Real Estate Horror Stories

Buying a House with Termite Damage:

We bought a house with known termite damage, which is relatively common in our area (Long Island, NY) especially in houses without basements. Damage was found when we did the mandatory termite inspection after accepting the offer. We could have cancelled the contract due to it, but where assured by the realtor there was a ‘termite guarantee’ and we had nothing to worry about. No live action or recent damage was seen. Basically the previous homeowners had been under contract with a local company and the company was supposedly responsible to take care of any issues. We were under the impression that the damage was old but we really did not do our homework and were not knowledgeable about termites in general.

We bought the house last July. Had no problems, saw no termites. Then in the spring (this past March) we started seeing termite swarmers. We had ALOT of problems with the contracted company and found out they were only responsible to come do ‘conventional’ treatments (drilling holes into the foundation and pumping with chemicals, which will not eradicate a colony). They were also not responsible for any structural damage.We found a lot of current damage behind the sheet rock in the room the swarmers were seen, which you will not know about unless you rip down the sheet rock (or see other clues, which for us was the swarmers in the area that come out in the spring). Long story short, we ended up canceling that contract (which was paid for by previous owners for the first year but up for renewal at $400). We felt they were basically doing nothing. We’re not sure if we had any other legal options and really just felt this was a lesson learned, that we did not do our homework. We ended up contracting with Terminix for the bait and trap type guarantee (several thousand dollars). We have some damage that we need to repair, but any future damage is covered. And the colony is supposed to be eradicated within 2 years.

Basically, it is a huge headache. I would advise to get a proper and comprehensive contract on the house if you plan to buy (paid for by the current owners) and definitely get evaluated by a big company like Terminix, even if you don’t go with them. Keep in mind that just because the house has termite damage does not mean there is an active colony, but a knowledgeable inspector will be able to tell. If you know what you are getting into and have the proper coverage, it may not be a reason to run the other way. A lot depends on how common it is in your area and how bad/current the damage is. And how much you like the house. I don’t know what I would do if I could turn back the clock but I will never buy a house without a basement again and if there was termite damage I would insist on a contract through Terminix or whatever my company of choice was.



Four years ago, Henry and Mary Langley bought their first home. They loved it and planned to live there about 10 or 15 years and then move out to the lake. But nearly a year ago Henry’s employer offered him a transfer to another city. Henry wasn’t given much of an option. It was either transfer now or receive no advancement in his present job. Henry’s company did not offer a buy-out provision, so the Langleys would be responsible for the sale of their home.

Henry and Mary asked three agents to perform a comparative market analysis on their home. The results were discouraging. Because they had been in the home such a short time, the Langleys had not realized much appreciation in their home’s value, so if they sold through a Realtor they would have to pay the commission out of their own pockets. They decided to try the For-Sale-by-Owner route.

Everything proceeded smoothly at first. Several lookers stopped by, but the seventh family to see the house fell in love with it and made an offer. The offer was lower than Henry and Mary had expected, but time was running out so they decided to accept it. In writing the offer, the purchasers had used a blank form they’d found in an office supply store. The Langleys never thought to have an attorney review it. If they had, the attorney would have advised them to add a financing contingency clause, which would have let the Langleys out of the contract if the buyers couldn’t get financing within a certain number of days.

The house was to close in 90 days. When weeks passed and the Langleys hadn’t heard from the purchasers, they began to worry. Henry finally called his buyers, who told him they’d been turned down by the first bank. Still the buyers were optimistic they could get the loan from their credit union. Later that same day a buyer dropped by because someone in the neighborhood had told him the house was for sale. This person offered the Langleys full price in cash for their house with closing in one week. Once again, Henry called the buyers and told them he’d received another offer, but the purchasers remained adamant that they could get financing. They refused to release the Langleys from their contract. Because there was no financing contingency, the Langleys could do nothing but wait – 60 more days to be exact. Unfortunately the second buyer needed to find a home within two weeks. The Langleys called the first purchasers almost daily but they wouldn’t give up on trying to get a loan. Finally the 60 days passed, but the generic contract contained an extension clause allowing the purchasers an additional 30 days if financing had not been finalized by the original close date. Another 30 days passed and finally Henry and Mary could sell their house to the cash buyer. There was just one problem. The cash buyer had already bought a house. The Langleys had wasted four months because they wanted to save that commission. It was now time for them to move, so they were forced to list the house anyway. It’s now been six months – that’s six months after the four wasted months – and the Langleys still don’t have a contract on their home. They’re renting in their new city and waiting, waiting, waiting…


