sofa that they left in the center of the living room. The agent, wisely suspecting that something was up, moved the sofa and discovered that a pipe had burst under the floor and caused substantial damage.

Another seller left two very large vases sitting on the top shelf of a floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelf. After closing, the buyer decided that the vases were ugly and decided to remove them. As he tugged on the first vase, he realized that the vases were holding up part of the ceiling.

The bottom line is that seller "gifts" may not be exactly what they appear to be on the surface. If you are representing the buyers, be wary of anything that the seller wants to leave behind. Have appliances checked and be especially suspicious of items that may cover cracks, foundation problems, or other serious issues. While it’s not always possible to inspect these items while the property is under contract, ask the sellers about any repairs they may have made to the property. More importantly, ask them to place those disclosures in writing.

If you’re representing the sellers, inquire about cracks and damage that might not be visible due to furniture placement or past repairs. Encourage them to make a complete and full disclosure. Buyers will purchase almost anything if they are informed about the problems ahead of time. It is undisclosed items that create problems. Furthermore, if the seller wants to leave personal items behind, it may be smarter to keep the personal items as a potential bargaining chit. If the buyer doesn’t want the items, the sellers can always sell them online.

Bottom line, the next time you’re tempted to allow personal items into your real estate sale, tread carefully. That seller "gift" may be a problem in disguise.

Bernice Ross, national speaker and CEO of Realestatecoach.com, is the author of "Waging War on Real Estate’s Discounters" and "Who’s the Best Person to Sell My House?" Both are available online. She can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com or visit her blog at LuxuryClues.com.

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