The Seller Always Knows More About the Property Than the Buyer

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Real Estate information is asymmetrical. One of the central facts of real estate transactions is that the seller always knows more than the buyer. They've lived in the property for years, and had to deal with any defects first hand. Even if it was rented out, the chances are that the tenants contacted them over every defect those tenants encountered. It's not like tenants are noted for their desire to spend more money on behalf of someone else. The vast majority of the time, that seller could quote you chapter, verse, and receipt number for every repair they've had done, tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the time the tenant called them at 3AM to take a plunger to the toilet, or about the time the water heater exploded while they were on vacation and they came back to a property filled with water up to the window line on the second story. Water bills, stucco cracks, the cracked slab that was revealed the last time the floor covering was replaced. The question is: Will they?

The law is quite clear. The owners are required to inform prospective purchasers of any known issues, or for that matter, issues that they reasonably should have known, that a reasonable person might consider in their decision of whether or not to purchase that property, and by obvious (and well precedented) extension, on whether or not to purchase it for a particular price. Failure to do so can make you liable for the entire purchase price, repairs, legal fees, and even damages. Please, consult with a lawyer as to your responsibilities. I'll bet you a nickel, in advance, they advise you to disclose whatever issues with the property there may be.

There are exceptions. The major one where the sellers really don't know anything is lender owned property. The others may be legal exceptions like inherited property - but I'll bet you Junior knows all about the problems with Mom's property even though he may be legally exempted.

Nonetheless, two factors stop a lot of owners from proper disclosure. Particularly in this market, those owners may be hoping just to get out even, or even simply owe less money in taxes than they might after the lender accepts the short payoff. The old "blood from a turnip" argument. It's one of the maxims of the legal industry never to sue people who are broke. You can get a judgment. What you won't get is the money.

The second factor is that the current owners intend to shield their assets (via homesteading, etcetera), leave the country, or simply hope you're not going to sue due to one of a number of reasons. Mostly, these amount to denial. If you've got to put out $50,000 to get the property into the condition you were led to believe it was in when you bought it, it's worth their while to pay the lawyer and chase you down.

The various inspectors are your friend. Quite often, I encounter resistance from clients about spending the money for the inspection. I make it very plain that I will try my best to spot defects, but I am not a licensed inspector of any kind, and there aren't very many agents who are. I've met exactly one who was, and let's just say that I'll bet significant money that my clients end up happier than his, and expect to win a lot more arguments and disputes with him than I lost. Especially if our respective clients were asked how happy they were five or ten years out.

Admittedly, inspections cost money. However, on the scale of the value of real property, this is money you need to spend. Maybe $400 to make certain that a $500,000 property is basically sound. Look at it this way: Would you spend an extra eighty cents for a third party vouching for quality on a thousand dollar item? Particularly if you can sue them if they're wrong? Say you were looking at a $10,000 used car. Would it be worth $8 to you to have your favorite mechanic tell you what, if anything, was wrong with it? I'll bet every single one of you who drive answered "Yes," and that's even without the liability issue. The point I'm trying to make is that these are equivalent bets. It's just that "$400 is a lot of money." Well, $500,000 is a considerably larger pile of money than $400, and it's no less real if you happen to be borrowing the whole amount. In fact, it's even worse, because if you lose $500,000 cash, all you've lost is $500,000. If you borrow $500,000 and lose it, not only do you have to pay it back, you have to pay interest on it until you do. Not to mention that it's kind of hard to refinance, among other problems.

However, you don't want to be putting out that $400 inspection fee for properties you're not going to buy anyway, because there's something wrong that a knowledgeable agent can spot before it gets that far. Nor do you want to spend it before you've got a fully negotiated contract, especially in the current market, because the fact that you've spent $400 inspecting their property before negotiating a contract can be interpreted by sellers as giving them more power. Furthermore, negotiations post contract are always subject to whether the other side wants to be reasonable about their end of what the inspection reveals. You've already got a deposit in escrow, and my experience has been that it's easier for the owner to break an escrow that's not going anywhere, than it is for the former prospective buyer to force the owner to release their deposit money from that same escrow. You'd really prefer to find out about Vampire properties before you put an offer in.

This is one of the many areas where a good buyer's agent pays for themselves many times over. If they spot the vampire property before you make an offer, that's a minimum of about two weeks and $400 you saved, and it's likely to be a lot more. If you put a $5000 deposit down (and nobody sane accepts offers without a deposit), now you're wondering whether the other side is going to return it, which not only might necessitate hiring a lawyer, but also impact your Loan to Value Ratio until and unless you get it back, and could very well impact your Debt to Income Ratio. Time, money, headaches. All saved because your agent spotted the problem before you put an offer in. There aren't any spaces on the HUD-1 to document them for the government, but they're all real.

So when you're going around looking at properties, it's a lot more important for your agent to look critically at what might be wrong with the property, and compare and contrast it with other similar properties on the market, than it is for them to tell you about how the floor goes so well with the walls, or how gorgeous the view is. Most people really can figure those latter qualities out for themselves, and if they really want input, a good agent is happy to provide it, although most people will only be asking for confirmation that other people feel the same pain in the optic nerve that they do. The real job of a buyer's agent is to consider things other than the transient decorations that are likely going away. Physical situation (including defects!), orientation, and of course, location, location, location. How easy will be to maintain or improve the property's value? What will it be like to live there? What does the future hold for the neighborhood, at least according to current plans? What's the commute like? How's the grocery situation? What about other shopping? City services, how far to common activities? Most importantly for most people with kids, What are the schools and how good are they, really? None of this stuff is part of the standard disclosures from seller to buyer, because the buyers are theoretically just as capable of finding it out as the sellers. Not true in practice, I might add, because the seller has usually been dealing with these and other neighborhood issues the whole time they've owned the property. These and other questions are some of the reasons why good agents can only cover so much area, and why it's a real good idea for even current residents of a neighborhood to find a good agent and use them to help them buy a property.

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on December 21, 2013 10:00 AM.

Power of Attorney for Real Estate Transactions was the previous entry in this blog.

Full Circle: Back to More Traditional Lending Standards is the next entry in this blog.

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