House Rules: Beware the meddlesome seller

Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 12:00am

If you’re lucky enough to be buying a house right now, good for you. Let’s say you really like the house, and you’ve hired a home inspector who says that everything is just fine. But later that day, your real estate agent calls you and says that there has been a little electrical fire at the house, and as it turns out, the electrical system was installed by a handyman who’s only two steps into his 12-step program.

Now you’ve got yourself a problem. Most likely, the seller will defend the errant home inspector and offer to have the errant electrician come back to fix the electrical problems.

In my humble home-inspecting experience, I’ve found that most of the time, the first thought that comes into the eager homebuyer’s head is, “Well, by golly, we'll just tell the seller to call that electrician and tell him to get those wires fixed.”

Before I go any further, let me make this clear: In my home-inspector role, I tried my best to stay out of the negotiations between buyers and sellers. Negotiation is realtor and lawyer territory. But, right here and now, I’m going to throw out my best negotiating advice, free of charge.

Here you go: Never ask a seller to fix anything.

I know this is a little bit counter-intuitive. After all, most sales contracts call for certain systems — such as the electrical, the plumbing and the heat-and-air — to be in “good working order.” Well, what does that mean? How about if something’s in wretched shape but still works? For instance, a furnace that'll heat up the house but spew deadly carbon monoxide in the process. What kind of working order is that? This is the kind of riddle that puts braces on the teeth of lawyer offspring, so I'm going to pull to the side of the road on this topic before I get in over my head.

Here's what I want you to know: Of all the primates roaming the planet — even the delightful ring-tailed lemurs — the last one you want bossing the repair job at your house-to-be is the guy who’s moving out of the place.

The seller just wants out. He doesn't want to interview contractors. He doesn't want to schedule his packing to dovetail with the comings and goings of the fix-up crew. Any sane seller wants to avoid a long goodbye with his once-was house. His only objective is to get to the closing meeting, collect his check and move on.

You can uncomplicate the seller’s life — and yours — if you hire the contractors of your choice to bid on the repair work. That way, the negotiation is reduced to dollars instead of restless nights and neckpains. You can argue with the seller about who pays how much toward the repair bill, but in the end, the seller will be happiest — and more likely to grant your wishes — if all he has to do is write a check.

Of course, the above rules apply only to the sane seller. There is a fairly common aberration: The cash-strapped control-freak-handyman-seller, who insists on doing all the repairs himself. He’ll take you on a tour of the house and show you all the swell work he's done on the house over the years. He’ll be bursting with pride over the warped winter-scene paneling in the den, the lowered ceilings, the droopy, sparky wiring and the plumbing held together with chewing gum and duct tape.

Often as not, a handy-seller will have a couple of projects going on even while the house is on the market, and most likely he'll be working without a building permit. He’ll promise to have that bathroom finished in time for closing and expect you to believe him and show some gratitude besides.

Dealing with the handy-seller gets into the realm of abnormal psychology, and although I'm full of opinions, I'm not qualified in that area. All I can tell you is: Make him stop. Make your offer on the house as-is. Shoot for an early closing. Anything to keep him from doing any more work on the place.

If the seller — sane or kooky — insists on overseeing repair work at the house, you should insist that all work be done by licensed, qualified contractors, who will supply you with letters describing the scope of the work, on their letterhead, over the owner’s signature. Get these letters before closing. That way, if the work isn’t done right, you at least have some chance of getting the contractor to straighten things out.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at

Filed under: City Voices

2 Comments on this post:

By: bfra on 7/16/09 at 7:53

From experience on at least 3 jobs (until I learned better) - Carpet installed by hispanics that don't know how to use a stretcher. Never again!

By: EddieA on 7/17/09 at 5:26

I have a real good one and you have my permission to laugh. I had a buyer's pre-purchase home inspection done July 6, 2009. I was present during most of the inspection. I received the home inspection report. It was very detailed with photographs of a swing set (we don't inspect swing sets), a storage building (we don't inspect external storage buildings), door locks, etc. I noticed something was missing from the report - there was nothing on the gas heating system of the home.

I contacted the inspector and his answer was simple - "We don't inspect heating systems because it is summer". There was nothing on the contract about this and it was never mentioned prior to the inspection, during the inspection or after the inspection.

He finally inspected the gas heating system one week later. What prompted him to complete the inspection, as stated in the contract, was I was in the process of suing his company for breach of contract. I didn't threaten to sue, I had already completed the paper work. I contacted the person listed as regestered agent that the suit was coming. This person made one telephone call that prompted quick action.

This person was licensed by the State of Tennessee and referred by my real estate agent.