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Buyers of older homes can expect minor surprises

Q: Though my problems were not as major as your recent letter writers’, I had a few strange experiences with my house.

Months after purchase, I finally got around to figuring out why the light over the sink would not operate, even with a new bulb. I unscrewed the fixture from the ceiling only to find out that it was simply a fixture screwed into the ceiling. There were no wires to be connected. The previous owner probably just put it there probably to make it look as if there were a light.

Also, a door does not latch. When I want it to be shut from the outside, I run a string from the doorknob to the bathroom closet. And the bathroom fan doesn’t work at all, but I don’t need it. — J.

A: A carpenter could fix that door, and an electrician would solve the other problems. Buyers of an older house can pretty much expect minor surprises. Yours wouldn’t have been important enough to go to court over. They’re probably about par for the course in a lived-in house.

I think of this every time the pilot light doesn’t work in the front right burner of my gas stove. All you have to do is turn on the back burner, and the front one will catch. But will my kids someday alert potential buyers of this house about it? Would the buyers’ home inspector note it?

I end up remembering that the stove isn’t really part of the real estate anyhow — it’s legally treated as a fixture. I’m sure there are other small accommodations I make in this house without even noticing them. That’s probably unavoidable when the place has been lived in. And, as I said, it’s not important enough to go to court over.

Lawyer at closing

Q: We are going to sell our house, and we are told that we need to use a lawyer. We have never heard of that. We have sold houses in California and never used a lawyer. Is it really necessary? — K.H.

A: Yes, in New York (also in much of New Jersey and some other areas), even simple real estate transfers are usually handled by attorneys. This is not a legal requirement; it’s just regional custom.

If it were the other way around — if you were from New York and buying a house in California — you might not even know what people are talking about when they say, “We hope to go to escrow Monday morning.”

Local customs vary widely, but the cost of a closing ends up pretty much the same. I have been told that in parts of New England, closings are conducted by real estate brokers. The process is often referred to as “passing papers” — “We hope to pass papers on our new house Monday morning!”

In other areas, closings may be handled by escrow services or lending institutions. They may take place at the county courthouse, a bank, an attorney’s office or some other location. Sometimes, everyone sits around a big table; in other places, buyer and seller don’t even meet.

No matter who handles the proceedings, the same legal steps will take place and your expenses will be about the same. Your main responsibility will be to prove title, to show that you are selling clear and trouble-free ownership. You’ll sign a new deed, transferring title to the buyers. It will be drawn up ahead of time so that it can be examined and approved.

Sums you and the buyers owe each other (prepaid or past-due property taxes, for example) will be properly credited. If your buyers are using a mortgage loan, the lenders’ representative may participate as well. That’s because those buyers won’t get the loan unless they pledge the property as security, but they can’t do that until they own it, but they won’t own it until they pay for it, but they need the mortgage money to buy. It all has to happen at the same time.

By all means, follow local custom. If you don’t, you’ll only confuse everyone and complicate the progress of your sale.

Underwater inheritance

Q: Regarding G. and M.S., I am not a lawyer, and you are right that one should be consulted for advice. While an heir could disclaim their entire inheritance, your reply might suggest one could disclaim only an underwater home (where the mortgage debt is more than the place is worth) while inheriting other valuable estate property at the lender’s expense. It may not be so simple. At least in recourse states, if the mortgage is not assumed or settled, the lender may foreclose and then liquidate the estate to satisfy the deficiency. — N.K.

A: Thanks for the reminder. I’m glad to remember I advised those readers to work with their own attorney.

Contact Edith Lank at www.askedith.com, at edithlank@aol.com or at 240 Hemingway Drive, Rochester NY 14620.

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