Buying a house is one of the most important legal transactions you'll ever undertake. It's exciting, and you can keep the stress level to a minimum if you take time to learn about your legal rights and how the home buying process works. First-time home buyers and repeat buyers need to be informed.
Working with a Real Estate Agent
Like most home buyers, you'll probably work with a real estate broker or salesperson (agent) to find your new home. A license is needed for someone to participate in a real estate transaction. Generally, this is a broker, with salespersons working under a managing or sponsoring broker's authority. In most states, real estate agents enter into a contract representing either the buyer or seller, or both, called dual agency. When you contact a real estate professional, she should provide a consumer disclosure explaining all roles. Ask questions if you don't understand. You can contract for a "buyer's agent" who will represent your interests.
Real estate agents have what's called a "fiduciary duty" to the party they're representing. They are held by law to owe specific duties to that person. These duties are described in your brokerage agreement, listing agreement, or other contract, and also include:
- Providing services honestly and in good faith
- Using reasonable care and skill
- Keeping information confidential, except for public information, where authorized by the buyer, or required by law
- Promptly presenting offers to sellers
- Answering your questions completely and accurately
Looking at a home involves more than finding one appealing to your eye. Overall condition is important. When you visit homes for sale, sellers should disclose of all important facts they actually know about the home's defects affecting health and safety. It doesn't matter if disclosure affects whether the property will sell, or the ultimate sales price paid. If you ask about problems, the seller needs to answer truthfully. Ask if a property has any of these common defects:
- Plumbing and sewage
- Water leakage of any type, including in basements
- Termites or other insect infestations
- Roof defects
- Heating or air conditioning system problems
- Property drainage problems
- Foundation instabilities or cracks
- Title issues
- Lead paint (required under the federal Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992)
When you find a house you'd like to buy, you'll put together and sign a purchase and sale agreement, which contains all of the terms of the sale, including:
- Sellers' and purchasers' names and addresses
- Purchase price and down payment
- Financing arrangements
- The property's legal description
- Requirement for good and marketable title
- Property condition
- Closing and possession dates
- Statement of settlement costs
- Condition for who bears the risk if the property is damaged before closing
- Property liens
Consult your real estate attorney before you sign the contract. An experienced real estate attorney can help identify issues and find solutions to any problems that come up.
Your purchase agreement should allow you to have a home inspection. The contract can be contingent on resolving issues the inspector finds. A home inspector visually examines a home's major structural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems.
As a buyer, it's best to pay for the inspection yourself, ensuring the inspector is looking out for your interests. Your attorney can help you review the inspection report and negotiate with the seller for repairs or money for repairs.
Legal Title Issues
When you buy a house, you also buy title insurance. A title search is a review of public records, looking for any problems with the title's validity before closing. The policy insures against loss due to certain title defects that didn't turn up during the title search. Your real estate lawyer or title company investigates the legal title of the property you want to buy, and may find issues you'll need to understand.
Typical title issues relate to easements and liens. An easement is a right to use property, such as a utility easement. Liens are a charge against a property to satisfy the current owner's debt. Tax liens, mechanics' liens and mortgages are examples. You usually won't want your new home to be subject to the seller's unpaid liens. The title search serves to reveal whether there are possible title problems. Your lawyer can help you assess and solve these problems so you can complete your purchase and enjoy your new home without worry.