I’ve talked about home inspections many times, but I don’t usually talk about the impact of timing. If you’re buying a home, it’s important to know which inspections to get and when to do a final investigation of the property’s condition. You’ll want to make sure that all the agreed-upon work has been done to your satisfaction and that no other changes have occurred.
As a buyer, you can request almost any inspection with two important caveats. 1. You cannot have a government inspector come without the seller’s permission. So, for example, you cannot order a county building inspection. 2. You cannot demand an invasive inspection, one that would damage or materially change the condition of the property, such as cutting a hole in the wall to look for bugs or pulling up flooring in the bathroom to look for mold.
Otherwise, sellers must allow you (or someone you hire) to carefully assess the condition of the house.
In California, the vast majority of Realtors use the California Association of Realtor’s standard purchase agreement. This contract defaults to 17 days to do inspections. If that time frame doesn’t work for you or the seller, it can be a point of negotiation.
On rare occasions, buyers or sellers might opt out of inspections. I highly recommend against this. For most people, buying a house is the largest financial investment of their life—you don’t want to buy a lemon.
From the seller’s perspective, it makes sense to encourage the buyer to do reasonable inspections in a reasonable timeframe. The last thing a seller wants is for a problem to appear two days before the close of escrow, or worse, two days after. A buyer can contend that seller dissuaded the buyer from doing inspections because the seller knew there were problems. Whether this is true doesn’t actually matter because either way, a lawsuit can be filed. And as my attorney has explained, the only sure winner in a lawsuit is the attorney.
So, while it behooves the seller to make their property available for inspections, the seller does not have to bend over backwards to allow the inspectors to get into every nook and cranny. For example, sellers do not need to move furniture away from walls or clean junk out of the attic. This is why many inspections include conditional clearances with notes such as, “Couldn’t access because of personal property.”
Before your escrow closes, you need to be able to see the house without any of the seller’s belongings so you can be sure the house is in the condition you expect. A walk-though inspection within days of the close of escrow doesn’t eliminate all possibility of problems, but it will alert you to any major issues.
Seeing the property empty can become a challenge when the seller asks to stay in the house past the close of escrow. There are lots of good reasons a seller may want to stay. Maybe they need this escrow to close before they can purchase their new house. Maybe the start date of their new, out-of-town job is postponed. Maybe they want their children to be able to finish the school year.
Whatever the reason, if you waive the right to do a full investigation of the home’s condition, you lose all leverage to insist that work be done properly before you take ownership. If the seller stays past the close of escrow, the legal relationship changes. You become a landlord and they become your tenants. They have a legal right to quiet enjoyment of the property. If you didn’t do a final inspection, you may not know whether damage you discover later was done before or after you took ownership.
The moral of the story is that if you are buying a home, get plenty of inspections and do not take ownership of the property until you’re sure any agreed-upon work has been done to your satisfaction.
If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.
Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.