Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

Seller and Agent Fail to Disclose Defects

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our home, the agent was selling it for his mother, and they told us that it was a maintenance-free home, in perfect condition. That was five years ago, and now the undisclosed problems have surfaced. First, we began to have septic problems, but no one could find the access to the septic tank. According to our neighbors, the garage was built over the tank. Another problem was lack of access to the crawlspace beneath the house. The seller had installed a forced air heating system, and the new air ducts blocked the access opening on the side of the building. Our home inspector pointed this out before we bought the property, but nothing was done about it at the time. Well last week, we made a new access hole and got a very unpleasant surprise. The crawlspace is filled with black, smelly, stagnant water from the laundry drain, and mold is growing on the underside of the floor. The seller simply ran a drain hose under the building and never told anyone. After this many years, do we have any recourse?  Leslie

Dear Leslie: If the agent was representing you, as well as his mother, that was not a good arrangement. You should have had your own agent to represent your interests. A good agent, working on your behalf, would have negotiated to have the seller provide a septic inspection report. The septic inspector would have found the septic access or would have discovered that the system was not accessible. In that case, an access would have been created to enable inspection and servicing of the system. If other septic repairs had been needed, that could have been negotiated before you bought the property.

If access to the crawlspace was obstructed, your home inspector should have recommended that access be provided before the close of escrow. If that had been done, the faulty laundry drain, the excessive moisture condition, and possibly the mold would have been discovered.

If these problems had come to light sooner, you might have held the seller, the agent, and the home inspector liable for faulty disclosure. After five years, you may no longer have recourse. However, you should check with a real estate attorney for clarification on that point.

How to Disclose “No Building Permits”

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We just listed our home for sale and are worried about disclosure liability. In the past year, our home has been completely remodeled without building permits. Some of your articles have stressed the importance of disclosing non-permitted work. We plan to follow your advice but are worried that this may not eliminate our liability. What can we do to sell our home without problems turning up later?  Eugene

Dear Eugene: You are wise to approach this issue with caution and concern. In today’s business world, liability lurks around every corner. We can be sued for doing something wrong or doing nothing wrong, and in either case, attorneys are waiting to be hired. Liability can never be fully eliminated, but it can definitely be reduced, and real estate disclosure is a sure way to practice this principle.

When selling a home, every defect you disclose is removed from the list of potential liabilities. But beware: With non-permitted additions and alterations, the ways that you frame your disclosures can make a critical difference. Many sellers make a fatal mistake at this point in their transaction. Instead of simply declaring that the work was done without permits, they state or infer that the work was all done “according to code.” Disclosures of that kind are often made with utmost sincerity, but with little or no actual knowledge of building codes.

Sellers who are not professional contractors, building inspectors, or architects have no idea whether improvements were done according to code. The code books are voluminous, exhaustively complicated, and not easily understood by persons outside of the construction professions.

When you disclose that work was done without permits, you should state that “no guaranty is made regarding compliance with building codes.” You should also recommend that buyers hire a qualified home inspector to evaluate the condition of the improvements, as well as the rest of the property. With that kind of disclosure, you should be reasonably safe from complaints after the close of escrow.

Agent Withheld Disclosure of Damage

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I am a Realtor and recently closed escrow on a bank-owned property. The bank insisted on an “as is” sale, which is customary with foreclosed homes. My buyers hired a home inspector but decided to forego a termite inspection. After moving in, they found termite damage in the kitchen and dining room. We’ve also learned that the listing agent knew about this damage but withheld disclosure because it was an “as-is” deal and because the seller (the bank) was not required to disclose defects. Do you think my buyers have recourse?  Karen

Dear Karen: People often misconstrue the term “as is” to mean a release from the requirements of real estate disclosure laws. In the case of lenders who foreclose on delinquent mortgages, there is, in fact, an exclusion from the requirement to disclose. But this exclusion does not excuse Realtors who withhold disclosure of known defects. The requirement to disclose all known defects is an ethical and legal imperative for all real estate agents. Withholding knowledge of a defect, such as termite damage, is not acceptable for an agent, even when the seller of the property is a bank.

In the situation at hand, the listing agent should pay to repair the undisclosed damages. If the agent does not accept that responsibility, the matter should be reported to the state agency that licenses real estate professionals. The complaint, however, should be filed by the buyers, not by another agent.

Sellers Lied About Buried Fuel Tank

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home I am buying has a buried fuel tank. This was disclosed by the sellers and their agent weeks after we entered the transaction. At first, they said the tank is made of fiberglass and is only five years old. When my agent and my attorney asked for documentation, the sellers offered to provide it on the day the transaction closes. We asked that it be provided on the day of the final walk-through, but they did not have the papers on that day. Instead, they admitted that the tank is actually 38 years old and is made of steel. If I cancel the deal now, I could lose my deposit. What can I do? Maryann

Dear Maryann: The sellers and their agent have been less than forthright in their disclosures about the fuel tank. First they said that the tank is fiberglass and only five years old, while attempting to withhold documentation till the last day of the transaction. By then, the time for consideration would have passed. On the day of the final walk-through, they reneged on the documents and admitted that their original tank disclosures were false.

