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An urban myth and its real-life understanding

Posted by Rona Fischman  July 30, 2012 01:48 PM

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I developed a habit because of an urban myth. Since it is not a problem to anyone, I just keep doing it. The habit: I turn on an overhead light at any pre-closing walkthrough, even if it is broad daylight.

Why do I do that? There is a story that I heard at least a half dozen times when I was new in the business. It always happened to a cousin’s brother-in-law’s ex-wife’s sister or some such impossible-to-trace source.

A seller was so unhappy with the outcome of a sale that he removed all the toilet paper and all the light bulbs from the house before closing. He then scheduled the closing for 4 PM, leaving the new owners in the dark and without bathroom material. I also heard it as 4 PM on a Friday of a holiday weekend, when it would be hard to get light bulbs and toilet paper.

It has to be a myth. I have had clients who closed on places with no toilet paper, but I have not seen spiteful removal of either paper or light bulbs. However, it is an instructive example of the line between personal property (chattel) and real estate. The light bulbs and toilet paper are personal property, just like furniture and stuff on shelves in the kitchen. The seller is supposed to remove them before closing. Most don’t, as a courtesy to the buyer.

My clients are often annoyed that refrigerators are not real estate. But here in Massachusetts, one can sell or rent a place without one. Refrigerators, washers, and electric dryers fit the definition of chattel; they are not affixed (attached) permanently to the structure and were not built into it. They are the same as toasters and computers. Gas dryers are treated as chattel, even though they need to be disconnected from the gas line by a plumber. It is confusing that the stove is real estate, even though it is no more connected than a dryer. Stoves are required for occupancy.

Chattel that seems like real estate includes large mirrors mounted on a bracket. The bracket is real estate, the mirror is not. Frequently a buyer can’t know how it is mounted. Play sets in the yard are sometimes dug into the ground (real estate) or sit on the surface (chattel.) Then there are curtain rods. The bracket is real estate, but the rod is not. If the rod and the bracket are a matched set, who gets them? ... See what I mean?

The most common problem I run into are things that my clients think is “useless junk” and the seller thinks is part of the house. Paint cans, rotted firewood, and ancient work benches are the most common things left rusting and rotting in yards, basements, and garages. Useful things, like extra tiles that match the kitchen or bathroom, extra siding or trim wood that matches the exterior, and matching paint are things the buyer should ask about, lest they be tossed before closing.

It’s important before you make an offer to get on the same page as the seller about what is included and what is not. The second section of the Offer to Purchase is where you ultimately get on the same page. Sellers can exclude things that are real estate. Buyers can include things that are chattel. Get it written there.

As Lance mentioned, in a past post, these chattel items can be used as a distraction during negotiation. Don’t get caught up negotiating over an $800 refrigerator and lose $3000 in price advantage.

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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