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The End Game

Do it for me, or do it yourself

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Let’s pretend you’re buying a house and you’ve just read the report from your intrepid home inspector. Let’s say everything’s just fine, except that the electrical system has been infected with the work of a handyman only two steps of the way through his 12-step program; the wires are all but on fire this very minute.

Every few days, one of our customers runs head-on into this problem. And about every third or fourth house, if it’s not the electrical system, then it’s the plumbing, or the heating, or something else. Most of the time, the first thought that comes into the eager home buyer’s head is, Well, by golly, we’ll just tell the seller to get busy and get all this stuff fixed.

Before I go any further, let me make this Nixon-clear: In my home-inspecting life, I stay out of the negotiations between buyers and sellers. At the end of the day, just the burden of discovering and reporting the condition of the house sinks me deep into the cushions of my large leather sofa. Negotiation is Realtor and lawyer territory. But right here and now, I’m going to throw out my best negotiating advice, free of charge.

Here you go: Never ask a seller to fix anything.

I know this is a little bit counterintuitive. After all, most sales contracts call for certain systems—such as the electrical, the plumbing, and the heat-and-air—to be in “good working order.” What does that mean? How about if something’s in wretched shape but still works? Like a furnace that’ll heat up the house but spews deadly carbon monoxide in the process. What kind of working order is that? This is the kind of riddle that puts braces on the teeth of lawyer offspring, so I’m going to hang a left before I get in too deep. Here’s what I want you to know: Of all the primates roaming the planet, the last one you want bossing the repair job at your house-to-be is the guy who’s moving out of the place.

The seller just wants out. He doesn’t want to interview contractors. He doesn’t want to schedule his packing to dovetail with the comings and goings of fix-up guys. Any sane seller wants to avoid long goodbyes with his once-was house. His sole objective is to get to the closing meeting, collect his check, and move on.

You can uncomplicate his life, and yours, if you bring over the contractors of your choice to bid on the repair work. Find out what it’ll cost to make the repairs and schedule your contractors to do the work after you own the house. That way, the negotiation is reduced to dollars instead of hassle. You can fight over who pays how much toward the repair bill, but in the end, the most the seller has to do is write a check.

Of course, the above rules apply only to the sane seller. There is a fairly common aberration: The dollar-strapped, control-freak handy-seller, who insists on doing all the repairs himself. He’ll trot out his résumé and show you all the swell work he’s done on the house over the years. This guy will be bustin’ with pride over the warped winter-scene paneling, the lowered ceilings, the droopy, sparky wiring, and the plumbing held together with chewing gum wrappers and duct tape.

Often as not, a handy-seller will have a couple of projects going on even while the house is on the market, and invariably he’ll be working without a building permit. He’ll promise to have that bathroom finished in time for closing, and he’ll expect you to believe him and show some gratitude besides.

Dealing with the handy-seller gets into the realm of abnormal psychology, and, although I’m full of opinions, I’m not qualified in that area. All I can tell you is: Make him stop. Make your offer on the house as-is. Shoot for an early closing. Anything to keep him from doing any more work on the place.

If the seller, sane or kooky, insists on overseeing repair work at the house, you should insist that all work be done by licensed, qualified contractors, who will supply you with letters describing the scope of the work on their letterhead. Get these letters before closing. That way, if the work isn’t done right, you at least have some chance of getting the contractor to straighten things out.

Walter Jowers can be reached at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com.

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