Get written property-condition disclosure

MAILBAG

March 14, 2004

A Nottingham reader bought an older home in October.

Before settlement, she had a home inspection and a walk-through done. No water problems were observed.

Twelve days after settlement, the buyer saw water near a basement wall. She contacted the former owner, who told her that twice he had major incidents involving water in the basement, both of which he corrected.

The owner said he had told the buyer and her real estate agent about the problems when they first viewed the home. The buyer said the owner never mentioned water problems.

The buyer said that if she had known about the incidents of water damage in the basement, she would have delayed submitting a contract on the house.

She wants to know her legal rights against the seller.

Dear Reader:

Maryland law regarding the resale of single-family homes requires the seller to provide a detailed statement disclosing the condition of the property or disclaim any representation about the condition.

In today's tight real estate market, most sellers do not provide a property condition statement. Instead, they disclaim any representation about the property and sell the home "as is," with any defects except those stated in the sale contract. The buyer usually pays for a home inspection and relies on the inspector's report to disclose defects in the home.

A seller may be liable only if he makes false statements about conditions of the property. For instance, if the buyer or his real estate agent asked the owner, "Have you ever had a water problem in the basement?" and the owner replied, "No, I haven't," the owner might be found legally liable for making a false representation.

That kind of case often is difficult to prove because the owner might deny making a false statement. A buyer has a much stronger case when the contract contains a written property-condition disclosure statement or includes a warranty stating that there are no water problems or other defects.

In your case, the seller denies misrepresenting the two major water problems. It's questionable whether either of those two problems - which occurred long before your purchase - were related to leaks you found after settling on the home.

You can bring a small-claims suit in the District Court, claiming damages up to $5,000. A judge decides whether there was a legal or factual basis to hold the former owner responsible.

You would have to prove that the seller made a false statement. The seller is not liable merely because a leak occurred.

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