If you’re going to purchase a home in Missouri, the condition of the property is crucial. Do the appliances work? Is there asbestos in the ceilings? Does the electricity work? Some problems you can easily see during your tour of the home; others you cannot. As a homebuyer, you want to be sure that you won’t encounter any nasty surprises after the closing. For this reason, many states require sellers to formally disclose this sort of information in writing, before the sale. Missouri does require sellers to disclose some information, but not all of the information that a buyer like yourself will want to know. What are Missouri’s regulations for seller disclosures, and how can you protect yourself before the closing?
Missouri state law requires home sellers to make certain explicit disclosures to potential buyers. For example, Missouri Rev. Stat. § 442.606 requires that if the property is or was once used as a site for methamphetamine production, the seller must disclose that in writing to the buyer. Methamphetamine (also known as meth) is a dangerous and illegal stimulant drug sometimes manufactured in homes. The seller needs to disclose this only if he or she “had knowledge of such prior methamphetamine production.” Similarly, the statute requires the seller to disclose in writing whether the property was the site “[e]ndangering the welfare of a child” through “physical injury.”
To most buyers, this sort of information might be interesting to know, but not nearly as valuable as knowing the condition of the HVAC, foundation, or roof.
Beyond these specific requirements, Missouri courts leave buyers relatively unprotected. They will typically enforce what are known as caveat emptor clauses in purchase contracts. Under the doctrine of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”), judges refuse to compensate buyers for home defects found after the purchase unless the seller did something to actively prevent the buyer from inspecting the property to find all of the defects or lied to the buyer directly about the condition of the property. In other words, sellers do not have a general obligation to disclose defects beyond the specific instances of drug use or prior criminal history.
If the seller uses a licensed real estate agent, however, these disclosure obligations change. Agents are held to certain standards for honesty under Missouri Rev. Stat. § 339.730.1, which requires that a licensed agent “disclose to any [potential buyer] all adverse material facts actually known or that should have been known by the [agent].”
In other words, a licensed real estate agent cannot lie to you without risking his or her license. An agent would be fairly reckless—or at least shortsighted—if willing to tell you that a piece of property was in perfect condition to get a quick sale, when in fact the roof had a huge hole.
Still, an agent “owes no duty to conduct an independent inspection or discover any adverse material facts for the benefit of the [buyer] and owes no duty to independently verify the accuracy or completeness of any statement made by the [seller] or any independent inspector.” Thus, the seller’s agent does not need to actively investigate the property being sold, or perform any sort of inspection. The agent simply cannot lie for the seller.
Notwithstanding the lack of legislation requiring the seller to disclose material defects to you, a Missouri seller may do so. Indeed, doing so can be helpful from the seller’s perspective, in order to build trust with you.
The Missouri Association of Realtors offers a six-page disclosure form, which is commonly used. A seller who chooses to make disclosures will likely use this form. As you can see, the form asks the seller to check “Yes” or “No” in response to a few dozen questions—divided into 19 categories—about the property. For example, the seller must state how old the home is, whether it is the subject of any liens or lawsuits, and whether he or she is aware of any major problems with various aspects of the house (heating, cooling, electrical, plumbing, and so forth).
Yes and no. If the seller (or the seller’s agent) gives you a formal disclosure, this document can be a useful guide to potential defects in the home. However, you would be wise to remember that a seller’s natural incentive will be to disclose a known condition with just enough specificity to eliminate liability under the statute, but not so much as to scare away potential purchasers like yourself. Thus, any statements made will likely be in language that is most favorable to the seller.
Whether your Missouri seller makes a disclosure or not, you should hire your own home inspector to perform aninvestigation of the property. An investigation of the property would give you independent assurance that you are getting the benefit of your bargain. Of course, you should use the contents of any voluntary seller disclosure as a starting point for future inquiry. For example, you (or your real estate attorney) can ask follow-up questions, or ask your inspector to pay particular attention to areas that the seller mentioned “minor” problems with.