By Maurile C. Tremblay, Esq.
“Caveat Emptor,” my Contracts professor thundered, startling even those of us who had hunkered down in the last rows of the cavernous lecture hall in the vain hope that it would prevent our being called upon. That lecture was long ago, but even if “Let the Buyer Beware” is not heard much today, in Latin or in English, it is still a good principle to keep in mind.
Originally, the centuries-old legal maxim was a warning to buyers that the law would not protect them from their own failures to carefully investigate and inspect a potential purchase. Since then, a maze of consumer protection laws might cause some buyers to relax their guard a little, thinking that the law is on their side. I would say, “not so fast.”
Assume, for example, that you intend to purchase a house in La Jolla and that all parties agree on the price, length of escrow, financing and all major terms. You might think that the sellers and two sets of brokers, all together, can tell you everything else you need to know. You might, but then, you would be wrong.
Another common saying is “read the fine print.” Today, however, the warnings in many common commercial sales contracts are not in ‘fine’ print at all, but in clear, prominent, or even bold print - which is good. But once those warnings are given, buyers who ignore those warnings do so at their peril - which is bad.
In the typical residential purchase agreement used in San Diego today, for example, the buyer is told that “improvements” to the property (meaning any part of the house, garage, pool, patio, fence, guest house or storage shed), “may not have been built according to codes ... or have had permits issued;” that “the owner may be unaware of a lack of permits;” that the brokers have “no knowledge” as to zoning regulations, or “lot size, boundaries, easements and encroachments,” and that the square footage indicated “may or may not be accurate.” These are just a few of the warnings.
Of course, the sellers would know about their own improvements, but what about a lack of permits or code violations or zoning violations by previous owners? The law does not require either sellers or brokers to research such matters on behalf of buyers. And if the backyard often floods during heavy rains, the owners would certainly have to disclose that - unless they did not occupy the property and were not told of the flooding. I could go on, but I am sure you see my point.
In these, and many other instances, you, as a prudent buyer, would be well advised to read everything carefully, ask a lot of questions, get an independent property inspection report, and perhaps even brush up on your Latin - Caveat Emptor.
Maurile C. Tremblay is a member of the La Jolla Bar Association, a nonprofit professional association composed of attorneys who live or work in La Jolla. The LJBA can be reached at P.O. Box 1831 La Jolla, CA 92038.