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

How Georgia home buyers can best obtain information about the property's condition.

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So, you are ready to buy a home in Georgia. You found a home you love and you’re looking over the purchase and sale contract. Before you sign, however, your real estate agent hands you a form containing the seller’s disclosures about the home. Now you need to know what to look for in the seller’s disclosure form, and whether or not the seller’s disclosures tell you all you’ll need to know about the property.

What a Georgia Home Seller Must Disclose

Although home sellers in Georgia are not required to fill out a disclosure form, many do anyway. That’s because, under Georgia law, a seller must inform a buyer about any known material (important) facts about the physical condition of the home, and must honestly answer any questions from a buyer about the home. Most sellers find it easiest to just complete some type of written disclosure statement.

Usually the seller will use a disclosure form provided by the seller’s real estate agent. This disclosure form is typically the “Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement” (the form prepared by the Georgia Association of REALTORS® and normally used by real estate agents in Georgia).

What the Georgia Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement Includes

The Georgia Seller Property Disclosure Statement is a fairly lengthy document that can give the buyer quite a bit of important information about the property. On the statement, the seller answers a wide variety of questions pertaining to the condition of the home and the property. The seller chooses from “yes,” “no,” or “don’t know” answers, and must explain any known defects in detail.

When fully completed by a knowledgeable seller, the disclosure statement can be a treasure trove of information for a buyer. For example, the seller may reveal in the disclosure statement that the roof of the home has leaked in the past, or that a retaining wall on the property is falling apart brick by brick.

However, as a buyer in Georgia, you cannot rely on the disclosure statement as your sole source of information. The seller must only report what he or she actually knows about the physical condition of the property. There may be any number of things the seller just doesn’t know about. For example, the seller might not be aware that the crawl space is infested with wood-eating insects, or that the water heater probably only has a year of useful life left in it.

Even if the seller marks “I don’t know” as an answer for many items on the disclosure statement, however, reading the form can give you a good idea of things about the property that might warrant further investigation and questioning; things you might not have thought of otherwise.

For this reason, even if the seller doesn't give you a disclosure form at all, you might want get your hands on a blank copy as a useful way to review potential types of problems. The form might prompt you, for example, to ask the seller whether there are any diseased or dead trees or shrubs on the property or whether the home has ever been part of a claim for defective building products. (Ask your real estate broker, the seller’s broker or another real estate professional in your area for a copy of the form disclosure statement. Or, you could even request that the seller fill out the form.)

The seller’s disclosure statement can also be helpful for a buyer, because in addition to providing information about the physical condition of the property, the seller specifies what things in the home and on the property are included as a part of the sale. As a general rule, except for any item specifically included in the purchase and sale agreement, a seller can keep anything in the home or on the property that is not a permanent fixture.

Disputes can arise, however, when the buyer and seller have different ideas on what is “permanent.” (It’s not fun, for example, to move in and find all the windows unexpectedly bare, or discover a brown circle of dead grass in the backyard where the above ground pool you planned to have so much fun in used to be.) The seller’s disclosure statement helps avoid such problems by listing, in detail, items that might or might not be included. The list includes everything from window treatments to appliances to buried pet fencing and lighting switchplates.

What a Seller Does Not Need to Disclose to a Georgia Buyer

Even if the seller completes the property disclosure statement, there are things about the property the seller does not need to (and in some cases is not allowed to) tell a buyer in Georgia. For example, the seller does not need to disclose any condition of the property that a buyer would discover upon a reasonable inspection. This is a pretty narrow exception, however. Basically, it means the seller does not need to point out the obvious, such as, “That there, right under your feet -- that is a huge hole in the carpeting.”

A seller in Georgia also does not need to disclose certain information about things that have happened on the property (rather than facts about the physical condition of the property). For example, the seller does not need to tell a buyer if a diseased person ever lived in the home, or if a homicide, felony, suicide, or any other death occurred there (Georgia Official Code Annotated §44-1-16(a)(1)). Additionally, a seller in Georgia is not required to let a buyer know if a registered sex offender lives in the area (Georgia Official Code Annotated §44-1-16 (b)).

However, the seller still must answer any direct question a buyer asks about these things honestly (Georgia Official Code Annotated §44-1-16(a)(1)). So, if you have heard disturbing rumors that the home was the site of a murder, or if you have worries about sending a young child out to play if there is a registered sex offender in the area, ask the seller directly about these things. If the seller does know, he or she needs to give an honest answer.

The only time a seller does not need to answer your questions as a buyer relating to the property is if the question is about something not allowed to be disclosed under the Federal Fair Housing Act or Georgia’s fair housing laws (Georgia Official Code Annotated §44-1-16 (a)(2)). These are laws that protect people from housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and handicap.

If, for example, you are curious or concerned about a previous occupant’s religion, or whether a person with AIDS (considered a handicap under the Fair Housing Act) ever lived in the home, this is protected information the seller cannot give out. (The Federal Fair Housing Act is found at 42United States Code, Sections 3601-3619 and 363, and Georgia’s fair housing laws are found in the Georgia Official Code Annotated, Sections 8-3-200 through 8-3-223.)

Help for a Buyer in Georgia

Regardless of the amount of information the seller discloses to a buyer about the condition of the property (whether through the disclosure document, the seller’s statements, or from the seller’s answers to a direct questions), it’s always a good idea for a buyer to independently investigate the property.

Before signing the purchase and sale agreement, as a buyer, you should ensure that it contains an inspection contingency, as well as a title review contingency. These contingencies should allow you to inspect the physical condition of the property and matters relating to the title to the property. If you find a problem with the condition of the property or its title during these reviews, the contingencies should give you the option to request that the seller fix any problems, offer a lower price, or terminate the purchase agreement.

It’s a good idea to hire a professional inspector to do the physical inspection of the property, and a real estate attorney to assist with the title review process. (For further information on home inspections and inspection reports see Nolo's article, “Getting a Home Inspection”. For more information about what to look for when reviewing the title to a property, see Nolo’s article “Buying a Home: How Reviewing the Title Commitment Now Prevents Unpleasant Surprises Later”.)

Another good way to for a buyer to find out information about the property is to ask lots of questions, not only of the seller, but also of any real estate agents, neighbors, or anyone you think might know something about the property. You may also wish to do an online search of the property address. You might find out such things as if the police have visited the property, or if any sex offenders live in the area (for information on registered sex offenders in Georgia go to: http://gbi.georgia.gov/georgia-sex-offender-registry.)

Buying a home can be a big commitment. As a Georgia buyer, you want to make sure you are getting the home you really want, in the condition you expect. By carefully reviewing the seller’s disclosure statement, as well as doing your own investigations, you can hopefully find out about, and resolve any problems with the condition of the homebefore you own it!

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