Half the fun of house hunting is visualizing the fun you’ll have when the seller clears out and the place is yours, all yours. But wait one second, partner – once the seller is gone, so is a rich repository of information about your new home. Most sellers know things about their/your home, and the neighborhood, which could make your life much easier, for years to come.
To help you tap into that treasure trove of information, here are 6 questions to ask your home’s seller -- before it’s too late! (Note - it’s not protocol, in most cases, to just knock on the seller’s door or ring them up and start firing away. If you happen to run into them during escrow or inspections, feel free to ask. Otherwise, it’s best to run your questions through your agent, who will collect answers for you or let you know if the sellers - and their agent - are up for a more casual conversation.)
1. What’s the history of the house? Many state disclosure forms and laws require the sellers to divulge a number of things about the history of the property, from how it’s been maintained, to what systems have broken down, to whether someone has died on the property. However, you might like to go deeper, finding out such things as whether the property was a rental, whether they recommend a set maintenance schedule (grab the gardener’s number, if you like the lawn!) for any part of the property, or whether they are aware of any interesting stories about past inhabitants or uses of the property that might provide useful or just plain old interesting information.
This also gives you the opportunity to do key things:
a) find out whether there’s anything that works, but is kind of wonky and needs an extra nudge or a hard turn to get it open/closed/activated - I’ve known many a buyer that called a contractor out post-closing to fix something, only to realize it actually worked, and just needed a jiggle or a little extra love (e.g., the “broken” garage door opener that the seller unplugged when they moved out), and
b) learn about any upgrades or improvements the seller has done to the property, and request everything from names of paint colors, to warranties, receipts and instruction manuals for appliances that sometimes get inadvertently packed away, moved and tossed away.
2. Where to go and who to know? Home sellers can be the best source of infomation that doesn’t seem super important, but can actually take a long time to figure out yourself, like which of the 6 dry cleaners on the main drag does the best alterations, or which neighbor organizes the Neighborhood Watch or the pug playgroups.
If your home is in a homeowner’s association, or HOA, of course you received several hundred pages worth of HOA disclosures, but the seller might be able to just point you to the community’s DVD library or the board meeting room, or show you where you can find the carts you can use to bring bulky items up in the elevator from the parking garage. I’ve even seen above-and-beyond sellers leave binders full of menus from their favorite neighborhood delivery spots.
3. What surprised them when they moved in? Pleasantly or otherwise - moving in is always the occasion for a surprise (or a dozen!). They might have been surprised at how friendly the neighbors were, how much light a particular room gets at a given time of day, how many people could fit around the table in the dining room at Thanksgiving or how noisy/quiet the school across the street is. If they were surprised, you might be, too - so it’s great to know what shocked them before you move in.
4. Where is it and how does it work? Where do you take the trash out to, and on what day of the week? Where are the emergency water and electrical shutoffs, the breaker box and the utility meters? Where’s the thermostat or the special wrench that turns on the gas fireplace? How does that work? Some of these are things a good home inspector will cover, but if yours didn’t or you weren’t able to make the inspection, some kind home sellers will happily brief you on these items.
Then, there are things like appliances, landscape lighting, sprinkler operating systems, septic tanks, basement pumps, pool filters and covers and hot tubs, which general home inspectors might not even look at. Most home sellers will know how to operate these things - and will gladly share that information with you. (For the most part, if you want these types of speciality systems looked at and evaluated before you remove your contract’s contingencies, you have to hire the sort of contractor who works on these specific things to look at them.)
5. Is there anything you’d like to leave? There are really two flavors of this question. First, you might have your eye on some item of the seller’s personal property, like a perfectly-sized print or perfectly-shaped breakfast booth, that you’d like to buy from them - if so, make an offer!
And second, the seller might get partway through their move when they realize they want no part of patching up the wall behind the flat-screen or trying to angle that impossibly long couch back out the window they had to bring it in through, so they’d rather just leave it. I’ve seen sellers offer very nice pieces of furniture and electronics to buyers, gratis or for a price, when offered the opportunity, via just this question.
6. What did I forget to ask? Whether you’re a new homeowner or new to the area, this is where you throw yourself on the seller’s mercy and ask them to tell you anything you might have forgotten to ask. It’s not overkill to exchange phone numbers or email addresses - now, every transaction isn’t this friendly or cordial, but many are or could be. It’s definitely in your best interests to leave the transaction on good terms with the seller, if possible, for reasons karmic and utilitarian.
Asking this question can get you all sorts of useful information, like:
the fact that you get 2 free bulky trash pickups every year,
advance notice of the block party that’s coming up the weekend after you move in, and
a warning that if you let your weeds grow too tall in the spring, the fire department will ticket you.
Okay - that’s just stuff I’ve personally learned when asking sellers this catchall question, but I can’t recommend it strongly enough!
Despite the fact that real estate transactions can get adversarial on occasion, the fact remains that the average home seller wants to be helpful, and wants their home’s buyer to be happy. When these two wants collide, if you ask the right questions (okay, so there are more than 6 - but you get the gist!), you can save yourself untold amounts of research, time and energy!
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com.