Helter Shelter

Home-Buying Basics
The essentials, before escrow

If your car needed repairs, would you just walk up to a stranger at a bus stop, give him your car keys and a credit card, and ask him to get your car fixed? No, you wouldn't. Nobody would. So, somebody explain to me why a person buying a house would trust a stranger to get his house fixed.

It happens all the time. In our part of the world, when a person buys a house, he usually hires a home inspector, who'll find some things that need to be fixed. Then, for some odd reason, he hands the fix-it list to the seller, and asks the seller to take care of all the problems.

Right about then, Mr. Seller thinks to himself, "This looks like easy stuff. I'll get my brother-in-law out here on Sunday. We'll drink beer and fix things, and be done before the game comes on the TV." If it's not that, it's this: "Okay, fine, Mr. Smartypants Buyer. I'll hire the cheapest, rusty-trucked, wine-soaked, crazy-eyed part-time carnival worker in this town. He'll get your repairs done. See you at the closing table. Heh-heh."

Sure, there's a chance that Mr. Seller will do the right thing and hire highly-qualified trained specialists to do all the repairs. But where's his incentive? He's moving out. He just wants to get his money and move to his new house. Why would he want to hire good people and pay good money to fix things that he's ignored for years? Worse yet, what if he's being asked to tear down the hot-tub deck that he built himself? That won't put him in a mood to do excellent work.

I don't mean to be hard on sellers or their home-repair ethics, but I spend about an hour a day on the phone with my customers, who call me up and say things like, "You remember that leaky chimney that you told us about?"

"Yep. Bad flashing. Leaked like Pirates of the Caribbean."

"Well, the seller said he got it fixed, but it's leaking again."

"I told you to get a roofer to re-flash it, right?"

"Yeah, but the seller said the roofer said all it needed was some caulk."

At this point, I just want to bang my head against a wall. I worked hard to find a leaky chimney. I told everybody who'd listen that it needed new flashing, and that would cost maybe a thousand dollars. I wrote it into a report, in bold print. I even included a nice illustration. So what did my customers (bless their hearts) do? They let the seller hire a jackleg to slap some goo on the chimney and call it fixed.

Every day, I hear sorry tales of plumbing leaks that got fixed with duct tape instead of new pipe, furnaces that were supposed to be cleaned "penny-bright," but are still full of 1998 cicadas, chimneys that were supposed to be cleaned and inspected with a video camera, but are still full of creosote, hackberries, brick dust, and bird skeletons.

Worst of all, I hear tales of massive termite damage that got "fixed" when somebody just covered up the bug-eaten wood with some new wood. You people with termite damage, listen to me: Fixing termite damage is a job for a highly-skilled contractor, not a guy with a truckload of lumber and a box of nails.

While I'm on the subject, I want you homebuyers to know: That "termite letter" that you get just a few days before you close (or heaven forfend, you get while you're sitting at the closing table) is not a guarantee that you don't have termite damage, and it's not a guarantee that you won't have termite problems.

The "termite bond" that you'll hear about is most likely a treatment bond, not a repair bond. That means that if you find termites in your house, the bug company that issued the bond will come back and kill the termites, but they won't fix anything that the termites destroyed. If you get a no-loophole repair bond (good luck finding one), the bug company would have to pay to fix the termite damage.

One final bit of termite advice: Get the termite letter, and read it closely, long before you close. You don't want to find yourself sitting at the closing table deciding if you want to buy a house full of termites and/or termite damage. There's pressure at the closing table, mostly for you to hurry up and close.

When you're buying a house, here's what you do: Get your own contractors, people you know and trust, to look at the things that need repair. Get those contractors to write up cost estimates. Then, instead of telling the seller that he's going to have to fix stuff before he leaves, tell him that you'll proceed with the deal if he'll just shave the cost of the repairs off the price of the house. The seller might make a counter-offer. That's fine. Just remember: If you can find a way to work out the details without turning the seller into your general contractor, that's good for both of you.