What's more invasive than a colonoscopy?
A root canal? (No.)
Someone reading your diary? (Maybe.)
A tax audit? (Okay, that one's worse; that took weeks of digging through files and receipts.)
However, with respect to Real Estate, there are few things more invasive than the Seller Disclosures; those legally binding questionnaires that expect Sellers to be thoroughly conversant with their home and its neighborhood, to disclose present and past modifications (even if they weren't responsible for them), and to understand the home's engineering, potential topographical impacts, and structural components. . . . without an advanced degree! No wonder even the most earnest of Sellers typically come up short.
I was recently reminded of this while sitting with well-intentioned Sellers who, like many, struggled with this task. Given that the questions are often technical in nature - “Have your cripple walls been braced?” (Ummm, what’s a cripple wall???), it’s no surprise that Sellers often don’t know the appropriate answers, even when they’ve lived in a home for a decade or more. (Since you asked, a cripple wall sits between the foundation and the floor joists.)
When we got to the part about sump pumps (this house has two, as well as a back-up generator), the wife smartly tagged in her husband and he took a seat in front of the computer monitor to drill down on the questions pertaining to sumps, water intrusions, and the subsequent "fixes." Once answered, he tagged her back, and so it went . . . each taking a swing at filling in the blanks. It was pure ballet (or big-time wrestling).
In fact, I might argue that the longer Sellers have lived in a home, the less inclined they are to know and understand its inner workings. Usually, Sellers with 50 years of ignoring the crumbling foundation haven't a clue, and they're often the first to be shocked at a structural report that discovers significant findings.
"I had no idea." (Really?)
On the other hand, disclosures aren't meant just for the "significant findings;" it is incumbent upon sellers to disclose EVERYTHING they are aware of ("aware" being the operative word).
“Does this switch control the overhead light in this room?" I asked. "It doesn't seem to respond."
“Hmmm, I don’t know.," said the Seller. "We just always used the lamps. Is that important?"
It could be.
Perhaps it speaks to a larger electrical issue. Perhaps it's just a burnt-out bulb. My point is, you don't necessarily know what might be "material" to someone else, nor should you assume what is, or isn't, going to be important. When in doubt, DISCLOSE!
While it may seem contradictory to point out the defects in a home when you're trying to sell it for top dollar, this isn't like dating; you can't count on someone forgiving your flaws once you're married. (Didn't I tell you about that? Oh, well I meant to. . . ) At its core, selling your home is a business transaction and you are far better served to reveal any hidden secrets upfront. In fact, identify the ones that ought to be obvious to Buyers are just as important, so point them out too (or they'll come back to haunt you).
"No one said anything about a BUS running by the house! " (What exactly did you think the bus bench out front was for?)
Like most disclosures, the intention behind the mound of paperwork, probing questions, and inspections is to fully inform Buyers so that when writing an offer - especially in this particularly frenzied marketplace - they have some sense of what it is they’re buying. Sadly, the truth is, the more information we throw at Buyers and Sellers, the more overwhelming it becomes, and the less inclined they are to read it. (No, it's NOT my job to read the disclosures for you; it's your money, it's your investment, it's your risk, and it's your house.)
Even so, the thinking is that the MORE Sellers reveal about a home’s defects, the less likely the Buyers are to call “foul” once they move in, only to later discover that the basement floods during heavy winter rains. If the Sellers have already noted water intrusion in their disclosures, it shouldn't come as a surprise, even if it's an unwelcome event, AND even IF the Buyers didn't bother to read the disclosures. (Are you listening?)
Years ago I represented Buyers who'd bought a house only to discover that the basement did, indeed, flood during heavy rains. As the disclosures have several pointed questions regarding drainage, water intrusion, and past events, this unfortunate occurance SHOULD have been among the answers. It wasn't.
When the Seller was questioned by the attorney the Buyers had hired to litigate (litigate is a four-letter word best avoided), the elderly woman countered, "Well, my basement used to flood but I had Roto-Rooter come ONCE A MONTH to clear the drains and they fixed it." (Gee, that might have been worth a sentence or two.) Long story short: that Seller paid a good deal of money to the Buyers to set her omissions right.
So with this illuminating Real Estate tale in mind, think of disclosures as a good offense, and take the time to properly disclose, Disclose, DISCLOSE! You'll be glad you did.
And save those secrets for your diary. (Honestly, honey, I'm sure I told you. . . )
How can we help you?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 600 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.