When you buy a home, you want to be certain it’s safely yours. But even the most diligent search of the public records could fail to disclose a number of title defects.

Things such as a forged will or deed. Or a title transfer by someone under age. Or a married person conveying real estate without his or her spouse. Or fraudulent impersonations. Secret marriages. Undisclosed heirs. Invalid divorces. False affidavits. These are just a few of the problems that can suddenly surface. Without the protection of title insurance, you’ll be in jeopardy of losing your investment.

Some Horror Stories

The Walking Corpse.

The homeowner was a widow with seven sons. One of her offspring, the captain of a fishing vessel, had not been heard from for many years. Presumed lost at sea, he was declared legally dead.

When the widow passed away, her six remaining sons inherited her home. It was an attractive house, and they put it on the market at a modest price to facilitate settlement of the estate. Recognizing a bargain, the Montgomerys bought the property.

They were delighted with their new home – until the long lost sea captain returned from the dead.

It turned out the widow’s missing son had decided years ago to start a new life elsewhere. When the captain eventually returned and found the house had been sold, he promptly filed a claim against the Montgomerys for his rightful share of the property.


Janice and Martin had been looking for a home for two years. They had worked with several real estate agents but unfortunately none of the agents were full time and none really cared about finding a house for Janice and Martin. One day Janice and Martin saw a house in a neighborhood they really liked. It was for sale by the owner, but having looked at so many houses already, Janice and Martin felt they had enough experience to proceed without an agent.

Walking into the house, it seemed like a dream – everything they wanted. The kitchen was bright and airy. The bedroom was spacious with a walk-in closet and a large modern bathroom that contained a whirlpool tub. The family room had vaulted ceilings, a fireplace and a door leading to a gorgeous screened porch. The backyard was fenced and there was even a workshop.

And to sweeten the deal, the sellers were only asking $135,000 – that was ten thousand dollars less than they were prepared to spend. They immediately told the sellers they would buy the house. The sellers had a blank contract so Janice and Martin signed on the spot. Everything went well. Janice and Martin were a very honest, hard-working couple so getting a loan was no problem. Within five weeks they closed the deal and moved into their dream home.

Three weeks later while cleaning around the door Janice noticed several hundred insects (she called them ants with wings). Some were dead and some were barely moving. She called Martin who advised her to contact an exterminator to get rid of the bugs. After all said Martin, “this is the south and we’re going to have bugs.”

When the exterminator arrived he immediately recognized that the family had termites. His next task was to find out how bad they were. This is when the horror began. When the exterminator crawled out from under the house he was shaking his head. The termites apparently had been there quite some time. There was damage under the door and the damaged had spread through out the sill and up the wall. The termites were everywhere. The exterminator gave Janice an estimate of around five thousand dollars to repair the damage; however, until the company started removing the damaged wood, they couldn’t give a final number.

The story doesn’t end here. While checking under the house, repairmen found that all three bathrooms had severe water damage from leaking seals on the commodes. The leakage had rotted the entire floor under the bathrooms and had started rotting the floor joists. The estimated damage to replace and put down new tile was $2500 for the master and $1200 each for the two smaller bathrooms, for a total of $4900. So far, the bill had accumulated to $9,900 and Janice and Martin were afraid it would creep higher. They were devastated but needed to move on.

