Court Decision Reminds Home Buyers to Read Seller Disclosures Carefully

wet floorIn most U.S. states, including California, home sellers must provide buyers with a written set of disclosures indicating what the seller knows about the property’s features, defects, history, and environment. A seller who hides a material defect can be sued later, when the buyer finds out about the problem (probably the hard way, for example when a piece of the ceiling falls on their head due to a leaky pipe).

Seller disclosures provide valuable information to buyers, and should be read carefully and followed up on with questions. Yet many buyers are so eager to close the sale and start planning for furniture and curtains rather than ongoing repair needs that they skim it, or leave it to their agent to look at. That may be what Joanna Peake did in buying a California home from the Underwoods in 2008.

The Underwoods’ agent, John Ferrell, provided Ms. Peake with, according to the court, “photographs and reports disclosing problems with the residence’s subflooring,” She went ahead and bought the house regardless.

Later, Peake says that she “became aware of the extent of the [water-intrusion] damage when her son’s foot . . . went through a bathroom floor.” Peake proceeded to sue the seller as well as the seller’s agent. In fact, she pressed forward with the lawsuit even after the agent’s attorney repeatedly sent her said reports and other evidence that Ferrell hadn’t breached any duties under California law, and asked her to withdraw the case.

The California appeals court not only dismissed Peake’s claim against the real estate agent, Ferrell, but ordered Peake to pay sanctions for having brought a frivolous lawsuit. Oops. (See Peake v. Underwood,Fourth Appellate District, June 25, 2014).

This case is, of course, drawing lots of attention from the real estate community, as agents heave a sigh of relief that they don’t have to become automatic deep pockets for disgruntled buyers.

It should also serve as a reminder to buyers that the disclosure information that they’re provided pre-sale isn’t just another form to review: It has important legal consequences. Once a home buyer is on notice regarding problems with the property, and doesn’t follow up with further questions or negotiations, it becomes a lot harder to sue over them later.