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What To Disclose, What To Fix, Housing in Sunny, Seismic Southern CA

First rule: if the question “Should I disclose this?” occurs to you regarding a property you plan to sell, the answer is “Yes.”

Every now and then in this hilly, older part of Los Angeles, we see a property that has settling to the point of obvious house/land movement. Several homes were red- or yellow-tagged after the 100-Year Rains of 2004/2005. A couple of them are still for sale as foreclosures with their asking prices continuing to drop as the houses edge closer to the abyss over the Arroyo. About 30 years ago and a couple of miles away, there were a few houses that did slip down a hill and were eventually torn down. A few here and there didn’t survive the 1987 or the 1994 earthquakes.
These are dramatic, expensive issues when the problem is obvious. But what if it’s not so obvious? What if it’s a little slippage, but nothing major? How do you decide what to disclose? What to do?
First rule: if the question “Should I disclose this?” occurs to you regarding a property you plan to sell, the answer is “Yes.”
Now we see before us a sea of gray. Ok, so you say the floor isn’t level. What does that mean? Almost any house experiences a little settling over the years. How much is normal? How much is acceptable?
“If I disclose that the floor isn’t level, will that scare buyers away?” It can. It’s a red flag. So what are you going to do about it? And, would you rather have this deter timid buyers before or after you accept an offer and take it off the market?
Some people at this point firmly decide that they don’t want to know anything they would have to disclose and would rather do nothing. This is certainly a fair choice. I have known attorneys who decided this about their own homes. Everyone has a different tolerance for each consequence. Most foreclosures and probates are sold with no pre-sale inspections as well. With a fixer, this path can lead to the property falling out of escrow a time or two or more, and it can lead to a much lower eventual sales price.
Second rule: You can have 5 different professionals give you an honest assessment of what they think should be done and you will get 5 different opinions costing 5 different amounts.
I once had 7 different floor guys give me 7 different estimates that went all the way from $1000 to refinish my hardwood floors to $15,000 to replace them. I had 5 different estimates to install copper plumbing that ranged from $1500 to $9,000 and they each specified exactly the same work!
So do you get the work done? Can you afford to? Do you want to? Here is how I would structure my decision-making process if I had this problem in my house and I was thinking of selling it:
1. Assume I’m going to live here for the rest of my life: what would I do about it? Would I feel safe and comfortable if I did nothing? How would I feel if I did the cheapest fix—or the most expensive one?
2. Assume I’m going to sell in the next couple of years:
a. What will it do to my property’s value if I do nothing and hope for the best?
b. What if I were buying this property? What would I expect the seller to disclose to me?
c. What if I bought this property and found out that there was a big problem afterwards, how would I feel? Would I call my attorney?
d. Who can I talk to about what to do next?
One comment I have heard countless times during inspections over the years is that drainage and water management can have a huge effect on foundations and on hillsides. One of the least expensive repairs can simply include installing gutters and diverting water away from the house. So don’t immediately expect you have a very expensive repair in front of you. Get the facts.

Here are some options that seem reasonable to me:
1. Have a physical inspection done and see what a generalist thinks of what they see. And go a step further, tell them what you know so they know what to look for.
2. Depending on what you hear, you might want to consult various professionals including:
a. A geological inspector
b. A foundation inspector
c. A drainage expert
d. A landscape designer
3. After you have inspections, see where they point you and get some estimates.
a. If the general consensus is to repair, you can choose to fix it or leave it alone. Depending on the size of the expense and your pocketbook, you can make the best decision for your particular situation.
b. Remember, you have to disclose the issue whether you fix it or not.
c. If you decide not to fix it, make your information known to the buyer and price the house accordingly.
d. If you fix it, disclose to the buyer what you did.
If you haven’t been involved in a real estate transaction for many years, the laws and paperwork regarding the seller’s obligations to disclose have changed a lot. Every year we have a new form to complete, new questions to answer. Did you know that you are supposed to provide every report that you have on the property since you bought it? If you’ve owned a place for 20 years, that can be a lot of paperwork.
Oh, that’s overwhelming! Upsetting! Unfair! I’m selling “as-is! “ Fine, it’s already in the contract that all transactions are sold in their current condition subject to the buyer’s inspection rights. And “as-is” does not mean you can choose not to make disclosures. And no, a buyer can’t expect perfection in a 50-year old house. But again, put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. What’s fair now? Which leads us to:
Rule Number 3: Price cures all problems.
So maybe the eventual price is not what you want, but every house will sell at some price. Will you make back all the cost of your repairs? Maybe, maybe not. But here’s the final rule for today:
Rule Number 4: The houses that sell for the most money are the ones that offer the best condition, location, amenities and style for the price in the current marketplace.
It doesn’t matter what you paid, it doesn’t matter what you want to net, what matters is the perceived value in the eyes of the buyer. Which would be worth more in your eyes: a house that has a serious slant in the floor, maybe some signs of water intrusion or cracks around the foundation--or a house that doesn't?

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