The couple didn’t have the money to make the repairs so they had to get an equity line of credit. They did have another company come out and give a second opinion, but that company only confirmed the findings of the first company. The repair work ended up costing Janice and Martin $12,400. Now this is not a story in which the family lost their house, but think of the tragedy here. They had only been in their house four months and had to spend $12,400.


Lesson Learned

How could Janice and Martin have avoided this tragedy? First, they should have demanded a termite letter before they closed on the house. A lot of mortgage companies don’t require termite letters, but every buyer should. Furthermore, the buyer should pick the termite company. You never know. The seller might have a friend in the business who will issue a clean letter even if the house is infested. And if the buyer later discovers termites, he might find that the termite company has gone out of business. Next, have a professional home inspection. An inspector would find such problems as the leaking seals and water damage. Finally, never use a blank contract supplied by the seller without having a real estate attorney or a good Realtor read it and make changes that protect you. In this case, the buyers didn’t even have a new survey done. Could there be more horror lurking around the corner? Refuse to buy a house without a termite letter, a heat and air letter, a survey and a professional home inspection.



David wanted to be a homeowner rather badly. It was his first home-buying experience. He read some books on real estate and decided he could get a better deal for himself by buying directly from a seller rather than by hiring an agent. That was his first mistake. David found a home he liked. It was a lovely home, new construction, but it had been on the market for a little over a year. “Great,” thought David, “I can get a deal on this house because it’s been on the market for so long. Plus I’ll be buying it directly from the builder, which will save me even more.” David decided not to have a home inspection in order to save money. After all, it was a brand new home. What could be wrong with it? Plenty, it turns out.

Soon after moving into the house, David started having problems. One night, David was awakened out of a dead sleep by a deafening roar. He jumped out of bed and went to investigate. It was a squadron of fighter planes from the nearby military base. The next night the same thing happened. And the next. And the next. David’s new home was located beneath a flight training area. Over several months a pattern developed. The squadron would train about 15 nights a month. And every one of those nights, David would be awakened.

In the meantime, David began to notice a terrible odor, but he couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. It got so bad he couldn’t stand it, and he couldn’t find the source. Finally, he was forced to move into a hotel to the tune of about $70 per night. An inspector from the Department of Environmental Quality came out to investigate the problem. They ended up having to sink probes into the slab foundation where they found a decomposing animal. The builder had just poured the slab over the animal and small cracks that formed around the animal allowed the smell to seep into the house. Tearing up the slab, removing the animal and reconstructing the slab and floor cost David a whopping $5,000.

A couple of months after that, David started his first fire. Before he could get a good blaze going, smoke began billowing into the living room. David’s fireplace wouldn’t draw. He had a chimney sweep come out to take a look at the fireplace, and not only was there a structural problem that prevented it from drawing, but the fireplace was separating from the exterior wall of the house. Major work was required to repair the problem. Another $15,000 to be exact.

David’s problems were not over. He decided to have a home inspection to find out the extent of the structural problems in his house. The results of the inspection were shocking. First of all, the house was built on an unstable, shifting area of ground that was causing the fireplace to separate from the house, and which would eventually cause more problems. The builder placed support walls too far apart in some cases, placing excess stress on the walls in place. The whole roof was in danger of crashing down on David’s head. Some of the building supplies were substandard. David was looking at repair costs almost as much as he had paid for the house.

He sued the builder, but by then the builder had filed for bankruptcy. David was left holding the proverbial bag. His dream of homeownership had turned into a nightmare. What could David have done to protect himself before he closed?


Lesson Learned

What could David have done to avoid these problems? Several things:

  • He should have ordered a home inspection by an inspector who had plenty of experience with new construction techniques.
  • He could have talked with the neighbors to see if there were any unusual noises or disturbances in the neighborhood. If you are buying a new home, ask: How close is the nearest train track? Are you close to an airport? Do you ever hear planes?
  • Get nine references from the builder. Three from people who the builder built for two or more years ago. Three from people the builder built for one year ago or less and finally, three people the builder built for within the last three months. What you’re trying to do is get a pattern. From the references over two years you need to find out if the house has had any unusual problems. From the customers who have used the builder recently you want to know if the builder corrected any problems that are common to new houses.
  • Ask the builder for three trade references. When you talk to the builder’s suppliers, ask these questions: Does the builder pay on time as agreed? Would you have this builder build your mother’s house?
  • Never close until the builder has repaired all problems discovered during the home inspection.
  • Finally, make sure to get owner’s title insurance. OWNER’S title insurance protects you if the builder leaves behind unpaid bills and files for bankruptcy. Any bills the builder did not pay transfer to the new owner and the supplier can collect by placing a mechanic’s lien on your property.



