Disclosure Issues and Failure to Disclose
One of the most important things for the buyer in any transaction is confidence that the seller has disclosed all known problems. One of the things most people don't realize, or act like they don't realize, is that it's at least as important to the seller.
The California Association of Realtors (CAR) has a program called Winforms that lets me ask all of the little niggling questions about the home. Very convenient, very nice, and I've done my duty when I fill it out with a listing client.
This does not mean that I or the seller can ignore any metaphorical elephant in the room not covered by the form. If there's something that's obvious, I have a duty to ask about it and record the answer, even if it isn't on the form. The seller has a legal duty to disclose anything they are aware of that might cause a reasonable buyer to change their minds or their offering price. A cracked light switch protector plate is not a big problem and you're going to either fix it or agree with the buyer that you won't. But past termite damage, whether someone has died in the home recently, soil subsidence (even on the far side of the property), and any number of other factors can be reasons why prudent buyers may no longer be interested, or may wish to re-evaluate their offer. The rule for smart people is "disclose everything and let the buyer decide if it's important." A certain percentage of sellers, however, just want to get through the transaction without the buyer changing their mind. For Sale By Owner (FSBO) sellers seem to be significantly worse about it, by the way, which is one of several major reasons I'm always leery of FSBO properties with my clients. These sellers either don't realize how strongly omissions can come back to bite them, or are hoping they will be gone by the time it comes to light.
First off, unless you're planning on dying, you can be found. I know a lawyer that makes a good living at it. Furthermore, failure to disclose frequently makes your liability worse, in that you had a duty to disclose and you did not. It is possible that failure to disclose means a judgment for punitive damages in addition to increased economic damages is in your future, whether you are seller or agent or even buyer's agent if it was bad enough. Furthermore, you can count on the damages being larger because the problem has had time to get worse, paying the costs incurred in order to find you, and so on, when if you had simply disclosed in the first place you would have been off the hook.
Now, your real estate agent is not (generally) a building inspector, tax records expert, or any of those kinds of specialist. I recommend an inspector for every purchase, because I'm certainly not qualified to do that job. But if I spot something that may not be right, I have a duty to disclose it to my principal, and find out if it really means anything from a real expert. Sometimes there's a tax assessment that has passed or pending that doesn't have numbers associated with it yet. If it's passed, the title report should have the information, but they've been known to miss one occasionally. If it's pending (e.g. bond measure on the next ballot), it's a good idea to tell the buyer, or at least tell the buyer about where to find out.
For an agent, failure to disclose may mean that your professional insurance won't cover it. The professional insurance is for errors (honest mistakes) and omissions (errors of ignorance), not intentionally hiding something. This liability can easily run to several times any commission you made, so it's a really bad idea to hide anything. Agent or seller, if they buyer can prove you knew, or that you should have known, you're basically up the creek.
Caveat Emptor (and Vendor).
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