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Finding a home you want to buy can feel magical. You start decorating in your head, anticipating this could be the one … provided the home inspection doesn’t uncover any problems.
But just like a magician, some sellers have a few tricks up their sleeves. It’s not that they plan to lie, although there are always people who tweak the truth. (“Let the buyer beware” exists for a reason.) Rather, some homeowners are just proud of their property and somewhat biased. They either don’t know about a particular issue, or they can’t — or don’t want to — shoulder the expense of repairs.
Buyers who fail to notice a little misdirection, or don’t ask the right questions, could watch their dream home morph into a money pit after signing the sales contract. So let’s peek behind the curtain with the help of seasoned real estate experts to highlight some common tricks sellers use to pass the home inspection and how you can address any issues while you still have the chance.
Your home inspection won’t reveal everything
First some quick background on the home inspection: A home inspection brings to light any issues with a home that could impact its value or ability to live there — and nearly 80% of buyers opt to get one before closing. A basic home inspection takes about two to three hours and costs from $300 to $1,000, depending on a home’s location and size, the extent of the inspection, and the inspector’s experience.
Yet as detailed as it gets, it doesn’t cover every nook, creak, and cranny. Inspectors focus on a home’s structure and systems — heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing — but they don’t move furniture, appliances, or belongings beyond basics like opening doors and removing the electrical panel.
So they can’t tear into walls to see if there’s a leak behind the bathroom faucet or the bathtub. Home inspectors are generalists, not specialists, so they’ll recommend, say, checking with a roofer for an in-depth assessment of shiny or curling shingles.
Seller trick #1: Ignorance is bliss
Sellers can be held liable legally and financially for problems that they hide deliberately, so real estate attorneys such as Mark Chernoff, who serves Phoenix, Scottsdale, and other parts of Arizona, recommend they disclose precisely what they know about a property — nothing more and nothing less — to avoid accidentally misrepresenting a problem.
But what people know is hard to prove, and some sellers become nervous about being imprecise. Others might try to hide the ages of water heaters, HVAC systems, and other appliances by saying they don’t know how old they are — something a home inspector can determine easily.
- Seller has a spotty memory ….
Sellers often like to show off renovations and will recount every detail, including which contractor they hired, the materials used, and why. “Then you ask them about something else that wasn’t done right, and they can’t remember a thing,” said Matt Steinhausen, an independent home inspector since 1999 in Lincoln, Nebraska, who holds an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
- Or says things like, “I haven’t lived here long.”
Landlords, flippers, and rehabbers often claim they don’t know a property well because they haven’t lived there — but all of them know a building’s ins and outs better than the buyer who walks in cold, said Marcus Vanzant, a top-selling agent in Bradenton, Florida, with 24 years of experience.
- Offers no real estate disclosure form
Almost all states have a disclosure form where sellers address a property’s age and condition; its water source; the nature of its sanitary sewer system; and any structural defects, as well as matters such as lead paint or termites. But disclosure laws nationwide vary; some states, such as Alabama, have a “Caveat Emptor” or “Buyer Beware” rule, which still requires the seller or seller’s agent to disclose anything that impacts the buyer’s health or safety.
What to do:
- Read the home inspector’s report carefully, including between the lines when the inspector uses phrases like, “a lot of issues” or “a major issue.” Ask your agent to prod the sellers for more details. If the inspector couldn’t access certain places (more on that below), ask why.
- Ask for a disclosure form. Regardless of where you live, you can negotiate to make disclosures part of the purchase — and give the seller a standard disclosure form from your state’s real estate association, said Nolo.com, one of the leading online legal websites. Push for more answers to your questions.
Seller trick #2: Cosmetic cover-ups
Some sellers don’t realize how serious an issue is or try to be helpful by crafting a quick fix. Jesus Cardenas, a top-selling agent in Pembroke Pines, Florida, remembers one client who said he’d just paint over the mold on his air conditioner. Knowing this could mask structural damage, Cardenas said to call in a professional, who cut out the drywall and cleaned the AC.
The sellers explained that a sewer line mishap had flooded the basement two years earlier, and their insurance company had paid for the remodel. They didn’t think to disclose this because it was a one-time incident that had been remedied, but buyers appreciated the details, he said.
- New paint, paneling, or flooring here and there
Paint can cover cracks in the walls or ceilings, mold, and water stains. Paneling hides cracks and structural damage. New carpeting is a recommended fix to cover floor tiles containing asbestos, but buyers likely still want to know what’s underneath.
