Sometimes the law and ethics match up nicely, other times, not so much. That’s one of the reasons “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times can be both an entertaining and a frustrating read.
A recent column, “You’re Going to Sell Your Home. Should You Mention the Snakes?” provides an example of when the law and ethics line do match up; yet it reflects a total lack of awareness on the questioner’s part that the matter at hand is primarily a legal one.
The basic situation is that the prospective home sellers live in an area with a “snake problem.” About three times a year, they encounter poisonous copperheads, and have been bitten. They worry that if they reveal the snake issue to prospective home buyers, said buyers will go running in another direction.
The Ethicist basically advised speaking up. Otherwise, he explained, the homeowners will have to live with their conscience if the home’s new owners get bitten; and by speaking up, the sellers can help prepare the new owners to avoid snake contact, and thus minimize the risks. Sensible advice.
The Ethicist also got it right when he said, “Your lawyer or real estate agent would be able to tell you whether you have a legal duty in your state to reveal the facts that you have told me.”
But The Ethicist veered a little off course with the statement that, “Scruples like yours help explain why real estate agents don’t like to have the sellers around when they bring in prospective buyers.” The fact of the matter is that, in most U.S. states, both home sellers AND their real estate agents have an obligation to be forthcoming with any known “material” facts that would affect the value or salability of the property.
Most states have created lengthy, detailed disclosure forms that home sellers, and in some cases their real estate agents as well, must fill out. These forms advise prospective buyers of everything from a leak in the roof to a refrigerator with a wiring problem to a crack in the foundation. Few of these forms actually mention snakes; but no matter, most of them have an “other” clause.
Not only that, but it’s often the real estate agent who explains to the home seller that, far from giving in to the urge to hide problems, being forthcoming is a way to inspire trust and to ease negotiations. The buyer is going to be a lot less inclined to close the deal if, while touring the property, he or she runs into a snake or hears about the problem from a neighbor.
Moreover, full and complete disclosures are an important way to avoid later lawsuits. Failing to provide them is its very own “cause of action” (basis upon which to sue) in many states.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t unscrupulous sellers out there. That keeps lawyers and judges busy, with ongoing lawsuits about what the sellers should have disclosed. But for any seller curious about his or her obligations, and wanting to avoid such lawsuits, a good starting point is Nolo’s state-by-state series of articles on what disclosures are legally required.