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You may have read the New York Times article entitled Contract for Deed Lending Gets Federal Scrutiny.  The Times reported that the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) is looking into whether a commonly used technique for the sale of residential real estate known as a Contract for Deed or Installment Sale Agreement may violate federal Truth in Lending laws.  It is speculated that the CFPB is focusing on the increased use of this technique and abuses in the marketplace that target lower income buyers.

Up to now, the CFPB has focused on institutional financing and has not focused on the individual sale of houses by homeowners.  The recent interest in these matters may be based on what the Times reports to be a widespread use of this technique in the mid-west and south where there are a large number of homes that sell for less than $100,000.00.  The article points out that a firm in Texas, apparently, has become a national player in the Contract for Deed business.
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 Last Monday, July 21, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court entered what should be the final opinion with respect to whether a home seller in Pennsylvania needs to disclose that a murder/suicide took place in the home.  I had posted two previous blog articles, one on February 28, 2012, entitled “What Do You Mean My House Is Haunted”, and a second one on January 30, 2013, entitled “Real Estate Disclosures – Does It Matter If My House Is Haunted”.

You may remember that this case involved a lawsuit by a home buyer who, after settlement, discovered that the home she had bought and improved had been the site of a murder/suicide where a previous owner had allegedly killed his wife and himself on the property. She contended she would not have bought the house had she known of this crime. Originally a three judge panel of the Superior Court held, in a two to one decision, that the murder/suicide could be a material defect in the property requiring disclosure under Pennsylvania disclosure law. In January of 2013, the Superior Court reversed the panel’s decision on the basis that the disclosure of psychological defects would be a descent down a very slippery slope. 

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and, in Monday’s decision, the Supreme Court, in what they stated was a matter of first impression, decided the underlying question . . . whether psychological stigmas are material defects. The Court determined that to require the disclosure of psychological defects would clearly be beyond the intent of the disclosure law. The Plaintiff argued that the psychological stigma on the property reduced its value and that the failure to disclose this tragic event constituted a material defect. The Court, again mentioning the slippery slope of determining what a particular buyer may find objectionable, stated that efforts to define those that would warrant mandatory disclosure would be a Sisyphean task. (We will all remember that Sisyphus was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill.)


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In February of 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled What do you mean, my house is haunted?   I commented on the case Milliken v. Jacono where the purchaser of a home had sued the seller and the seller’s real estate agent for fraud and misrepresentation when, three weeks after closing, she learned that a previous owner had allegedly killed his wife and himself in the property. She contended that she would not have bought the house had she known of this crime.  A three judge panel of the Superior Court, at that time, by a two to one decision, held that the murder/suicide could be a material defect in the property requiring disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Disclosure Law.  The panel decided that a jury could decide if this event was a material defect in the property.

The panel’s dissent pointed out that psychological defects may vary greatly from person to person and questioned whether or not disclosure is limited only to murder/suicide. Requiring disclosure of psychological defects would be a “descent down a very slippery slope”. 

The slippery slope argument was persuasive to the entire panel of the Superior Court who recently issued a six to three opinion and found that psychological damage to a property cannot be considered a material defect in the property which must be revealed by seller to buyer.   In reaching this conclusion, the majority of the Court noted that certainly, in the age of the internet, the modern homebuyer has a powerful tool to uncover the notorious history of a house or neighborhood.  


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Buyers want to make an informed decision when they purchase a house because their home is where they spend most of their time. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the entire history of any particular property. Unwelcome "surprises" may lurk behind walls or under carpets and remain undiscovered until remodeling time. That is why looking over the seller’s disclosure statement, ordering a property inspection and obtaining title insurance are such important steps in the home buying process.

Buyers use all of their senses in choosing a property. The first step while walking through the home is to look for problems. Smelling mold or smoke can deter some homebuyers, as can feeling extreme dampness in the air or hearing floors and windows rattle in the wind. All of this can help, but what about the sixth sense?

Very few people want to buy a house that is supposedly "haunted." (Yes, there are some who consider supernatural activity a selling point; see Haunted Real Estate is Scary Good Investment.) Realtors know that homes adjacent to cemeteries, on top of ancient burial ground or with disturbing histories, otherwise known as stigmatized properties, can be difficult to sell. In Pennsylvania, a three judge panel of the Superior Court recently decided that a jury may determine if a home seller is required to disclose a murder/suicide as a substantial defect in a home.


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