Purchasers of residential real estate in Pennsylvania likely want to know the history of their potential home, from the structural to the strange (such as whether someone died in a house). While buyers can count on a seller to make certain disclosures, the law does not always require sellers to disclose those strange issues. In such cases, buyers should still plan to follow the old adage “buyer beware.”
The law historically followed the “buyer beware” concept. The concept stems from the ancient Latin “caveat emptor” and essentially means that buyers are responsible for doing their own research. Over time, the law in the United States evolved to require sellers to disclose certain property defects to buyers. Such obligations typically stem from “mandatory disclosure statutes.” While these laws are nuanced and varied, sellers of residential properties typically have to disclose “material” defects. In Pennsylvania, “material” defects are issues significantly impacting the value of the property or that present unreasonable risks. However, the meaning of “material” can give rise to disputes when it comes to stranger issues like whether a crime or death occurred on the property.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed one such issue in Milliken v. Jacono, 628 Pa. 62 (2014). A buyer from California purchased a home in Pennsylvania, and later learned from a neighbor that the home had been the site of a murder-suicide. The buyer was upset with this discovery and sued the sellers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the sellers were not required to disclose the murder-suicide because it was not a “material” defect. The Court thought that requiring the disclosure of such “psychological defects” could lead to a slippery slope, and would be difficult to define and enforce. The Court viewed the question of whether a psychological defect is “material” as largely subjective. Plus, the murder-suicide in Milliken was well-known. Even though the buyer was in California, she likely could have learned about it through her own research.
So, while the concept of “buyer beware” is not necessarily as prevalent as it used to be, it could still have certain applications in modern residential real estate. Many laws do require a seller to make certain disclosures but, as the Milliken decision reveals, these laws might not cover everything. Since buying a home can be one the most significant investments an individual or family can make, buyers should still “beware.” Indeed, buyers might want to do some research on their own to uncover issues, especially when it comes to learning about a property’s psychological defects.