Sunday, March 11, 2018

How much does house seller need to disclose?

When a reader we're calling "Alice" decided to sell her house, she did everything she could to get the house ready for prospective buyers to see. Several weeks of de-cluttering. Quite a few weekends taken up with a fresh coat of paint on some walls and baseboards. Alice also spent time making sure that broken outlet covers and switch plates were replaced.

After lugging several bags of items she no longer used to local charity thrift shops and books to her local library for its annual book sale, Alice did a thorough cleaning of her house and got it ready to go.

Her real estate broker worked with her to set a price and get the house on the market. Just before the first open house was to occur, Alice noticed that a wooden spindle on one of the railings on her outside porch appeared to be rotting a bit at its base. Rather than try to replace the spindle or hire someone to replace it for her, Alice decided to take an old tube of paintable caulk and to spread the caulk all over the base of the spindle to fill in where it seemed to be deteriorating. Once the caulk dried, she put a coat of white outdoor paint on the spindle so it matched the rest of the railing.

If you looked close enough, you could see the difference in texture, Alice writes. But it looked clean and fresh and she figured few people would notice her quick fix.

Now that Alice's house has been viewed by several interested buyers and her realtor has begun entertaining some offers to purchase the house, Alice is concerned she might be deceiving prospective buyers by not telling them about some things, such as the spindle, which a new owner might need to fix.

"Would I rest easier if I went through and made a punch list of all the things that need doing that I simply never got around to doing before putting the house on the market?" asks Alice. "Or is it OK for me to rest easy thinking that any prospective buyer will know no house is perfect?"

If there is something that might prove life threatening in her house to a new owner, Alice and her realtor would be wise to disclose that information. But she can rest easy about the patched-up spindle.

Most buyers will insist on an inspection prior to closing their purchase of a house. A licensed home inspector should be able to point out any defects which might prove costly to a new owner.

Providing a punch list of those items, which Alice wishes she had gotten around to, but just never did would not only be unnecessary, it would likely strike a prospective owner as odd.

The right thing is for Alice to get her house in as good shape as possible and not to mislead prospective buyers in the listing. Prospective buyers should go in with their eyes open and recognize that it is their responsibility to assess whether the house is one in which they want to invest and live. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

I think posting a list of any safety items is critical. I would also include any items that would affect the long-term stability of the home.

This means that seller should disclose about the post on the front porch as well as the fact that she recently painted.

The cost of doing this is measurable. If you sell a home and failed to disclose something which later becomes material you can end up with a nasty lawsuit on your hands. It is much more cost effective to over disclose than it is to omit things. And it's not just about the house that you should disclose. Relevant things about the neighborhood must be disclosed as well. Things such as a barking dog nearby airport or problem neighbors can also come back to haunt you if you fail to disclose them. So it's not just an ethical or moral question it's a question about what in the seller's best interest.

Anonymous said...

No matter how you slice it, Alice is "cheating" on this problem at her house and she shows her devious self by trying to get by with this deceit. No matter how nice her house is, her willingness to cheat ruins the situation and negates anything favorable. Why do people try to cheat like this?

Charlie Seng