DEAR BARRY: I’m concerned about a scam artist who buys and sells "fixer-uppers" in my neighborhood. Recently, he bought a run-down house, not realizing how much work it needed. The roof is shot; the plumbing is in terrible condition; and the interior is full of mold from roof leaks and plumbing leaks. A contractor was hired for a fast fix-up and quick resale. One of his workers told me that the repairs being done are merely cosmetic. All of the real issues are being covered up so the place can be sold. A money trap is being set for some unlucky buyers, and once they discover the true condition of the property, they’ll be stuck with it.
I want to do something about this, but I don’t want legal problems with the owner. I could mind my own business and hope that a home inspector unveils the mess. But who knows whether the buyers will get a good inspection or any inspection at all. What should I do? –Suzan
DEAR SUZAN: Deception of this kind is cruel and inexcusable. Those who practice it should be caught in their own webs. My e-mails are often from first-time homebuyers who have been stuck with badly flawed properties and no disclosure, often because of sellers who knowingly conceal defects. The financial damage done in these cases is sometimes devastating.
On the positive side, the situation on your street could turn out well if the buyers hire a competent home inspector. Home inspectors who know their business recognize the telltale signs of cosmetic trickery. A roof that is temporarily patched, for example, will not fool a qualified home inspector. And evidence of faulty plumbing is usually apparent to a thorough inspector, no matter how well it is disguised. But not all home inspectors are competent and thorough, and not all buyers hire a home inspector — which brings us back to your question: Should you get involved?
The decision to intervene is a difficult one because direct accusation against the seller could place you on the receiving end of a lawsuit. But disclosures can be made without pointing fingers or making allegations. If you notice prospective buyers on the property, you can welcome them to the neighborhood and tell them about the known conditions of the building, without making reference to the seller. That is the key: Describe the property, but say nothing about the practices or the perceived intentions of the owner.
Another approach is to discuss the property with the buyers’ agent. Undisclosed defects can pose major liability for an agent. Honest Realtors, the ones who truly represent the interests of their clients, appreciate disclosures of this kind.
Finally, you can notify the building department that remodeling work is occurring on your street, possibly without a building permit. If the local building inspector visits the property, the seller may have to obtain a permit and submit his work to municipal inspection and approval. A serious building inspector will want to know what lies below the surface, and that would protect the interests of future buyers.
To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.
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