Talking Ethics aims to grapple with readers’ real problems, and we hope you’ll feel free to e-mail us here for advice. For now, though, let’s look at a hypothetical situation, a composite pieced together from real events to provide food for thought…and debate.
We’re selling our house, which is in good condition, but a pet peeve is that half the house is always three or four degrees colder than the other half. We’ve closed vents, added insulation, and tried other remedies, but we were told a real fix would be very expensive and we decided to live with the problem. I don’t think this qualifies as the kind of structural issue that must be disclosed (and we weren’t told about the situation when we bought the house). My problem is that a prospective buyer asked several questions about insulation and heating bills. I didn’t say anything about the hot/cold issue (she never specifically asked about that) and now I feel guilty. Am I ethically bound to disclose the problem?
Caveat emptor is a reasonable rule, and it’s one of the reasons a home inspection is standard in the real estate world. Too often, though, the inspector is recommended by the real estate agent, and because he depends on referrals (an obvious conflict of interest), he may be reluctant to go out of his way to find problems that might torpedo the sale. Plus he or she can’t be expected to find everything.
That’s why the seller is legally bound to reveal serious problems. Disclosure laws vary from state to state, and you should be sure to check yours to make sure it’s legal to keep silent in this instance. But as you know, an action (or inaction) can be legal and still be unethical.
Whatever the law, you have a duty to report major issues. If you know the basement leaks every spring or that the state is thinking of running a highway through your backyard, you should make that known. Minor problems more comfortably fall under the caveat emptor heading. You needn’t volunteer that the refrigerator is noisy or admit that the fresh coat of paint on the ceiling covers a recent crack or some pesky nail pops.
The hot/cold problem seems to lie somewhere in between the major and minor categories. You describe it as a pet peeve, but you’ve gone to some length to find a solution, so it’s clearly of some significance. Your dilemma is further complicated by the buyer’s interest in the heating system. You were asked several questions and you kept mum, an apparent lie of omission. That’s why you feel guilty and that’s why I think you should now volunteer the information. You seem to have a pretty good conscience. Let it guide you here.
But I’d love to hear what other people think about this.
And remember, we’re eager to tackle your particular ethical problems. Just click here, to send us a confidential e-mail.