6 Questions to Ask Your Home’s Seller Before Moving In and they leave the area

By mark-slade June 30, 2011

6 Questions to Ask Your Home’s Seller Before Moving In
Adapted from a Posting on Trulia 6/28/11 and Amended by Mark Slade on 6/30/11
You’ve negotiated your purchase, read the seller’s disclosure, gotten you mortgage, closed on your new home and then you realize you don’t know how to work the furnace or turn on the lawn sprinklers, what do you do?
Half the fun of house hunting is visualizing the fun you’ll have when the seller moves out, emptying the home of all their personal property and the place is yours to call HOME. But wait one second, once the seller is gone, so is a rich and intimate source 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 “secret garden” 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—in NJ it’s called a Seller’s Disclosure–from how old the roof, furnace and hot water heater are, to how well it’s been maintained, to what systems have/had broken down and when they were repaired and how.  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, and, while you probably can’t wait to build your first snowman, you might not be so keen on what comes with it, so find out who takes care of snow shoveling/plowing?) 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.  When I bought my first home in Maplewood, NJ, I found a treasure trove of pictures and information about my home in the town’s library, believe it or not, as a former realtor had bequeathed all his records to the town.  I had found photos of my home before there was any landscaping done and also found out that my garage and carriage house were additions to the home.  

This also gives you the opportunity to do key things:

a)  find out whether there’s anything that works, but is kind of quirky 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—especially if any of the interior or exterior was painted as part of the staging and preparations to sell the home–to warranties, receipts and instruction manuals for appliances that sometimes get inadvertently packed away, moved and tossed away
Get the names of any of Contractors that worked on the house as they already have intimate knowledge of the property in most cases and can help solve any riddles/problems more quickly and you might surprise yourself in that, if you forge a friendly bond with the seller’s, the contractor may have to fix something for free if it was something that had recently been worked on in the home.

2. Where to go and who to know?  Home sellers can be the best source of information that doesn’t seem super important, but can actually take a long time to figure out yourself, like which of the 7 pizza parlors has the best pizza?  Or which dry cleaner has the best service, pricing or does the best alterations?  When is the neighborhood block party if there is one?  Does the block/neighborhood have their own directory? Are there any emergency contact telephone numbers you should have other than 9-1-1?

3. What surprised the Seller’s when they moved into the same home?  Pleasantly or otherwise – moving in is always the occasion for a surprise or two or three..  The Seller’s might have been surprised at how friendly the neighbors were, or weren’t; which of the neighbors has a similar profile to your household so you can quickly forge new friends, or on a completely different note, 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, or if there are any unusual parking laws or conditions you should be aware of for you and for future guests?  If they were surprised, you might be, too – so it’s great to know what shocked them before you move in and also what were the pleasant surprises that they found made living there so special.

4. Where is it and how does it work?  Where do you take the trash out to, and on what day(s) of the week?  If garbage collection is a paid for service, who is/are the service provider options and how do you get a hold of them?  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?  Was the home wired by Comcast or Verizon or some other service provider?  Did the home have wireless?  How did it work?  Were there any peculiar dead zones for wireless or cell phone reception? Some of these are things a good home inspector will cover, others NOT, but if yours didn’t or you weren’t able to make the inspection, some kind home sellers will happily brief you on many of these items. 

Then, there are things like appliances, landscape lighting, outdoor electricity outlets, outdoor water faucets, sprinkler operating systems, landscaping drainage issues or remediation apparatus you should know about, the possibility of septic tanks (if you are in a more rural area, especially), basement sump pump(s), 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, i.e. an HVAC contact for the Central Air Conditioning, a slate roof contractor is you have slate, a lawn sprinker system contractor if you have it.) 

Last summer, clients of mine bought a home in Maplewood and happened to move in on one of summer’s hotter days; the doors were open all day long and the central a/c ran at full blast for the duration of the day in an effort to keep the movers and my clients cool.  The next morning, I received a frantic call from my clients that the A/C wasn’t working.  I ran over and found that the piping attached to the A/C unit was frozen over.  We called our Home Inspector in and he was also befuddled but felt it probably needed to thaw out.  Finally, an A/C repair service was called in and they confirmed that nothing was wrong with the unit, by which time the piping was now free and clear of the icing and from that day forward, everything worked perfectly.  So, even when an inspection is done, things can still go wrong and its best to understand how to prevent hardships if at all possible.
I might even suggest you ask if there are any weird phenomenon like using one outlet for a hair dryer commonly breaks a circuit if the air conditioner is on, etc?

5. Is there anything you’d like to leave?  There are really two aspects to this question.  First, you might have your eye on some item of the seller’s personal property—especially if you are moving from a much smaller apartment/home into a larger one–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—from the “cheaper to leave her rather than cheaper to keep her and pay to move her (yes, I took the liberty of flipping them).”  I’ve seen sellers offer very nice pieces of furniture and electronics to buyers, gratis or for a price, when offered the opportunity, with the goal of being a win=win for both parties.

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—and remember, its more than likely that the seller will still get some mail and/or an occasional package delivery that will need to be forwarded, so it’s to their benefit to exchange contact information.  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, or need to make special arrangements—especially since moving into a home can end up creating a quick accumulation of bulk items (carpet removal is but one such example).
  • 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 as both a home owner and seller as well as a realtor, 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, especially in more challenging markets, 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 and in the right way, you can save yourself untold amounts of research, time, money and energy!