Council needs to give home buyers an assist

April 27, 1995|By Patrick Ercolano

ATTENTION, homeowners. Time for a pop quiz:

* Before you hoisted that huge 15- or 30-year mortgage onto your shoulders, did you research the house site and the surrounding community?

* Before you signed on the dotted line (a couple dozen times or so for the typical house settlement), did you consult the available government records pertaining to the property?

* Did you look at the plans that would tell you whether the forest behind your dream home was scheduled to be flattened within the next five years to make way for more houses? Or whether your front yard will soon be swallowed by a four-lane road?

* Before settlement, did you walk through the community and talk to residents about the pros and cons of living in the area and about its history? For example, does that grassy field have an old landfill under it?

I have to confess, I'd flunk my own quiz. My answer to each of the above questions is an embarrassing "no."

True, I glanced at a copy of the local covenants and I drove through the neighborhood a few times to get a feel for the place. But that was the extent of my research prior to making probably the most important purchase of my life.

Apparently, though, I'm not alone.

Almost all the homeowners with whom I've discussed this subject -- including journalists and politicians who are familiar with property records and how to obtain them -- have admitted buying their houses with eyes closed and perhaps too much faith in their Realtors, developers and government officials.

Who, then, is ultimately responsible for problems that arise after a house purchase, particularly a home on a newly developed lot?

Is it the buyer, who might be expected to know what he or she is getting into?

The development firm that built the house?

The bank that made the loan to the developer?

The government that approved the development?

These questions have been raised anew in Baltimore County by the County Council's recent repeal of a law passed only six months ago.

Sponsored by former council member William Howard of Parkville, the law supposedly required sellers of new homes to publicly disclose when a housing site contains hazardous materials. (State law requires such disclosures only in sales of existing homes. Baltimore County Del. Wade Kach of Cockeysville failed earlier this year to add new homes to the state's disclosure requirement.)

At least in its original intent, the Howard bill had some teeth. But by the time it was redrafted with language suggested by developers and other business interests, the bill had lost its bite.

Among the changes in the final version was a clause that, in effect, would have allowed a home builder to declare: "There may be hazardous materials on this site, and there may not be."

The current council was right to repeal such a worthless law.

And it was just as wrong to have approved it last October.

Some council members explain they were too busy with their re-election campaigns to give the proposal the scrutiny it required.

Besides, they say, they knew Bill Howard was likely to lose his seat -- which he did -- so they decided to approve the legislation as a favor to him. Call it councilmanic courtesy.

Or give it a less charitable description: A sop that shouldn't have been offered in the first place. It doesn't reflect well on the council members that they passed such a law with about as much thought as they might give to ordering lunch.

But now what? While the worthless law is off the books, those questions about responsibility continue to nag.

County Council chairman Vincent J. Gardina of Perry Hall and some of his colleagues seem torn over how large a role -- if any -- government should assume in this matter.

One approach suggested by Mr. Gardina is for the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management to become more involved in ensuring the integrity of new sites. Currently, DEPRM studies a site only when an environmental problem arises, which is not often.

"It would probably be cost-prohibitive for DEPRM to do full tests at each site," says the council chairman, "but I think they could go through all the available county records to prevent any possibility that we approve a property with a checkered past."

Many Maryland jurisdictions have passed disclosure regulations. However, they tend to be ignored by the real estate industry and poorly enforced by the government -- a situation some observers blame on the campaign contributions made by certain developers to certain politicians.

That would appear to leave the prospective home buyers in a tough spot. Tough but not impossible.

It underscores the importance of the warning "buyer beware," when purchasing a new home. All the safeguards cited in the above quiz should be followed. (For guidance to the available government records, consult your local councilman.) Also, the value of chatting with residents of the area -- or of the nearest community, in the case of new homes -- shouldn't be underestimated.

For the purchase of a lifetime, a few hours of research shouldn't be too much to expect of a buyer.

Nor should it be expecting too much of government to share the responsibility by better enforcing the current disclosure laws -- and approving regulations that provide new home buyers with the same protection offered buyers of existing homes.

Indeed, if any sale cries out for disclosure, it would be one involving a new home, particularly one in a newly developed area. A new development, after all, stands a greater chance of being a mystery to a buyer, unhappily so, than an established community does.

It doesn't take a quizmaster to understand that.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Evening Sun.

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