QDEAR BARRY: We are selling our home and have a question about seller disclosure. Beside our house is a large elm tree. It is diseased and will probably die in a couple of years. Our buyers have not raised any question about the tree and the symptoms of the disease are not readily noticeable. Should we tell them about the tree or just let them enjoy it until it needs to come down? -- Jim
ADEAR JIM: In today's litigious environment, it is never wise to withhold or abridge real estate disclosure. There are buyers out there who would sue over the loss of a tree with an undisclosed disease. So play it safe and disclose everything you know about the condition of your property. It is the way you would want to be treated if you were the buyer.
As for allowing the buyers to enjoy the tree for the time being, that enjoyment will be severely diminished when they eventually pay thousands of dollars to have the tree removed. If they should then suspect that you knew about the problem, you could find yourself wishing you had said something before the property was sold.
In short: Disclose, disclose, disclose. Allowing one exception to this basic rule invites further exceptions. It is a slippery slope that leads to costly liability. The information you withhold today could be tomorrow's income for a hungry lawyer.
DEAR BARRY: This is not a question but a comment. I met a home inspector while traveling in Montana. In conversation, he mentioned that he liked doing home inspections in the winter because exterior problems were often covered by snow and he could just check the "unknown" box and avoid any responsibility or recourse. Could you please alert readers to this unfortunate cop-out? -- James
DEAR JAMES: In cold states and at high elevations, it's an unavoidable reality that heavy snow can severely limit the thoroughness of a home inspection. Deep snow can prevent inspectors from evaluating the lower portions of walls, some portions of foundations, ground drainage conditions around buildings, various plumbing fixtures (including yard sprinklers), driveways and patios, stairs and decks, roof conditions, chimney tops, and more. In such cases, home inspectors have no choice but to list buried conditions as "unknown" and to recommend evaluation after the spring thaw. If inspectors take pleasure in the seasonal work relief provided by snow cover, they reveal the lazy proclivity of human nature itself, not the scandalous nature of the home inspection profession.
Those who buy homes that are partially obscured by snow must accept a degree of risk. To some extent, they are buying property sight-unseen, and in many instances, defects become apparent when warm weather returns.
Home inspectors sometimes joke among one another that the perfect inspection site is a house with a slab foundation and a flat roof. This translates, of course, to no crawling under the floor or through the attic. Now the list can be expanded to include a slab home in heavy snow.
White winters limit the thoroughness of home inspections. This plain fact should not be held against home inspectors -- even those who take pleasure in the momentary respite.
Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site, www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Ct., Suite 1218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.
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