The Thompsons bought a house that was for sale by the owner. The house was on a septic system, but the Thompsons took the seller’s word that the system had never given him any problems. Six months after closing the drain field started to puddle and overflow into the yard. The Thompsons called a septic company to drain and pump the entire system. Another six months down the road the system overflowed again, but this time into the neighbor’s yard. At this point the Thompsons had a smelly, overflowing septic problem as well as angry neighbors. Unsure what to do, Mr. Thompson talked to a friend who suggested he contact the county to get a copy of the original septic permit in order to make sure the seller had installed the proper system. Here begins the real horror.

The seller did have a septic permit, but it was for a three-bedroom home. The Thompsons had purchased a five-bedroom, three and a half bath home. The existing septic system could never have supported a house that size. Mr. Thompson had the septic company come back out to the house to find a solution for the problem. To his surprise, the company said nothing could be done. The soil wouldn’t perk, there wasn’t enough room to install additional drain fields, and even if there were the soil could never support a house that size. If the Thompsons notify DHEC, they’ll probably be forced to move out of the house. Upon further investigation, the Thompsons discovered that the septic system had never performed properly, a fact the seller intentionally hid from them, which is a huge violation of the disclosure law. Can the Thompsons seek recourse from the previous owner? Can they force the seller to buy the house back? Is the seller even in the area still? The Thompsons have a strong case against the seller, but much depends on whether or not the seller can be located and the seller’s current financial situation.


Lesson Learned

What could the Thompsons have done to protect themselves? What can you do to avoid a similar situation? Well if the house has a septic system, especially near a lake or on suspect soil, I would recommend to all agents and buyers that they obtain a copy of the original septic permit to investigate whether the system was installed properly and is large enough for the size of the house. If you suspect a problem, call DHEC and a reputable septic company and have them concur on whether or not the system is sufficient. DO THIS BEFORE YOU CLOSE, PLEASE. Have the seller sign a disclosure statement that reveals the existence of previous problems and measures the seller took to correct such problems. After all, an ounce of prevention will leave you smelling like roses rather than… well, you know.



An older couple, we’ll call them John and Mary Jones, purchased a house in the Southeastern area. They didn’t know nor were they advised by their agent to have a home inspection, even though the house they were buying was over 30 years old. The couple did not even know they had the right to a final walk-through inspection. Apparently, their agent had better things to do than to help these clients.

After they closed on the house and moved in, Mary was emptying the water in the kitchen sink one day and it started backing up. The next day, the washing machine overflowed. John took a look under the house and found several leaks, so the Jones’s called a plumber. The plumber came out, and as he was tapping on a drain, the entire bathroom floor fell in.

Later, the dryer door was not closing properly so the couple called a local repair company. The person they spoke to told them that they had been to the house before and had told the previous owner that parts were no longer made for that particular dryer.

The big problem started when the air conditioning wouldn’t work properly. The service person discovered that there wasn’t a filter in the unit, which caused it to malfunction. The repairman decided to go into the attic to investigate further and discovered thousands of bats that were covering the eves, preventing proper ventilation in the attic. But here’s the nasty part: five 55-gallon containers of bat guano – yes, that’s what you think it is – had to be removed from the attic. The guano had penetrated the insulation and wood in the attic and as a result, Mary developed a rare disease associated with being exposed to bat guano, which destroyed her peripheral vision.

