(Steve Helber/AP)

My husband and I recently took possession of our new home this past weekend in Salt Lake City. When we took possession, we discovered the seller left her clothes in the closets, a fully stocked fridge (no room for our food), and a huge mess in the kitchen full of her belongings. (She has since been back to pick them up.) We then discovered that she threw all her food out in our trash can outside, and it is now completely full.

In taking another look at our contract, we confirmed the seller checked that the water softener was to be included with the home, and that she would be taking her washer and dryer with her. As it turns out, there is no water softener, and she ended up leaving her old gas dryer hooked up in the basement. Obviously, this is inconvenient as we will be moving our own dryer in, and I do not want to be the one responsible for having a professional to unhook the gas line and then removing the dryer. Also, our Realtor just told us the water softener box was checked by accident (as apparently she never had one to begin with — admittedly, I did not notice). Though it was an accident, both parties signed off on the contract with that “included” box checked.

What does this mean? Does the seller still owe us a water softener even though she says one never existed (she is probably telling the truth because I don’t remember seeing one)? In fact, she has already been back to pick up more of her items. What happens if she doesn’t come back to collect the dryer? What should we do about the “nonexistent” water softener that was checked to be included on the signed contract?

Sellers should leave a house in very clean, if not pristine, condition for their buyers. And there are plenty of good reasons for that, but mostly you want the buyer to love living in your house and having a good first impression is important.

Your experience is a good reason that every home buyer must inspect a home right before they close on the purchase. Sam usually tells his purchasers that they need to stop by the home right before settlement to see if the “home is still standing.” While the point he makes sounds extreme, houses have been known to burn down and literally blow up in the day or so before closing. If you’re making the single biggest purchase of your life (which is what a house usually is), you need to know exactly what you’re getting before the money leaves your hands.

Real estate contracts will usually contain a reference to personal property and fixtures that are at the property, including the items checked in the contract. If an item is checked but didn’t exist, it’s unlikely that you’d have a claim for a water softener that never existed. A bigger issue would be if the water softener was there when you signed the contract but was taken by the seller before closing. In the case of a water softener that was removed, you’d have a good claim against the seller.

The bigger issue for us is your lack of preparation when it came to buying the home. We know that in some parts of the country buyers don’t use real estate attorneys to represent them. Fair enough; but in those instances, buyers must take it upon themselves to become educated and know what to ask, what to expect and what to do.

You should have asked to see the home before you closed on it. This process is called a final walk-through, and it happens in almost every home purchase. During the final walk-through, you should have made sure the home was free of the seller’s personal belongings and that the home was clean as required under the contract. You should have made sure that the seller removed the clothes dryer and didn’t leave you holding the bag having to disconnect it and pay for its removal. You should have made sure that the seller was prepared to deliver the home in the manner required under the contract before you agreed to give the seller the money for the purchase price. That’s your moment of leverage.

Had you taken the steps that Ilyce has written about in her books for buyers and what Sam tells his purchasers, you wouldn’t be in the situation you are in now.

Overall, we think you’re pretty lucky. The seller could have just left the mess and never come back. At least this seller came back to take her stuff and clean out the refrigerator. While she dumped the trash in your garbage cans, at least she did the cleaning. You might get lucky and ask her to have someone remove the dryer and she’ll do that at her expense. We wouldn’t waste time trying to get a water softener that didn’t exist and instead focus on making sure the seller’s belongings are out of the house.

One more thought: It’s possible that things weren’t going well for this seller. It’s possible she’s getting a divorce, or has a partner who really didn’t want to leave, or had a number of other reasons she couldn’t get the house cleaned before the sale. If that’s the case, then it explains why the house didn’t get cleaned out before the closing; though it doesn’t really excuse it.

As for your original questions of how clean should a seller leave a home when selling? Our answer is: “Very.” Cleaning out your stuff ahead of time makes it a better home-buying/home selling experience for everyone.

Ilyce Glink is the creator of an 18-part webinar+ebook series called “The Intentional Investor: How to Be Wildly Successful in Real Estate” as well as the author of many books on real estate. She also hosts the “Real Estate Minute” on her YouTube channel. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them at ThinkGlink.com.