Is the Seller Legally Obligated to Tell You Everything About a House?

When you're about to purchase a home, you may think the seller has an obligation to tell you about every problem that comes with the house. While it's true a seller has a legal obligation to disclose some things to you, there are things they don't have to mention at all. Here's what you need to know. 

Disclosure Laws – What a Seller Has to Tell You

Disclosure laws can vary by state, so mandated disclosure in one place can become just a suggestion in another. It's in the seller's best interest to disclose as much as they can beforehand. Buyers tend to balk when some obvious issue comes up during the inspection the seller failed to mention.

In addition, full disclosure can prevent expensive legal cases from occurring later. The seller, for their part, may not want to disclose any information they feel will cost them the sale.

Across the country, sellers must disclose if there's lead anywhere in the home. In places where disclosure is law, the seller must let you know about any known latent or material defects in the home.

Material defects are the types of issues that can make a property potentially unsafe or uninhabitable. Typically, these issues do not show up in regular inspections. They can include things like

  • hidden water damage or mold;
  • structural damage;
  • faulty or failing systems (HVAC, plumbing, electric, etc.)

Of course, the main caveat with these disclosures is the seller cannot report them if they do not know about them. If you come across a material defect after the purchase, you can attempt to sue or terminate the purchase. However, it's on you to prove the defect you found was an obvious one the seller had to have known about.

All of this information only works if you're in an area where the seller has to disclose information. Even if they do not, make sure you ask for disclosures anyway. A seller should have no problem with letting you know about problems and potential problems.

What a Seller Doesn't Have to Tell You

Even if you're in an area with required disclosures, there's still quite a few things a seller doesn't have to reveal. Generally, if there's an obvious problem you or a routine inspection can find, the seller doesn't have to bring them up. These types of issues fall under the category of "patent defects."

Whether the seller discloses information or not, this should all go towards showing you that you must do your own legwork. Always order your own inspection, even if the seller already had one completed. In fact, you should do your own personal inspection as well.

Even if the seller gives you written disclosures, makes sure you ask for the full story on each item listed. You should also ask a real estate professional what kinds of disclosures, if any, the seller has a legal obligation to fill out.