- Anything touted as “updated,” “newly finished,” or “new”
Vanzant has encountered flippers who have redone a house’s interior surfaces but left behind outdated plumbing or electrical systems.
His office advises people who bought houses that were said to be remodeled, complete with brand-new flooring, only to remove those floors because of the homes’ faulty drainage systems. “We’re trying to walk them [the residents] through processes on how to resolve the issue and even contact an attorney if they have to,” he said.
What to do:
- If you see new granite countertops or fresh paint that stands out compared to the rest of the house, ask the sellers why they replaced these items. Sure, that bedroom door is new — but is everything in that part of the house? Why did they redo that basement or bathroom?
- Ask for receipts, contractor bids, invoices, warranties, and other documentation, such as photos taken during the renovations to authenticate that the work was done properly.
Seller trick #3: Downplaying problems
Homeowners may be embarrassed that a sewer line broke and flooded the basement, or that their home’s wiring shorted out during a thunderstorm, but buyers are more likely to feel reassured when they know the full story. Some sellers opt to move once a house reaches a certain age and they can’t afford the maintenance; if that’s the case here, buyers should know.
- Phrases like, “It’s always been that way,” “That’s not a big deal,” or “Show me a house that doesn’t have a problem.”
While these statements might be true, they can distract buyers and belittle issues at hand. “The minimization is trying to make a homebuyer feel more comfortable,” Steinhausen said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily inappropriate, but if we minimize everything, people are no longer cautious, and they miss problems.”
What to do:
- Look for signs of irregular maintenance, such as dusty air vents, old filters in the AC system, and expanded particle board around the plumbing, Vanzant said. Politely but firmly ask for more details, receipts and documentation about anything the homeowner waves away.
Seller trick #4: Camouflaging decor
Some buyers will try to disguise things they can’t fix with whatever’s at hand. Large area rugs cover rips in vinyl flooring or stains on hardwood. Artwork hangs over wall cracks and holes, and strategically placed trash cans hide exterior foundation cracks.
- Furniture that seems out of place
A sofa or other large furniture can hide moisture damage, mold, mildew, and other structural issues. Does that piece look like it’s always been there?
People sometimes “helpfully” prop open doors with a doorstop to prevent someone from noticing that it doesn’t close or hang properly, Steinhausen said.
- Candles and air fresheners
These can mask odors of nicotine, mold, pets, and other musty smells that a homebuyer might not detect until a few weeks pass or the weather changes. Ruth Wordelman, a top real estate agent in Colorado Springs, finds overly scented or fake aromas from plug-in air fresheners off-putting. “You walk into a place and wonder ‘hmm, I wonder what they’re trying to cover up?’” she said.
What to do:
- Be respectfully nosy during an open house. Don’t rifle through the seller’s clothes in the closet, but peek behind the furniture — and pay attention during the final walk-through once the house is empty. Is there anything you or the inspector noticed earlier that hasn’t been repaired? Anything significant that should have been fixed, or that you’ll need to renegotiate?
Seller trick #5: Limiting the inspector’s access
Some sellers seem like they’re in a rush to schedule the inspection because they’re eager to know if they have major costs that could affect closing. But an inspection report that shows the inspector couldn’t open the breaker box, check crawl spaces, or climb into the attic indicates there might be something a seller didn’t want them to see.
- The inspector’s report notes places that he or she couldn’t access
Steinhausen takes a ladder to inspections because some people remove the attic access — or otherwise try to dissuade him from checking up there. “Oftentimes, the attic access is in a closet, and people will have clothes in there. I don’t move people’s clothes,” he said.
What to do:
Talk to your real estate agent about having the inspector revisit the property and making all areas accessible.
Fix it, or forget it?
A seller isn’t required to fix every issue that you find; however, if the inspection uncovers things the seller didn’t originally disclose or explain in detail, you legally have the right to walk away from the sale. You and your agent also can negotiate for the seller to do the repairs or reduce the price so you can handle them yourself.
“I’m all for buying a house, getting a great deal, and putting a little sweat equity into it, but you’ve got to make sure you get that cost absorbed upfront on the purchase,” Vanzant said.
“Some homeowners just like to have projects. In that case, I’m all for it. Let’s go for it. But make a good deal.”
A good real estate deal involves all parties dealing with each other honestly. If you think a seller has been too dodgy for your comfort level, talk to your real estate agent about how to make this particular property disappear from your list of options.
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