Buyers can be too forgiving of suspicious sale

#432 in a series of true experiences in real estate
July 2003, Hills Newspapers

Every once in awhile in this business, we hear a true horror story. Some years ago a woman called us and told us a real doozie. It seems that she and her husband found a house for sale in Kensington. The attraction was not so much the house (although it would do), but the bay view and the privacy of the large, heavily treed lot were exactly what they sought. They immediately made an offer to buy.

Things went badly from the start. They did not have their own agent; they’d gotten into contract using the listing agent whose stories, they’d come to find as time went along, were mostly untrue. These are some of the things the agent told them that were completely false:

  • The price is high because the land can be subdivided.
  • There are no land slides nearby.
  • It’s an advantage to have me represent both the seller and you.
  • No, a body was not found on the property last year.
  • The private road to the house cannot be used by the public.
  • Your bay view is protected by a written agreement.
  • Sales always take this long to happen.
  • There won’t be any problem getting a loan.
  • There is no need to get copies of the easements.
  • Anyway, there aren’t any easements.
  • It’s against the law for you to have a copy of the loan appraisal.

Several weeks after their offer was accepted, the agent left them a vague message that an extra $75,000 in cash would be needed. The buyers were jittery but, feeling that the price of victory was undoubtedly perseverence, they voiced no complaints.

It wasn’t until the most amazing event of all occurred that they sought help. One Sunday afternoon they happily climbed the hill to see the house and its bucolic setting. Their eyes met devastation. All of the vegetation – every mature tree and planting – was blackened and dead.

“It looks like Agent Orange has been sprayed everywhere. I can’t tell you how terrible it is,” the woman told us. “I called the agent,” she continued, “And she admitted that she’d ordered the ‘weeds’ sprayed to reduce the fire risk. But this is way beyond weeds, it’s everything – everything is dead.”

Naturally, we asked, “Do you still want to buy this house?”

“Yes, we think so,” she said. “We don’t want to develop the property. We just want to live and garden there. We want to find a way to redo the vegetation. We aren’t sure what chemical was used and we don’t know how long lasting it is. But we are hopeful, and we’d like to go ahead and buy.”

“But at what price?” we asked. “The appraisal was done before the trees were destroyed. What is the property worth now? What will it cost, how long will it take to recover the growth?”

“You need to talk to your soils engineer again,” we advised. “You need a new appraisal and a landscape expert. And you need a good real estate attorney.”

Darned if she didn’t say, “We don’t want to get the agent in trouble. She’s old and not very together. She might lose her job over this.”

“For good real estate agents everywhere, we thank you for your generosity,” we replied. “But you have a real problem here. If you are really going to go ahead with this purchase, you need information that isn’t likely to come from the agent.”

For weeks after this phone call, we talked about this mess. Dying of curiosity, we finally called the buyer back. They had not gotten the appraisal or met again with the engineer. They had not contacted an attorney, had not even talked to the agent’s broker. They had, however, made a new, lower offer. How they had arrived at this new price was not clear.

And on that very day that we last talked, because they had not heard anything about their new offer, they had called the agent. Her reply, irritation in every word, had been, “I’m in a hurry, can’t talk right now. I wish I’d never spent the time working on your offer. It was turned down.”

The buyers were dashed. They wanted to know if their latest offer had been, in fact, ever considered. They wished to find out what would happen to the property now – was it still for sale? With the same agent?

Unfortunately, we had no answers. Sometimes nice people go along patiently, expecting things to work out, yet knowing all the while that something’s “stinking in Rotterdam.”

“It’s too late now, I know,” said our caller. “But it just seemed to us that one agent was as good as any other.”

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