Beware of lax home disclosure laws in Boston

Beware of lax home disclosure laws in Boston

For most of us, buying a home might be the single biggest investment we ever make in a lifetime. For Marianne Ulcickas Yood, it became her biggest headache.

After moving from Connecticut and buying a home in Newton, Yood noticed a large puddle in her backyard. Landscapers worked on the yard to improve drainage, but the puddle came back the next year. The landscapers tried again, but the puddle returned. Yood was mystified.

“The third year, my neighbors said, ‘Didn’t you know there was a pool there?’” Yood says.

She hadn’t known. Neither the realtor nor the previous owner disclosed the fact.

Once the problem was identified, landscapers were able to fill in the sinkhole, but the ordeal cost Yood and her family thousands.

She also had to replace an illegal water heater that was a huge fire hazard. Yood was shocked when she discovered that under Massachusetts law the seller wasn’t obligated to tell her about the in-ground pool, unless she had specifically asked about it.

“In Connecticut you have to report everything,” she says.

Massachusetts law only obligates a seller to disclose the presence of lead paint, warns Michael McDonagh, general counsel and director of government affairs with the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. It can be a problem in a state with so many old homes.

Inspectors say some homeowners will hide defects, such as foundation cracks or mold, behind a stack of boxes in the basement. (Photo by Craig Idlebrook)

Home disclosure and home inspection laws vary state to state, but Massachusetts regulations are surprisingly weak, McDonagh says. “We’re in the minority of states when it comes to what legislative or regulatory requirements are placed on sellers,” he says.

Home sellers and realtors can’t knowingly lie about a problem, however. Realtors are obligated to disclose any information they know that might influence the decision of a homebuyer, McDonagh says.

The trick is that some sellers aren’t forthcoming to their realtors, creating a “don’t ask, don’t tell” climate. One way homebuyers can protect themselves is by asking questions. Sellers and realtors must answer all questions truthfully, even if it’s to their disadvantage. “Ask questions. Be involved, ask as many questions as you possibly can,” McDonagh says.

But that might not be enough. Realtors are often contractually obligated to look out for the seller’s best interests, and that creates an unbalanced playing field, especially for first-time homebuyers. McDonagh recommends homebuyers enlist the help of a buyer’s broker; a realtor who will work exclusively for the homebuyer’s best interest.

Another great tip is to hire a home inspector to point out potential problems before you sign on the dotted line. A home inspection usually costs less than $1000, but it can save a homebuyer thousands in future bills, says Sandra Cornell, co-owner of highly rated Paul Cornell & Associates, a home inspection business in Tewksbury. “A seller’s disclosure statement really means little to nothing. Any homebuyer who buys a home without an inspection is crazy,” Cornell says.

A home inspector uses a tool to check for moisture behind a wall. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member James B.)

With over three decades of experience in the home inspection industry, Cornell’s staff has seen everything, from bathrooms that vent moist air directly into unventilated attics to electrical systems rigged with aluminum wiring.

Sometimes, home sellers get creatively deceptive; the inspectors have caught sellers tampering with radon tests to ensure acceptable scores, for example. Cornell’s husband once fell through termite-infested stairs that had been propped up with metal laths. The goal for a home inspection is to prevent homebuyers from signing a contract without knowing what they’re getting, she says. 

“My husband, he wears this as a badge of honor, but he gets a reputation from real estate agents as a deal killer,” Cornell says.     

Being informed might be the difference between life and death, says Dennis Robitaille of highly rated Able Home Inspection in Laconia, N.H. Robitaille, who is licensed in both states, once inspected a home where the recently cleaned chimney was completely blocked and the heating system was dumping carbon monoxide into the living space. His inspection may have derailed the sale, but it also saved the lives of the homeowners.

A good home inspector can spot all the popular ruses, Robitaille says. For example, whenever he sees boxes stacked in a corner of the basement, he will immediately look behind the boxes for water damage or signs of cracks in the foundation.  He always assumes the worst, he says, because there is little legal protection to help homebuyers once they close.      

“Buyers are at the mercy and the honesty of the owner, and unfortunately, many owners aren’t honest,” Robitaille says.


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