Homeownership Horrors: What Can Go Wrong for Your Clients

Real estate pros have seen the unintended difficulties clients can face after buying a home. Their stories can help your clients avoid future mishaps.

Homeownership can be scary.

Anna Altic, a real estate broker at RE/MAX Homes and Estates in Nashville, Tenn., knows that from her own experience. She once was awakened by several “super-freaked-out birds” flying around in her bedroom. (And that was after watching an episode of “Game of Thrones” before bedtime.) The lesson Altic learned: Check your chimney caps to make sure unwanted visitors stay out.

That’s unsettling—but some homeownership stories are even more frightening. Recently, construction crews bulldozed an Atlanta home only to realize they had the wrong address(link is external). The homeowner returned home from vacation to find her home in piles of wood. In another recent incident, the owners of a short-term rental in San Francisco faced a mess after their Airbnb guests left a clogged toilet running for 15 hours, which flooded the entire building(link is external). The owners, who lived in the unit below, were left homeless with more than $300,000 in debt.

Those examples are extremes, but even a broken HVAC system or a water leak could result in thousands of dollars in damage. A home inspection may help uncover potential problems before a purchase, but more than a quarter of buyers are waiving the inspection contingency, according to the latest REALTORS® Confidence Index.

“Getting an inspection before committing to a property can help you avoid a spooky situation once you’re the owner,” says attorney Claudia Cobreiro, founder of Cobreiro Law in Miami. “An inspection can help reveal any defects with the property that may not be apparent to the naked eye or to an unsophisticated buyer.”

Real estate pros have witnessed the ups and downs of homeownership and learned a few lessons to help your clients avoid potential mishaps in ownership.

Lesson: Get Insurance Lined Up Immediately

Kristy Kyle, a broker at RE/MAX Executive in Fort Mill, N.C., recalls how clients of hers spotted leaking from the air conditioning unit in the attic of their three-story condo. The clients called in a professional, who discovered the unit was frozen and worked to thaw out the system. The next day, the home caught fire.

“Thank goodness the neighbors called the fire department immediately,” Kyle says. “A few more minutes and the home would have been engulfed.” The fire was contained to the attic, but the water to put out the fire made the home unlivable and destroyed most of the owner’s belongings. “It was a total reconstruction job,” Kyle says.

What’s more, “they did not have homeowners’ insurance at the time since they were still moving in. It was on their list of things to do,” Kyle says. Luckily, their homeowners association’s insurance covered all the damages under the master policy. But Kyle says the experience is a lesson: “I want to tell everyone this story so that they make sure insurance is in place as soon as the home is closed,” Kyle says. “This was a cash sale, so it was not required.”

Lesson: Don’t Shrug Off Red Flags

“The greatest homebuying horror is buying a financial sinkhole,” says Rinal Patel, a broker with Everyhome of Pennsylvania Inc. in Skippack, Pa. “Many fall into this trap because, too often, they fail to read disclosures or simply do not understand the red flags when buying a new home.” Patel tries to warn her clients to be on the lookout for potential problems.

While a home inspection can help, buyers also should be on the lookout for signs that might indicate costly problems, such as a sagging roof, watermarks on the wall, poor ventilation or windows and doors that don’t shut properly. Even tiny cracks in the wall can indicate a foundation problem. “As a real estate professional, I have learned that most horrors come about when home buyers, in excitement, make an ill-advised home purchase,” Patel says. “This is most often the case when buyers make the mistake of buying without a proper inspection.”

Lesson: Consider Extra Inspections

Brie Schmidt, broker-owner of Second City Real Estate in Chicago, recalls how just one day after closing on her clients’ new home, the sewer backed up following a heavy rain and flooded the basement and first floor. “They had just arrived with their movers to find standing water everywhere,” Schmidt says. “It took three months and over $100,000 to renovate the home before they could move in.”

Schmidt uses the story to remind her clients that not every component of a home is included in the inspection. “Oftentimes, a sewer scope, lead-based paint test, radon test or termite inspection are add-on services and not included in the standard inspection,” she says. “Your insurance agent should also explain the policy to you and what it does and does not cover. Sewer backups are not always covered in standard policies and would need add-on coverage.”

Lesson: Perseverance Can Pay Off

Deborah Zolan, an agent at Compass in New York, recalls working with a couple who bought their first home in Brooklyn. Prior to closing, Zolan received a call from the listing agent about a fire in the house the night prior. The house sustained significant damage.

“I had to deliver the news to the buyers,” Zolan says. “They had to decide whether or not to move forward on the purchase.”

The listing broker had received numerous offers on the property and had a backup if Zolan’s buyers decided to pull out of the purchase. Zolan’s buyers looked at other properties but ultimately decided to stick with the house, favoring its location. They were able to renegotiate the price—and paid $125,000 less than the original ask. They also needed to get a construction loan and extend the lease on their current apartment while repairs and renovations were completed.

“The lesson was in patience and understanding,” Zolan says. “We had a great attorney working with us, as well as stellar mortgage brokers, so the team was key in keeping everything calm and moving forward.” In the end, the buyers remained excited about homeownership and were able to work with an architect to redesign the house to their exact specifications.

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