Steve Tytler, Columnist
Question: I am a first-time home buyer. Before I agreed to buy my home I requested that several repairs be done, including fixing a broken-down fireplace. The owner agreed, but left the responsibility with the real estate agent because he lives far away.
I moved in and was appalled by the repair work. The contractor never touched the broken fireplace. He realized after-the-fact that he wasn’t qualified to do the repairs.
When I spoke with the agent he informed me that fixing the fireplace was just too costly and he offered me $100 dollars to “help” with the repair costs. So, here I am, six months later, living in my new home without a working fireplace, fighting with the real estate agent. Can they legally treat me this way?
Answer: Whether they can “legally treat you that way” largely depends on how the purchase and sale contract was worded. Also, you gave up virtually all of your leverage by moving into the house before you verified that the work had been completed to your satisfaction.
First of all, when you asked the sellers to make the repairs, did you do so in writing, or just ask them verbally? When I write a work order addendum to a real estate purchase and sales agreement, I clearly spell out exactly what work needs to be done, when it will be completed and who will pay for it. The more specific you make the agreement, the less chance there is for errors or misunderstandings. For example, you should have specifically stated what work was to be done to the fireplace. Instead of writing “fix fireplace,” the agreement might read something like this: “Replace all broken bricks, repair all cracked mortar joints and replace chimney liner.” And you should further have stated that “all work to be performed by a qualified professional fireplace contractor.”
That way both you and seller would know exactly what repairs were to be made, and you agree that the work must be completed by a qualified professional and not an amateur, such as the real estate agent’s brother-in-law.
Another smart thing to do is add a clause to the agreement giving you the right to choose the contractor, so that you could make sure the job is done correctly. In any real estate deal, the seller will try to spend as little money as possible to complete the repairs, which can sometimes result in poor workmanship and low-quality materials. That’s why you should try to have the right to choose the contractor yourself, or at least approve the seller’s selection.
Another good idea is to ask for the right to negotiate directly with the contractor for upgrades. For example, when the seller installs a new roof on a house, most of the roofing cost is the labor expense. The difference between using low-quality roofing materials and high-quality roofing materials might add only a couple thousand dollars to the bill. If you were allowed to talk to the roofer, you might want to pay the extra money yourself to get a long-lasting, high-quality roof on the house, rather than settling for the bargain basement job the seller is willing to pay for.
Unfortunately, most of these tips are too late for you, but they can help readers who may find themselves in a similar situation. One of the most important parts of a real estate purchase involving work orders is the final walk-through inspection. That should be done one or two days prior to closing the transaction. That is when you have maximum leverage to make sure all the work has been completed, and finished in an acceptable manner.
Once you sign the closing papers and the sellers get their money, they have very little incentive to fix any remaining problems. But if you refuse to sign until the repairs are completed to your satisfaction, the sellers will work hard to make sure the job gets done quickly so they can close the sale and get their cash.
If there is a lot of work to be done, you should make periodic inspections to judge the progress of the work because there may not be time to fix all of the problems if you wait until the last few days.
It sounds like the sellers are not willing to give you any more help voluntarily. So you may want to take the purchase and sale agreement to an experienced real estate attorney to find out if you can legally force the sellers to make all the repairs to which they had agreed.
Again, the key is the wording of the contract. The more specific it is, the greater the likelihood that you will prevail in court if it gets to that.
Mail your real estate questions to Steve Tytler, The Herald, P.O. Box, Everett, WA 98206, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.