Seller liable for shoddy construction

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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I read your column on the person who bought a home that lacked the proper permits. I just bought one myself and have since found that the seller received previous warnings from the county about work that needed to be redone, then reinspected. She sold us the house anyway without revealing this and we got stuck with a bill exceeding $3,000 to get back to code.

Wasn’t she obligated to reveal this? Can I do anything about it?
— Gina

Dear Gina,
Yes, she was obligated to reveal this in the seller’s disclosure. And yes again, you do have recourse. But you’d better act quickly. In many states, there’s a limit of one year following a house closing where a seller can be held monetarily liable for an intentionally incorrect or incomplete disclosure statement, with some exceptions.

Good thing you got the work done promptly because an unpermitted portion of a building is not covered by homeowners insurance, a fact that could have presented a problem should a fire or injury have occurred on the premises.

Some disclosure cases, or more accurately “nondislosure” cases, are tough to prove and can be a costly exercise, often because sellers will claim they didn’t know about certain “hidden” problems such as a plastered-over water intrusion or hidden termite damage. But this exclusion was pretty blatant and should be easy to prove with a paper trail that leads right into — and out of — the county building inspection office.

Ahem. A professional home inspector may have detected the illegal work, but it appears you did not use one. Even the wording on many sales contracts recommends that buyers use their own professional home inspectors. Most unpermitted work is apparent to a trained eye, but not all, especially in cases where it was done professionally. In your case, it’s clear that unacceptable work was performed.

Most state laws say that sellers are legally obliged to note all undesirable property conditions on their disclosure forms which accompany the sales contract. Armed with the evidence you have and those painful bills for service, you should contact your own real estate agent in the deal, if you used one, and he or she can discuss remediation with the seller. Otherwise, you could contact the seller’s agent directly. If that fails, you may have to enlist an attorney. The seller should be held liable for the cost of all this redone work and any fine that was levied by the permitting agency.

Be persistent in seeking recompense. You are due some! Good luck.

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