But in October 1997, when the Benings moved in, they discovered the house was slowly breaking apart. A crack running up a wall in the master bedroom was their first clue. Tracking the fissure down the wall, Terry lifted the bedroom's carpeting and discovered a 3/4 inch-wide gap in the foundation running almost the entire length of the north side of the house.
Since 1985, California law requires home defects to be disclosed by sellers during escrow on a Transfer Disclosure Statement. The three-page form asks sellers to tell all about their home--everything from whether the oven is in good working condition to whether the home has had major damage from a fire, earthquake, flood or landslide.
After consulting numerous engineers, the Benings, both 49, now know that their dream house is slowly sinking and shifting at a rate of 1/12 of an inch a year. "I've lost the feeling of home as a safe place," said Terry, a college professor.
During a four-year legal battle that began in 1998, the Benings have recovered some costs from the listing agent and the home inspector. But the funds have barely covered their legal costs, they said.
The Benings are not able to receive compensation from the sellers, who knew of the problem, because they filed for bankruptcy. And the courts found the builder is free from obligation because the statute of limitations--in this case, three years after the first homeowner had discovered the problem--had run out.
"My husband and I will have to pay for this problem," Terry said. "It's a slow process, but eventually [the house] could collapse."
Despite the threat of lawsuits, sellers sometimes conceal issues about their home they feel will break a deal. But often, sellers have lived in a home so long they don't notice a leaking pipe or think to mention that water collects at the doorway in a driving rain.
Still, other sellers fear disclosing something like a death or murder in the home will stigmatize their house right out of the market.
Gary Effron, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in real estate law, said a good way to eliminate guesswork about disclosure is to ask yourself: "If I were a buyer, is this something I would want to know?"
All sorts of issues and sticking points can arise during escrow as a result of the gray areas on disclosure--everything from how much water pressure there is in the shower to one San Fernando Valley seller who wanted to disclose that her house was haunted by her mother.
"I thought it was bizarre," said real estate agent Jerry Berns, 59, who, along with all real estate agents, also have a responsibility to do a visual inspection of all accessible areas of a property and disclose anything they find. "But I did think about disclosing it. The acid test for disclosure is anything that could conceivably make a difference to a buyer." (Ultimately, the presence of the purported ghost was not disclosed.)
To get all the facts, real estate agents usually sit down with a seller for at least an hour to go over the house's history. During this meeting, sellers will check off items on the Transfer Disclosure Statement, or TDS, as it is known. If sellers have a big problem to disclose, they are encouraged to use additional pages for explanation.
"The only downside to this," said James Joseph, owner of Century 21 Grisham-Joseph in Whittier, "is now we have a paper blizzard. Years ago we had far fewer forms to fill out."
While the majority of problems arising from nondisclosure occur accidentally, some homeowners--such as the Benings--believe they were set up to buy flawed property.
Russell and Donna Merriweather bought their first home for $189,000 in September 1999 in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles. According to Russell, a counselor who works with substance abusers and developmentally disabled adults, two days after moving in, he and Donna discovered the walls of the back corner of the master bedroom were eroded and rotted away due to water damage from a leaking roof. The walls had been cosmetically patched and painted, according to Russell, and furniture and boxes had prevented a complete visual inspection of the area when the couple walked through the property.