Before you buy a home, smell the water

  • By Steve Tytler Herald columnist
  • Sunday, June 5, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Question: My son recently bought a house and when they moved in they found that the water had a horrible sulfur smell.

They are on a community well of eight houses. The previous owners were asked if they ever had any problems with the well and they said no.

We have now found out that they are the only house that does not have a filter system that would solve the problem. When confronted with the issue the previous owners just said that they lived with the smell for 14 years and got used to it and that they were not going to do anything about it.

The house sale has closed and the inspection did not reveal the problem. The filter system will be anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000.

My question is, is this a disclosure issue? Is there any way to make the previous owners at least pay half the cost without getting a lawyer involved?

I don’t want to pay a lawyer $1,000 just to find out that we still have to pay for the filter system.

Answer: This is a difficult issue because, as you indicated, smelly water is not something that would typically be discovered in a professional home inspection. The inspector will usually check the water pressure, but they will not smell the water.

Also, the sellers said they got used to the smell, so they did not consider it a “problem” when you asked them about the well.

So this is not one of those slam dunk cases where the sellers willfully failed to disclose an obvious home flaw like a leaky roof. Therefore, I don’t think you would have much luck trying to force the sellers to help pay for the water filtration system.

To get a second opinion, I consulted a local real estate attorney and he agreed that it would be a very tricky case to prove any kind of deliberate failure to disclose a material defect on the part of the sellers. Furthermore, hiring an attorney to resolve a $2,000 to $5,000 dispute is not cost effective.

You could pay a few hundred dollars to have an attorney write a letter to the sellers, but the chances of getting any money are pretty slim. A lawsuit would cost at least $20,000, so that’s not even an option.

You could consider taking the sellers to Small Claims court, where you represent yourself. Damage claims in Small Claims Court are limited to a maximum of $5,000. However, even if you can convince the judge to award you damages, it is up to you to collect the judgment from the sellers. This is often very difficult, if not impossible.

Unfortunately, I think the realistic answer is that your son will have to pay for the water filtration on his own.

I’m sorry he didn’t notice the foul smelling water when he looked at the home. It’s too late to do anything now that the sale of the home has closed, but this story can serve as a warning to other homebuyers who may be purchasing a house on a private well system.

It is a good idea to have the well water tested by the local health department to make sure it’s biologically safe. In fact, the mortgage lender will typically require a health test as a condition of the purchase loan when there is a private well on the property. Since this is a community well, that may have slipped past the mortgage underwriter.

Any time you buy a home in a rural or semi-rural area where it is on a private well and septic system rather than public water and sewer, you need to be very careful to make sure that the systems are in good working order and meet all health code requirements.

And don’t forget to pour a glass of water to look at it and smell it to make sure it looks clear and doesn’t have any unusual odors.

Steve Tytler is a licensed real estate broker and owner of Best Mortgage. You can email him at

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