How clean should your house be when handing it over to a buyer? - Boodle Hatfield

Your lawyers since 1722

01 Aug 2021

How clean should your house be when handing it over to a buyer?

Moving house is said to be one of the most stressful life events, but after months of hassle the big day can herald the start of an exciting future building memories.

For many homebuyers, though, the anticipation is crushed by the state of the property when they turn the key in the lock for the first time.

The horrors that welcome buyers to their new pads range from filthy bathrooms and kitchens to unwanted rickety furniture and other rubbish, as well as pets and even people.
Surekha Gangakhedkar, a conveyancing solicitor in Preston, recalls a client who arrived with her daughter at their new home on a Friday afternoon to be greeted by the previous owner, who was still in residence.

“The seller had decided that she would only be able to move out on the Saturday and had prepared the guest bedroom for the woman and her daughter to sleep in,” Gangakhedkar explains. “My client was so shocked that she did stay as she had nowhere else to go and by that time the solicitors and estate agents had both closed.”

More often, according to the Birmingham solicitor Sarah Dwight, sellers leave junk that they no longer want or have forgotten about in the garage, shed or loft.

Sometimes they do it with good intention, she adds. “For example they might leave old pots of paint that match the colours used in the house, or a wardrobe, thinking it might be useful.”

The behaviour of others is less thoughtful, indicating rudeness, laziness or haste, says Dwight, recalling a sale when one mover left a half-eaten slice of cheese on toast on the kitchen table.

When Sian Dickens, a retired architect, moved from London to Pembrokeshire, among the detritus left by her sellers was a reproduction crimson-and-ivory-striped regency sofa on three cabriole legs with claw and ball feet. “Where the fourth foot should have been there was a catering size tin of pineapple chunks that were five years out of date,” she says.

For other buyers the problem lies not so much in what is left behind but what sellers take away. A common problem occurs where vendors state that they are leaving the fridge, cooker, washing machine or curtains, but when the buyers move in they find the fancy, top-of-the-range Smeg, Aga or Bosch appliances and Liberty-print curtains have been swapped for cheaper replacements.

In June a record 213,120 sales were registered as buyers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sought to take advantage of the £500,000 stamp duty holiday, designed to kick-start the sluggish property market caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

My brother and his wife were among them. They moved from a two-bedroom flat above a shop in Ealing to a three-bedroom detached house in a leafy street in the same London borough.

Their delight in their new home was tempered on arrival to find the property not just filthy — hours were spent scrubbing the cooker and fridge and defrosting the freezer, which was so iced up it would not close — but in virtual darkness.

The seller had removed not just the bulbs but all of the light fittings in four rooms, leaving them without any functioning lights and just wires hanging down from the ceiling.

More pleasingly, some sellers go to great lengths to give their buyers a warm welcome, leaving flowers, a bottle of champagne or prosecco, together with a card wishing them happiness.

They may also provide a note with the contact details for their cleaner and useful information such as the day that the bins are put out.

“I have always left a bottle of wine and a card. It’s what I would want when I move, and I’m always quite surprised to find that others don’t do that,” says Deborah, a barrister from Walton-on-Thames.

Many vendors go to great lengths to ensure the property is left spick and span, hiring cleaners to make it more spotless than when they actually lived there.

The minister of the church I went to as a child went a step further, giving every wall, skirting board and ceiling a fresh lick of paint.

Others leave a thoughtful selection of essentials. Every time that Dickens has moved, she says, “I always left an unopened pack of Andrex, an unopened bar of soap and a tray with teabags, coffee and mugs. I also checked that all the lamps were working and had lightbulbs.”

Unfortunately such kindness is not legislated for. The Law Society’s Standard Conditions of Sale (5th edition) sets out the terms incorporated into all residential conveyancing contracts, points out Saskia Arthur, a solicitor at the law firm Boodle Hatfield. “But there is nothing in it about cleanliness,” she says, meaning that sellers are under no legal obligation to leave a house in a clean state.

Some contracts, usually for new-build properties, do have a “clean and tidy” clause, where some money is held over until the buyer is satisfied with its condition, and some lawyers suggest that could be used more widely.

Dealing with the sales for the super-wealthy, which are usually done through a buying agent, Arthur says they will go and inspect the property on the morning of completion before the money has been transferred to check everything is in order.

The law, explains Nicholas Taggart, a barrister at Landmark Chambers, leaves it up to the seller and buyer to agree the terms of the contract through their respective conveyancers.
A crucial document is the Law Society’s “Fittings and contents” form, known as the TA10, which forms part of the contract of sale. This lists all the basic fittings, from the boiler to doors and doorbells, electrical sockets, burglar alarms, white goods and light fittings. Completed by the seller, it identifies everything that is and is not included or excluded in the sale.

He explains: “There must be nobody in occupation — you can’t leave squatters, building contractors or tenants, and you are obliged to remove anything not included in the sale.”

Where sellers do not comply with the terms of the contract, the first port of call according to Dwight should be the estate agent or lawyers to see if they can liaise with the seller.
“If I’ve had a busy Friday with lots of clients moving, I brace myself on a Monday to prepare for calls about what people have found,” she says.

The obvious problem is that, by the time you have moved, the seller has the money and little incentive to co-operate, and it is up to the buyer to put things right.

It is open to buyers to sue for breach of contract. If the amount you are left out of pocket is less than £10,000 that can be done using the online small claims process.

According to Taggart, though, “unless it’s worth thousands of pounds, the time and effort are probably not worth the hassle”. He also notes that in the small claims court, even if you win, you cannot recover any legal fees, so you will have to do it yourself.

“It comes down to what you think is worth pursuing,” Arthur says, “and the awful reality is that most people don’t take action and sellers get away with it.”

“Contractually that sets the template for what the seller must leave behind and what they must take away,” Taggart says.

In addition, he says, the law requires the seller to transfer the property on completion with “vacant possession” — free from any people or chattels, giving the buyer the “undisturbed enjoyment of the property”.

Partner & Head of Residential, Saskia Arthur’s comments were first included in The Sunday Times on 1st August 2021.