Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Are You A Homeowner or A Thief?

A story in This Old House magazine this month details the stealing of a whole house by thieves who deal in used building parts. The crime, in Lindale, Texas, took place, obviously, over several days, in broad daylight and while the hardworking thieves waved to neighbors walking by, assuming the men were just a couple of workmen doing some tasks for the owner.

Antique housing parts -- chandeliers, doorknobs, mantles -- can be very expensive to install or replace and that's why, many times, owners who are selling their homes can turn into thieves when they decide to dismantle such items after the sale of their house without getting permission from the new owners of the house.

Attached items in a house are, indeed, personal property. And though they can be removed, they generally go along with the sale of the house to the purchaser.

Law.com's online legal dictionary, defines this type property as chattel -- "an item of personal property which is movable, as distinguished from real property (land and improvements)."

If an owner has decided to take a piece of chattel along with him once he sells the house, it's best to just remove it before the house goes on the market instead of trying to label it as "does not convey" with postcards or a post-it note during showings and open houses. I've heard home sellers defy all logic when this is suggested by saying, "But it makes the house looks so good." Right. Then why snatch it from the buyers' hands right after they write a contract. If it's a selling point, then it should stay.

A colleague of mine had buyers who fell in love with an older home and especially liked the pewter hardware on the doors throughout the dwelling. And guess what was gone -- not even replaced -- just gone from the house during walkthrough? Have you priced out antique pewter lately? An average 4 bedroom house can have up to 20 interior doors -- these type doorknobs can go for about $35 each – that's $700 worth of hardware if you install all of them yourself. The other challenge presented by snatching chattel at the last minute also angers the buyer and plants a seed of doubt in their mind as to what else is missing and what else the seller has hidden from them in the process?

The removal of chattel explains why most residential sales contracts have a check-off section where traditional chattel items are inventoried. This includes items such as all appliances, ceiling fans, garage door openers and remotes, playground equipment, window treatments, alarm system, etc.

As the purchaser fills out the contract, the buyer agent will check off the items they saw in the house -- the seller should check over this very carefully, just to make sure that they agree with what the buyer believes he's getting with the house. In addition, it could be the buyer has listed items that don't even exist -- such as a refrigerator with an ice maker when no ice maker exists. If the listing agent doesn't notice this and the transaction goes through -- the seller (or agent) could be responsible for a new icemaker installation for the new owners after settlement day.

While you would hope cool heads would prevail over such a small item if a mischeck occurs, however, let's say the above icemaker is checked and during walkthrough the purchasers find it's not in the refrigerator, but it was listed in the contract -- the buyer could demand the seller purchase a new one for them before going through the transaction.

Keep in mind chattel can be used as a negotiation item, as well, which could be why a buyer would request an item that's not even installed in the house at the time of contract.

For instance, if the house has a garage, but no garage door opener, the buyer could write up that they will buy the house, but they want the seller to install a garage door opener as part of the sales contract, thus, that piece of new chattel would have to be installed by settlement.

The biggest thing about chattel is that everyone needs to know what's staying and what's being removed. The avoidance of surprise is the main item to avoid.

Mr. Carr has covered real estate since 1989. He is the author of "Real Estate Investing Made Simple." Got a personal real estate issue? Questions can be posted at Anthony's blog.

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