Q: The buyer for our home insisted on a closing date that was earlier than the one we had on our contract. We tried to reschedule the closing, but the broker could not be reached. We just needed four more hours to get everything out.
The buyer did their walk-through of the home and saw what we had left in the home. I told the buyer that we would try our best but could not guarantee that everything would be out by our morning closing the next day. We worked all night to move our stuff. We closed on the sale, and we stopped by after closing to get our stuff. The buyer was irate and gave us only a short period of time to take out what we could.
We ended up leaving valuables in the home. Can she sue us? We tried to negotiate with the buyer before the closing to no avail.
A: When you entered into your contract with the buyer, you may have agreed to a specific closing date. For the buyer to change that date, you and the buyer would have to agree to the change. We understand that in some places, real estate attorneys do not represent buyers or sellers in real estate transactions. In those locations, the attorney may be a closing attorney who prepares documents for the closing but does not represent either party by having a fiduciary duty to work for a specific party.
You probably were relying on your real estate broker for counsel, and the broker wasn’t available when you needed advice. In the broker’s absence, it appears that you agreed to move up the closing and didn’t make any specific arrangements on your personal property left at the home. Again, that was an unfortunate oversight.
Had you been represented by an attorney, the attorney might have been able to negotiate one of two possible solutions. One solution would be to insist on closing at a time that was convenient for you. The other would have been to insist on the buyer’s allowing you to retain possession of the home for a day until you could remove all of your belongings. This understanding could have been agreed to by written document, and your post-closing possession agreement could have given you the right to stay in the home for a day or more as you and your buyer would have agreed.
When you couldn’t get hold of your broker, you should have called the managing broker of the firm or, in that person’s absence, the broker owner. That person could have called a halt to the negotiations and helped you and the buyer come to a new agreement. If possible, it’s always best to put someone in the middle of a contentious, emotion-filled negotiation to help calm things down.
Moving is stressful and hard. Dealing with negotiations where you don't have someone to explain possible ramifications to you is also quite difficult. We're sorry you had to go through that.
In his real estate law practice, Sam has witnessed this sort of thing many times, from both the buyer’s perspective and seller’s perspective. He recently represented an older gentleman who was selling his mother’s home. His mom had kept every little thing she acquired for decades. It took the son weeks to clear out her belongings. He had to sift through things that had no value (and could be tossed) and also determine what family members might want to keep. Local charities were then called to pick up furniture and other belongings.
But Sam has also seen sellers who decide they “must” do everything themselves and refuse to ask others for help or hire people to help them. In those situations, sellers can get themselves into trouble if they run short of time as the closing approaches. In several cases, Sam has had clients who couldn’t get everything out on time and had to pay the buyer the cost of removing their personal belongings. In one particular instance, there was so much stuff left behind by a seller that the buyer required the seller to pay the cost of a 30-yard dumpster plus $500 cash for a group of people to come in and toss everything in the garbage.
We doubt the buyer will take any action against you, and we’re sorry the buyer wasn’t more understanding by allowing you enough time to move your things. But a smooth closing comes down to how well you’ve planned your move ahead of time.
Selling and moving are stressful enough that you should want to do everything you can to reduce that stress. This planning should start before you even list the property, especially if you've lived in your home for more than a decade. The typical American family will accumulate enough stuff in 10 years to require several weeks of work to throw it away, give it away and pack up the home.
As Ilyce wrote in her book on selling and in her e-book on how to declutter your home, if you take the time to go through your stuff well before you list your home, you'll have a big head start on what you'll need to pack when it comes time to move out.
If your buyers do make a claim against you, you should find a real estate attorney who can help you decide what your next step will be. Until then, we hope your move into your new home was less stressful than your move out of your old home.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.