Two years ago, when Lee Silber wanted to downsize from a house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, she found a five-room co-op right in the neighborhood, made an offer and went into contract.
There was just one little problem with the new apartment. Actually, there was one big problem with the apartment: a wall unit the size of a woodshed in the guest room.
“It was a hideous piece of furniture, the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Rachel Weingarten, Ms. Silber’s daughter. “It was dark wood, so it killed any light, and so overwhelming it took up a third of the room.”
In every conversation with the seller, either Ms. Silber, a semiretired fashion designer, or one of her three children sought reassurance. “You’re taking the wall unit with you, right?” they would ask. Yes, the seller would promise, he was taking the wall unit. Absolutely, positively? Absolutely, positively.
Of course, you know where this is headed. The seller went. The behemoth wall unit did not.
There it stood, like a hulking bully, on the final walk-through, and “when we called the guy, he just played dumb,” Ms. Weingarten said. “My mother wanted to be out of her old house and in her new space, so everything went ahead as planned. But she had to pay quite a bit to have it disassembled and removed.”
Real estate closings are hobbled, sometimes even derailed, by a seller’s last-minute adjustment of terms. What the buyer had believed was included in the transaction — the Viking stove, the Sub-Zero refrigerator, the sconces in the living room, the fresco in the dining room, the brass carpet rods on the staircase — isn’t part of the deal after all.
But perhaps more vexing are the things sellers forget to take with them or quite deliberately leave behind — furniture that’s too much of a hassle to take apart, too unwieldy and costly to clear from the premises. True, years ago, they managed to get that monster sofa into the apartment, but now they can’t think how to get it out. Maybe that marble-topped dining table is too big for the new, tighter quarters the sellers are moving to across town. Or maybe they just plain don’t like it anymore.
Usually, buyers know ahead of time that they’ll be getting more than they bargained for or paid for. “If there are items that are required to be removed before the closing, the contract should provide for that in detail,” said Eva Talel, the head of the co-op and condominium practice at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
Just an assurance from the seller that yes, everything will be out before the closing isn’t sufficient, according to Ms. Talel. Especially in the case of an estate sale, when much emptying is to be done, there should be a time frame for completing the clean-out — say, two weeks before the closing. “The estate needs to know the buyer means business and doesn’t want to find out 24 hours before closing that grandma’s stuff is still there.”
On the walk-through — and it should be a thorough walk-through — “If things are not gone, and if we’re talking about things that will cost a great deal of money or take a lot of effort to remove, money should be escrowed at the closing,” Ms. Talel continued.
But sometimes, as in the case of Ms. Silber and the wall unit, buyers are blindsided. Very occasionally, the orphaned item, however unexpected, is accepted with pleasure.
“It seems to me that sellers always leave something, and buyers are usually appalled,” said Gerard Splendore, an associate broker in the Brooklyn Heights office of Halstead Property. “They don’t see it as a windfall. They don’t want somebody else’s stuff.”
Such stuff includes air-conditioners, because they’re too much trouble to take out of the window, and shower curtains, just because. “Sellers will leave one cuff link, one earring, a belt on a top shelf,” said Mr. Splendore, who has happened upon false teeth left in a dishwasher, keys, keys, many keys, awards, diplomas, a wedding band and photos of family members back in the old country.
“I’ll send notes and ask if the sellers want the pictures, and often I don’t get a response,” he said. “Clearly they aren’t important to them, or maybe they just didn’t like that side of the family.” As for that errant wedding band, it was appraised and bought by a jeweler for $35; Mr. Splendore sent the seller a check.
During one rather unsettling walk-through, he found several large rusty knives wrapped in a towel. “They were enough to make me curious,” he said, “but not suspicious.”
Everybody involved was suspicious about a safe in the basement of a Lower Manhattan townhouse, an estate sale. “The deceased owner had had some underworld connections and his family didn’t want to open the safe because of what they might find,” said Craig L. Price, a partner at the law firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman who was representing the bank in the transaction.
“The issue came up at the closing when the purchasers asked if the safe had been removed,” Mr. Price said. It had not. “Then the purchasers asked if the safe had been opened.” Again, no.
To avoid having the deal scrapped, the brokers arranged for the safe to be removed, and the sellers told them they could keep the contents as a thank-you for their trouble. The good news: There was nothing in there to take to the police. The bad news: There was nothing in there to take to the bank. “Just some old meaningless documents,” Mr. Price said.
Sometimes, sellers will leave a particular item because it came with the place — for example, a chest of drawers that was in the attic when they themselves took occupancy. “They happily used the bureau, but now the new owners don’t want it,” Mr. Splendore said. “And there’s a last-minute drama about how to get rid of it. I’m a problem solver: I open the window and toss it out.”