Who's at fault? A 2-bedroom house sold as a 3-bedroom house -- what can buyer do?
Q: We just bought a three-bedroom home. A month later, we learned that one of the bedrooms was a garage that was converted without a permit. No one disclosed this during the transaction. Instead, we learned about it when the building department cited us and ordered us to restore the garage or build a new one. This means we overpaid for a two-bedroom home. The sellers and agents said nothing in their disclosure statements, and the home inspector claims that permit searches are not within the scope of a home inspection. How can it be that no one was responsible for disclosing this issue?
A: Disclosure statements from sellers and agents are usually incomplete, often because their knowledge of the property is lacking. Sellers may be honestly unaware of certain defects, and agents typically have little knowledge of the histories and shortcomings of subject properties.
Additions and conversions are often done without required permits, because owners prefer to avoid bureaucratic complexities. The garage conversion in your home might have been done by previous owners, in which case the recent sellers might have been genuinely unaware of the situation. Neighbors who have lived nearby for many years could possibly provide some answers to this uncertainty.
Home inspectors and real estate agents are not required to conduct building permit searches, but prudent agents and inspectors often advise buyers to consult building department records, prior to completing a purchase. In your case, a careful permit search would have revealed that the home was on record as a two-bedroom dwelling.
Experienced home inspectors can usually detect visible evidence that a garage conversion has taken place. In such cases, the inspector would note this in the inspection report, with recommendations to verify permits prior to close of escrow.
To determine whether anyone is liable for nondisclosure, you can do the following:
• Try to find out when the garage conversion took place. That would shed light on possible seller liability.
• Try to learn whether the building department notified the seller for the non-permitted work. That would nail the seller for nondisclosure.
• Try to determine whether the garage conversion is visibly apparent. That would shed light on possible home inspector liability.
Q: If I install a raised flower bed against the front of my house, should I install some kind of moisture barrier before the planter is filled with dirt?
A: When you add a planter to a building, the main concern is whether the elevated soil level will be above the line where the wall framing adjoins the top of the foundation. When the soil is above that level, there is a potential for water intrusion, which can cause moisture damage, dry rot and mold.
Waterproof membranes provide a temporary solution at best, because they eventually deteriorate and allow water seepage. The preferable way to prevent moisture problems is to construct a detached planter, with an airspace between the wall and the planter itself.
• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.
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