The Jones’s sued everyone involved, but some sharp defense lawyers caused them to have to settle for much less than the actual damages. The couple ended up moving out of the house – still making the payments – and living in a house donated by their church.

This is a very sad story that could have been avoided if the Jones’s had had access to a little more information about choosing the right Realtor.


Lesson Learned

What could the Jones done to avoid such a horrible situation? 1) Have a professional Home Inspection making the contract subject to this inspection. 2) Have a CL100 Termite Letter completed prior to closing by a company the Jones family selected. 3) Have a heat and air letter completed prior to closing using their own company. 4) Completed a final walk through checking all items in the home the day before closing. 5) Demanded a written property disclosure from the seller. 6) Visit the neighbors around the property to see if the neighbors knew anything about the house or conditions. It was found in this case that the neighbors had knowledge of the bats. When buying investigate, investigate, investigate.



Meet Susan and Bill Morris. They wrote a contract for a house in a nice subdivision outside Columbia, South Carolina. Everything went well, from the loan approval process on through the closing. The next day the movers accompanied Susan and Bill to their new house. As soon as they opened the front door, they noticed a musty smell and upon entering the kitchen they discovered the source of the odor.

The sellers of the property had not properly capped the icemaker line that attached to the refrigerator and water had leaked onto the hardwood floors in the kitchen, dining room and living room. All the boards had curled and large gaps had developed between the hardwood boards. Susan and Bill called in a contractor to give them an estimate on repairs. His answer was $9,462.

The anxious new owners are still trying to sort this one out. Should the sellers’ insurance take care of this problem? Or the buyers’? Regardless, the couple had to decide whether to move in now or wait until the repairs were completed. If they waited, they would still have to pay the movers and reschedule. They had already sold their old house and their buyers were moving in the next day. Susan and Bill were devastated. What a nightmare and this could have been avoided so easily.


Lesson Learned

Susan and Bill could have avoided this situation by doing a final walk-through inspection a couple of hours before the closing. You mustn’t do the inspection a week before or even a day before closing. It’s vital that you do it the day of closing. Your agent should accompany you and bring along a checklist that will help you remember everything. Some of the tasks you should perform are: turn on all water faucets, flush all commodes, turn on all showers, turn on all appliances, check the heating and cooling system. Take a hair dryer and plug it into each wall outlet to make sure it works. Never finalize a sale until you have completed a through walk-through. If you find any problems, you can resolve them before you’re stuck with it.



Henry and Marcia had an unfortunate experience the first time they bought a house. Not only were Henry and Marcia inexperienced, their agent was too. The couple was excited about their first house and closed on the morning of December 12th. As soon as the final papers were signed, Henry and Marcia took some friends over to see the house and discovered disaster.

The sellers’ relatives, who were doing the moving, had stripped the entire house of anything they could unscrew or pry off including light bulbs, electrical fixtures (even the plastic covers on the wall switches), curtain rod fixtures, cabinet knobs and all the drawers in the garage work bench. In addition, the seller had siphoned all of the oil out of the fuel tank after the gauge had been read for the closing adjustment. The sellers had replaced the new appliances with older models that didn’t work. The carpet had several large holes in it and the area underneath the sellers’ couch had been completely cut out. Several areas of carpet in the bedrooms had large bleach spots. Many of the windows had broken seals and would need to be replaced.

The total cost to repair the damage was almost $8,000. This $8,000 mistake occurred because Henry and Marcia did not have a home inspection and had not performed a final walk-through inspection. Also, the sellers had moved out of state, so guess how much luck the couple had in recovering the cost of repairs.


Lesson Learned

Do the final inspection as close to closing time as possible. Turn on all the appliances and make sure they work. Run the furnace and air conditioner. Check ALL of the stove burners and the oven. Run the water (and make sure the hot water is hot), flush the toilets, try the lights, check the basement and make sure it isn’t full of water. Take a hair dryer and plug it into each outlet to make sure there is power. Inspect the carpet, especially the areas that were formerly covered by furniture. One additional note, find out where the electric garage door openers are. Half the time they are in the glove compartment of a car that’s on its way to North Dakota.



