Of course, the house appeared to be empty when we took possession, but I am going to out the previous occupant of my bedroom, who I assume was a teenage boy.

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Takeaways:

  • Sellers sometimes leave things behind — sometimes quite embarrassing things.
  • Agents often have to go to great lengths to keep a buyer.
  • At the very minimum, an agent should remind sellers, and their kids, to do a clean sweep of the home before moving out.

The first tale

Growing up in a military family, my family was always on the move. We were essentially nomads, never establishing deep roots so that we would be easy to transplant every few years.

This nomadic existence is likely why I ended up with a career in residential real estate. Moving has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

When I was 7 years old, we moved into a house built in the late ’40s. My new bedroom had a small storage space with sliding doors on top of the regular closet.

As any kid would do, I decided to rig up a clip lamp and, with the help of a step stool, make this upper cabinet my secret reading hideaway.

Of course, the house appeared to be empty when we took possession, but I am going to out the previous occupant of my bedroom, who I assume was a teenage boy.

In my secret hideout, I found dozens of Playboy and Penthouse magazines. This discovery probably wasn’t how my parents envisioned I would be introduced to this particular genre, but alas, these remainders left a lasting impression on me.

Decades later as a real estate agent, I have had to deal with many items left behind. Things you’d expect, such as paint cans and rusty push mowers, and things you wouldn’t, like hefty bags full of marijuana and human remains.

I share these stories now as a reminder to agents to — at minimum — remind their clients to do a clean sweep, whether it’s to preserve the innocence of young children or to keep your transaction from falling apart.

A second experience

Several years ago, I had the privilege of listing a family home on behalf of a trust estate. This home was situated on a beautiful lot in Northern California and had been in the family for decades.

The heirs who hired me to sell it were the adult children of the couple who were the original buyers of the property. They purchased it when they got married, raised their children on this property and passed away of old age without ever moving.

When I was brought onto the scene, the house was still filled with 60 years of furnishings, housewares, books, art and personal items — including the urns containing the ashes of the deceased.

Along with that came dust that had settled in since the property had been unoccupied for a few years. There was a lot of work to do to ready the property for market.

The trustee for the estate was the eldest son of the couple, and he was my only contact during the sale. He lived out of town, so much of the work fell on me.

I hired haulers, painters, cleaners, landscapers and inspectors to bring back this midcentury home so that it went to market looking fresh and ready for its next inhabitants.

I put the house on the market and received a compelling offer from an older couple who fell in love with it and wanted to live out their years in this location.

One of the buyers had been diagnosed with cancer and felt that the special beauty of this property would provide a place of healing.

Everything was going well, and just before the close of escrow, the trustee came to the property to say goodbye to his family home.

Two days before the scheduled close, the buyers did a walk-through and noticed white dust all over the yard. Their agent called me to ask what the white dust was.

They were particularly concerned that it could be some rodent poison or other toxic substance. I had no idea, so I asked the trustee and learned that he had sprinkled his parents’ ashes all over the property. He felt this would be the best place to leave his parents.

Obviously, the buyers were upset and threatened to back out of the transaction. Because the seller wasn’t local, I did what any agent would do: I brought 5-gallon buckets to the property and spent hours with a trowel scraping all the ashes off the property.

I can tell you now that “ashes” are mostly bone fragments, and removing them from a giant front yard is a lot of upsetting work.

The sellers still weren’t satisfied. They felt that a remediation of the soil and a blessing by a religious person would be necessary for them to find peace and solace in their new home.

At the last moment, they negotiated at $15,000 price reduction, and we finally closed. It was three months before my seller came to claim the 5-gallon buckets filled with his parents’ ashes that I stored in my garage.

The third case

In another case of naughty left-behinds, I was representing buyers. We were touring homes on a Saturday morning and met at one that was listed as vacant in the MLS.

When we arrived, there was a coffee cup on the front porch, which was odd. We opened the front door, and there was a suitcase and guitar case in the entry.

This find was unsettling, but we persevered and made our way to the kitchen, where we found empty beer pints in the sink. The house had an odd odor throughout, and it was creepy walking through a vacant house that was obviously occupied.

We continued along and called out, “Hello, I’m showing this house,” every time we entered a new space. Finally, we made our way to the bedroom, where we all gasped.

The room had marijuana drying all over the place and had two large contractor-sized black hefty bags filled with marijuana. The bedroom window was open, and it was evident that whoever was there scrambled out the back upon our arrival.

We decided to leave immediately, and I called the listing agent to let her know she might want to contact the police.

She was naturally upset, not just because we had a bad showing experience, but more because her seller — who had come back from out of town to pick up some of items he had left behind — was the culprit.

I share these stories not only to highlight that agents sometimes must put on our Ray Donovan caps, but also to remind agents that everyone benefits when sellers are educated about the ramifications of their actions once the property has gone to market.

Properties should be cleared of all belongings, including past inhabitants — dead or alive.

Heather Sittig Jackson is the CEO and co-founder at Relola. You can follow her on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

Email Heather Sittig Jackson.

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