Q: I’ve lived on the West Coast my whole life, but in 2006 decided to buy a place on the East Coast to move into. I found a place on the Web, called the listing agent and bought it (I did get an inspection from a contractor she knew, but he didn’t find any big problems.)
I moved there for one month before I had to move right back out because I was constantly sick. After extensive testing, I learned that the house was riddled with mold from a leaky, unsafe addition that the previous sellers had put on the house without permits. When we went to get the permits for all the mold repairs, the city actually ordered me to tear the addition off — the problem was, the addition was about a third of the house’s square footage!
I decided to stay where I was and just sell the East Coast house, but in order to even put it on the market, I had to tear down the addition and do all the mold work, which cost me over $50,000. It is on the market now, but now I owe so much more than it is worth that I have to do a short sale.
I’m suing the sellers now, because there are many indicators that they knew about the mold and the addition’s problems and concealed them, but put all their money from selling this place to me into their next house, which they’ve homesteaded, and that house has depreciated, too. They’re also from a foreign country, so we feel they’re likely to just move back if we get a large judgment. What should I have done differently?
A: I pride myself on not being a knee-jerk-type gal. However, my knee-jerk reaction to stories of this sort is always to track back to inspections to ferret out where things went wrong. I know you had a property inspection — did you attend it? Attending inspections is how smart buyers get the dirt (or the mold, in your case) on all the suspicions, suggestions and solutions the inspectors can’t or won’t write down due to company policies, liability reasons or because it’s not strictly within the scope of the formal inspection. Had you been there, in living color, your inspector might have suggested that you explore the legality of the addition, either of his own accord or as the culmination of a conversation with you.
And who did your inspection? You mentioned a contractor, but the proper professional to conduct a pre-purchase property inspection is a certified property inspector who also holds a state license, if your state offers or requires one. Whether your inspector had an insurance policy that would cover your damages from their errors and omissions — like missing major construction defects in the addition, whether or not it was built with permits — was also an important qualification that it sounds like might have been missing.
Also, you don’t mention whether you read the inspection report and/or followed up on any excluded items or recommendations for further, special inspections — many buyers don’t, and can often trace the problem that they felt "shoulda, woulda and coulda" been detected back to a specialists’ inspection they "shoulda, woulda and coulda" obtained if only they had read their property inspectors’ report and followed up on the recommended further inspections. Should your real estate agent have pointed these things out to you? Of course, in an ideal world (which you might have figured out by now is not precisely identical to the actual world in which we live). But whose responsibility is it to read your inspection reports and ensure that all information relevant to making an informed decision whether to buy a property is in your possession before your contingency or objection period expires? Yours. …CONTINUED
Moving right along, mold is a very tricky subject, in part because most of it is benign, yet horror stories about it are inescapable. It’s also tricky because mold remediation can be insanely expensive, which has caused the field of purportedly qualified remediators to be chockablock with skilled and reputable hygienists, on one hand, and invoice-inflating, mask-wearing snake oil peddlers, on the other. As a result, many real estate insiders find that inspections designed to detect "bad" mold are marred by a nasty conflict of interest, whereby the inspector finds oodles of allergen-ridden mold just to set himself up a nice remediation job down the line.
But I’m venting. Sorry ’bout that. Long story short — your inspector might not necessarily have been able to detect mold if it was well-concealed, but they often do detect excessive moisture or other conditions conducive to mold. And if the addition was as structurally unsound as it sounds like it was, it is surprising that the inspector mentioned nothing about the addition or, at the very least, failed to recommend that you inquire with the sellers or the city about the history of its construction.
So, on that note — buyers, the umbrella of your inspections also includes the less-often-referenced buyer-conducted investigations. One of those topics into which you, perhaps, should have investigated is whether additions, upgrades and other modifications to the property were completed with building permits from the city and the even more rarely mentioned subject of whether any building permits obtained by previous owners were actually "finaled" (i.e., work inspected and approved by the city after completion). Many areas have different standards regarding how serious a negative a lack of permits actually is, but buyers should be aware that building permit records for individual properties are public record, and can be investigated by individual buyers at a very low cost with a simple trip to the city building inspector’s offices.
To be sure, when a seller has intentionally concealed a condition problem, there might be nothing even the smartest, best-advised buyer could have done to avoid it. With that said, I just can’t sign off without commenting on your real estate agent selection — I believe in vetting your representatives on the Web, if for no other reason than that it’s a good way to begin to get familiar with them and their personality, to see whether your relationship might be a good fit. HOWEVER, whether you’re buying a place across the country or across town, you have got to find your agent by referral! People — please hear me, a real estate agent who knows you are part of the circle of a cherished friend, former client or even another real estate agent is much more likely to be competent and have your back (which you especially needed trying to do a deal long distance) than someone you randomly pull off an ad on the Web. That’s not to say that agents who advertise on the Web can’t be just as good — it’s just much more of a crap shoot when the agent is someone with whom you share precisely zero degrees of separation. I’m just saying.
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.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.