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Buying a house is rarely a fast, simple transaction. There’s a lot of money tied up for everyone involved, a lot of research and negotiation, and a lot of time—especially if you take the proper steps to protect yourself. When you finally find your dream home, you have it inspected, you make a good offer, and you hire a lawyer to ensure everything goes smoothly.
Closing on the house should be the end of all the stress and the beginning of the fun part—moving in and making the place yours. But if you’re not careful, move-in day could be a source of even more stress if the seller has played a dirty trick or two on you. Even if your home inspection went without a hitch and you had a great team of real estate and legal professionals on your side, home sellers sometimes try a few schemes to enhance their end of the deal.
Imagine this: You tour a potential new home, and you fall in love with the kitchen. It’s renovated beautifully, with gorgeous cabinetry and modern, new appliances.
Then you walk in after closing on the sale, and the appliances have all been replaced with cheap or used versions that are far from what you saw during the open house and subsequent visits. The seller has absconded with the pricey new stuff and left you with a broken-down kitchen. Or, just as bad, you discover that despite being new and high-quality, one or more of the appliances is broken or malfunctioning.
The law is a bit murky here; some experts will tell you that anything attached to the house, like an oven, is automatically part of the house, while others will tell you that appliances are considered possessions that aren’t automatically included in the sale.
To prevent this sort of situation, note whether the appliances are part of the home’s appraised value—if so, you have a strong case to force the seller to return them or compensate you. Make sure the appliances are specifically mentioned in the sale contract. Finally, insist on a final walk-through before closing—and take photos of everything for later comparison.
Another dirty trick home seller play involves “smart” infrastructure like thermostats or door locks. These devices connect via the home network and offer rich functionality that can be controlled via smartphone apps.
If those “smart” features were part of your decision to buy this particular house, make sure you spell out in the contract that they stay put. Home sellers sometimes remove those pricey thermostats and other smart tech, replacing them with the dumb originals they removed when they upgraded. If you haven’t specified that they stay with the house, you may not have any way to get them back, even if you counted them as part of the value of the house when you made your offer.
Changing light fixtures
One common aspect of a home that people often assume will transfer to them when they buy it is the light fixtures—and even the bulbs. If you love the lighting that the current homeowners have installed, take photos and ask your real estate agent to make sure they’re explicitly mentioned in the contract. Otherwise you might not even notice that the fixtures have been swapped until it’s too late.
And check on those light bulbs, especially if the house has dynamic bulbs like Philips Hue. Those bulbs can cost as much as $50 each, so if the home is large and has a lot of lighting features you could be looking at a significant expense if the sellers swap those bulbs with cheaper versions—or simply remove the bulbs and leave you in the dark.
Leaving a mess
Moving house is a chaotic experience at the best of times. If the home you’re buying is occupied, consider asking the seller to stipulate in the contract the condition of the home you’ll be taking possession of. Otherwise, you might open the front door to find garbage left behind, scratched floors or walls from moving furniture, or even personal effects left behind the sellers might assume you’re willing to hold onto and return to them at some point.
Even if the home is unoccupied when you’re buying it, you should document the condition of the home when you do your final walk-through just in case the sellers decide to do anything that could leave behind a mess or cause damage to the property. If you do encounter a mess, there’s not much you can do unless it was contractually specified that the house be in a certain condition when you moved in, aside from contacting the previous owner and asking them to either clean it up or pay to have it done.
Finally, remember that even the best home inspector may not catch everything. Home inspections are relatively brief and superficial, and are designed to catch obvious problems—which means an unscrupulous home seller can try to hide issues that are less obvious. Water damage in a ceiling? A patch-and-paint job a few days prior to an inspection can hide it—until you move in and the first heavy rain falls. Alternately, a home seller might employ cheap, temporary fixes to things, like clamps or rubber patches on damaged pipes or wood hardening agents on dry rot.
Although it’s illegal to hide what are known as “material defects” in a house up for sale, these sorts of tricks are harder to defend against because you typically can’t open up walls or crawl into every nook and cranny of a home to observe its infrastructure. What you can do is be aware of the common ways homeowners hide or obscure problems in the house and keep your eyes peeled for telltale signs like furniture in odd places, fresh paint (especially if it’s in just one small area), or the heavy use of air fresheners, which might be a sign of mold or other smelly problems in the house.
When you buy an expensive asset like a house, you have every right to expect it to be in the same condition as when you viewed it. Keep these dirty tricks in mind when you’re writing an offer on a new home, take lots of photos—and don’t hesitate to put everything in writing, no matter how obvious it might seem.