Q: I’m in the middle of an escrow, and this is the second home I’ve bought. My agent just got a call from the listing agent, informing us that the seller’s elderly mother just passed away in her sleep — in the property! I really love the place, but I’m a little creeped out, and I’m not sure how I should react to this information. Should I back out?
A: From a real estate perspective, there are several ramifications that arise when someone dies on a property. There’s no real reason, though, for you to cancel the purchase of a home you say you love, because of a death.
The event of a death on a property seems bizarre to most buyers, but I think that’s a sign of the times. There was once a time when most people died at home; these days, most people are hospitalized before they die, so at-home deaths are simply less common. Death is an inevitable part of life, and there’s really nothing inherent about a natural death on a property that should change your decision about a property you really like. In fact, you might look on the fact that these folks allowed their mother to die at home, even knowing that it might negatively impact their transaction, as an expression of their love for her.
Certain ethnic groups and spiritual belief systems feel otherwise, but if you fell into that boat, you probably would not be debating whether or not to move forward. Also, many people feel differently about violent deaths or deaths from unnatural causes — which is completely understandable.
I brokered a very similar transaction several years ago, except the deceased was a tenant who committed suicide in the residence’s garage. My client, the buyer, and I had actually met the tenant at the Sunday open house, and he was gone within the week — we got a call from the listing agent a day or two after our contract was accepted. My intrepid buyer chose to move forward with the transaction, but she did ask the seller to please paint, carpet and clean the deceased tenants’ unit first (it was quite a mess, and my client planned to lease the place out immediately after closing). The seller agreed to do so, and also replaced a couple of windows. The cooperation of these folks in light of the circumstances was the definition of a win-win.
You should also look to engineering a win-win situation here. You might feel a little less "creeped out" if the home is professionally cleaned or if the interior of the mother’s area is repainted or recarpeted. You might want a feng shui consultant or a clergyperson to come through and implement some energy cures or say a prayer. Get clear in your own head on what would give you a level of comfort around this recent death, and consider asking the seller to facilitate that. The average seller in today’s market would be happy to do anything within reason to prevent the sale from being derailed. The key words are within reason — do not take advantage of the sellers’ emotionally tough situation to try to shoehorn a bunch of unreasonable demands or a big discount down their throats. It just wouldn’t be right.
You don’t say whether you’ve already removed contingencies. In most states, when a seller makes an important new disclosure, the buyer gets a few days (three is typical) to consider the new disclosure and cancel the transaction, if they choose to — even after contingencies have been removed.
Most states require sellers to disclose a death that occurs within a few years (again, three is typical) prior to the sale to prospective buyers. Even in states that do not specify death on the property as a matter that much be disclosed, sellers are required to disclose anything which would make a material difference in the decision-making of a reasonable buyer. Clearly, a recent death on the property would be a prudent disclosure, in any event. Obviously, your sellers have complied with this disclosure mandate.
One thing you should know if you choose to move forward, though, is that you will be required to disclose the death, too, if you transfer the property in the next few years. "Transfer" means selling or leasing the property, so if you even plan to rent it out in the near future, know that you will be required to disclose the issue. If you plan to occupy the property personally for the next three years or so, the disclosure issue will be a non-issue for you.
1. Consider what changes to the property would make you feel better about living there, in light of the circumstances of the seller’s mother’s passing.
2. Work with your Realtor to structure a proposal for the sellers to help facilitate the changes to the property, either by completing the work or helping defray the costs.
3. Ask your Realtor what the death-on-property disclosure requirements are in your state. Stay mindful that you will need to also disclose the death if you transfer the property to a buyer or a tenant in the next few years.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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