Spot Landscaping Red Flags

A sharp eye will help you alert buyers to potential problems with a home’s environs, but experts warn not to assert expertise.

August 1, 2005

Lou Ann Brannan knew something was wrong with the exterior of a home that she and her buyer client were viewing. Was it just the old-style look of the home’s construction, Brannan thought, or was she intuitively recognizing signs of a larger problem?

Better safe than sorry, Brannan, ABR®, a broker-associate with the Beazley Co. in Wallingford, Conn., suggested the buyer get a professional opinion, which revealed that the home’s foundation had become unstable as the result of root damage. Brannan’s keen eye helped her buyer purchase another property, and the sellers learned of a serious issue that needed fixing.

“I don’t know how much longer that situation would have lasted … before the whole wall came down,” Brannan says.

While a home is often the main attraction during a sale, Jeff Siler, a certified appraiser in Orange County, Calif., says a careful survey of the land can yield valuable information about a property’s overall health. Having a sharp eye like Brannan can help ensure that your buyers know exactly what they’re getting into with a potential purchase—and they can negotiate those terms with the sellers or move on to the next property.

Landscape warning signs come in all shapes and sizes, from soil problems and root encroachment to excess moisture, pest infestation, structural instability, erosion, and drainage problems. Cracks in patios and perimeter walls, for example, can indicate chronic foundation problems. Dense clay soils cause excessive runoff and flooding during rain storms. Tilted or uneven streets, driveways, and sidewalks around a property tell tales of soil expansion. And a crack or gap in the junction between the front driveway and the garage in an area prone to landslides could signal that the home and its backyard are moving in unison.

Lose the fear of getting mud on your shoes, says Siler. “Walk the land. Walk every corner. Walk the entire perimeter. And don’t be in a hurry.”

Some Basic Things to Look For

Each region has its own set of environmental issues and with so many potential red flags with any home’s landscaping, it’s hard to know exactly what to look for. But experts say during any visual inspection, real estate practitioners should make note of the following:

  • Water features such as ponds, fountains, and brooks
  • Bowed or cracked retaining walls
  • Leaning or rotting fences
  • Damaged railings
  • Deck systems and patios that slope toward or pull away from a home
  • Tilted and cracked stairs
  • Cracks running from windows and doors

In addition, San Diego-based real estate attorney Mike Spilger says you should consider how the land will perform in different weather conditions.

“Think about where the water will go if it rains,” Spilger says. “If the slope of the property appears to go toward the house, to me that’s a red flag. Look for the kind of thing that sticks out at you. If there is an embankment with a tree growing at a 45-degree angle, the salesperson might suggest that the homeowner have that checked out.”

Examine the Trees

When Jodi Foster, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty in Allen, Texas, bought a Lake Lavon home in 2000, she fell in love with the two 20-year-old willow trees in front of the property. But Foster, who once worked on a wholesale tree farm, didn’t hire a professional to look at the trees and didn’t realize the lifespan of a willow tree is about 20 years. Within two years, one of the trees started to die.

Today, Foster usually advises clients to have mature trees checked by a professional. “You need to be aware that some kinds of landscaping can cause property damage and property issues.”

Mimosa trees, for example, can be high maintenance. Cottonwood trees can be problematic for people with allergies. And willow trees have root systems that seek water.

“And in our dry, arid area, the closest water sometimes is in the plumbing of the house,” Foster says. “So you can have a lot of foundation issues if you have willow trees planted too close to a house.”

In addition, tree limbs hanging over a roof or brushing up against a house can cause structural damage. Leaves and debris caught in gutters cause roof damage and leaks. Uneven sidewalks can indicate root encroachment and potential foundation problems. Trees with ground level separation of trunks are usually splitting and most unstable when subject to ice and storm conditions. And bushes and trees planted too close to a home can provide access for termites.

Don’t Play the Expert

Despite her tree knowledge, Foster leaves the landscape issues to the professionals. “Never make yourself the expert,” Foster says.

But are real estate practitioners required to be experts on landscape issues and legally responsible if they miss something? It depends on your state’s statutes—so be sure to find out what your state’s disclosure laws require.

For example, under California law, whether real estate practitioners represent the buyer or the seller, they are required to conduct a diligent and reasonably competent visual inspection of the normally accessible areas of the property and disclose anything that might materially affect the value or desirability of the property.

Similarly, Anthony Gatto, director of legal services for the New York State Association of REALTORS®, says buyer’s agents in his state are required to disclose any known issue that could impact the desirability of the property in the eyes of the client.

Meanwhile, Article 11 of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice prohibits real estate practitioners from acting outside their area of expertise.

Real estate practitioners should avoid the temptation to offer an expert opinion, make a conclusive statement, or use adjectives such as major, minor, or cosmetic, says Tiffiney Welles, vice-president of legal affairs for the San Diego Association of REALTORS® and head of the association’s Real Estate Mediation Center.

“Keep it as simple and easy as possible," Welles says.

Don’t analyze the situation and diagnose the problem, Welles cautions. Note the visual problem and counsel the buyer to have it checked by a professional.

In addition, don’t verify representations made by others. From zoning and building issues to boundaries, permits, and property lines, attribute representations to the correct source—with statements such as “according to the multiple listing service” or “according to the assessor’s records”—and direct the buyer to the appropriate venue for verification.

Protect Yourself Against Liability

Cost can sometimes sway an informed buyer from investigating further. However, when a bigger issue crops up, Welles says some buyers will sue because they feel that they were misadvised.

So note every visual landscape issue in writing and have the buyer acknowledge receipt of the information by initialing the individual comments and signing the document.

This way, the buyer is hard-pressed to say, “the salesperson told me,” or “never bothered to tell me,” or “glossed over that issue,” says Spilger, who helped the San Diego Association of REALTORS® create the Agent's Visual Inspection Checklist (PDF document).

The checklist was designed to help San Diego’s real estate community meet their legal duty to conduct reasonably competent visual inspections of the normally accessible areas of a property and reduce their exposure to lawsuits.

Welles says most problems arise when a sales professional says something is in good or bad condition when it’s not.

“You want to make sure the buyers are educated and make informed decisions,” Welles says. “But to keep themselves from being that super source, [real estate professionals] need to force the buyer to investigate further. Because when the practitioner becomes the source, they become the source of the mistake and the source of the lawsuit.”

Foster agrees. Despite her knowledge of trees from her previous career, she says, “I’m not a landscape expert or a tree expert. But if I see something that warrants an expert to come look at it, I tell my client.”

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