Must Home Sellers Disclose Past Burglaries on the Property?

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Crime is up in my neighborhood, as it is in many locations across the United States, according to the FBI. If your home has ever been the site of a burglary, you know all too well the trauma and sense of violation such an event produces. But is this new part of your home’s “history” something that you need to share with prospective home buyers?

Most U.S. states require sellers of property to disclose a variety of information about the property to buyers. Exactly what is significant enough for sellers to disclose usually hinges on what is “material,” or will make a difference to the value of the property. This can go beyond the basic physical realities, like a cracked foundation or leaky roof. Sellers are also expected to disclose less tangible truths, like the house’s reputation as being haunted or location in a low-ranking school district. In fact, houses that were the site of violent or horrific crimes are widely considered to be “stigmatized,” which sellers are absolutely expected to disclose to buyers.

But your average burglary isn’t horrific. The neighbors won’t be pointing at the house years later and saying, “Ooh, it still creeps me out to think that that place got burgled.” By the time “years later” rolls around, many other houses in the neighborhood are also likely to have had their laptops, cash, and jewelry spirited away.

In most U.S. states, the standard disclosure forms that home sellers fill out do not, in fact, ask about past burglaries. As Michael Crowley, real estate broker with Spokane Home Buyers explains, “An ordinary burglary wouldn’t be considered a material defect to the property, so I wouldn’t expect a seller to disclose it. As I remind my buyers, there’s crime in every neighborhood. Still, I can think of possible exceptions, mostly in unusual circumstances; like perhaps if a neighbor had broken into the house repeatedly in the past and might do so again in the future.”

If you’re a prospective home buyer, your best bet for predicting what will happen in your home’s future is to check local crime statistics (which you can likely do online, through the police department). You can also check the house’s insurance “CLUE” report, which might show past burglaries. (That’s assuming the homeowners put in a claim; some don’t, worried that it will jack up their rates.) And there’s nothing to stop you from asking the seller and the neighbors about past burglaries at the house or in the area. Information from the seller could be particularly useful to help you figure out the house’s vulnerable points. There may be a good reason for those unsightly bars on the window . . . .

If you’re a seller filling out the disclosure form, however, consider what Stephen Bloom, Broker-Associate at Lawton Associates in Berkeley, has dubbed the “Safeway effect.” According to Bloom, “It’s worth asking yourself how the buyer would feel if he or she were chatting with a new neighbor in line at the Safeway and says, ‘I just moved in,’ only to have the other person say, ‘Isn’t that the house that got broken into last year?’ News like that might shock the buyer.” And unhappy buyers may eventually find something to sue the seller over, even if it’s not precisely the same issue.

The farther into the past the burglary is, however, the less relevant it will seem to all concerned. How long is long enough? Bloom suggests, “Where I work in California, if there was a death on the property within the last three years, the seller would have to disclose it. I’d use same rule of thumb for a burglary and similar crimes.”

The law doesn’t seem to have all the answers in this case (as in many cases). Sellers filling out the disclosure forms might be best off imagining the buyer’s point of view and remembering that it’s often psychologically better to over-disclose than to let home buyers encounter surprises later.