Let's say you've found that perfect Virginia home to buy, and it's listed at a great price. Is it too good to be true? You meet the listing agent (also known as the "seller's agent") and he seems like a good guy. Surely he will inform you if the property has problems. Or will he? Just how much about the property does the listing agent need to tell you under Virginia law?
In Virginia, the law places disclosure obligations upon the listing agent as well as the home seller, but the agent's obligations are limited in important ways. To become fully informed about your "dream" property, it will be up to you, as the buyer, to look into it further.
If you are a prospective home buyer in Virginia and have entered into an agreement with your own real estate agent (sometimes called the "buyer's agent") your agent will, by law, need to acquaint you with your rights and obligations under the Virginia Real Estate Disclosure Act. (The Code of Virginia §§ 55.1-700 through 55.1-714.)
This statute's requirements include that the home seller will have to prepare written disclosures about the property for your review. (For details, see Selling a Virginia Home: What Are My Disclosure Obligations?.)
Virginia's statute also requires your own agent to disclose to you any "material facts related to the property or concerning the transaction" of which the agent has "actual knowledge." (See Code of Virginia § 54.1-2132, "Licensees engaged by buyers.")
That's significant, but probably won't cover all possible home defects. Your agent's actual knowledge about the physical condition of the property might be limited. The agent has (unless by some incredible coincidence) never lived there. The agent likely has an expert eye, but doesn't need to conduct a formal inspection or poke around beyond the obvious and visible.
And a Virginia buyer's agent who doesn't actually know of any physical condition materially affecting the property (broadly speaking, any problem that might affect the property's value or use) has no obligation to tell you, the buyer, about it.
The property seller's real estate agent (the listing agent) has similar responsibilities to prospective buyers under Virginia state law. Such agents must "treat all prospective buyers honestly," must "not knowingly give them false information," and must disclose in writing "all material adverse facts pertaining to the physical condition of the property" of which they have actual knowledge.
Again, however, the seller's agent hasn't lived there and doesn't need to perform a home inspection. The agent will be relying mostly on what's visible by looking around, as well as the seller's statements about the property.
"Wait a minute," you might be thinking, "This is an honest seller who surely told the listing agent about any problems with the home!" But keep in mind that even if the seller is a forthcoming, honest person, many sellers don't know everything about the property's problems. For example, a seller who is not an electrician might not recognize that the home's funky wiring is actually dangerous. And wiring is mostly hidden in the walls, so the agent might not figure it out, either.
Or sometimes, a homeowner is so used to dealing with an issue that it has stopped seeming important: "That automatic garage door?, of course we need to get out and manually close it the remaining third of the way, that's how it's always been!" Still, that is the sort of issue the agent might learn about independently. For example, if the agent tried out the garage door a number of times and saw it wouldn't fully close, this would likely be material information the agent would then need to inform you about.
Of course, if the seller's agent actually knows the seller's statements are false, he or she is not allowed to help with a cover-up.
There are a few situations under Virginia law where, even when the agent knows something about the home that might concern you, the agent is not required to tell you about it.
For starters, the seller's agent is required to disclose facts only about the physical condition of the property. The agent need not disclose anything about adjacent properties, land use regulations, or highways or streets near the property, even if the agent knows about issues or problems. (Code of Virginia § 54.1-2131.B.) So, for example, if you happen to visit the property during July, the agent likely does not need to inform you that the traffic in front of the home becomes gridlock when the school around the corner is in session, even if the agent knows perfectly well that this happens every school year.
Nor does the seller's agent need to inform you if a a homicide, felony, or suicide occurred on the property. (Code of Virginia § 55.1-713.)
Another type of disclosure that the Virginia statutes require of real estate agents is to inform you who they are actually representing in the sale.
If you are shopping for a home without your own agent, and begin substantive dealings directly with the listing agent, that agent must give you a written disclosure stating that the agent is working for the seller. (Code of Virginia § 54.1-2138.) This disclosure makes it clear that no matter how friendly and helpful the listing agent is, the agent will be keeping the seller's interests foremost, not yours.
As you can see, as a buyer in Virginia, you will probably not get all the information you'd want about a property from the listing agent. It will be up to you to make sure your dream property is not too good to be true.
Before you sign a purchase agreement, be sure it includes among its contingencies the right to inspect the property, the right to request repairs if any issues are found, and the right to terminate the contract (or be compensated) upon discovering any issues, or if any problems you find with the property are not fixed. Usually you will want to hire a professional as described in Getting a Home Inspection. The inspector will summarize the condition of the property in a written report, highlighting any concerns.
You should also make sure the title report for the property received from the title company handling the transaction and preparing your title insurance policy doesn't contain anything of concern, such as liens or easements affecting the property. Easements will also show up on plats and surveys of the property. If no recent survey has been done, you might wish to have the property surveyed to determine exactly where its boundaries are and whether there are any problematic easements or property line issues.
You can often find out more information about a property's physical condition and other issues affecting its value by doing your own inquiries or online searches. Ask questions of the seller, the neighbors, and anyone who might have knowledge about the property. Search online to find out things such as whether police were ever called out to that property, or whether a sex offender is in the neighborhood (sex offender information is found at Virginia's Megan's Law website.
It might take a bit of work, but by doing your own diligent inspections and investigations, rather than relying on the listing agent (or the home seller), you can help make sure that you end up with the home of your dreams, and not your worst nightmare.
Need a lawyer? Start here.