Think you wouldn’t get stung in a real-estate disaster? Neither did these five buyers. Read on and learn from their mistakes
By Rasha Mourtada
Like all first-time homebuyers, Sarmishta Subramanian was giddy with excitement when she arrived to officially take possession of her house. But her giddiness turned to irritation when she discovered that the previous owner had left bags of garbage strewn across the front porch. She became even angrier when she saw that he’d taped a “Please don’t let the cats out” sign on the front door. But when she peered beyond the sign into the house, the Toronto resident was outraged: the seller’s furniture, boxes and more garbage were still inside- not to mention his cats! He hadn’t even begun to move out; it was clear he was still living there. “I thought, What the hell are you still doing in my house?”
Sarmishta contacted her lawyer and was assured the guy would be out by midnight. But when she showed up the next day, she discovered that the seller hadn’t removed any of his junk, leaving behind garbage, broken furniture and appliances, and a special present from his pets- cat poop on the basement floor. Sarmishta’s new house was trashed, and if she wanted it cleaned up, she’d have to do it herself. “It ruined what should have been a happy and exciting day.”
You can’t anticipate every single thing that might go wrong during a real-estate transaction, but there are a number of steps you can take to help ensure your experience is as smooth as possible. For instance, Sarmishta’s case might have been helped by a clause in the purchase and sale agreement stating that the seller was obligated to leave the house in clean condition.
So how can you protect yourself from potential real-estate disappointments? Read on for valuable lessons learned the hard way!
Lesson #1 Never skip the home inspection
When Lynne Vail and her fiancé, Chris, bought a condo in Ottawa, their inexperienced real estate agent advised them to skip the home inspection. Because they weren’t buying a house, the agent said many of the problems a home inspector would look for(specifically exterior issues related to the roof, chimney and gutters)wouldn’t be applicable. The agent also advised them that if there were problems with any of the interior systems(such as ventilation or plumbing), the condo corporation would handle them. Against her better judgment, Lynne let it go.
She and Chris got married, went on their honeymoon and moved into their new place. “We were really excited,” she says. “This was the beginning of our new lives.” A few weeks later, while watching TV one night, Lynne smelled something burning. So she followed her nose, and when she got to the air-conditioning vent, she saw flames. When she flipped open the heating and air- conditioning unit and turned it off, the flames went out right away, but Lynne didn’t want to take any chances, so she called the fire department.
The first thing the firefighter said to Lynne was, “Why have you never cleaned the air-conditioner filter?” The five inches of dirt trapped there had caught fire, and the fire itself would have been prevented if the filter had been clean and the previous owners hadn’t deactivated the safety switch- both of which would have been caught by a home inspector. Although Lynne and her husband weren’t injured, they ended up having to fork out $3,000 for a new unit. “Who’s got that kind of extra money lying around right after their honeymoon?” she says. Lynne was upset with her agent for misguiding them, and she was even more upset with herself. “I ignored my gut instinct and didn’t get the inspection when I knew I should have. Now I always tell people, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let anyone convince you not to get it done.'”
Home inspection how-to Check with the Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors to find a regulated home inspector in your area who has met the provincial or regional association’s certification requirements.
Accompany your inspector while he examines your home- this way you’ll be sure to understand what he’s referring to in his written report, which you should get within 24 hours of the inspection.
Lynne saw flames shooting out of the air-conditioning unit. “I ignored my gut and didn’t get the home inspection.”
Lesson #2 Take your time
When first-time homebuyer and Montreal resident Lauren Brown bought a house, she spent only a week searching. She and her husband had seen just a few homes on their own, and when their agent pressured them into making an offer on the first house he showed them, they did. “My gut feeling was to say no, and I should have listened to it,” Lauren says. “It was too soon, but every time I presented an argument that we should see more houses, the agent would tell us that other purchasers had visited the house we were considering and we would miss out on the opportunity if we didn’t act quickly.”
So Lauren and her husband ended up buying a house they couldn’t really afford, and with their mortgage payments sucking up too much of their income and interest rates climbing, Lauren knew they were in deep trouble. “It was very stressful, and I really started to resent the house. We eventually had to sell it because we just couldn’t afford it.” Aside from the financial strain the house caused, it also took a heavy toll on Lauren’s marriage. “There were other factors, but I’m certain the stress associated with the house contributed to our decision to separate,” she says.
So when Lauren, now a single mom, decided to buy again 12 years later, she wanted to do everything just right. She found a great agent, and instead of being pressured to decide on a house within a week, this time her search went on for nearly a year. “I wasn’t in a rush, so taking my time wasn’t a problem,” she says. Finally, she found the perfect house. “It had everything I wanted, and it was just the right price. I was glad that I trusted my instincts and didn’t settle this time,” she says.
Limit your agent and your spending: Only sign on with an agent for 60 days at a time, says Ozzie Jurock, a Vancouver real-estate expert. That way, if you feel the agent’s not the right fit, you can move on.
Get pre-approved for a mortgage before you start seriously searching, says TD Canada Trust residential mortgage manager Ramy Ibrahim in Toronto. That gives you a clear idea of what you can afford so you don’t end up overspending.(But remember, he cautions, pre-approval isn’t a guarantee for approval. It’s a snapshot of your financial situation at the time, and it’s subject to change.)
Lauren and her husband ended up buying a house they couldn’t afford. When interest rates shot up, they knew they were in deep trouble.
Lesson #3 Get ready for war
Toronto residents Lyndsey and her partner, Tracy, hunted for the perfect house for nearly a year- and they found it. Six times. But every house they tried to buy ended up going to a higher bidder. “You start to feel as if there’s a pit in the bottom of your stomach whenever you go to make an offer,” Lyndsey says. “I tried to stay positive, but I was frustrated.”
