A husband and wife who are almost 70 years old and about to buy a retirement home wrote to me with a list of questions. They have not bought real estate in more than 30 years. "It seems even more stressful now; the requirements and responsibilities have increased drastically," they wrote.
They're right. Buying a house is complex these days. I'll answer their questions one at a time.
Can we demand that our home inspector be allowed to inspect the house during construction so that major flaws are identified and corrected before the house is completed and before we have to go to settlement?
Some home builders will not allow that, but it does not hurt to ask. From my point of view, it certainly makes sense, because it gives you -- and the builder -- a second pair of eyes to look at the house as it is being built. I have heard of several cases in which the builder was glad to have the inspector present. The problems the inspector found saved the builder a lot of money because they didn't have to be fixed later.
If the builder agrees to your request, you may be asked to make sure that your inspector carries adequate insurance in case he gets hurt while making his inspection.
We are required to deposit $20,000 with the builder when he starts construction on our home. How can we ensure that we will not lose our deposit if the house has major flaws when we go to final settlement?
You should have a real estate lawyer work with you from the beginning, when you sign the sales contract until the day you go to settlement. There are laws in some states that require that earnest money deposits be placed in escrow accounts. Sometimes, the builder will agree to pay you interest on the deposit, but not always.
When you buy a new house, you have to rely on the competence of the builder. Even if you are unable to have your home inspector make periodic inspections during construction, at the very least the inspector should be permitted to go with you on the final walk-through before settlement.
If there are just small things to fix -- what's called a "punch list" -- get the builder to put the list in writing and give you a date when the work will be completed. However, if the problems are serious, you should make sure they are fixed before you go to settlement. Your lawyer should make sure your sales contract reflects this.
In view of the housing market conditions, would you recommend that we not put our house on the market until our new house is almost completed? We do not want to experience lengthy delays before the new home is ready, as some of our friends have.
The housing market is strong, but no one knows how long that will last. Can you sell the house and move into a month-to-month rental until you can go to settlement? This way, you can get the best price for your house, then put the proceeds into a savings account until you need the money to purchase your new home.
Do you need the cash from the sale of your present house to buy the new one? If so, then you have a potentially serious logistical hurdle. Most contracts for new home purchases allow the builder to give you short notice, to 30 days, of when you have to go to closing. That may not allow you the luxury of selling your house at a leisurely pace to get the best price.
So, unless you can amend the contract to give you more time, which generally will not be permitted, you may have no alternative but to sell your house soon.
How can we find a good lawyer who will represent us at the settlement table?
Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. Also, contact the local bar association in the jurisdiction where the new home will be built; most bar associations have referral programs that can help you can find someone who specializes in real estate law.
I still strongly suggest you get a lawyer at the very beginning -- before you sign a sales contract. That person should be able to guide you through the entire process. No matter what you do, make sure that you do not sign any legal documents until you have consulted with your legal and financial advisers.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington lawyer. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address.