As I said last week, when you buy a property in California, you’re buying it “as-is” unless you negotiate an agreement pertaining to a specific item. Without that special agreement, you’re accepting the property in its current condition.
This is why it’s worth investing in several inspections. Once you’ve had the inspections pertaining to structures, land, and features (reviewed in last week’s column), it’s time to get the inspections pertaining to ownership, property definition, and natural hazards.
Title insurance takes care of ownership and property definition issues. Without title insurance, you cannot be sure that your claim on the property has priority over someone else’s. With title insurance you’re really paying for the research—which is why I’m including it with other inspections. With most insurance, your premium is based problems happening in the future. With title insurance, you’re paying to see if a problem has already occurred.
In addition, title insurance provides a legal definition of the property, including its shape and location. I know this sounds crazy, but people have actually purchased the wrong property before. I know a contractor who built a house to sell on the lot he thought was his. Sadly, it wasn’t. (Surveys aren’t included with the title insurance, so if you want precise location measurements, talk to your Realtor about hiring a surveyor.)
Long story short, you definitely want title insurance so you can be sure of what you’re buying, and so you don’t buy a property only to discover there are back taxes or recorded liens which weren’t paid; or worse yet, that the deed you were given was not signed by the true owner of the property and therefore worthless to you.
Moving on to natural hazard disclosures (NHDs), the inspection for NHDs includes a review of public records to see whether your property is in a flood zone, on an earthquake fault line, near an old dump site, or any number of other hazards. Depending on the findings and your intended use of the property, you may decide to do an environmental inspection.
A Phase I environmental inspection is a public records search for suspected contamination: did there used to be a gas station at this location? A Phase II environmental inspection is an on-site inspection to see whether any concerns from Phase I appear grounded in fact. A Phase III environmental inspection basically requires the world to come to a screeching halt. You dig big holes to remove toxic material. It’s called “remediation.” It’s not fun, it’s not cheap, and it’s not quick, but hopefully it will make the property usable.
As important as inspections are, they are no replacement for walking the property yourself. And, regardless of what the inspections uncover, the seller and Realtors involved in the transaction must disclose anything they know (or should reasonably be expected to know) about the property.
Any inspection is limited to what can be seen without destructive testing. In other words, if an inspector has to cut a hole in the wall to see a problem, that problem won’t be included in the findings.
Remember, it’s always better to check things before you close escrow, when fixing the problem may be a joint effort of the buyer and seller, rather than afterwards when the responsibility is yours alone.
As an aside, property boundaries are based on surveyors’ monument points. In Mendocino County, we use the Mt. Diablo base meridian to the south and a landmark in Humboldt County to the north. Surveyors have put “pins” in the ground between those two landmarks to precisely identify distances from those landmarks so people can more easily determine boundary lines. This works well unless someone makes a mistake, which they did years ago. A surveyor’s point near Boonville Road has caused many of those properties to be misidentified by about three feet.
If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.