This horror story is about a buyer who bought the house of his dreams, but might be paying a lot more for the house than the list price. Charles was a first time homebuyer who knew nothing about buying a house. The first thing he did was visit a Realtor. This Realtor had Charles sign an agreement to work with her exclusively for a period of one year. They looked at houses for one day and didn’t find anything. Several times later Charles would drive by a house or see something in the newspaper and would call his agent, who would never call back or would return calls while Charles was not in.

Weeks had passed since Charles had signed the agreement to work with this agent. One Sunday Charles called his agent when he spotted a house in the paper that looked interesting. His agent was out of town and did not have anyone covering for her. Charles drove by the house and looked at the outside. He loved it, the yard was perfect, there was a fenced-in backyard. It was brick, in the perfect location and the price was right.

Charles called the listing agent whose number was on the yard sign and asked her if she would show Charles the house. He didn’t think to tell the other agent that he already had a Realtor. Charles looked at the house and knew it was what he wanted. The agent asked Charles if he was working with another agent but Charles thought if he told her he might not get the house. He was afraid it would sell before his agent got back into town.

Charles asked the listing agent to write up the offer (at full price, I might add) and the seller accepted it right away. When the first agent returned to town, Charles thought it was only fair to let her know what he had done. After seven phone calls, Charles finally reached her and told her he had bought a house. The agent was very upset and reminded Charles he had signed an agreement to work with her exclusively and the small print in their agreement stated that if Charles bought a would through another agent or directly from an owner during the period of the agreement, Charles owned this agent the selling side of the commission, which in this case was three percent. The house sold for $142,000 so three percent was $4,260. What was Charles going to do? He barely had the five percent for a down payment.


Lesson Learned

How could Charles have avoided this situation? First, he should never have signed an exclusive buyer agency agreement for a period of one year. If you decide to work with a buyers’ agent, never sign an agreement for longer than a three-month period, and sign only after you have checked out several references from the agent. Ask the following questions: Did you feel comfortable with your agent? Did you feel the agent did his or her best to protect your interests? Would you refer your mother, sister or brother to this agent? Did this agent contact you frequently with new properties to see? Did this agent negotiate the best possible deal for you? Was the agent there for you at closing or did the agent send an assistant? Were there any surprises at the closing with the attorney, lender or other parties?

If you get positive feedback, go ahead and sign an agreement, but only for three months. If after three months you haven’t found a house, you can extend the contract for another three months. If you aren’t completely comfortable with the agent, sign the agreement for only one week or even one day.

Some agents will tell you that since the agreement is typed they can’t change anything. That is a blatant lie. You can amend the agreement in any way you choose. You can sign an agreement to work with one agent in one part of town and another agent in another part of town, especially if you think one agent has a better knowledge of one part of town than another. If you do sign a longer agreement make sure you have a way out if the agent doesn’t do a good job. You can accomplish this by including a complete list of what the agent is going to do for you, how often the agent is going to call you, and so forth. Make sure to address the issue of who will cover for the agent when he/she is out of town or unavailable for whatever reason. Make this list an addendum to the agreement, then if the agent does not perform you can legally cancel the agreement. A last resort for Charles would have been to call the agent’s broker in charge when he found the house he wanted to see. The broker in charge would have assigned him a temporary agent until his agent returned.



John Thomas (not the real name) purchased a home in Northeast Columbia. Several months after moving in, he decided he wanted a workshop out back where he could pursue his hobby of building furniture. John started building a 20- by 30-foot workshop and had completed it within a couple of months.

Shortly afterward, John received a letter stating that he had built his shop without getting a review of the building plans by the neighborhood association. The letter further stated that his building was not suitable and was to be torn down. John was upset but just ignored the letter, thinking it was the work of a few disgruntled neighbors. Later John received a legal summons and complaint served by the sheriff’s department. John would now have to go to court to explain and argue his case.