In view of their misleading disclosures, you should be able to cancel the transaction without losing your deposit. Check with your attorney to see if this is correct.

If you wish to proceed with the purchase, the closing date should be extended until the true age and condition of the tank can be substantiated. The seller and agent should not complain about an extension because it was their lack of transparency that created this problem.

A critical consideration is the potential for soil contamination and a costly environmental clean-up. A steel fuel tank that has been buried for decades is likely to have rust damage. Fuel seepage into the ground involves serious financial liability. Therefore, an environmental assessment of the tank should be conducted by a qualified, licensed professional, and your purchase of the property should be contingent on the outcome of that evaluation

Proceed with caution if you remain in this transaction. Besides the risk of a costly environmental clean-up, you are dealing with sellers whose credibility can no longer be trusted. Therefore, you should insist upon full and accurate disclosures regarding the fuel tank. At this point, that is essential and should not be subject to debate.

If for any reason you have not already hire a qualified home inspector, now is the time to do so. Who knows what other defects have also been concealed?

Home Inspector’s Halloween

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: You never do columns that recognize holidays. Even at Christmas time and the 4th of July, your articles are always about property defects, real estate disclosure, and home inspections. Now that Halloween is here, how about a spooky house story? Something in keeping with the season. Surely you’ve inspected a few creaky old houses. How about it?  Bram

Dear Bram: Home inspections tend to be business-as-usual events: checking the foundations, roofing, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc. But there was one inspection that I recall with dread and discomfort; an inspection where property defects ceased to be of concern, where routine was over-shadowed by fear, where disclosures were eclipsed by a frenzied struggle to flee the premises. And it just so happened that this inspection occurred on the eve of Halloween.

The house was an old, neglected, two-story Victorian, with leaning fences, tangled vegetation, and dense vines engulfing the walls, windows, and roof. The property, in escrow as a probate sale, had been the subject of headlines when the owner was found hanging from the rafters of the foyer. The police investigation had not determined whether death was from suicide or foul play, and the body’s subsequent disappearance from the local mortuary had unsettled the community.

The buyers and agent were unable to attend the inspection, but the agent had left a key under the mat. Bracing myself, I pressed open the massive door, entered slowly, and commenced what I had hoped would be a routine inspection. But then, beneath the lofty ceiling of the dark interior, I beheld the silhouette of the noosed rope, still attached to a high, dusty beam. A foul odor of decay permeated the stagnant air, and I recalled reading that the man had spent many days at the end of that rope before the neighbors had found him. The prospect of working alone in those dim, silent rooms unsettled me, and my foremost thought was to complete the job and get out of that ominous place.

A steep stairway descended to the unpaved basement, where I proceeded to inspect the old stone foundations, but the sounds of creaking timbers echoed throughout the building, disrupting my attention. So I busied myself and tried to dismiss my uneasiness. But then there seemed to be a different sound, somewhere upstairs. At first, it blended with the incessant creaking of the structure, but the difference was unmistakable. This was not the sound of timbers. It was the slow but steady cadence of footsteps. Someone was in the house. Hoping to hear the voice of the real estate agent, I called out, “Hello, is someone upstairs?” No one answered, but the footsteps continued down the hallway and stopped at the dark entrance to the basement stairwell. I called again, “Hello, who’s there?” Again, no answer. Then, a shadow appeared on the stairs and moved slowly, silently downward.

A dark, disfigured form gradually took shape, the head laid awkwardly against the left shoulder. Yet my attention was drawn from this to some shadowy, indistinct object that dangled from his left hand. As he reached the basement floor, a putrid foulness filled the room, so that breathing became forced and repugnant. Gripped with horror and disbelief, I was unable to move. But then, the eyes of that disjointed head found me, the lips formed a sardonic grin, dripping with thick gray saliva, and my mobility was wakened by a wave of terror. Clawing my way up the basement wall, I squeezed into the narrow space between the ground and the floor framing, seeking desperately for any way of escape. But the advancing form appeared atop the foundation wall and steadily pursued me into the dark crawlspace.

Scrambling breathlessly past rows of old piers, I reached a dead-end corner where the foundation walls joined and realized with desperate finality that I could flee no further. Somewhere is the nearby darkness, I could hear that half dead form crawling toward me. Clutching at my flashlight, I found the switch and was startled by the impending nearness of the face: the glare of cold eyes, the glint of gray teeth, the viscous fluid that dripped from grimacing lips — and that mysterious object gripped in his left hand.

Terror pounded in my chest as I faced those final, hopeless, remaining seconds. The feet between us became inches. His right hand gripped my ankle with frightful force as he drew forward. Then his left hand extended the old gunny sack that he held, and the acrid smell of cold breath filled my face, as he cried, “Trick or treat!!”