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Ask a Lawyer: Let buyer beware when buying ‘bargain’ house

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T. L. of Old Town asks “I recently purchased a house on five acres and thought I got a pretty good deal. However, a few weeks after I bought the place, I found out that somebody had been murdered in the house and it gave me the creeps. I don’t want to live in it anymore. Is there anything I can do to get my money back? Isn’t there a law which requires a seller to disclose something like that?

 

Dear T. L.,

You ask a very interesting question, and it is an extremely important issue at the present time, given the fact that real estate transactions are finally beginning to pick up and houses are selling again. However, though I don’t have enough information to fully answer your specific question, I can provide you with some general advice on the subject, and some of it may help you.

First of all, the law in the state of Florida up until about thirty years ago was that a seller was under no duty to disclose anything to a prospective buyer. It was the buyer’s responsibility to exercise “due diligence” and inspect the property. That legal principle was known as “caveat emptor,” a latin word meaning “let the buyer beware.”

That all changed when Florida’s Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Johnson v. Davis in which the Court held that a seller who knew of dangerous or defective conditions in a house had a legal duty to inform a prospective buyer of latent defects. 

The Court went on to state that the seller did not have a duty to reveal patent defects. A patent defect is one that is open and obvious and could be discovered with the exercise of ordinary care. A latent defect is one that could not be easily discovered by a careful buyer.

Obviously, as repugnant as it may be to you, the fact that someone was murdered in the house doesn’t affect the structural integrity of the building and it does not present a dangerous or defective condition. For that reason, I must tell you that I don’t believe you are entitled to a rescission of the contract or other relief, based upon the scant facts you provided.

That said, there have been a few cases in recent years which held that if the obnoxious or offensive history of a building rises to the level that it would, more than likely, discourage others from visiting the house, or having anything to do with you as the owner of the house, there can be, under very limited and exceptional circumstances, a legitimate basis to invalidate a sale. 

You haven’t provided enough information for me to make a determination regarding the facts of your case, so I can’t say whether or not your situation would warrant that extremely rare result. How long ago did the murder occur? How notorious were the facts? How gruesome were the facts surrounding the murder? How much stigma is attached to the building? What facts do you have to show that people truly don’t want to have anything to do with you or the house? 

Those are the kinds of things I would need to have more information about to give you a better response. Again, the general rule is that only the latent defects, which could not easily be discovered, must be revealed to a prospective buyer by a seller, and a seller is not required to provide a history of the house, with a very narrow exception as explained above.

I hope I have answered your question, T. L., and I hope that you find someone to buy the property who isn’t bothered by the history behind the house you bought. Good luck.

Any readers with specific legal questions for this “Ask a Lawyer” column are invited to submit those questions to the Editor of this newspaper who will pass it along to the attorney. If you need assistance with a consumer matter, such as an unfair and deceptive collection practice, or garnishment of wages, a mortgage foreclosure or other such things, and you cannot afford an attorney, call the Legal Services office closest to you, which provides free legal assistance to qualified individuals, or call the Florida Bar Referral service at 1-800-342-8011. I wish you good luck in obtaining access to our legal system, no matter what your income and asset level might be. 

The foregoing was written by attorney Pierce Kelley, who is a member of the Florida Bar Association. The contents reflect his personal opinions and beliefs.