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    Why buying and fixing a home feels like signing your life away
    • October 22, 2023

    Often, when I sit down with a client to sign and notarize a large stack of documents that make up their estate plan, the client will exclaim “This is like buying a house!”

    I usually respond by saying, “It should be — it’s dealing with everything you own and everyone you love.”

    But, having recently bought a house, I can also add, “No, it’s not that much paperwork.”

    Even as a lawyer, I was floored by the number of documents and contracts I signed to buy, spruce up, repair and move into a house. Since it’s fresh in my mind, let me share what to look out for when you’re buying, repairing or moving into a house.

    The Realtor

    I hired a Realtor to help me find and buy a home. Please note these are licensed real estate agents who belong to the National Association of Realtors and are subject to the NAR’s code of ethics. While it’s not guaranteed, the Realtor designation is generally a good indication of professionalism, expertise and an ethical commitment. And, if there is a problem, you have recourse to file a complaint with NAR.

    Whether you’re buying or selling a home, your Realtor should walk you through the purchase contract, advise you on terms, and negotiate on your behalf.

    Let them handle negotiations — you’ll be way too emotional (trust me!).  Once you’re in escrow, your agent will also provide you with a number of disclosures — read them and have them explained to you.

    One of the disclosures I received advised me that the home inspection does not include mold testing. I was concerned about mold simply because the house was built in 1972, there had been a lot of rain this past year, and I have a friend who suffered greatly from mold exposure. There was no visible evidence of mold.

    Nonetheless, we paid extra for a mold test, discovered there was mold, and negotiated credit for closing costs from the buyer in order to make the repairs. The mold was remediated before we moved in. Read those disclosures and ask questions if you’re not comfortable with anything you read.

    The movers

    We hired movers to pack and move us. I was careful to be certain we were hiring a moving company and not a moving broker.

    A moving company owns trucks and has staff that handles your move directly. Interstate movers must be registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and have a U.S. Department of Transportation number. In California, movers require a “household mover permit.”

    A moving broker is none of those things. They are not movers, they don’t own trucks, are not authorized to transport your goods, and, most importantly, they don’t have any responsibility if anything goes wrong.

    A moving broker merely bids on your move and then hires someone else to carry it out, taking a commission off the top. You’ll have no idea who is showing up to move you, and if the broker can’t get anyone to handle your move, no one may show up.

    Moving brokers are also supposed to be registered with FMCSA, but often they aren’t. In most cases, there is no reason to use a moving broker.

    Instead, find a moving company through referrals. Ask the moving company for their FMCSA registration and permit. Legitimate moving companies will ask for only a small or no down payment. Payment is made when your goods are safely delivered. A request for a large deposit is a sign of a scam. A demand for quick payment in full upfront is itself a scam.

    Check out FMCSA’s web page on protecting your move before you hire a mover. And a practical hint: buy your movers lunch and tip them. They’re handling your precious possessions and are working really hard.

    Construction contractors

    We had to hire multiple contractors for work on our home before we moved in. Electrical, flooring, fencing, painting, and general handyman work were needed. It took time, but we got referrals, made sure we had three written estimates for each job and checked licenses.

    One contractor showed up, talked to us, looked around, and gave us a verbal quote. I asked for a written estimate. He declined. He was immediately removed from consideration — his word would be as good as the paper it was (not) written on.

    A contract should always be in writing and should include the specifics of the job, the full price, a timeline for completion and what materials are included. Be sure to know up-front if a permit will be needed and whether that permit is included in the bid.

    In California, a contractor can only request a down payment of $1,000 or 10% of the total cost, whichever is less. Make sure you pay on a schedule based on work completed and never pay in cash — you’ll have no evidence you have paid.

    If there is no “good faith dispute” over the work done, you are obligated to pay within 30 days. Make the final payment only when you are satisfied with the work.

    Finally, make sure you are working with a licensed contractor.

    In California, work that costs more than $500 (labor and materials) requires a licensed contractor. If you use an unlicensed contractor, your homeowner’s insurance likely will not cover any damage to your property or your neighbors, and you may be personally liable. If the unlicensed contractor or their employee is injured while working on your property, you may be held liable for their medical bills and lost wages.

    Buying and/or moving to a new home is exciting. It’s also stressful. Alleviate some of that stress by carefully researching and hiring professionals who are properly licensed. It’s worth the extra time and could save you a lot of time, money, and heartache.

    Now, if I could just hire somebody to unpack those boxes.

    Teresa J. Rhyne is an attorney practicing in estate planning and trust administration in Riverside and Paso Robles, CA. She is also the #1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Dog Lived (and So Will I)” and “Poppy in The Wild.”  You can reach her at [email protected]

    ​ Orange County Register