Buying a house is a major investment. Before making this important purchase, take the time to determine what you can afford, the ideal neighborhood, and what features you need or want in a home. And be aware of the legal issues involved in residential real estate transactions, such as disclosures, purchase contracts, potential title defects, zoning issues, taxes, and other legal matters. With proper preparation, careful choice of a real estate agent, and prudent use of other qualified professionals, buying a home in Pennsylvania can be a positive experience.
Advantages of Working With a Real Estate Agent in Pennsylvania
Before buying a house or other residential property in Pennsylvania, contact a real estate agent who can help you find your home and handle all the complex procedures involved with the purchase. Some of the benefits of using a real estate agent include the following:
- knowledge of the community, comparable home prices, and market conditions
- ability to help you find properties that meet your needs and budget
- help preparing a viable offer
- handling other paperwork on scheduled deadlines, and
- negotiating the final deal.
Your agent should be able to help you every step of the way, from drafting your written offer and negotiating with the seller on price and other key terms to coordinating the escrow process and house closing. Your real estate agent should also help you locate other professionals to assist you in the homebuying process, including mortgage brokers and home inspectors.
And the good news is that working with a real estate agent won’t cost you anything. The seller usually pays the entire real estate commission (typically 5% to 6% of the house sale price, split between the seller’s agent and yours).
Personal referrals from other home buyers are usually the best way to select a real estate agent. You can find licensed Pennsylvania real estate agents at the Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s Licensee Info Search, and at the website of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors (the latter includes a useful questionnaire to help you choose an agent). Other useful resources include real estate websites such as Zillow and Trulia which have customer reviews of real estate agents.
Be sure the agent you choose has experience representing buyers, good references, and qualifications to meet your housebuying needs in terms of your ideal location, type of property, and budget.
Seller Disclosure Requirements in Pennsylvania
State law in Pennsylvania (68 Pennsylvania Statutes Section 7304) requires that sellers provide buyers a disclosure form (a Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement form established by the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission), which includes details on the property, including:
- contents, such as specific appliances, and whether or not they need repair or replacement
- the availability of working smoke detectors
- defects in the electrical, plumbing, and other property systems
- homeowners’ association fees, deed restrictions, and
- other specified details of the home, such as the type of sewage system.
In addition, if you are buying a house that was built before 1978, the seller must comply with federal Title X disclosures regarding lead-based paint and hazards. See the lead disclosure section of the EPA’s website, for details.
Seller disclosures are important for you as a buyer, since just looking at a property may not be enough to tell you what problems its owner encountered with it while living there.
Home Inspections in Pennsylvania
Buyers should not rely solely on the seller's disclosures, however, but should hire an independent home inspector to verify the information from the seller's disclosure and find out more about the condition of the property. Many buyers make their offer contingent upon a satisfactory inspection report that identifies the following:
- termites and other pests
- soil settlement, drainage, or erosion issues
- noise and odor problems
- conditions that could lead to mold
- foundation and structural integrity, and
- the condition of the heating and cooling systems; electrical; plumbing; walls; drainage; basement; and flooring, and
- other material defects.
See What You Need to Know About Home Inspections When Buying a House for more details.
Real Estate Purchase Agreements in Pennsylvania
A purchase agreement is a legal document that contains the material terms and conditions of your real estate transaction. It must be in writing and signed by the parties (buyers and sellers) to the contract, and include an offer to sell or purchase, an acceptance of the offer, the sale price, and an adequate description of the property. See the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors Standard Agreement for the Sale of Real Estate for a sample.
Title Issues in Pennsylvania
A buyer should always obtain a title search from a title company before purchasing a home. The title company searches public records and other sources for any liens, easements (such as the utility company’s right to access part of the property), or other encumbrances or title restrictions that may affect the property. If the title search locates problems, the buyer should require the seller to correct those problems as a condition to closing.
You should also consider purchasing a title insurance policy to protect the title to the property against adverse claims by third parties, or any clouds on the title missed by the title search. Mortgage companies usually require buyers to purchase a title insurance policy in connection with obtaining a mortgage.
For more details on title insurance, escrow, and closing, see Sandy Gadow’s website, Buying, Selling, and Closing Simplified, which includes a state-by-state guide to closing practices.
Working With a Lawyer in Pennsylvania
Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not require that buyers involve a lawyer in the house-buying transaction. Even if it’s not required, you may decide to engage a lawyer at some point in the process—for example, if you are buying property in a planned unit development with extensive CC&Rs or you are purchasing a house jointly with others and need help structuring your co-buyer agreement. Or, you may want a lawyer’s help if problems show up during escrow or the house closing.
Check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, to find an experienced real estate attorney in Pennsylvania.
More Information on Buying a House
The Buying a House section on Nolo.com includes a variety of useful articles on all aspects of the house buying process, including advice on getting a mortgage, figuring out what price, contingencies, and other terms to offer, arranging home inspections, and closing the deal.
For detailed information on every phase of buying a home, from figuring out your needs and what you can afford to doing the final walkthrough and attending the closing, see Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart.