When Eddie and Eva Bloor purchased their Cowlitz County, Wash., home in 2004, they had no idea the house had been used for methamphetamine production. Neither the sellers nor the real estate brokers disclosed to the Bloors that toxic chemicals had been found at the residence.
The newly minted homeowners were shocked when the local health department caught wind that the property was contaminated and deemed it unfit for occupancy. The Bloors were ordered to immediately vacate the residence and not remove any of their personal belongings due to the risk of cross-contamination. They left with only the clothes on their backs and had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to relocate and replace virtually everything they owned.
Due the high cost of moving and replacement of clothing, furniture, electronics, appliances, toothbrushes and who knows what else, the property went into foreclosure. Shortly thereafter, the Bloors filed suit against the agents and former owners. Almost four years passed before the case finally made its way through the judicial process. In the end, the displaced homeowners were compensated for their losses and awarded punitive damages.
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While the sellers and brokers were obligated to disclose the existence of the meth lab prior to the sale, the State of Washington had no law on the books that required law enforcement to disclose the existence of toxic chemicals to any persons or agencies. The same was true in New Mexico until Jan. 1, 2008, when a new law took effect requiring law enforcement agencies that bust meth labs to immediately post a warning on the property and notify the owners and/or renters that toxic chemicals were found on the premises.
The law also makes it mandatory for law enforcement agencies to notify the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, which posts the addresses of the contaminated properties on its website https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/clandestine-drug-laboratories/ until they’ve been cleaned up to the standards outlined in the law. Addresses of properties that were the subject of federal enforcement actions are also listed on the site.
A quick review of the database for Dona Ana County shows that 11 properties are currently on the list. Five are located in Las Cruces, four are in Chaparral, and one each are located in Anthony and La Mesa.
Until full remediation of the problem has been completed and approved by NMED, owners cannot sell, rent or otherwise occupy the property. When the property is ready for the open market, owners are required to disclose in writing to buyers or renters that a meth lab was found on the premises and that full remediation was completed in accordance with the law. Violation of the statute is a criminal misdemeanor and can also result in a civil fine of up to $10,000 per day.
This is not the only housing-related disclosure law on the books. New Mexico law (NMSA 1978 § 47-13-2) says your real estate broker and/or the seller of the home you’re considering purchasing or leasing “shall not be liable for failure to disclose and shall not have a duty to disclose to any person who buys or leases a property that the property was the site of a natural death, a homicide, suicide, assault or sexual assault; that the home was occupied by a person with AIDS or who is HIV positive or that a crime punishable as a felony was committed on the premises”. Such properties are often referred to as “stigmatized.”
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Federal law goes even further, making it a crime to disclose that a current or former occupant of a home, mobile home or apartment has or had AIDS or was or is HIV positive.
What about ghosts, you ask? According to a 2013 Harris Poll, 42 percent of us believe that such disembodied spirits exist. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know if any of them inhabit a particular residence unless they themselves decide to tell us.
The State of New Mexico has additional resources that prospective homeowners and tenants can tap to evaluate a property or neighborhood. Soon-to-be occupants can check the New Mexico Sex Offender Registry at http://www.dps.nm.gov/index.php/public-information/sex-offender-registry to determine if any registered offenders live in the area.
Think a neighbor may be a felon or has been arrested in the past? Homebuyers and renters can determine if such persons live nearby by looking up names of interest on the state’s Judiciary and Court Website at http://nmcourts.com/index.php.
Another method of assessing the character of a neighborhood or street is to do what the cops do on occasion – stake it out. Drive through the area or park for a while on the street where you intend to reside. Evenings and weekends provide the best opportunity to get a sense of the amount of vehicular traffic, number of toddlers, teenagers, and general personality of the area. It’s also a good idea to speak with a few of the neighbors, some of whom will undoubtedly gossip ‘til your ears begin to melt. Want to dig a bit deeper? Type a property address into the Las Cruces Police Department’s interactive burglary map to see how many burglaries have taken place in the area, if any http://las-cruces.maps.arcgis.com/apps/PublicGallery/index.html?appid=cb28b84c90da441eadf89f5c3870f458&group=4c3d7d311c0641a782c735cdc0d8f7ee.
Real estate brokers have to be especially careful about disclosures. How would you like it if the broker you hired to sell or lease your home disclosed a fact about your property, the disclosure of which was not required by law, and the buyer or renter walked away from the transaction? Might the broker be liable for harming you financially by causing the buyer or tenant to head for the hills? According to a couple of Las Cruces area attorneys I asked, the answer is most likely yes.
Speaking of disclosures, here’s one I routinely share with my clients: Be very mindful when purchasing a two-story home… especially if it’s the kind where the agent tells you one story before you buy it and another story after you buy it.
See you at closing.
Gary Sandler is the president of Gary Sandler Inc., Realtors in Las Cruces. He loves to answer questions and can be reached at 575-642-2292 or Gary@GarySandler.com.
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