You become the owner when signed deed is handed to you

Q: To settle a bet, I’d like to know: When exactly does homeownership transfer? Is it when the new deed is entered in the public records office?

— askedith.com

A: Way back when few people could read or write, the seller of land would pick up a clod of earth and hand it to the buyer, who would seize it and become owner of that land at that moment. The legal term “seizin” still means ownership.

Today, that clod of earth is replaced by the signed deed. While this may differ with escrow closings, in most areas you become owner at the moment the signed deed is physically handed to you.

Radon test

Q: Is a radon test included in a home inspector’s report, or should it be? And should the home seller request a home-inspection engineer report before placing the property on the market? — D. O.

A: In some areas, radon problems seldom exist and the standard home inspection does not usually include a test. It can be different elsewhere. You could ask the inspector directly whether a radon test is usually included.

As for your other question, there’s no one right answer. Some sellers like to be prepared, and they assume the buyer will hire an inspector anyway. If problems are taken care of in advance, or at least disclosed, negotiating a sales contract could go more smoothly.

Other sellers may prefer not to learn about defects they’ve never been aware of.

Looks like the answer to both of your questions is a firm maybe.

Received a 1099

Q: My mother died earlier this year, and I inherited her house. I sold it two months later. At closing, I received a 1099-S form from the title company for the amount of the sale. I was surprised that I am going to have to pay taxes on my inheritance. Wouldn’t this be the same as an inheritance tax?

— L. D.

A: That 1099 doesn’t necessarily mean you will owe capital gains tax on the sale of your mother’s house. When you inherited it, you received a new cost basis: the current value of the home. You should report the sale in your income tax return, but given the costs of selling, you might even have a capital loss.

It’s a good idea to use professional help with your tax return for the year in which you sell a house.

Buyer’s engineering inspection

Q: We are planning to look for our first home, and our friends say it’s a good idea to get an engineering inspection. What advice do you have about that?

— P. I.

A: You won’t want to spend several hundred dollars on an inspection until you’re sure you can buy that specific house. On the other hand, you may not want to be legally bound to buy if the report turns up some major problem. So your written purchase offer could contain what is known as a contingency: It would contain a promise to secure an inspection engineer’s report within a few days and give you an out if you’re unhappy with what it turns up. Rather than setting a specific standard, you simply would ask for a “satisfactory” report.

In some states, home inspectors are licensed; in others, they’re not. Those who belong to the American Society of Home Inspectors have met specific standards of education and experience.

Your friends might have someone to recommend. Real estate agents know which inspectors are active — and prompt — but might avoid responsibility by suggesting several names rather than one specifically.

Hire someone who welcomes you to come along and plan to take notes. You will hear interesting bits that might not make it into the written report. The engineer won’t advise on how much the house is worth or whether you should buy. Instead, you will hear, “That roof looks as if it has about five more years on it. If you had to replace it today, it might cost around X.”

From the seller’s point of view, the property is off the market and tied up until you decide whether the report is satisfactory. You will have to act promptly.

You can firm up your offer by dropping the contingency. Or you can drop out of the whole thing — in writing. Or you can start to renegotiate on the basis of what the inspector found. The seller could either respond to your new offer, or ignore it and put the property back on the market. But by then, of course, the seller could have official knowledge of defects that might need to be disclosed to potential buyers.

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

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