When Diana Abu-Jaber moved into her Miami home, she expected to find everything she had seen when she made her offer to purchase. Instead, she discovered that the previous owners had left her in the dark. Literally.
“The sellers took the lightbulbs,” she recalls. “They also took the batteries from the smoke detector, the knobs from the bathroom faucet, the curtains, and all the toilet paper. They even pried a clock out of the wall.”
Abu-Jaber isn’t the only new homeowner to find strange things taken from the properties they have just moved into. On various social media sites, buyers have reported missing closet rods, door stoppers, and shower heads.
Should home sellers be allowed to take these things with them when they move? We got the lowdown—and what you should do if it happens to you.
Figure out whether the items are theirs or yours
First, you should understand the difference between fixtures and personal property. Fixtures are items physically affixed to a property and therefore automatically included in the purchase agreement (unless otherwise excluded in the property listing). Chattels or personal property include anything movable, says Rona Fischman, a Realtor® and principal broker at 4 Buyer’s Real Estate in Cambridge, MA.
Buyers are legally entitled to receive all of the home fixtures as they appeared when the offer to purchase was made—so if a funky entryway light was there when you visited the house, it should still be there when you move in (unless you’ve negotiated otherwise).
“We’re really, really fussy: We actually write all that stuff out, because there are many things in that gray area between personal items and real estate,” explains Fischman, who works exclusively as a buyer’s agent. “The classic one is drapery: That’s chattel, but the brackets are fixtures, so decide in advance who’s getting the set.”
Be very specific about what stays and what goes so there are no misunderstandings.
“When buyers are ready to make an offer, we’ll ask, ‘Is there anything in that gray area that, if it was gone, you’d be unhappy about?’” she says. “And then we add it onto the offer.”
What to do if sellers take things anyway
If a bunch of things have mysteriously gone MIA, buyers do have some recourse, says Andrea Duane, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in El Dorado Hills, CA.
She’s also experienced surprises during walk-throughs with clients.
“Once, we noticed all the kitchen cabinet hardware and drawer pulls had been removed,” she says. “The sellers wanted to bring everything to their next place, but you can’t do that. We went right back to the seller’s agent and said, ‘Your client did this. It wasn’t disclosed and these things were bolted and attached to the property—they need to be put back because they are permanent fixtures of the house.”
Monica Kemp thought she had come to terms with a seller who had mentioned she was taking the dining room chandelier.
“We were fine with that. However, once we closed, we got to our new house and saw she had not only taken the chandelier, but she didn’t replace it with anything—we just had wires hanging out of the ceiling,” recalls Kemp, who purchased that house before she became a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Leesburg, VA.
“Now, because of my experience,” she says, “I know to include that if anyone is specifying they’re taking something, they have to make sure it’s replaced.”
In Abu-Jaber’s case, the sellers were getting divorced, and she opted to cut them some slack.
“It was a tough situation that made me so sad for them, so we didn’t ask for any of the items back, but we also ended up putting that house back on the market really quickly,” she says. “The fit was never quite right; we always felt a little unwelcome—it was bad juju.”
Beware: Sellers might remove items out of spite
Why on Earth would sellers bother to remove toilet paper holders, doorknobs, or switch plates? Fischman says such actions could indicate an underlying issue.
“When that kind of thing happens, it usually means you had a bad deal; somebody thinks they’ve been ripped off,” she says.
To avoid a sour situation, be proactive: Take photos during visits, describe all inclusions in the offer to purchase, and be respectful and reasonable during the negotiating process, Fischman adds.
And, while most closings happen without a hitch, it’s always a good idea to do one or two walk-throughs with your agent just to be sure everything’s in order.
Abu-Jaber, who’s moved several times, has learned a few things along the way.
“Usually, people are pretty reasonable and don’t strip the house bare—mine was an unusual experience and I wouldn’t suggest making yourself nuts trying to itemize every detail,” she says.
Plus, if you negotiate with the sellers, you could end up with some pretty rad finds. Abu-Jaber, in fact, has bought and sold all sorts of furnishings with their home purchases.
“If you get to know your sellers a bit, you can get some great deals, too,” she says. “We bought our much-loved dining room table for $25 from our seller.”