THERE WAS once a group that played rock music and the refrain in one of their songs went like this: Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless. The words are not terribly original, but apparently the repetition of them says something to many home buyers.
Authorities in the real-estate industry agree that often certain headaches associated with buying a new house, such as not being able to move in until a year after the agreed delivery date, are sometimes unavoidable in a seller's market. But a further consensus is that most home buyers don't do nearly enough to protect themselves from unforseen complications.
"People often go out and look only at the superficial aspects of a house," said Steve Silcox, real estate investigator in the Montgomery County office of consumer affairs. "They don't look at the nuts and bolts. They don't ask themselves, 'What am I really getting in the way of quality construction?' It's the same as buying a new car. If style is going to be your main concern, and you don't look at the car's repair record, then you end up with a stylish car that's a mechanical mess.
"There's an urgency," said Silcox, "that people who are breaking into the market feel. And that sense of urgency can create a need to buy without shopping around as they should."
Shopping around, in the sense that consumer specialists and real-estate lawyers use the term, means taking your time. Home buyers who allow themselves to be pressured into a quick sale are asking for trouble.
"It does rather shock me sometimes how little purchasers know about their builder," said John C. Walker, a prominent Montgomery County developer.
Gloria Kornasiewicz, supervisor of investigations at the Fairfax County consumer affairs office, says the first step in buying a new house should be a thorough check of the builder's credentials. "Know who you're doing business with, either by checking with the consumer agencies or the inspections offices. Get references. Talk to some people at random in developments where the builder has already been involved."
"People should knock on doors in the development," said Silcox, "and ask if they've had problems getting the builder to make warranty repairs.I find new home purchasers to be very outspoken in their complaints and they want other people to know when they've had a hard time."
Most home owners would probably agree with Washington attorney Henry H. Brylowski that the agreement you sign to buy your new house is "the most important contract of your life." Yet few buyers bother to hire a lawyer before signing.
"One of the problems that I find with new homes," said Silcox, "is that contracts are heavily weighted in favor of the builder. People often sign a contract and then they'll go to an attorney. You can lose a lot of legal recourses when you sign that original contract."
(There are two major steps in any house sale. The sales contract is a serious commitment, bolstered by a deposit, usually held in escrow, that sets forth the terms of the deal. The settlement, or closing, consumates the contract, transferring the title and funds under those terms. After the settlement, it's too late to bargain anymore. The house, its pleasures as well as its problems, are all yours.)
A lawyer can help you get the best terms on a sales contract and he can assist in making sure the terms are followed before closing. He may not be able to get you everything you want, "but at least," said attorney Allan McKelvie, "he can ask the questions that as a non-real-estate person the buyer might not think of asking."
You may find the builder unreceptive to your contract demands. He might tell you to shove off. Or, he might say his document is "the standard contract for the whole development." If there is one thing on which authorities agree, however, it is this: There is no such thing as a "standard contract."
"Some builders," said Kornasiewicz, "won't want to make a lot of changes in their contracts. But it's certainly worth the effort to try."
Insiders list several things they say you should try to include in your contract. The following are a few of the basics. This should not be construed as a fail-safe method for house buying. Check area universities and colleges for short consumer courses.
Lawyers: The person who performs settlement must represent all parties involved in the transaction. Bring your attorney along to represent you and you alone. Find one that is well practiced in real estate law.
Inspections: The contract should include a clause that allows the house to be inspected by a professional of your choice. It should give you a few days to review the results of the inspection and to break off the agreement if they are not to your liking. Inspection clauses are becoming increasingly more common.
Offer Expires: Real estate agents say that sellers of older houses, especially in the renovation areas, are usually agreeable to bargaining with the prospective buyer. But you may find the seller is shopping for the best offer from among several. It may be days, or even weeks, before you hear from him again. Meanwhile, you need to make a decision about selling your house. A simple clause in the sales contract tells the seller exactly how long you will wait for him to accept your offer. After that time, the contract becomes void.
