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posted: 5/4/2012 5:50 AM

About real estate: Law raises difficult 'disclosure' issues

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A seller obviously must tell a buyer if the home's roof continually leaks, but the law gets murkier when it comes to a problem that appears to have been fixed.

Q. We had some major plumbing problems last year, including a flooded basement, but we spent almost $7,000 to make repairs, and everything since has been fine. Now we are getting ready to sell. Must the problems we had a year ago be disclosed to a potential buyer, even though everything now is OK?

A. Disclosure laws vary from state to state. A local real estate agent or attorney would be in a better position to discuss your particular situation, but I would follow the advice that the top lawyer at the National Association of Realtors gave me several years ago: "If you're not sure whether you have to disclose a current or past problem, then you probably need to."

Countless judges have ruled that sellers must disclose anything that might "materially affect" a buyer's decision to make an offer on a house or the price that would be paid. So, there's no question that a seller would have to tell a buyer about an aging roof that constantly leaks, an air-conditioning system that no longer works or a bedroom that was recently added without proper government permits.

Disclosing past problems that a seller believes have been remedied falls into a muddier part of the law.

I'm glad that your home's plumbing system has been working well since you paid that expensive repair bill last year. But if you don't disclose the previous problem to potential buyers, you could wind up being sued if, say, the contractor did a simple "patch job" to only temporally solve the issue or used substandard materials that will soon break down.

Consider notifying the buyer about last year's problems in writing, preferably in the legal contract that you sign to sell your house. That way, the buyer either could back out of the deal if the disclosure makes him feel uncomfortable or would have little right to sue if he goes through with the transaction.

You might even be able to turn the repairs you have made into a marketing advantage. Providing copies of the bills you paid and the work that was done could make a potential buyer more confident about making an offer to purchase your house, especially if the job was done by a licensed and bonded contractor who guarantees his or her labor and materials.

Q. I read that mass murderer Charles Manson was once again denied parole earlier this month. But what happened to the house where the Sharon Tate murders occurred? Who lives there now?

A. The hilltop house in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles where the actress and four others were shot and stabbed to death by Manson's followers has been bought and sold several times after the 1969 murders. One owner finally razed it and replaced it with an 18,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion in 1993, but its moniker as the "Sharon Tate House" still sticks.

Even the grass and dirt were removed and replaced in the owner's efforts to distance the property from its lurid past.

The address was also changed, from 10050 Cielo Drive to 10066, in an unsuccessful attempt to discourage lookie-loos. The current manse is a popular stop on several of those kitschy homes-of-the-stars bus tours, and now is owned by Hollywood producer Jeff Franklin, creator of such TV hits as "Full House" and "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper."

Q. My partner and I made a full-price offer on a condominium, but it was rejected. We think the sellers turned it down because we are gay. Can we sue the sellers under the federal anti-discrimination law, even though we both are white males?

A. You can sue, but you probably wouldn't win.

The Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal for a seller or landlord to discriminate against a buyer or tenant based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The law was expanded 20 years later to include families with children and people with disabilities.

Many groups have lobbied Congress in the past several years to add homosexuals to these seven categories of "protected classes" under the federal law, but those efforts have been unsuccessful.

Separately, though, a number of cities and even a few states have adopted their own laws that effectively ban discrimination against gay people who want to purchase a house or rent an apartment. Call your local fair-housing agency for details, contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs at (800) 669-9777, or visit HUD's website if you honestly believe your purchase offer was rejected based on your sexual orientation.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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