If you are like most West Virginians, buying a home is one of the most consequential financial decisions of your life. Your home is not just the place that you may live for many decades, but also a critical investment. You want to make sure that you are getting what you pay for--in other words, that the property you buy is really worth what the seller is asking for it.
How would you feel if you moved into a home, and later discovered that the ceiling was caving in? Or that the electrical system was shot? Or that the water wasn’t running in the second floor bathroom? These sorts of defects would tremendously impair the value of your home.
Most states have clear legislation that would require home sellers to give a written disclosure report of these sorts of defects to potential buyers. In the Mountain State, sellers do not have these legislative requirements. West Virginia requires limited disclosures only if the seller uses a licensed real estate agent. What sorts of disclosures should you expect from your seller, and what level of faith should you place in those disclosures?
West Virginia does not have law that requires a seller to give you a formal disclosure statement regarding known defects with the home. West Virginia courts enforce caveat emptor clauses in purchase contracts. Under the doctrine of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”), judges will generally not compensate buyers for home defects found after the purchase. The idea is to place the burden onto you, as the buyer, to perform an investigation before jumping into the sale.
Despite the lack of legislation on disclosure and the caveat emptor doctrine, the West Virginia Real Estate Commission (WVREC) does have some relevant regulations around disclosures of property defects that you should familiarize yourself with. The WVREC is the state agency charged with overseeing the real estate market and licensing real estate agents.
The West Virginia Real Estate License Act § 30-40-19 states that WVREC “shall have full power to refuse a license for reasonable cause or to revoke, suspend or impose any other sanction” against a real estate agent if the agent makes “any false promises or representations of a character likely to influence, persuade or induce a person involved in a real estate transaction.” Many sellers, though not all, will use a licensed real estate agent to sell their property.
Essentially, this means that any licensed West Virginia real estate agent has a professional obligation to be honest with potential buyers like you. They may not make “any material fraud, misrepresentation, concealment, conspiracy, collusion, trick, scheme or other device whereby any other person relies upon [their] word, representation or conduct.” Most agents would not want to risk liability, or the loss of their license, in order to aid in a single sale. If they lie to you and say that the seller’s home is in perfect condition when it is not, they are risking their career.
You will notice that nothing in West Virginia’s legislation requires the real estate agent to perform a complete basement-to-roof inspection of the home before approaching buyers, nor does it require the agent or seller to hire a professional inspector to investigate potential physical defects.
The agent merely cannot make a misrepresentation to you. This is a fairly limited responsibility; if the seller doesn’t tell the agent about a material defect in the property, the agent has no obligation to tell you or to search the property.
Where does this leave you? We return to the notion of “caveat emptor”; you should beware--and be wary--when purchasing a home in West Virginia, given these limited disclosure requirements.
To compensate for this asymmetry of information about the property, you should hire a professional inspector to perform complete investigation of the home. The inspector can take into account any defects that the seller or the seller’s agent does mention, but he or she should go much further--visiting the property for an extensive period and searching for unknown or undiscovered problems. Remember, if there is a problem with the home, the resale value could be severely affected. Make sure you do your homework.