John showed up in court and pleaded his case to the judge. The judge was polite but read John the specific language in the restrictions that prohibited John from building a workshop without the written consent and approval of the association. John’s workshop did not blend in with the homes. The judge ordered John to tear down his workshop.

This was a very costly lesson for John. The workshop had cost him thousands of dollars and he would now need to store his expensive power tools and go back to the committee for approval for another, more pleasing workshop. His entire family now harbors bad feelings for the neighborhood association and they are considering moving simply because John was not aware of the neighborhood restrictions.


Lesson Learned

John should have ad his agent or lawyer obtain a complete set of restrictions and covenants for the subdivision and he should have read them very carefully. If he had done so, he would have known that he needed to take his building plans to the neighborhood committee for review. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, get approval in writing and follow your plans to the letter. While they may be inconvenient at times, neighborhood restrictions are actually a good thing because they help preserve the value of homes in the neighborhood. Don’t become a John Thomas. Research and review your restrictions and make sure to get a building permit once the board approves your plans.



This horror story comes right out of Lexington, South Carolina. The Turners purchased a home in a very nice subdivision on a heavily wooded lot. The family did not like trees but the house was beautiful and perfect for their needs. About 45 days after closing and moving into the house, the Turners decided to cut down all the trees and landscape and sod the yard. They called in a tree company within a few hours 43 trees had been cut and removed from the yard. Late that afternoon the developer was in the neighborhood checking on a new construction project. When he saw what the Turners had done he was livid. He stopped and informed the Turners in no uncertain terms that the subdivision restrictions prohibited the cutting of any trees unless they were diseased or dead or were a threat to a house. The restrictions further stated that if the homeowner cut down any trees unnecessarily the owner would replace them with trees of similar size. I don’t know if you have checked on the price of mature trees and the planting of them but it is very expensive. The Turners had to spend over 45 thousand dollars to replace what they hated. Now how could this have been avoided?


Lesson Learned

First of all, if you’re in a regulated subdivision there will be restrictions – some you may like and some you probably will not like. However, the restrictions are in place to protect the value of the property in your neighborhood. Do not close on your house without reading your restrictions. Make your contract subject to your review and approval of the restrictions. I have even seen restrictions with dog clauses allowing only one dog per family. Read the restrictions very carefully to avoid a similar situation.



Generally speaking, homes should be bought and sold empty. The seller should be out prior to closing and the buyer should be able to examine the property, then pay for it, then move right in. That’s not always possible for a variety of reasons and it’s not unusual for some minor adjustments to be made. There’s a right way to do that, of course. It involves a written agreement setting forth exactly who has to do what and when. People who are buying and selling don’t tend to think in terms of disasters (that’s the lawyer’s job…they get paid to be pessimists) and they will, with the best of intentions, get themselves into incredible situations.

In this case, John and Mary were buying a house in Western Hartford County. The sellers were having a new house built and, as always with new constructions, things were running behind schedule. The builder (who also happened to be the listing real estate agent) was at closing and swore repeatedly that the new house would be ready within four weeks. The buyers weren’t in a big hurry to move and their mortgage commitment was close to expiring so they agreed (over the attorney’s objections) to let the sellers stay in the house for four weeks after closing.

The attorney prepared an occupancy agreement in which the sellers promised to vacate in four weeks, to pay the buyers’ mortgage and taxes, and to be responsible for any losses suffered by the buyers if the terms of the agreement were not met. Everybody was happy (and thought the attorney was a crank for having a negative attitude). Closing took place and the sellers received full payment for the house.

Four weeks later, the new house still wasn’t ready and the sellers flatly refused to move out. By this time the buyers (and their new baby) were living in the guest room at the wife’s mother’s house, their belongings were in storage and the dog was in a kennel. The sellers refused to talk to the buyers or to let them inside the house and referred all inquiries to their attorney. The builder/agent wouldn’t answer the telephone or return calls.

