Home Defects: How to Get Repairs or Compensation Without Suing

What if something was wrong with the property at the time you bought it, and someone—the seller, the seller's agent, or the inspector—could or should have told you about it but didn't? Try approaches such as a demand letter or mediation before rushing to court.

Upon finding defects in the house you bought, the urge to sue the home seller or other parties involved in the sale can be strong. You might be feeling angry, upon realizing that the defects might have arisen before the sale; yet no one told you about them. Maybe the seller even hid them from you, which would amount to fraud. But you're probably also aware that going to court could require a big investment of both time and money.

Fortunately, you might be able to recover what you're owed more cheaply and with less stress using other methods. These are worth a look even if you have a good legal claim against your home seller, selling agent, or inspector. For example, you might:

  • get your real estate agent involved
  • send a demand letter, and/or
  • request mediation.

Advising Your Real Estate Agent About the Home Defects

Assuming the agent who represented you isn't the one you believe to be at fault, going back to that person should likely be your first step. Your agent should be in regular professional contact with the seller's agent, and both of them want to make sure the deals they supervise don't go sour. If yours is not a terribly complex situation, the agents might help arrange, for instance, reimbursement from the seller.

Sending a Demand Letter Regarding the Home Defects

By simply asking, in writing, that the responsible party pay the costs of repairing the defect, you might get what you want. A demand letter offers an opportunity to:

  • lay out the facts and evidence, including what defects you have discovered and what indications or expert opinions lead you to believe they existed and were likely known of before the sale
  • gently remind the recipients of their relevant legal responsibility, for example the seller's obligation to have disclosed known material defects, or the inspector's professional responsibility to have found them
  • state specifically what you want in order to resolve the issue, for example a certain sum of money, ideally based on estimates from contractors (which you should attach copies of), and
  • conclude with a subtle threat, stating that you will pursue legal action if your demand is not met.

You don't need a lawyer to write such a letter. Give it some close attention, though, and perhaps have others read over it. The goal is to make sure it is clear, polite, and professional. This is not the time to fire off an angry email.

Requesting Mediation Over the Home Defects

Another option is to tell a responsible party about the home-defect problem and—assuming the person doesn't agree to compensate you or fix the problem right away—ask for cooperation in arranging a mediation.

Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution, in which the interested parties work cooperatively toward a settlement or fair resolution, with the help of a neutral mediator. It's far less expensive than hiring an attorney (though you could certainly consult with some separately). Many communities have low-cost mediation services, in some cases associated with the small claims court.

The mediator is nothing like a judge, but is there to guide the discussion in a productive direction. That said, you should prepare for this event in some of the same ways as you would for a court proceeding.

Gather the evidence that you want the other party to be aware of, write out a timeline of events if relevant, print out photos if possible, prepare a summary of your concerns and wishes, and bring written notes, or a bullet-point list, to work from.

For example, if you discovered a hole in the floor upon moving a plant that the seller left behind, and the damage required hiring a contractor to deal with, you'd want to bring photos of the hole, the contractor's bills, and a statement from the contractor or other professional stating that the damage appears to have been there for some time. Then you'd also want to write notes on how this was an apparent effort to hide serious damage, and you'd like full compensation for the repairs.

Be ready to compromise, but not too fast. The idea is to give the other party a chance to be heard, and craft a solution that everyone feels is fair.

For more information, see Mediation: The Six Stages. And if you find you need professional legal help, check out Nolo's Lawyer Directory.

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