What you see is what you get, right? Not necessarily in real estate, unless you go out of your way to document your expectations and assumptions and make them known to the seller. This is especially true in recreational properties in remote locations.
Some years ago, our neighbors purchased a large summer cabin on a mountain lake. Although very few people visited the area in the winter, the couple felt they could use the cabin in cold weather because the living room included a fireplace with a new, efficient insert. They liked that the getaway could be heated by wood because electricity was extremely expensive in the area. They also felt they had saved some time not having to research insert options or free-standing wood stoves.
When moving day arrived and they began setting boxes in the living room, they noticed the insert was gone. How could this be? If this was not a "fixture" that was to stay in the house, what exactly was a fixture?
Through their real estate agent, they learned the seller was an attorney who said he never even considered leaving the insert behind. The cherry on top of this dessert was that the seller had no place to reinsert the insert. But he would gladly sell it to the couple or keep it in his garage. They eventually bought their own insert for $1,500.
The insert was gone because their earnest-money agreement had not included a definitive list of items they expected to find when they took possession of the house.
Most sales contracts address the issue of items that are part of the sale. These can include built-in appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting, window treatments, screens, awnings, television antennas, air conditioning and heating equipment, wood stoves, fireplace inserts, irrigation fixtures, electric garage door openers, water heaters, lights, landscaping and hot tubs, among other fixtures.
Such language can help clarify what is typically included in a sale, although the word "other" still leaves room for dispute. What are other fixtures? Can they be washing machines attached to the wall by a rubber hose? Typically not.
But there is a case in which a real estate agent who was representing a religious congregation buying a church building assumed that the bolted-to-the-floor pews were included in the sale. A court ruled otherwise.
Stained-glass windows also caused a recent problem. The seller assumed they were art and planned to replace them with the common windows stored in the basement. The buyer said the stained-glass was one of the reasons the home was appealing and assumed they came with the house. The parties settled on a lower sales price and the seller took the stained glass.
The moral to the story? When in doubt, spell it out -- especially if it's going to heat a cabin on a remote mountain lake.
Tom Kelly is the co-author of "Cashing In on a Second Home in Central America: How to Buy, Rent and Profit in the World's Bargain Zone."