It's always satisfying when I bump into clients that have moved into their new homes and are happily settled. Last week, I crossed paths with a young family I recently helped purchase a contemporary "view" home in Montclair. We were all coincidentally dining at the recently opened Grill One here in the village (a good meal at a good value) and I used the opportunity to introduce my husband and younger son (which is a nice switch, as I typically get to know your families during our work together, but you rarely get to know mine - except in The Perspective of course)! Anne laughed when she met my husband and said, " Julie had to talk me down off the ledge a time or two. Buying a house was scarier than getting married. When we got married, we only had one paper to sign - the marriage license! With a house, you're really committed!" (So true! )
That's an accurate assessment. When my dad sold real estate - more than 40 years ago - the purchase offer was only one page and consisted of the price and the terms and the concept of "disclosure" was practically nonexistent. Real estate operated on the premise of "Buyer Beware." It was incumbent upon the buyer to inspect the home and do their "due diligence" before closing escrow.
It's a completely different world today. Not that buyers don't still need to perform their "due diligence" - they do! - but they will start off with much more knowledge than buyers of yesteryear.
For the uninitiated, here's a rundown of how it works . . . Once you identify a home you desire, I will request a copy of the Disclosure Package which should typically include several pages of "Seller Disclosures" (that's everything the seller knows to be a "material fact" about the house and its neighboring properties); a JCP Report (which outlines the topographical profile of a home and the breakdown of the property taxes); a Homeowners' Guide to Safety (a booklet on earthquake preparedness); Agency Disclosure (who represents whom); an East Bay Disclosure (a 10-page document describing every possible caveat), a Point of Ordinance Disclosure (legal requirements by certain municipalities before close of escrow) etc, etc. etc. (to quote Yule Brenner).
As is customary in the greater East Bay, the disclosure package should also include a Homeowner's Inspection, a Pest Inspection, a Sewer Lateral Inspection and in Piedmont; a permit history and sidewalk inspection, as required by the city. Should the reports call any single component of the house into question, you might expect to see an engineering report, a roof report, a soils report, an asbestos report or an electrical bid - as indicated. Finally, if you are pursuing a condominium purchase, the disclosures will also include HOA (Home Owner's Association) documents, CC&R's (Covenants, Codes and Restrictions) Condominium Bylaws, and meeting minutes for the last twelve months. Whew! It's a lot to digest (and you often have only a day or two to process the information before making an offer)!
One recent condominium purchase entailed more than 800 pages of disclosures and looked like the white pages of the phone book (remember those?). It took several hours of careful scanning to get through it all (a highlighter works wonders) and still I asked the buyer to hire his own inspector before removing contingencies and moving forward.
No matter how thoroughly a property has been inspected, I believe that a well-educated buyer makes for a stronger buyer in the end. You need to know first-hand where the home's gas shutoff valve is, where the sewer clean out lies and where the electrical box is mounted. You need to know the condition of the roof, the foundation, the plumbing, the appliances and the electrical components. You need to know the age and the overall health of the building - all mysteries your inspector will clarify in full. You need to ask questions and thoroughly understand the components of any house on which you are in contract. Agents aren't trained inspectors - no matter how many homes we've seen or sold! Spending a few hundred (or even a few thousand) dollars on inspections may save you many times that amount down the road.
Once you find out that the mechanics of the house are in good shape and that the home is stable, you then have the opportunity to make an informed decision. To do so before gathering the pertinent information, makes no sense. So yes, I have talked a client or two (or three) off the ledge when I have sensed it was premature to pull the plug. However, I have also given buyers permission to walk away when inspections revealed bigger expenses than originally suggested. Either way, I am here to provide clarity and support your decision, once the facts are in view. When it comes to a house, I have enough broad experience to confidently give advice. When it comes to marriage, I have only my own limited experience on which to fall back upon (although I happily just celebrated twenty years with Cliff) which is to say I avoid giving advice on love and marriage - even when pressed. That's your business and while marriage only requires one document to execute a union, I know from many friends' experiences that divorce, sadly, requires much more.
Buying a house? Complicated? For sure. But it still has a happy ending! How can I help?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 18 years and has published more than 670 essays on life and real estate.