Florida Home Buyers: How to Read the Seller's Disclosure Form

Home buyers in Florida can obtain a great deal of information, if they ask for disclosures and follow up.

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Searching for the perfect home in the Sunshine State? You may be relieved to know that what a seller is legally required to tell you about the property may assist you in making a wise decision, both personally and financially. Florida courts have declared that a seller must disclose anything about their property that has a substantial impact on its value or desirability and that visitors cannot easily see for themselves (This comes from the court case ofJohnson v. Davis, 480 So.2d 625 (Fla. 1985).)

Ask That the Seller Provide You With a Standard Florida Disclosure Form

To assist sellers in making their legally required disclosures, the Florida Association of Realtors® provides a standard form covering many categories and issues that commonly impact a home’s value and safety – everything from roof condition to radon contamination (as described below).

What does this mean for you as a buyer? For starters, you should certainly ask that the seller provide you with the completed form, and then read it carefully. But by no means should you let this form be a substitute for conducting your own careful investigations and inspections as to the true condition of the property. A house and property are a complex system. Even the most honest seller may forget, overlook, or simply have no idea about what’s going on with the property’s various structural components and features.

Disclosure Form Should Not Be a Substitute for Your Own Inspections

Sellers are only required to make disclosures to the best of their knowledge. (See Jensen v. Bailey, 76 So.3d 980 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2011).) And quite frequently, some of the most serious damage to a home, such as mold or termites, might not be visible to the naked eye at first. The seller might have been living in the home for years without having given any thought to these issues. And if you are buying an investment property unoccupied by the seller, that owner may be even more ignorant of the true condition of the home.

In the worst-case scenario, of course, a seller may simply lie or conveniently forget about problems with the property. It’s illegal, but it happens nonetheless.

All of this points to the importance of following the custom that’s standard in Florida and in other states: Make your purchase contract contingent on your hiring one or more professional inspectors to examine and write up a report on the property, and on your subsequent satisfaction with what the report shows. (If defects turn up – as they almost always do – this clause allows you to either back out of the deal or negotiate over repairs, whichever seems appropriate under the circumstances.) See the “Home Inspections, Disclosures, and Appraisals” page of Nolo’s website for more information.

Florida Home Sellers Need Only Disclose What They Know About

Quite frequently, the disclosure form will not tell the whole story, simply because the seller doesn’t know everything. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to deal with a seller who, in anticipation of selling a property, has conducted relevant inspections to reveal the facts that savvy buyers will want to know. But you should not assume that the seller has chosen the most vigilant inspector around, and you will most likely need to conduct separate or additional inspections yourself.

Who pays for inspection services can, however, be a point of negotiation in your purchase contract. While many buyers are accustomed to having to pay for inspections on a prospective home, they are not legally required to do so, and you can certainly ask that the seller pay for these services.

Facts That Florida Home Sellers Are Not Required to Tell Buyers

As you conduct your investigation into your prospective home, keep in mind that there are some conditions that sellers, by law, are not required to advise you of. For example, sellers do not have to tell you whether murders or suicides occurred in their properties, or whether any occupants of the homes have been infected with HIV or AIDS (See Florida Statute § 689.25).

Conditions Covered by the Florida Disclosure Form

The conditions that can impact the value and desirability of a home are vast, and the standard disclosure form does a good job of addressing most of them.

For example, a seller is required to tell you whether the property is subject to the restrictions of a condominium or homeowners’ association (which are quite widespread in Florida). The seller is not, however, required to provide you with the corresponding association documents, so you should be sure to obtain these documents and review their conditions before you move forward with the purchase. You can certainly ask sellers if they have the documents handy. If not, you can probably access them through the public records office or drop by the condominium office for a copy. (Also see, "Before Buying: How to Read the CC&Rs or Homeowners' Association (HOA) Documents.")

The seller is also required to disclose such matters as whether the property is the subject of any lawsuits or court proceedings, whether any code violations exist on the property (either past or present), whether any dangerous environmental conditions such as mold, radon, or lead are present, whether any damage to important components of the home such as the roof, plumbing, electric has occurred, and more.

The form also contains a catch-all paragraph in which the seller must disclose whether anything else materially affects the value of the property. It is great to have all of these questions answered, but you should always cross-check the facts with your own research and ask follow-up questions about any potentially alarming information or items that don’t appear on the form.

Many Research Tools at Your Disposal

Due to the wide variety of search mechanisms provided by the Internet, home buyers are well equipped to conduct thorough investigations into the true state of a property. They can order title searches, conduct background investigations on the sellers, check court and county records to check for lawsuits, liens and code violations, and check social media for any other important facts about the sellers or property.

For information on local sexual predators, as required by the federal Megan’s Law, you can visit the Florida Department of Law Enforcement site.

It can also be a good idea for buyers to ask the sellers to provide them with the names, invoices, and work orders for all contractors who have provided services at the house within the past few years. You may be able to unearth property conditions or problems that were forgotten or conveniently omitted from the disclosure form.

Also, don’t be shy about paying the neighbors a visit. While exchanging pleasantries as prospective new neighbors, you can drop in a few casual questions about any problems with the house the neighbors might have observed, as well as any issues or annoyances in the neighborhood in general.

Need More Help?

Perhaps the seller has disclosed a complex condition and you’re not sure who should be required to pay for it. Or maybe you’re not sure that the seller is telling you everything, and you need help with conducting your own investigation. Buying a home is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make, so don’t hesitate to contact an experienced real estate lawyer, who will protect your rights every step of the way.

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