Imagine the scene. You’re on your way to your tech job in SF when crossing the street for your morning Starbucks, you almost get run over by a PostMate delivery person, jumping back just in time to avoid death by bike. This happens pretty much every day, but something snaps. You’re fed up. With coding, with the city, with everything. You’re no Steve Jobs, but you’ve got some savings, and you’ve always wanted that idyllic country life… so you find a nice property for sale with a generous plot of land and a few hundred fruit trees. The place is nice, the broker’s confident, and the revenue from the orchard will help cover the loan you need to make the payment. Some of the trees look a little odd, but you’re assured it’s nothing major. Who are you to argue? You eagerly sign the contract.
And then the trees start dying. And it turns out there’s widespread root rot. And you find a big barrel of tree medicine in a shed, proving the seller knew about the problem and chose not to tell you. And without the income from the trees, you can’t make the payment. And you foreclose. And the seller gets the property back.
Sound familiar? It better, because we’ve covered that story. You’ll remember that the protagonist ended up getting a rough deal. What can you do if you’re in a similar situation? If your new home hides a terrible secret, like a structural problem or a creepy little man living in your wall?
If your home is less than ten years old, California has a warranty that lets the buyer contact the builder or contractor for a fix free of charge. Even if you’re past the date, your insurance company might cover damages anyway, which would spare you a lot of hassle. But sometimes, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands. Get a quote for the repair costs to see if litigation will be worth your while, or if it’s something you can fix for less than the trouble’s worth.
The burden of proof will be on you. Find real evidence that the problem was undisclosed, and that it wasn’t something you could have noticed during a normal inspection. People trying to scam buyers will usually make a concerted effort to hide the major issues, and ironically, those dissimulation efforts might be the proof you need – a false ceiling to hide structural damage, house visits at times where the problem might not be as noticeable etcetera. Snap photos, keep written records and take statements from neighbors about the house’s condition and the seller. The system isn’t against you – real estate law forces sellers to disclose known defects – but there’s a presumption of innocence and the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) that mean you really need to be 100% sure, with proof, that you’ve been wronged.
You also need to figure out who’s wronged you.
If there’s evidence that the seller papered over a problem, that’s one thing. But it may very well be down to a real estate agent being negligent or even maliciously obscuring an issue to make a sale. Sometimes, the fault will be with the inspector, who may not have done their job properly or who might have colluded with a shady agent to speed up the sale. Check your local laws and talk to an attorney before you point too many fingers and cause bad blood. Accusing the wrong person and coming out all guns blazing before you’re totally sure and you’ve talked to them (either directly or through your agent) may cause even more trouble.
If all else fails, you might consider suing. If your property’s been damaged because of the house’s defect, like a flooded basement, that’ll be added to the ‘damages’ you can claim on top of the cost of repair, etc. Definitely talk to a lawyer at this point, and they’ll be able to tell you what exactly to sue for; breach of contract, breach of warranty, failure to disclose, fraud, negligence… the possibilities are endless!*
As always, when buying a home, be vigilant and you’ll come out on top.
*(as long as you’re within deadlines/statutes of limitation and, y’know, actually have a case)