Buying a home? Here's help

FCW.com's Friday Financials column offers some advice that may help keep you out of trouble when buying a home

If you're planning to buy a home, here is some advice that may help keep you out of trouble.

Role of the Real Estate Broker

Frequently, the first person you consult about buying a home is a real estate agent or broker. Although real estate brokers provide helpful advice on many aspects of home buying, they may serve the interests of the seller, and not your interests as the buyer.

The most common practice is for the seller to hire the broker to find someone who will be willing to buy the home on terms and conditions that are acceptable to the seller. Therefore, the real estate broker you are dealing with may also represent the seller. However, you can hire your own real estate broker, known as a buyer's broker, to represent your interests. Also, in some states, agents and brokers are allowed to represent both buyer and seller.

Even if the real estate broker represents the seller, state real estate licensing laws usually require that the broker treat you fairly. If you have any questions concerning the behavior of an agent or broker, you should contact your state's real estate commission or licensing department.

Sometimes, the real estate broker will offer to help you obtain a mortgage loan. He or she may also recommend that you deal with a particular lender, title company, attorney or settlement/closing agent. You are not required to follow the real estate broker's recommendation. You should compare the costs and services offered by other providers with those recommended by the real estate broker.

Selecting an Attorney

Before you sign an agreement of sale, you might consider asking an attorney to look it over and tell you if it protects your interests. If you have already signed your agreement of sale, you might still consider having an attorney review it. An attorney can also help you prepare for the settlement. In some areas, attorneys act as settlement/closing agents or as escrow agents to handle the settlement. An attorney who does this will not solely represent your interests, since, as settlement/closing agent, he or she may also be representing the seller, the lender and others as well.

In choosing an attorney, you should shop around and ask what services will be performed for what fee. Find out whether the attorney is experienced in representing home buyers. You may wish to ask the attorney questions such as:

* What is the charge for negotiating the agreement of sale, reviewing documents and giving advice concerning those documents, for being present at the settlement, or for reviewing instructions to the escrow agent or company?

* Will the attorney represent anyone other than you in the transaction?

* Will the attorney be paid by anyone other than you in the transaction?

Please note that in many areas of the country attorneys are not normally involved in the home sale. For example, escrow agents or escrow companies in western states handle the paperwork to transfer title without any attorney involvement.

Terms of the Agreement of Sale

The real estate broker probably will give you a preprinted form of agreement of sale. You may make changes or additions to the form agreement, but the seller must agree to every change you make. You should also agree with the seller on when you will move in and what appliances and personal property will be sold with the home.

Sales Price

For most home purchasers, the sales price is the most important term. Recognize that other nonmonetary terms of the agreement are also important.

Title

"Title" refers to the legal ownership of your new home. The seller should provide title, free and clear of all claims by others against your new home. Claims by others against your new home are sometimes known as "liens" or "encumbrances." You may negotiate who will pay for the title search that will tell you whether the title is "clear."

Mortgage Clause

The agreement of sale should provide that your deposit would be refunded if the sale has to be canceled because you are unable to get a mortgage loan. For example, your agreement of sale could allow the purchase to be canceled if you cannot obtain mortgage financing at an interest rate at or below a rate you specify in the agreement.

Pests

Your lender will require a certificate from a qualified inspector stating that the home is free from termites and other pests and pest damage. You may want to reserve the right to cancel the agreement or seek immediate treatment and repairs by the seller if pest damage is found.

Home Inspection

It is a good idea to have the home inspected. An inspection should determine the condition of the plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical systems. The structure should also be examined to assure it is sound and to determine the condition of the roof, siding, windows and doors. The lot should be graded away from the house so that water does not drain toward the house and into the basement.

Most buyers prefer to pay for these inspections so that the inspector is working for them, not the seller. You may wish to include in your agreement of sale the right to cancel if you are not satisfied with the inspection results. In that case, you may want to re-negotiate for a lower sale price or require the seller to make repairs.

Lead-Based Paint Hazards

If you buy a home built before 1978, you have certain rights concerning lead-based paint and lead poisoning hazards. The seller or sales agent must give you the EPA pamphlet "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home" or other EPA-approved lead hazard information. The seller or sales agent must tell you what the seller actually knows about the home's lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards and give you any relevant records or reports.

You have at least 10 days to do an inspection or risk assessment for lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards. However, to have the right to cancel the sale based on the results of an inspection or risk assessment, you will need to negotiate this condition with the seller.

Finally, the seller must attach a disclosure form to the agreement of sale that will include a lead warning statement. You, the seller, and the sales agent will sign an acknowledgment that these notification requirements have been satisfied.

Other Environmental Concerns

Your city or state may have laws requiring buyers or sellers to test for environmental hazards such as leaking underground oil tanks, the presence of radon or asbestos and lead water pipes and to take the steps to clean up any such hazards. You may negotiate who will pay for the costs of any required testing and/or cleanup.

Sharing of Expenses

You need to agree with the seller about how expenses related to the property such as taxes, water and sewer charges, condominium fees and utility bills are to be divided on the date of settlement. Unless you agree otherwise, you should only be responsible for the portion of these expenses owed after the date of sale.

Settlement Agent/Escrow Agent

Depending on local practices, you may have an option to select the settlement agent or escrow agent or company. For states where an escrow agent or company will handle the settlement, the buyer, seller and lender will provide instructions.

Settlement Costs

You can negotiate which settlement costs you will pay and which will be paid by the seller.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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