Hurricane Damage: What Does the Seller Have to Tell You?
By Jeffrey Zane, President of Attorneys’ Real Estate Council of Palm Beach County, Inc.
Millions of dollars worth of residential repairs have been done in Palm Beach County since Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne ripped through the state last fall, causing as much as $24 billion in damage (is this the damage figure for these two or for all four hurricanes?) throughout the state of Florida in 2004.
Since then, affected homeowners have worked for months to fix everything from damaged roofs and ripped siding to broken fence posts and cracked pool foundations. Unfortunately, some homes are still not completely repaired.
Nearly 150,000 residents of Palm Beach County applied for FEMA assistance following the storms, requesting assistance totaling $118.6 million.
At the same time, the West Palm Beach-area real estate market remained red-hot, as homeowners continued to put their homes on the market—repaired or not. But if a residence was hit by the storm, what does the owner have to tell you about the extent of the damage? And does the seller have to fix hurricane damage before the home can be sold?
Because of the extensive damage to homes caused by last year’s storms, buyers should be especially aware of seller disclosure laws, which require home sellers to reveal potentially negative property issues to buyers.
Although Florida is not among the 32 states with disclosure laws, Florida case law does support seller disclosure requirements through case law dating back to 1986.
Since then, a written seller’s disclosure has become a critical part of a home sale transaction in Florida—a document that addresses everything from the property’s land and structural condition to its plumbing, roofing and electrical systems.
Seller disclosure standards in Florida cover obvious defects, which are visible to the buyer; and material defects, which are not readily visible, such as an issue with the roof, a hidden crack in the foundation or mold that occurred after extensive water damage due to a tropical storm or hurricane.
If you have any questions about what should and shouldn’t be disclosed, ask your real estate attorney; in general, sellers should be willing to volunteer problems such as:
- Malfunctions in the major systems of the home, such as the foundation, plumbing, electrical system, heating and air conditioning, siding, windows, doors, walls and ceilings
- Damage to property due to fire, floods, hurricanes, sink holes, etc.
- Environmental hazards such as lead-based paint (for homes built before 1978), asbestos, radon gas, contaminated soil or water, and mold
- Problems with termites
- Work completed without building permits, such as wiring an outdoor speaker system yourself, or carpentry and plumbing jobs
Sellers are required only to reveal a home’s defects, not to necessarily fix them. As long as the defect is disclosed, the seller is not liable if the buyer chooses not to make repairs down the road. In many cases, the defects become a negotiating point for the final home price.
If the defect is not disclosed and the buyer discovers it later, the seller could be sued for misrepresenting the condition of the home.
If a home was damaged in last year’s storms, pay particularly close attention to the home inspector’s report. The dearth of reputable and experienced repairmen in the wake of last year’s hurricanes forced many homeowners to contract with transient or inexperienced workers who may have done shoddy work.
Also, be sure all building permits taken out on the property have been closed, bringing it in compliance with Florida’s building code. If you buy a home with an open construction permit, the permit stays with the property—not the homeowner that opened it.