real estate

Termite fix may include suing home sellers

Steve McLindenQuestionDear Real Estate Adviser,
I'm a single mom with two kids. I bought my first home in December and the sellers' disclosure mentioned only a few minor things.

After I moved in and began taking down the old curtains, I noticed some holes in two window frames. A friend thought it might be termites. It was! The sellers -- a couple of pastors, by the way -- certainly didn't disclose this.

In fact, when the pest-control guy came out to confirm the infestation, he said, "Ma'am, I already KNOW you have termites. I was here in 2008 and saw the active infestation. The owner declined treatment -- he was selling the home."

It's quite obvious the owners committed fraud and the termite company that gave the initial clearance was negligent. I am now afraid we are living in an unsound structure. Help!
-- Lynette M.

AnswerDear Lynette,
Drat. It pains me to hear of your gnawing problem, not to mention the apparent deception of these people of the cloth who seemed to be bucking their "thou shalt disclose" obligation.

I'll assume it was the seller who arranged for the pre-sale termite inspection here. Most such inspection firms are honest, but the sellers or their agent may have found one to do a gloss-over to push the deal along.

Even if sellers are paying for termite inspections, buyers should demand a say-so on who is hired and (or) consider being present during the inspection to avoid the type of chicanery or negligence that occurred here. Whoever did the inspection failed to conduct even the most elementary examination of your wooden frames, or so it seems. Hmm.

As for your home's structural soundness, it's uncommon for termite damage to render a house completely unsafe -- although it's not unheard of, particularly in old wood-frame houses. Certainly, a termite-riddled main beam can compromise the structural integrity of a house and lead to damage of other load-bearing sections.

But it is difficult for even a seasoned structural engineer to say exactly what's going on inside walls and ceilings without first opening them up. And once in, the remedy can be expensive: $2,000 and up, depending on the conditions. And that doesn't include repairs in most cases. By the way, make sure you have photos taken of the damage before someone starts repairing the place.

I strongly suggest you talk with a real estate attorney about this and pronto. Judges and juries have found for buyers in cases such as yours with far less evidence. The typical defense in cases of concealed damage is that sellers didn't know of the damage. In your case, however, the termite company you hired to survey the damage can confirm the obvious infestation before the sale and even the motivation of the sellers to conceal it!

Of course, litigation can be prohibitively expensive. Given your evidence, a strongly worded letter from your attorney to the sellers and seller's agent might shake loose recompense for repairs in this case before a lawsuit is even necessary.

If you don't want to use an attorney, most states have a mediation process you can go through. Contact your real estate agent -- assuming you used one -- about the damage and the mediation process. If you didn't use an agent, check your contract for mediation information.

Bummer department: Even the best termite company cannot guarantee that the little pests won't return someday. Plus, the onus is now on you to disclose the termite damage when it comes time to sell the place!

The bottom line here is the sellers and possibly their broker didn't disclose material facts as required by law, not to mention the possible complicity of the original termite "inspector." Good luck pursuing your "just due."

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