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What to do before buying

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What happened in the building at North and Leavitt is an egregious case that nobody caught until it was too late. When shopping for a home, you are usually protected by the safety net of building codes, which dictate that all habitable spaces meet strict construction standards. But as this incident demonstrates, some buildings do fall through the cracks (one might say). Here are a few ways to determine how likely your builder is to be up to the standards.

1. When buying new construction from a builder, “check out the person’s track record, as you would when you’re choosing a doctor or a lawyer,” says Michael Sher, an attorney who has handled cases of builder error. “If it’s a ‘brand name’ developer, a developer of some prominence, you can find a lot of information in the press.” For a smaller or lesser-known developer, he says, “ask for references. Ask around among real-estate brokers and people in the construction industry. See how much work he has done in the past.”

2. Chicago’s Department of Consumer Services suggests that buyers also look into the track records of contractors who worked on the building. That research can include checking the circuit court database for any civil cases against the developer or contractors. Go here, scroll down to “search by name,” and enter the name of the contractor or company. Keep in mind that some developers form a new limited liability company (or LLC) for each project, so your results may not be all-inclusive.

3. Although most buyers of existing properties hire a home inspector—it usually costs a few hundred dollars—before making their purchase, the inspection is largely for such easily examined items as the furnace and the roof. You could opt for a vastly more detailed inspection by hiring a structural engineer to examine the foundation, the soil, and other larger factors, says Mark Roth, the attorney for the condo owners on Leavitt—but you would pay some ten times as much. “A reasonably decent home inspection is enough for almost all buyers,” Sher says.

4. Pay attention to the seller’s disclosure list, where a seller must identify any defects (such as basement flooding or asbestos-wrapped pipes) that are not visible at the time the home is shown. Anything that raises an eyebrow should make you consider getting the place thoroughly examined. The gray area here is that sellers have to acknowledge defects they know of. “Proving that the seller breached that duty is not always easy,” Sher says. “You have to prove the seller knew the defect was there.”

5. Chicago’s Department of Consumer Services recommends that buyers be well acquainted with their builder’s warranties. Questions to ask: Are warranties provided in writing? Do they last long enough to cover any latent defects? Is the developer willing to negotiate longer-lasting warranties? How are warranty claims processed?
–D. R.

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