Moldy surprise causes problems for unsuspecting home sellers

Barry Stone
Inman News

Dear Barry,

We recently sold our home and made full disclosure of every defect we could think of. The buyers hired a home inspector, and we repaired all of the defects listed in the inspection report. We wanted the buyers to be satisfied with the home and felt that we had dealt fairly and honestly with them. But after the sale, they remodeled the interior, and that’s when an unknown problem was revealed. When they stripped the wallpaper in the master bathroom, the entire back side of the paper was covered with mold. They are now making angry accusations, and we’re expecting to be sued. How can we be accountable for disclosing a condition that we were unaware of? –Sandy

Dear Sandy,

The discovery of unknown defects is a common, but unfortunate, occurrence when remodeling projects take place. The removal of wall coverings, and particularly of drywall, may reveal faulty wiring, leaky plumbing, substandard framing, or major termite damage. When findings of this kind occur after the purchase of a home, two questions are commonly asked: “Why wasn’t this disclosed?” and “Did the sellers know about this problem?” All too often, the second question is given little consideration, and it is unfairly assumed that the sellers deliberately concealed a known defect. What is needed in these situations is a reasonable dose of good common sense.

In your situation, mold was growing on the backside of the bathroom wallpaper, and until the wallpaper was removed, the mold was not apparent to anyone. You didn’t see it while you lived there, the buyers and agents apparently did not notice it on their final walkthrough inspection, and the home inspector didn’t see it in the course of the property inspection. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that it was not visibly discernible. Its existence was apparently unknowable. And as unpleasant as the discovery of mold may be, the lack of prior disclosure does not appear to be the deliberate fault of anyone. It was simply an unfortunate and unavoidable outcome; one that calls for an equitable response from reasonable people.

Bathroom wallpaper is typically vinyl-coated to resist moisture damage caused by steam. However, the vinyl coating resists water penetration on two sides, not just one. While it keeps air moisture in the bathroom from penetrating the outer surface, it also keeps moisture that may be present within the wall from evaporating. Instead, any moisture that may have gotten into the wall will condense on the backside of the vinyl coating, where it encounters the preferred food source for mold–the paper backing. When this occurs, you have the perfect environment for mold growth: paper, trapped moisture, and darkness. Unfortunately, while the mold continues to grow in this concealed area, the vinyl coating prevents any telltale signs from emerging on the surface. This is why the mold problem in the home you sold was not discovered until the paper was removed.

Hopefully, the new owners of the home will realize that this was a no-fault situation, rather than pursuing needless conflict. And since it is a pre-existing condition, perhaps it would be fair for buyers and sellers to share the cost of remediation.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.

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Copyright 2006 Barry Stone

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