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The seller owns the house until closing day

Posted by Rona Fischman December 21, 2010 02:23 PM

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Here's a story about a buyer who didn’t understand something very basic: The seller owns the house until closing.

Recently, a buyer hired a tree company to remove large trees from a house that hadn’t closed yet… Yeah, you guessed it. The deal fell through and the lawyers are figuring out how much those trees added to the property value and who is going to pay for the owner’s loss.

If house hunters forget who owns the house, bad things happen. The problems with a buyer having work done on a home before the papers pass go way beyond issues of respect for the seller’s property rights. There are issues of insurance and liability for the current owner. There are questions about whether the work adds or decreases the value of the property.

It is natural that the closer a would-be buyer gets to closing, the more he/she feels ownership of the property. As a buyer’s agent, I need to keep my buyers on track that they can plan, but they cannot change anything until they own it.

The boundary is a bit confusing, partly because it changes along the way. Permission goes a long way in maintaining civility. Anything that puts the seller’s nose out of joint is going to go against the buyer, if the buyer gets into negotiation with that seller.

Buyers are invited to open closet doors and peek into the crawl spaces at open houses. Should buyers be allowed to move a night table in order to open a crawlspace door? It’s OK to open a kitchen cabinet, but may a buyer look at the storage in a removable kitchen island (which may be furniture)?


Buyers want to know if there is wood under the carpet. Some take matters into their own hands and tug away… Sellers do get mad, especially if buyers pull in a place that shows. Same thing happens with wallpaper.
Then there’s the bathroom question… Using a household bathroom without permission could easily create resentment. Asking really helps. But, some sellers would even find it invasive to be asked. (There is a huge ick factor there.)

It is more acceptable to look into that kitchen island once the house is under agreement. Home inspectors frequently move furniture to get to crawlspaces. At that point, some sellers will give permission to peak under the carpet.

Once the Purchase and Sales Agreement is signed, buyers start thinking like owners. Their contractor can come to give an estimate, but that contractor cannot dismantle anything to investigate the job without the current owner’s permission.

Who do you think is responsible for those torn-down trees? The buyer or the tree service? Do mature trees add value to a property, or are they a hazard?

My question for people who work on houses: do you ask if the person paying you owns the house, or do you assume he/she does?

Sellers, did you have would-be buyers disrespect your property by looking in places they weren’t invited or causing damage?

Buyers, have sellers gotten in your way by not allowing you to find out what you need to know?


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About boston real estate now
Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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