Regulatory Affairs Case Study: Repeated Material Omissions

By Stephen L. Fussell, Chief Consumer Protection Officer

            This article is a compilation of multiple cases where licensees failed to disclose material defects in the property to multiple buyers. In some cases, the licensees were sellers who purchased properties to renovate and resell for a profit. In most cases, the licensees were listing agents who represented unlicensed investors/“flippers” or typical sellers.

            In the cases involving sellers who were investors, most of the sellers had not inspected the properties when they purchased them. The renovations they performed usually involved cosmetic items: cabinets, countertops, appliances, flooring, plumbing fixtures (e.g. toilets, sinks, faucets, etc.), interior paint, and landscaping. In some cases, the sellers hired unlicensed persons to install HVAC systems or water heaters and did not obtain building permits for improvements that required permits, such as decks, room additions, or structural/mechanical changes. One renovation involved cutting wooden floor joists in the crawl space to make room for new ductwork and pipes without an inspection by a structural engineer or licensed general contractor to evaluate the structural integrity of the remaining floor structure.

            Nearly all of the transactions progressed in a similar manner. Following the completion of the renovations, each seller completed a Residential Property and Owners’ Association Disclosure Statement (“RPOADS”) answering “No Representation” to all of the questions.  The listing agent then entered the property into the local MLS system generally touting beautiful updates to the property.

            Buyer #1 contracted to buy the property and ordered a home inspection which revealed material defects, such as a deck that was structurally unsound, an HVAC system that was underperforming or not working at all, or a basement that was leaking. The agent for Buyer #1 sent a copy of the home inspection report and a Due Diligence Request and Agreement (“DDRA”) to the listing agent. However, due to concern over the condition of the property and the likelihood of expensive future repairs, Buyer #1 terminated the contract during the due diligence period and got the earnest money back, but lost the due diligence fee.

            After termination of the contract, the seller did not hire licensed professionals to correct the defects referenced in Buyer #1’s home inspection report and did not revise the RPOADS to disclose any defects. The listing agent put the property back on the market without disclosing any defects in the MLS system or elsewhere.

           Unaware of the previous inspection, Buyer #2 contracted to buy the subject property and ordered a home inspection which revealed the same defects as Buyer #1’s inspection. The agent for Buyer #2 sent a copy of the inspection report and a DDRA to the listing agent. The seller promised to make repairs, but when Buyer #2 asked his inspector to re-inspect the property, only a few repairs had been attempted and the quality of those repairs was very poor. Disappointed, Buyer #2 terminated his contract after the expiration of the due diligence period and the seller refused to refund the due diligence fee or the earnest money.

           The listing agent put the property back on the market for the third time, again without disclosing any material defects in the MLS or otherwise. The seller did not revise the RPOADS. Buyer #3 quickly and eagerly contracted to buy the property and again paid a due diligence fee and earnest money deposit. Buyer #3 ordered an inspection which identified the same defects reported by the first two home inspectors along with evidence that someone had attempted to conceal some of the defects. Without asking for repairs, Buyer #3 terminated her contract and asked for reimbursement of both the due diligence fee and earnest money deposit as well as the  inspection fees, believing that the seller and/or the listing agent had acted dishonestly. The seller refunded only the earnest money.

           The listing agent put the property on the market for the fourth time. Buyer #4 was a cash buyer, who had been outbid on several previous properties and was determined not to lose out on this property. Buyer #4 offered to pay full-price and close within seven days with no inspections. The seller accepted the offer and the transaction closed without incident.  After the closing, Buyer #4 discovered that the house needed thousands of dollars in repairs (i.e. the same repairs referenced in the first three transactions).

           Sometimes, the buyers who terminated filed complaints with the Real Estate Commission. Sometimes, the successful eventual buyers filed complaints, and several filed civil suits against the sellers, the listing agents and the listing firms for willfully withholding material facts.

Lessons to learn:

           A listing agent must make a reasonable effort to discover material facts by walking through and around a listed property and by asking the seller questions about the property and obtaining copies of available documentation regarding repairs and renovations. In these cases, the listing agent was put on notice about material defects but failed to confirm that repairs had been made. Unless a listing agent is able to confirm with written documentation that a repair has been made, then the listing agent must disclose the defect to all prospective buyers and/or their agents.

           Buyer agents also have a duty to verify issues that their clients have identified as being material to them. A prudent buyer agent should ask a listing agent whether the property has been inspected and, if so, ask for a copy of the inspection report. If the listing agent received a copy of the inspection report from a previous buyer, then the listing agent may give the report to a new buyer agent.  If the listing agent did not receive a copy of the previous inspection report, but the agent for the previous buyer informed the listing agent that the report revealed material defects, then the listing agent must disclose to all prospective buyers or their agents that a previous buyer’s home inspection revealed certain material defects and identify those defects.

           When a seller has owned a property for a short period of time (i.e. less than one year), a prudent buyer agent should ask whether the seller is an investor or flipper and, if so, ask for copies of all invoices for renovations performed and ask whether all contractors and vendors were licensed and whether they have been paid in full.

            Some licensees have tried to hide behind the adage that North Carolina is a buyer beware state. However, a licensee (whether a licensed seller or listing agent) must disclose all material facts that the licensee knows or reasonably should know to all interested persons in a timely manner (i.e. before a buyer enters into a contract to buy the property).