The couple’s situation was not unique: in hot real-estate markets- such as Toronto and Vancouver- bidding wars are all too common. The trick to winning one, says Helga Teitsson, a Toronto-based associate broker, is an unconditional offer. Sellers can get stressed when they see an offer riddled with conditions- they worry that if the conditions aren’t met, the deal will fall apart. So they’re often more receptive to unconditional offers that are firm and binding.
In most of the cases, Lyndsey and Tracy were outbid by $30,000 or more, putting the prices of the houses way out of their range. And that’s what they expected to happen when they viewed a great house on a decent-size lot with- a bonus- two bathrooms. The couple decided to bid, but it was a little half-hearted. “We honestly believed there would be so much competition that there’d be no way we could afford it,” says Lyndsey.
But Lyndsey and Tracy were pros by this time- their fourth house- so they knew all about submitting a clean offer. They had their financing already in place, made no demands as to when they could take possession and- an extra point on their side- submitted a certified cheque as a deposit(the larger the sum, the better, advises Teitsson). The one thing Lyndsey and Tracy did not do was a pre-offer home inspection- instead, they made their offer conditional on the completion of a future inspection. “We just thought there was no way we’d get the house, and we did not want to waste money on a pre-offer inspection,” says Lyndsey.
On the evening that the seller was accepting bids, Lyndsey and Tracy stayed home, convinced their bid would be laughably insufficient. They were surprised when their real estate agent called a couple of hours into the evening. “She said, ‘They want everyone to do better,'” says Lyndsey. “We’d never heard that before.” So they upped their bid and waited. “I was excited,” she says. An hour later their realtor called again, this time with bad news: “She told us we didn’t get it. And a day later she told us we’d only lost by $2,500. We realized that if we’d had no conditions, specifically the home inspection, we could have had another shot and maybe won the house,” she says. “Sellers prefer going with a sure bet.”
Cut the conditions If you live in a hot real estate market, make your offer as condition-free as possible (go with a pre-offer home inspection). One condition Teitsson often includes, though, is that the sellers provide a warranty that all heating, cooling equipment and appliances are in good working order.
Don’t make any demands about the closing date. A seller will be less likely to accept your offer if you want to move in sooner than he wants to move out.
Lesson #4 Know who your lawyer is
Three years ago, Adam* decided to refinance his mortgage to take advantage of lower interest rates. He filled out the forms, got approved and didn’t think about it again. But when he got a call from his bank a few days later telling him the legal paperwork associated with the purchase of his house in Toronto was botched, he was shocked. Not only did he not have clear title on the house- which means the property wasn’t completely free of claims and he didn’t own it legally- but it was registered to a dead man and the legal description of the property was wrong.
The bank wouldn’t process his newly financed mortgage until he’d sorted out the legal mess. So Adam tried to reach the lawyer- recommended by a friend- who’d handled the transaction. But days later, after several calls, Adam wasn’t able to contact him. Frustrated, he got on the phone with the group that oversees Ontario’s lawyers and found out his lawyer was under suspension, and not for the first time.
Stuck without legal advice, Adam got in touch with his mortgage manager, who recommended he retain the bank’s attorney. Finally, six weeks- and a thousand bucks- later, Adam had new financing in place and all of the legal information associated with his house was accurate. “I’m lucky that I was just trying to refinance my house,” he says. “If I’d been trying to sell it and all of these issues surfaced then, it could have cost me a sale and thousands of dollars.” His advice? Don’t rely strictly on referrals from friends. “Just because a guy’s a lawyer doesn’t mean he’s a good one. Remember that D student in law school? He’s practising like anyone else.” And go for title insurance, which protects homebuyers against losses arising from problems regarding the title of their properties. Adam skipped it on the advice of his original lawyer.
Find the right lawyer It’s important to choose a lawyer who focuses on real estate, says Toronto-based lawyer Brian Taran. You’re more likely to get proper service if you deal with a lawyer who specializes in real estate rather than one who’s trying to make a few extra bucks on the side and who doesn’t deal in this area on a regular basis.
Don’t be shy about asking for references. A lawyer’s running a business like any other professional and he should be prepared to discuss fees and provide references. And get in touch with the law society in your province to find out about any previous disciplinary decisions against him.
* Name has been changed.
More dos and don’ts
For the buyer
Mum’s the word Keep a poker face and stay quiet when you’re looking at a home and the sellers, or their agent, are there. Negative comments will just insult the sellers, and showing excitement won’t help your case when it comes time to put in an offer.
Don’t sweat the wall stuff Try not to be discouraged by a bit of peeling paint, cracks or holes. Damage that isn’t structural is easily fixed and makes a huge difference.
Budget for extras Normally, realtors advise you to budget up to two per cent for closing costs, but when you buy property in a new development, you may be charged additional fees such as meter installation and sewer service connection. These can add unexpected costs.
For the seller
Make sure the price is right Sellers tend to overestimate what their houses are worth. Just because the house down the block sold for a bundle doesn’t mean yours will, too. Do your research, then consult up to three realtors. If you’re not satisfied with the realtors’ advice, move on to a professional appraiser.
Close the zoo. Not everyone viewing your house will love your dog, cat or ferret as much as you do. And pets can be a distraction. Take them out of your home, if possible, when buyers come by, especially during an open house.
Bake sale Leave out a few “hospitality treats,” such as coffee and cinnamon buns, for prospective buyers. Even if they don’t eat them, the scent of fresh-baked goodies wafting through the house can make your house feel cosy and inviting, leaving a lasting impression.
First published in Chatelaine’s October 2005 issue.
© Rogers Publishing Ltd.