Florida, like many other states, requires sellers of homes and other residential properties to make certain disclosures to buyers about the property’s condition and history.
This is a shift from the traditional legal principle of “let the buyer beware,” which basically made it the buyer’s responsibility to inspect the home and discover whether there are any unacceptable conditions or defects before closing the deal. However, in an ever-increasing number of states, courts and lawmakers have held that sellers are in the best position to know all material facts relating to their properties, especially those that are not visible to the naked eye, and should disclose these to the buyer—or face legal liability.
Florida law provides that, with some exceptions, you (as a home seller) must disclose any facts or conditions about your property that have a substantial impact on its value or desirability and that others cannot easily see for themselves (This comes from the court case of Johnson v. Davis, 480 So.2d 625 (Fla. 1985)).
To assist sellers in making all relevant disclosures, the Florida Association of Realtors® provides a standard form, which covers many common property characteristics about which buyers want to know. (This is separate from the standard contract that is used in most residential real estate transactions to bring about the purchase and sale of the home.)
The categories covered on the standard Florida disclosure form include, for example:
Some sources claim that, as a seller, you may make disclosures either verbally or in writing. Florida law does not definitively direct sellers either way. However, if you make oral disclosures without any written confirmation, you may have a difficult time proving later that you made them, which is especially problematic if the buyer purchases the property and later finds problems with the home. As a common sense and good business practice measure, it is best to make your property disclosures in writing.
Florida statutory law also requires that you present the buyer with a property tax disclosure summary (Fla. Stat. § 689.261). This summary may be included within the standard disclosure form described above or as a separate document, as long as it contains the language required by the statute. The language essentially states that a buyer cannot assume that the amount of property taxes currently paid by the seller will remain the same after the sale.
Don’t worry that you will be expected to know or learn about and disclose every minute detail of your home’s condition. As the seller of a home in Florida, you have the benefit of laws declaring that you will not be held responsible for property defects of which you have no actual knowledge. (This comes from the court case of Jensen v. Bailey, 76 So.3d 980 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2011).)
If you sell a Florida property, and the buyer later claims in court to have discovered a defect that you did not properly disclose, that buyer must be able to demonstrate that:
Florida homeowners are required to disclose only those property defects of which they have actual knowledge.
For example, in the Jensen case mentioned above, the sellers had stated in their written disclosures that no additions or alterations to the property violated building codes. After the purchasers moved in, however, they discovered that several alterations made to the master bath, kitchen, and bedroom did not comply with building codes. The buyers sued. The court ruled for the sellers, finding that they didn’t apparently know about the violations, having (like many homeowners) left compliance matters to their contractors.
As in the above case, Florida courts have attempted to protect home sellers from fear of being sued every time they sell their properties. Sellers in Florida are not expected to guarantee to buyers that their properties are defect-free, which would be an impossible promise to make in most cases.
There are a number of property conditions that Florida sellers (and their agents) are not required to disclose, no matter how unappealing these may be to some buyers. As a Florida seller you are not (under (Fla. Stat. § 689.25) required to disclose:
You are fortunate to have the benefit of this law, as these conditions might very well be a dealbreaker for some buyers, or a basis for them to demand a drastic reduction in your asking price.
But what if the buyer asks about these issues? Florida law merely states that you are not required to disclose these conditions, and does not indicate how you should answer if asked. As a practical matter, silence (for example, “The law does not require me to disclose such information”) is probably the best policy; or honesty if it won’t impact the privacy of previous inhabitants. If a buyer asks and you make a misleading or false statement, the buyer might seek legal relief against you on such grounds as misrepresentation.
A few federal regulations also govern real estate disclosures in every state. For example, if your home was built prior to 1978, you must disclose any known existence of lead-based paint. (The federal lead disclosure requirements are found at 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 4851-56.)
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website, you must also provide an EPA-approved pamphlet addressing lead-based paint hazards. Further, you must include language in the real estate contract entitled “Lead Warning Statement” declaring that you have met all notification requirements.
If the buyer agrees, you also have the option of selling your home “as-is.” That means that the buyer agrees to take the property in its existing condition without your having to make any further repairs or improvements to it.
However, a so-called “as-is” clause does not relieve you from your disclosure duties under Florida law. You will still need to advise buyers of all material defects that you know about concerning the property.
Real estate transactions can be complex, and provide ample room for disagreement between the parties. To successfully navigate these murky waters, it is best to consult with a Florida attorney with solid real estate experience.