After talking to the seller’s attorney and the town building inspector it became clear that the situation had turned into a total disaster. The builder had managed to reverse the house plans. The working plans had been prepared from transparent mylar plastic surveys and someone had copied the print from the wrong side resulting in a mirror image of the house in the working drawings being given to the contractors. The foundation had been put in and the house nearly completed before the building inspector caught the error and determined that the house violated the building setback lines. It was too close to the side yard line. The inspector refused to issue a final approval and construction came to an abrupt halt.

The buyers filed an eviction in the local court asking that the sellers be forced to vacate and to pay the agreed upon rent and penalties under the occupancy agreement. Litigation is time consuming and expensive though. It takes at least two months to force a tenant out of a rental property even if they don’t contest the action, and the sellers contested by filing motions and spurious claims to delay matters. Things dragged on for another six months before the builder finally fixed the mess and completed the house so that the sellers could move into it.

By the time the buyers got to move into their home, they had lived in one room for seven months and the total back rent and litigation charges ran over $8,000, which the sellers refused to pay. We would have collected the money eventually but it meant protracted litigation and additional costs. This being the unusual case where the listing agent and the builder were the same person, I resolved the money problem by filing a complaint with the State Real Estate Commission against the agent/builder and the licensed broker who employed him. Rather than jeopardize their licenses in the hearing process, they paid all the back charges and fees.


Lesson Learned

Letting buyers move into the house early can be a problem in two ways. If the deal falls apart the buyers have nowhere to live and it’s a project to get them back out. Also, no matter how many times you tell them it’s an existing home and that they’re purchasing it “as-is” you’re still going to have problems at closing. Buyers who live in the house prior to closing will invariably show up with a three-page list of piddly problems that they expect the seller to pay for. As a seller, you should never let buyers into the house unless accompanied by you or by the real estate agent. NEVER let them move in and live there (or move their belongings in) before closing without getting some serious legal advice.

Being a nice person is all well and good but sometimes it pays to be the bad guy. Say “no,” Tell them your lawyer is a crank and he won’t let you do it. They have very thick skins.

And never under any circumstances buy the house and allow the seller to remain in the house. If you follow this advice you’ll never have to read about yourself in one of these real estate horror stories.



This horror story comes right out of Columbia, SC. Joe (not his real name) was going to build a house. Joe contacted a builder who seemed to have a good reputation. To save money Joe was going to secure his own construction loan. The builder would draw down on the construction loan as the house was being completed. Everything went fine until Joe started noticing that the builder was never on the job site and that subcontractors would come in some days and on other days there was no sign of them. Delay after delay occurred, and then one day Joe was served notice that the builder had filed for bankruptcy. A visit to the bank showed the builder had drawn the construction loan down more than the stage of construction would warrant. This home was valued at $400 thousand.

Here’s what happened? The builder was a very good friend of the appraiser responsible for inspecting the construction and reporting back to the bank. In this way, the appraiser was responsible for the amount of money the builder could withdraw. Since the builder was his friend, the appraiser took his word for the percentage completed rather than inspecting the job himself. As it turns out the builder actually pulled down 35 percent more than he had completed. Now think about this. We have a $400 thousand house with a $300 thousand construction loan. The builder had completed only 25 percent of the job but had received 60 percent of the money. To complete the house Joe would need to $200 thousand out of his own pocket, and listen to this. The builder is in bankruptcy so Joe’s house is tied up in litigation. It may take months to untangle this mess.


Lesson Learned

How could Joe have avoided this situation? First, never get your own construction loan. Let the builder do it. If the builder is not strong enough to obtain his or her own construction loan you don’t need to use that builder. If for some reason you do get your own construction loan, request that the appraiser notify you when he’s going out to the site to verify the degree of completion. Then ask him lots of questions. Make sure the percentage of draw equals the average rate of construction. Second, check out the builder very carefully. Get references and call each one. Ask for buyers who used the builder two years ago and one year ago. Also get a reference for someone who is currently using the builder. Ask these questions: Was your building job completed on time? Were there any surprises? Did the builder respond to your problems in a timely manner?