Whenever a seller or their agent open up their home to prospective buyers there is always a chance of unintended consequences. Stuff happens when strangers go wandering around an unfamiliar home or property that’s listed for sale.
I was reminded of how freak incidents occur while reviewing a decision by the United States District Court in a case, Campbell v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, (Freddie Mac). The case centered on the seller’s liability for a buyer who was previewing their REO home for sale. The incident happened when a prospective buyer, while previewing a property, opened a kitchen door that she presumed was a panty. It wasn’t. The room was dark, the light switch didn’t work and the poor lady stepped forward, lost her balance and fell down the stairs into the basement. The lady sued the seller and the agent who was showing her the property for failing to exercise reasonable care by not warning the buyer of the dangerous condition of the dark stairway.
The court eventually ruled in favor of the seller and the listing agent but affirmed the agent’s duty to warn customers about a home’s hidden defects or hazards of which they were or should have been aware. Since the staircase wasn’t hidden the court ruled they had no duty to warn the customer about the hazard. Despite a favorable ruling for the seller and agent the court would not allow the agent reimbursement for their attorney fees defending themselves against the plaintiff, which by then had exceeded $50,000.
After 30 years of showing unfamiliar properties to clients I have encountered many surprises upon crossing a stranger’s doorway. My most vivid was a home suicide. The home was listed as a short sale. I called the listing agent who told me that he thought the owners were out of town. The foreclosure was scheduled for later that month and I should show it immediately. I met my client at the property, opened the front door and immediately sensed this was not a happy home. The seller was still sitting in his chair with a gun on the floor.
When entering a vacant property I have found it helpful to announce oneself loudly. “HELLO!….ANYONE HOME?” Once, I walked into a vacant but furnished home that was in the process of being burglarized. The thieves were stealing the contents out the back door. Upon this discovery I quickly excused myself, “Sorry for the interruption, I see this is a bad time.” I didn’t bother replacing the lockbox key as I hurriedly pushed my clients off the front porch toward my car.
After confronting death and nearly being assaulted by a gang of burglars, walking in on naked men and women strolling around their house, pool or sunbathing in their backyard is nothing to get excited about. “Oh excuse me. Apparently, you didn’t get my message that I was coming over today. How’s the water?”
Closed doors can lead to the unexpected. The most commonly closed doors are to bedrooms. In the confidential “Agent Remarks” the listing read, “Phone has been disconnected. Go and show. Seller never at home.” Well he was! But was obviously distracted with under the blanket activity until I opened the closed bedroom door and announced “And this is the master bedroom suite.”
When showing rural properties I am generally more concerned with my proximity to poison oak and thistles than snakes but I have encountered a fair share of both. Once, when previewing a horse property in Shingle Springs I was escorting a Bay Area couple out to the pasture where their teenage son was already admiring a mare and her foal. As I swung open the gate I saw him holding up a 4-foot rattlesnake. “What do you want me to do with this?” he shrugged. His mother’s screamed just before she fainted and the sight of the withering snake. Her scream stampeded the horses out the gate. That snake killed a sale and was justly rewarded.
In a remote area above Georgetown I encountered a very protective organic gardener. I was lost but too proud to admit it to my city slicker clients who thought they were looking for a remote vacation retreat. I came across a listing for an old miner’s cabin on 40 “end-of-the-road” acres located five miles off Wentworth Springs Road. After traveling four miles on the rutted old trail, sadistically called a road, we were stopped by an old Digger Pine blocking our passage. Rather than admitting defeat, I asked my clients if they wanted to walk a ways to the end of the road. That was a mistake. When I realized we were being watched, I gave my car keys to my clients and told them to quickly backtrack to the car. I would be right behind them.
I saw the shotgun first as it moved through the brush toward me. He was big, dressed in coveralls, a red bandana and combat boots. He didn’t say a thing, just a steady stare and an irritated look. My mouth and legs keep moving back toward the car. I was apologizing for the intrusion. I pleaded I was only a lowly real estate agent, lost while trying to find a property. I was never ever going to come this way again, even if I could find this place, which I couldn’t if I wanted to and I didn’t want to and have a nice day. My city folk clients decided to stay in the city and I have never again returned to Wentworth Springs Road to show remote cabins in the woods.
Ken Calhoon is a real estate broker in El Dorado County. He can be reached through his Website at kencalhoon.com.