When a loved one passed away my family had to deal with unbearable grief as we tried to sell a family home. Unfortunately at some point in our lives many of us will have to deal with a deceased estate or inheritance property. It’s a tragic time that can leave you feeling emotionally vulnerable, which isn’t ideal when handling an immensely important financial decision.
Three years ago when my sister unexpectedly passed away in her own home our whole family was distraught. We held the funeral without discussing financial or property affairs. But, eventually came the hard ask: what were we going to do with the house? We decided it was in everyone’s best emotional and financial interests to sell the property.
The first step to selling a deceased estate is finding an agent up to the task, which isn’t easy when dealing with the emotional trauma of a family death. The last thing we wanted to do was repeatedly talk about my sister’s passing while interviewing agents or asking friends for agent recommendations. In the end we chose an agent my brother had vouched for, an old school friend of his.
Looking back, I think an agent more experienced dealing with deceased estates would have handled our situation better. There were some things that our agent didn’t do which would have saved us a lot of grief down the track, including some simple points of communication like asking us if we wanted to tell buyers about my sister’s death.
After the property was on the market for two months a potential buyer was found. As we didn’t want to be involved in negotiations, the first time we met the buyer was when we signed the sale contract.
Communicate your preferences
It soon became clear that the buyer had no idea that the property was a deceased estate, never mind that my sister had died in the house. This news seemed to shock the buyer, who shortly after informed us that he would have to rethink his decision to buy the house– he seemed deceived and no longer trusted our agent. This might seem like an extreme reaction to some, but it was evident that the history of the property was important to the buyer.
We asked our agent why he hadn’t revealed the vital information, and he replied that he didn’t want to put the buyer off and that he thought it was a good negotiation tactic. While we appreciated that he was trying to get us a higher sale price, our agent hadn’t asked us if we wanted the information about my sister to be revealed.
In New South Wales it is currently the responsibility of the agent, not the vendor, to reveal the history of a property, but good communication on this issue is vital to ensure all parties are kept informed during the sales process. After further discussions with the real estate agent we agreed that we preferred all information about my sister’s death be made public during the sale.
A common mistake
The second disaster struck when we decided to speed up the sale of the property by holding it as an auction. It turned out that my sister wasn’t the only person who held keys for her property, as when we arrived two hours before the auction was due to start, we found that the property had been entered and lived in. Beds were unmade, old food was lying around the kitchen and living rooms, the tap in the bathroom was still running, and the carpets were soiled.
Our agent hadn’t changed the locks on the house, nor had he informed us that this is especially important when dealing with a deceased estate as there is no way of knowing who the deceased might have given keys to. It was months later when we found the person who had been effectively squatting in our house was the son of close family friend.
Our auction day was a catastrophe, all hands were on deck as we managed to tidy most of the property up, but some obvious damage remained to the carpets, and the smell lingered. I don’t know how much this actually affected the auction price, as we sold $50,000 over our initial reserve, but I think the emotional cost far outweighed the financial costs.
What I would advise others to do when selling a deceased property:
1. Change your locks: You never know who else had a copy of keys to the house, and what consequences this could bring.
2. Keep on top of bill and maintenance fees: The bills keep coming after the deceased’s death, so it’s important that the executor of the estate set up a payment plan, with other members of the family if need be.
3. If the property remains vacant, make sure you keep the property in top condition by making sure someone regularly checks up on it.
4. Compare real estate agents and ask the right questions before hiring: Ask if your agent has previous experience handling deceased estates and how they would approach selling your property.
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