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Watch out for monkey business after sale

Immediately after the new owners moved in, food mysteriously began to disappear. But the way Yorktown Heights, N.Y., agent Ed Ferguson recalled the puzzling occurrence several years ago, it wasn’t until several days later that they found why — the seller had left his pet monkey behind.

Fortunately, sellers who leave things — or at least things of value — are a rarity. What happens far more frequently is that they take things they shouldn’t. All manner of things, too, like toilet seats, built-in microwaves, light fixtures, sometimes even the shrubs.

Once, after Kat Gardner’s clients moved into the house they had just purchased, they called to say they had no electricity. They had transferred the power into their name, but when they flicked the light switch, they had nothing.

Turns out they had power, but no light bulbs. “The seller had removed every single light bulb in the house when they left,” said Gardner, who hangs her license at RE/MAX Island Realty in Hilton Head, S.C. “There is thrifty, and then there is cheap.”

There’s a fine line between what’s supposed to stay with a house when it is sold and what can be taken. For the most part, folks who take things they shouldn’t do so unknowingly. But sometimes, the seller knows exactly what they are doing is wrong.

Take the situation that Judi Bryan of RE/MAX Accord in Bloomingdale, Ill., found herself in when she and her husband bought their first home 32 years ago.

They had gone back-and-forth with the seller about the home’s carpeting, which for the most part was royal blue but had been turned purple in spots by the sun. To make a long story short, after a bit of haggling, the Bryans and the seller finally agreed that the couple would receive a credit at closing to cover the cost of replacing the carpet.

Apparently, the seller wasn’t at all pleased with the concession, so prior to the walkthrough inspection, he removed all the carpeting, leaving only bare concrete floors and carpet tack strips.

Because she had an 11-month-old son, Judi refused to close unless the carpet was reinstalled. The seller didn’t want to, but his wife made him put the carpet back.

That’s not the end of it, though, because when they went to the house after settlement, the Bryans discovered the seller had replaced the refrigerator with an older model that was smaller and didn’t have a separate freezer compartment.

The kicker: The seller was a real-estate broker who owned his own office and absolutely, positively should have known better.

To know the difference between what goes and what stays — or, more accurately, what conveys with the house and what doesn’t — you have to understand the difference between real and personal property.

Simplistically, what stays are all those items that are attached to the property and intended to be part of it. What can be taken, on the other hand, are things that can be removed without damaging the property.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Fancy light fixtures, designer doorknobs, built-in bookshelves, window awnings, garage-door openers are all affixed to the house, so they are considered real property, or fixtures, that must remain when you move.

In contrast, countertop microwaves, refrigerators, washers and dryers, and window fans can be removed simply by unplugging them, so they are considered personal property that can be taken with you.

But there is a vast gray area between real and personal property. Here’s a short list of questionable items: curtains, blinds, shades, draperies, fireplace covers, wood stoves, backyard swing sets, television antennas and satellite dishes.

Getting the picture? What do you do with those beautiful customer curtains? They aren’t attached to the house, but the curtain rods are. Yet they match the wall-to-wall carpeting, which, as opposed to an area rug, is definitely attached.

The best way to handle these and other questionable items is to get them out of the house and into storage before you ever put the house on the market. After all, what the buyer doesn’t see, he can’t want. In other words, if you intend to keep the dining-room chandelier because it’s a family heirloom, take it down and replace it with another fixture so it won’t become an issue.

“It’s amazing how, if something is special to the sellers, buyers seem to hone in on it and want to make sure it is part of the deal,” says Warren Smadbeck of Cherryvale Realty in Boulder, Colo., who recommends to his sellers that they remove anything that’s special to them and replace with items they don’t mind leaving behind.

If that’s not an option, the next best protection is to be as specific as possible. Sellers should detail exactly what conveys with the property and what does not in their listing agreements, and buyers should include in their contract offers everything they expect to be there when they move in.

Any difference between the two lists is then subject to further negotiation.

Generally, there are few, if any, problems when the buyer and seller like each other. But, as the Bryans found it, if the seller becomes angry, or the transaction becomes adversarial, he’s just as likely to clean out the place, right down to the light-switch covers and the toilet-paper bars.

“They can become almost spiteful,” New York agent Ferguson said when speaking of the left-behind monkey incident.

Bryan in Illinois found that out the hard way. It was five years before she herself went into real-estate sales, and she’s carried that experience with her ever since.

To this day, she documents everything with “lots of photos” of anything that could be called into question. Then, during the walkthrough, she confirms that the household items written into the contract are still in place.

Eileen Landau of Realty Executives Pro/Team in Naperville, Ill., takes pictures, too, And as an extra precaution, she’s sure to date-stamp every one.

But Kathleen Rollins of Coldwell Banker in Tempe, Ariz., who had a similar experience as Bryan, goes her fellow agents one better. Since the “included” 22-inch side-by-side refrigerator she thought she was getting got switched with “one you would use in a college dorm,” Rollins has always included the model and serial numbers of every appliance on the contract, including the water softener.

Unfortunately, people buy and sell houses infrequently, so they aren’t as attuned to the potential for disputes as they should be. Most of the time, buyers don’t really care if something doesn’t convey. But if they think they are going to get something that’s gone, they get very upset. And when that happens, you can either take the seller to court or take your lumps.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 30 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance-industry publications.

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