A few weeks ago, a couple closed on an apartment in an old building that had been completely renovated.
The seller had told them they were entitled to receive certain tax breaks and benefits through 2007 because the property had been listed on the historic register. The seller’s broker also made this claim verbally, although it was not indicated on the listing sheet.
The couple, who put every cent they had into buying the condo, decided the extraordinarily low taxes made the property “doable.” Neither they, nor the broker who brought them to the deal, thought to mention the historic nature of the property to the attorney.
You can probably guess what happened. Four weeks later, the received a call from the title company, which was holding the tax funds in escrow. Instead of a $2,000 tax bill, they had received one for $6,000. Would they kindly and immediately send a check for the difference?
As it usually happens, everyone started pointing the finger of blame at everyone else. While it’s likely that the seller lied to the buyers about the taxes, assigning blame to this unfortunate situation isn’t the point.
Unless you assign it to the buyers themselves.
For many years, the Latin phrase, “Caveat Emptor” or “buyer beware” has been the catchall slogan of real estate. It means simply that the buyer should do everything in his or her power to make sure that the property is sound and the deed valid. Why? Because at the end of the day, it’s the buyer’s money that’s been plunked down on the bottom line.
Though some states have adopted seller disclosure laws — which require the seller to disclose everything they know that could materially affect the property’s value — it remains incumbent upon the homebuyer to thoroughly check out the property, deed, zoning issues, building codes, tax liabilities, and any other development that might lower the value of the home.
The only way our Midwest buyer could have caught the tax mistake would have been to check the assessed value for the property. It’s a relatively simple task. Go to your county assessor’s office and pull the property record card. The assessed valuation of the property should be listed there.
If you’re in a county that reassesses property value every third or fourth year, and you’re in that year, ask the assessor what the expected tax increase will be.
Zoning is another important issue. If you buy a home near a corner on a lovely residential street, make sure that corner is zoned for residential, rather than commercial, development. Otherwise, you could wind up living next to a noisy parking lot, which might lower the value of your land.
To check out how property is zoned in your neighborhood, go to the zoning department in your city, village or town hall, and look at the local maps. Ask the zoning officer what zoning changes or variations have been proposed.
Finally, go to the building department and ask if the property you plan to purchase has been cited for any code violations. You may also ask for copies of the code that apply to your property. You want to be certain that local building code will permit any changes or additions you’re considering, like the addition of a second or third floor.
If you don’t want to do the legwork yourself, ask your real estate attorney to specifically check on these issues for you. If you’re paying the attorney a flat fee, be sure these issues are included in the price.
And if you think that zoning, code and tax issues aren’t relevant to your situation, think again.
A year after he closed, a Michigan homeowner discovered that village zoning ordinances wouldn’t allow him to build out his attic into a master bedroom suite with picture windows overlooking lake Michigan. That attic view was one of the reasons he bought the house in the first place.
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