QDEAR BARRY: I have bought homes in several states, and I find the practice of real estate disclosure to be an unethical mess.
In some states, disclosure is mandatory for sellers and agents, while in others the laws are full of loopholes. Sellers rarely know what defects to disclose, and the agents wouldn't recognize a defect if it was labeled.
But the real slap in the face is from agents who recommend incompetent home inspectors. I never know the true condition of a home until I move in.
If I then complain about the lack of disclosure, the sellers claim that they didn't know, the agents pass the legal buck to the home inspector, and the inspector recites a list of disclaimers in the inspection contract. Disclosure, it seems, is a sad joke, but everyone is safe behind the letter of the law.
This may be a rhetorical question, but whatever happened to disclosing defects simply because it's the right thing to do? -- Harold
ADEAR HAROLD: There are two types of problems with defect disclosure, as you have pointed out. The first is that many sellers, agents or home inspectors can't or don't provide adequate disclosure. The second is that some fail to recognize the ethical importance of disclosure.
Sellers in most states must provide a written statement of known defects. These disclosure statements rarely contain pertinent information because homeowners seldom see and probably wouldn't recognize most defects, such as improper wiring in a breaker panel or a chimney defect in the attic. Sellers who are serious about disclosure should hire qualified home inspectors for presale inspections.
Real estate agents in most states are required to disclose what they know. How well they comply with that requirement varies.
The litmus test of disclosure ethics involves the home inspectors to whom agents refer their trusting clients. Agents become familiar with the abilities of local inspectors. They know which inspectors are more or less thorough. These impressions are widely discussed in real estate offices. For truly ethical agents, only the most thorough inspectors will do. To the ethically disabled, the most thorough inspectors are known as "deal killers."
Home inspectors vary widely in their abilities to discover and disclose defects. That's because home inspection is a learn-as-you-go business. It is not possible to be qualified at defect discovery without having been a full-time inspector for several years.
This means that new inspectors learn their trade at the expense of the first customers. After several hundred substandard inspections, new inspectors begin to catch on. After a few thousand, they're truly competent.
Buyers can obtain adequate disclosure if they understand these realities. When you buy, don't expect much in the way of disclosure from sellers or agents. They probably don't have much to disclose and may or may not be committed to disclosure.
Instead, try to find a home inspector who is truly qualified: someone who has many years of experience, who has inspected thousands of properties, and who has a reputation for detailed, uncompromised thoroughness. A top home inspector will provide the disclosure you're seeking, and for once, you'll know what you're buying before you buy it.