Delivery Date: "We're getting more and more problems with completion dates on new houses," said Lin Quitneyer, deputy director of consumer affairs in Fairfax County. "Most contracts allow for a three-month [grace] period beyond the completion date. But we're finding people dragging six months to a year beyond that."
The delivery date of a new house is one of the most ticklish subjects on the market, authorities say. There is usually little you can do to avoid delays. You can count on them. It is common in commercial building to write into contracts penalty clauses that require builders to pay for delays. You probably won't get any such thing from your home builder. "I don't know of any builder who's signed one for a residential house," said Quitneyer.
If you can't get the builder to agree on a penalty clause, be sure at least that the completion date is clearly stated and that it is accompanied by the term "time is of the essence." In failing to meet his delivery requirements, the builder breaks the contract and can be taken to court. Kornasiewicz suggests buyers try to work into the contract an agreement that the builder will pay for expenses incurred while waiting, such as moving, storage and rent.
Liens: Subcontracting is a common practice in the construction industry. Sometimes contractors fail to pay the subcontractors (electricians, roofers, etc.) for work performed. The subcontractors will attempt to place a lien on the property to recover their fees. If it is an older house, alterations to some portions of the property may be restricted by zoning conditions and public property lines. Be sure the title to the house is insured and that the policy covers everything you want from the house. A "hold-harmless" clause written into the contract relieves you of any responsibility for work done before closing.
Specifications: It's always interesting to walk into your house and find that the Mexican ceramic tiles you ordered for the bathroom floor have turned into linoleum, or that the 2-by-8 joists on 16-inch centers have miraculously metamorphosed into 2-by-6s on 24-inch centers. This usually is not magic but an error or oversight or simple mischief on the part of the builder. "They were out of stock," he might say. Be sure the contract says the house will be built "according to plans and specifications," whether these are from the model house you liked best or from your architect's plans. You can list the specifications in the contract.
If you ordered extras, name these in the contract. Builders' contracts often stipulate that extras can be substituted for if the second choices are "comparable in grade and quality." Who decides what's comparable? If there's a chance of substitution, know what you want and include your choices by specific brand and name in the agreement.
Conveyance: If you are buying second hand, write into the contract exactly which items in the house go with it and which go with the sellers. If you don't, you may find that the English boxwoods you so admired in the back yard have been uprooted between closing and your moving in.
Utilities: Some home owners conveniently forget to pay their water bills and in many areas these charges become a lien on the property. Make sure all charges, including taxes, sewer assessments, water tap fees, etc., are paid up to the date of closing. It is common to place automatically a portion of the purchase price in escrow to cover such expenses.
Escrow: The builder does not want to see money put into escrow. Likely as not, he needs the cash to complete another project. Some builders try to prevent escrow by writing an exclusionary clause into the contract. Challenge any such clauses. After the house has been inspected and you are faced with defects, you have a right to close on the house anyway, placing a portion of the price in escrow until the builder corrects deficiencies. You may also have a court battle on your hands.
Pests: The contract should require that, before closing, the house be certified free of termites and that any pest-related damages be fixed. Make sure the repairs are made before closing.
Finances: Try to have the financial papers in hand as early as possible. In a rush closing, you may be asked to pay charges you don't understand. Agreements often require payment of "points" or additional finance charges by seller and buyer. You could be stuck paying for part of the sellers share. Or the finance company may have ordered a mortgage insurance policy different from the one you agreed on, presenting higher monthly payments. A simple clause can make the sale contingent on your securing financing.
All contracts should provide that if your contingencies are not met the deposit (usually several thousand dollars) will be returned.
McKelvie suggests home buyers -- with their lawyers -- draw up a contract with the terms they want before they go shopping. Some of the provisions may elicit unrestrained chuckling from prospective sellers, but at least you will know what you're not getting.
Above all, says McKelvie, for whom real estate is also a personal sideline: "You just shouldn't be intimidated by these guys." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Copyright (c) Diversified, Aug. 1978