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You’re so close to owning your new home. The day of the closing, you do a walkthrough, and there it is. A large hole in the drywall on the stairs. Or a cracked vanity in the bathroom. What’s that? The gate to the backyard is now missing two planks, and there are two suspicious looking planks on top of the trash pile in front of the house. Who pays for the damage and, more importantly, how do you get them to actually pay?
Your first step is to call the soon-to-be previous owners, either on your own if that feels comfortable or through your real estate agent and theirs, if you worked with agents. Some people forget this step, assuming they will be rebuffed. But it may be that the sellers didn’t know about the damage, especially if it happened while their movers were there. In that case, they may be able to make a claim with the moving company. Or, because they still owned the house when the damage occurred, they may be personally liable. And most people are reasonable. They may just cut you a check. Assuming they want to do the right thing and having a reasonable conversation about it may be all you need.
But maybe it doesn’t go that way. There are a number of reasons a seller might not readily agree to cover damages that occurred as they moved out of the house. If the transaction was a short sale or foreclosure, they may know that they won’t be held responsible and that they don’t have the money to pay anyway. In the case of a foreclosure, the seller’s lender is actually the seller, so you would approach them about the damage. The seller might not know the damage was caused when they moved, or they might not believe you. Another option? They might be jerks. (In our experience, this is usually not the case.) When the seller, their movers, or their movers’ insurance won’t pay, you have a couple of options.
Depending on the extent of the damage and your budget, you may just want to pay for it yourself and move on. After all, you have other things to worry about, like where your grandmother’s sideboard will fit best and who will be invited to your first party in your new home. This is often the best option, since suing for damages may be time-consuming and you could end up losing.
You can sue the movers or sellers for damages. If you have to hire a lawyer, you’ll have to pay that lawyer, with no guarantee you’ll win your case. This is one reason a final walk-through before closing is so important. Cell phones make it easy to take pictures, so you can snap shots of the damage to compare with pictures from the listing, or that you took yourself. If there are new damages, you can walk away from the sale, which most people don’t want to do, or you may postpone the sale until the seller makes repairs. If you aren’t able to come to an agreement, you will likely file in small claims court, where limits range from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on your location, and you may be able to represent yourself. If you choose to sue, it may be worth it to consult a qualified attorney before you go to court, even if you do represent yourself.
No one wants to start life in a new home with damages or conflict, but it happens. What’s really important is that you keep a cool head as you decide how to handle it. Here’s to hoping it gets worked out quickly and painlessly!