Let's say that you are a Florida homeowner, having recently purchased a home in the Sunshine State. You walked out of the closing feeling thrilled about your new home, sure that you had done all your homework, gotten all the necessary information, and made a great home-buying decision. Unfortunately, it's not long before problems start to crop up. Maybe the air conditioning is shutting down, one of the sinks stopped running, or you discover a roof leak -- or even worse, mold accumulating around that leak.
The question then becomes, who is responsible? Are these just natural developments within a structure that is guaranteed to age, or do they indicate that the seller lied or concealed something? This article will examine your next steps and how the law may help you.
A first, crucial question in such a situation is: Do you have any reason to believe that the sellers knew about the problem before they sold the house to you? For example, is there anything around the house to suggest a cover-up of damage, such as new paint, beams, or drywall only in a specific area? A good way to investigate is to get the names of any contractors who worked on the house within the past year or so, and find out what services they provided. This could also yield evidence of ongoing problems that the seller might have tried to (perhaps literally) sweep under the carpet.
If you find evidence of concealment or problems that the seller couldn't have failed to notice, the seller may be legally liable to pay you for the costs of repair, or damages you have suffered as a result of the defects.
Legally speaking, the term "damages" can have a broad meaning, but they could be calculated at the difference in value between the house you should have gotten and the lemon you actually got. Damages could also extend to compensating you for what you might have lost or suffered as a result of defects in the home (for example, medical bills if you got sick from undisclosed mold).
In rare cases, especially where you can prove to a court that the sellers knew about serious property defects but never disclosed them to you, the court may order the seller to not only pay damages to you, but also reverse the sale of the house.
You should try to resolve the situation outside of court first, if you can. Lawsuits can be long, costly, and emotionally draining, and the outcome is never guaranteed. First, look over all of your home purchase documents, including the disclosures the seller made to you, and any warranties or insurance policies that could cover the defects. Since these documents are usually complicated, you may want the assistance of an attorney in doing this.
Under Florida law, home sellers are required to disclose any problems that they actually know about, even if the buyer later thinks they should have known about the problem. (This comes from the court case of Jensen v. Bailey, 76 So.3d 980 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2011)).
Proving what the sellers knew and when they knew it can be difficult. You should have professional inspections conducted, including ample photo and video evidence, to help answer this question.
If, for example, an inspection reveals that just behind a freshly painted or wall-papered section in the wall lies a hotbed of mold, this might well be evidence of a cover-up attempt on the part of the sellers. But if you're talking about mold in a dark corner of the basement that the sellers never visited, it might be a different matter.
"But what if I purchased my house ‘as-is'?" you might ask. Fortunately, the obligation of the sellers to disclose all known defects still remains, even in this scenario. The "as-is" clause just means that if the sellers made all disclosures as they should have, and you wanted to buy the house anyway, the sellers are not responsible for the repairs.
If the sellers of your Florida home did, in fact, lie about or fail to disclose known defects, you should weigh your options. Instead of hiring an attorney and filing a lawsuit, possibly for nondisclosure, fraud, and other causes of action, which could take years, would it be better to use that money to just make the repairs and chalk the whole thing up to experience?
Some homeowners opt for the latter course of action, particularly in light of the fact that proving what someone knew and when they knew it can often be difficult. But the choice is one that only you can make, preferably after consulting with an experienced real estate attorney.
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